Press Secretary James Brady and Agent Timothy McCarthy were injured in the actual shooting. (Photo by Dirck Halstead/Liaison)

March 30, 2021   6 mins

Forty years after John Hinckley Jr. aimed his Röhm RG-14 revolver at President Ronald Reagan and pulled the trigger, it is tempting to speculate what might have happened if he hadn’t survived…


As every American schoolchild knows, Hinckley was a schizophrenic loner who had become obsessed with the actress Jodie Foster after seeing her in the film Taxi Driver. To impress her, Hinckley planned “the greatest love offering in the history of the world” — the assassination of the President of the United States. And so it was that at 2.27 p.m. on 30 March 1981, outside the Hilton Hotel in Washington, DC, fate brought him together with his victim.

The events of that terrible afternoon are well known. Reagan, who had taken the oath of office less than two months earlier, had just been addressing a conference of labour union leaders. He was still waving to the small crowd outside when Hinckley opened fire, and although none of the bullets hit him directly, the sixth ricocheted off the door of his armoured limousine and lodged in his lung, coming to a halt less than an inch from his heart.

Had Reagan been a younger man, perhaps things would have turned out differently. But he had just turned 70. And although he was remarkably fit, his blood pressure was in free-fall by the time his car reached George Washington University Hospital. As all the world remembers, the dying president still had the poise and presence of mind to joke to his horrified wife Nancy — “Honey, I forgot to duck”. They were, however, the last words he ever said. Shortly after 3pm, with the news of the shooting still only just breaking across the world, the 40th President of the United States was pronounced dead. He had been in office for just sixty-nine days, the second shortest tenure in American history.

Ever since Reagan’s untimely death, amateur historians have traded in ghoulish fantasies about the consequences if he had lived. Today most academic experts agree that his economic policies would have plunged the United States into a second Great Depression, and many also argue that his hawkish foreign policy would probably have pushed the world into a Third World War. Bucking the trend, the ever-contrarian Niall Ferguson has suggested that Reagan might actually have presided over a softening of Cold War tensions, sketching out a fanciful scenario in which he and Mikhail Gorbachev enjoyed a warm personal relationship, the Berlin Wall came down in 1989 and the Soviet Union even broke up two years later. Most academics, however, treat this idea with disdain.

What did happen, of course, is well known. Vice President George Bush was in Texas at the time of the shooting; he flew back to Washington immediately, landing on the south lawn of the White House at 6.30pm. He was sworn in an hour later as the 41st president, live on television from the mansion’s East Room. He looked pale and composed, his wife Barbara by his side. When it was over, he spoke directly to the American people. It was a time for “mourning again in America”, he said grimly, reminding his listeners that Reagan was the second president to be murdered in eighteen years. But he would never waver, he said, from the task his Californian predecessor had begun.

In many ways Bush had an unenviable inheritance. He knew the intricacies of American government inside out, having served as ambassador to the United Nations, envoy to China and director of the CIA. But he had little electoral experience, since he had served for a mere four years as congressman from Texas. Reagan had been a breezy populist; Bush, despite his attempts to rebrand himself as a plain-talking Texan, was really a patrician New England mandarin. Almost immediately, then, there were mutters of discontent from within the conservative movement. Barely a month after Reagan’s murder, there was even talk that Christian conservatives would prefer a different candidate in 1984.

Yet Bush proved a rather firmer president than many had expected. Although the US economy entered a deep recession in July 1981, with unemployment soaring towards 20% in states such as Michigan and West Virginia, he backed the Federal Reserve’s determination to wring inflation out of the system with high interest rates. By the spring of 1982 recovery was on the horizon. And it was at that point that Bush showed he was not afraid to take decisions abroad, too. When Argentina invaded the Falkland Islands at the end of March, he was adamant that the US should back the Galtieri regime, one of its closest anti-Communist allies in the western hemisphere, instead of yoking itself to Margaret Thatcher’s doomed British government. It was, he said firmly, the course the late President Reagan would have taken.

Although Anglo-American relations never really recovered — indeed, the next British Prime Minister, Francis Pym, was reportedly incensed when Bush invaded Grenada a year later — Bush had shown that he was not a man to go wobbly. The American people respected him for it, and by early 1984 he seemed set fair for re-election. Campaigning alongside his vice president, the former Tennessee senator Howard Baker, he easily dismissed a primary challenge from the conservative maverick Pat Buchanan, and was heavily favoured against the Democrats’ Walter Mondale in November’s general election. And with the economy booming, everything fell into place. On the night of 6 November, Bush won in a landslide, carrying every state except for Mondale’s native Minnesota and the District of Columbia. As one of Bush’s aides remarked that night, the elderly Reagan, had he lived, could never have dreamed of such a crushing victory.

Under the 22nd Amendment Bush was barred from running for the White House again, since he had served for more than two years of Reagan’s term. In any case, his second term was overshadowed by tensions abroad. He had always been a cautious man, and his years at the CIA had taught him to be very wary of his Soviet counterparts. So when, in March 1985, Mikhail Gorbachev took over in the Kremlin, Bush knew better than to take his apparent moderation at face value. The Russian bear, he remarked to his White House aides, would never change. And as he reminded the American people a few weeks later, the Soviet Union was, and always would be, an “evil empire”.

Could history have worked out differently? Was there really a chance of dĂ©tente in the late 1980s? Given how things unfolded, it seems very unlikely. Although the two leaders’s personal relations seemed relatively cordial, Bush’s CIA analysts reminded him that it would be foolish to trust a word the Russians said. So when Gorbachev talked of arms control, Bush was wary of committing himself. Reagan, despite his image, had been a genuine nuclear abolitionist. But Bush believed that strong deterrence was the only guarantee of lasting peace. As he told American journalists after the frosty Reykjavik summit in 1986, Communism was never going away. So the task of any US president must be to preserve his nation’s nuclear defences, not to tear them down.

By this point, attention was already turning to the 1988 presidential campaign. Following the drab Bush-Mondale walkover in 1984, both parties had an appetite for pizzazz, and after a bruising contest the Democrats eventually nominated the self-styled blue-collar populist Joe Biden. The Republican contest, however, was chaos. Religious conservatives had long since lost confidence in the Bush administration, and his heir apparent Howard Baker was thrashed in the opening primaries. That opened the door for the veteran Bob Dole, who duly won the nomination.

But then came a wild card — a bizarre third-party candidacy by the real-estate mogul Donald Trump, who had for months been calling for ‘reducing the budget deficit, working for peace in Central America, and speeding up nuclear disarmament negotiations with the Soviet Union’. At one point, Trump was polling as high as 15%, and although he fell away eventually, he had left the infuriated Dole (“Crooked Bob”, as Trump called him) holed beneath the waterline.

It was Biden, then, who strolled to victory, memorably quoting the new British Prime Minister, Neil Kinnock, in his inaugural address. Yet his presidency was an exercise in crisis management from the very beginning, especially after the Red Army repression of the Eastern European uprisings in late 1989. As the temperature of the Cold War dipped below freezing, the pendulum was swinging towards confrontation, and in the summer of 1991 Gorbachev was eased out by Kremlin hardliners and replaced with the more conservative Yegor Ligachev. Just as the CIA had predicted, in other words, the Cold War was here to stay.

It is, of course, tempting to imagine that things might have been different. With a more liberal president at the helm, might the two great superpowers have found common ground in the mid-1980s? Speculations of this kind, though, are pointless. The sheer longevity of the Soviet Union, which celebrates its official centenary next year, proves that it was never likely to disappear overnight. Ronald Reagan loved to talk of mankind’s desire for freedom, but this was the hot air of a former Hollywood matinee idol, not the sober analysis of somebody who truly understood international affairs. And although cyber and chemical weapons have replaced the nuclear missiles that terrified our parents, the fear of war against the Communist bloc will surely remain with us for the rest of our lives.

As for Reagan, how many people genuinely recall him today? While other recent presidents, such as Al Gore, John McCain and Hillary Clinton, are household names, most young people know only that he was assassinated after just 69 days. He is the late 20th century’s answer to James A. Garfield, remembered only for his tragic and violent death. There are historians, of course, who claim it was all for the best, since Reagan was a trigger-happy warmonger who would have precipitated Armageddon. Even so, it seems a tragic irony that the California cowboy was denied what he so richly deserved — a Hollywood ending.

Dominic Sandbrook is an author, historian and UnHerd columnist. His latest book is: Who Dares Wins: Britain, 1979-1982