On Friday at the winter meeting of the Club for Growth, in Palm Beach, Fla., Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, a possible contender for the GOP presidential nomination, was pressed for specifics of his foreign-policy views. Walker referred to policy professionals with whom he’d recently met, and then suggested that what is most important in foreign policy is not experience but leadership. The “most consequential foreign-policy decision” of his lifetime, he said, was President Reagan’s handling of the air traffic controller’s strike. “It sent a message not only across America, it sent a message around the world.” The message: “We wouldn’t be messed with.”
That caused a lot of raised eyebrows. I here attempt to return them to a more relaxed state. In the 1990s, when I was researching and interviewing for my biography of Reagan, “When Character Was King,” I became more deeply aware of the facts and meaning of Reagan and the flight controllers, and I discovered an element of the story that I think had not previously come fully to light:
It was the spring of 1981. Reagan was still a new president, and recovering from John Hinckley’s attempt to assassinate him in late March. Transportation Secretary Drew Lewis met with Reagan at Camp David to give him bad news. The Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization, or Patco, wanted to go on strike. The union’s 17,000 workers manned radar centers and air traffic control towers across the country. These were tough, high-stakes, highly demanding federal jobs. The union’s contact was up, they had been working under increasingly difficult conditions, and they wanted a big pay increase.
Lewis told me Reagan was sympathetic: The increased pressures of the job justified a pay increase, and he offered an 11% jump—this within a context of his budget cutting. But Patco demanded a 100% increase. This would cost taxpayers an estimated $700 million. Reagan rejected it outright. He told Lewis to tell the union that he would not accept an illegal strike, nor would he negotiate a contract while a strike was on. He instructed Lewis to tell the head of the union, Robert Poli, something else: As a former union president he was the best friend they’ve ever had in the White House.
Reagan’s tough line was not completely comfortable for him, personally or politically. He’d had little union support in the 1980 election, but Patco was one of the few that had backed him. Not many union leaders had been friendly to him, but Patco’s had. And he was a union man. he didn’t want to be seen as a Republican union buster.
Still, Reagan believed no president could or should tolerate an illegal strike by federal employees, especially those providing a vital government service. Not only was there a law against such strikes, each member of Patco had signed a sworn affidavit agreeing not to strike.
Talks resumed, fell apart, and by the summer 70% of the air controllers walked out.
They had thought Reagan was bluffing. He wouldn’t fire them, they thought, because it would endanger the economy and inconvenience hundreds of thousands of passengers—and for another reason, which we’ll get to in a moment.
The walkout became a crisis.
Reagan did what he said he would do: He refused to accept the strike and refused to resume negotiations. He called reporters to the Rose Garden and read from a handwritten statement he’d composed the night before. If the strikers did not return to work within 48 hours, they would be fired—and not rehired. The 48 hours was meant as a cooling-off period. In the meantime, Reagan made clear, nonstriking controllers and supervisory personnel would keep the skies open
What Reagan did not speak about was an aspect of the story that had big foreign-policy implications.
Air traffic controllers in effect controlled the skies, and American AWACS planes were patrolling those skies every day. Drew Lewis: “The issue was not only that it was an illegal strike. . . . It was also that a strike had real national-security implications—the AWACS couldn’t have gone up.” It is likely that even though the public and the press didn’t fully know of this aspect of the strike’s effects, the heads of the union did. That’s why they thought Reagan would back down. “This hasn’t come up,” said Lewis, “but the Soviets and others in the world understood the implications of the strike.”
The administration quickly put together a flight control system composed of FAA and Defense Department personnel, and private controllers, to keep commercial traffic—and US military aircraft—in the air.
It was an international story. The French government pressed the administration to make a deal. Britain backed Reagan. Canada’s flight controllers shut down the airport in Gander, Newfoundland, in solidarity with Patco. Lewis, with the president’s backing, told them that if they didn’t reopen within two hours the U.S. would never land there again. They reopened.
The administration could have arrested the strike leaders but didn’t. Congressional Democrats could have used the strike for partisan advantage and didn’t, or didn’t much.
Sen. Edward Kennedy and Lane Kirkland of the AFL CIO played helpful and constructive roles. Persuaded the administration had a case—a 100% increase was asking too much, a strike against the public safety was illegal—both kept a lot of Democrats on the Hill and in the labor movement from coming out strong against the administration.
Lewis said there were unhelpful moments from a few of the president’s longtime supporters. Some were wealthy men who owned their own jets and didn’t want to be inconvenienced. One called Lewis and told him he was going to get him fired. Lewis called the Oval Office. “I said, ‘Mr. President, you’re going out to California soon and Justin Dart and all these guys have private planes and they’re all raising Cain with me.’ I said, ‘I hope you don’t cut my legs out from under me.’”
Reagan, said Lewis, responded: “I‘ve never cut the legs out from anybody in my life. You let me worry about my friends, you worry about the strike.”
When the two-day cool-off period ended, 70% of the air controllers were still out. They all lost their jobs. “We fired 11,400 traffic controllers,” said Lewis. “That’s a lot of families. . . . And the union had supported us, and it was a good union. It was very sad. We were both upset about the firing. [Reagan] was almost in tears that he was going to hurt those families.”
So why was, and is, the story of Reagan and the flight controllers an important one?
What was at issue was crucial and high-stakes. What Reagan did worked: The administration promised to keep the skies open and did. The Patco decision set the pattern for wage negotiations over the next eight years, not only for the federal government but for local and state governments. The U.S. Postal Service’s half million workers were readying to go on strike shortly after Patco walked out. They didn’t. Mayors soon observed that a new climate seemed to have taken hold in their municipal negotiations.
Foreign governments, from friends and allies to adversaries and competitors, saw that the new president could make tough decisions, pay the price, and win the battle. The Soviets watched like everybody else. They observed how the new president handled a national-security challenge. They saw that his rhetorical toughness would be echoed in tough actions. They hadn’t known that until this point. They knew it now.
This is why Reagan’s secretary of state George Shultz said that the Patco decision was the most important foreign-policy decision Reagan ever made.
Everyone knew at the time that it was a domestic crisis. It wasn’t until years later that they came to appreciate that it was foreign-affairs victory.
So was Scott Walker right about the importance of Reagan and Patco?
But two caveats. One is that Ronald Reagan himself would never suggest, on the way to the presidency, that all you need to understand foreign policy is a good gut and leadership abilities. You need knowledge, sophistication, grasp. He’d been studying foreign affairs all his adult life. He walked into the Oval Office with a policy: We win, the Soviets lose. A talent for leadership doesn’t tell you where to go, it helps you get there. Wisdom tells you where to go.
Second, in January Walker said that documents released by the Soviet Union proved the Soviets treated the U.S. differently after the strike. I have never heard of such documents. No one I spoke to for the book referred to them. The Washington Post has quoted former Reagan ambassador to the Soviet Union, Jack Matlock, saying “There is no evidence of that whatsoever.” I suspect that is correct.
If Walker got it wrong, he should say so. Though I’m not sure it matters in any deep way. Of course the Soviets saw and understood what had happened with Reagan and the union. Of course they would factor it in. They had eyes. They didn’t have to write it down.