‘On This Day’ 1981: U.S. Government Reports First AIDS Cases; President Reagan Silent for Six Years as Tens of Thousands Die
AIDS, although not called such, had been around for decades by the time the US Centers for Disease Control first noted five gay men in Los Angeles were suffering from a mystery illness characterized by a deadly strain of pneumonia on June 5, 1981. Most researchers now agree that HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, jumped from monkeys to humans in Africa as far back as the 1930s. By 1959, the disease had probably reached American shores, and later analyses of tissues samples of men and boys who died from what were then baffling illnesses have confirmed that the disease had a foothold in the United States by 1968 or 1969 at the very latest.
By 1980, gay men and intravenous drug users were dying in increasingly large numbers in San Francisco, Los Angeles and New York City. In November of that year, one-time Hollywood B-movie actor and former California governor Ronald Reagan was elected President of the United States. He was extremely influenced by and beholden to the burgeoning second wave of the “New Right,” reactionary zealots driven not by traditional conservative notions of small government, fiscal responsibility and military non-intervention but rather by “family values” and social issues deeply rooted in evangelical Christian ideals exemplified (if not practiced) by Moral Majority figures like Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson and Pat Buchanan.
By 1981, journalists were writing about the deadly new “gay plague” that was killing increasing numbers of people around the country. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) took notice too, and it was soon very clear that a national health crisis was in the making. But Reagan’s response was utter, deadly silence. The Moral Majority he identified himself so closely with, instead of following the Christian path of compassion, chose to launch an all-out war against homosexuals, who they believed were sinners who deserved every minute of agony the wasting death of AIDS wrought.
Reverend Falwell fired the opening salvo, declaring that “AIDS is the wrath of god upon homosexuals.” Pat Buchanan, Reagan’s communications director, opined that AIDS was nature’s revenge against gays: “The poor homosexuals–they have declared war against nature, and now nature is exacting an awful retribution,” he wrote in 1983. Bigotry, hostility and downright hatred fueled the Reagan administration’s disastrous response– or lack thereof– to the AIDS crisis, which by 1982 was spiraling out of control.
To the Reaganites, it was all a joke. Witness this jaw-droppingly disgusting 1982 exchange between White House press corps member Lester Kinsolving, who refers to civil rights groups that fight for gay rights as “the sodomy lobby,” and Reagan Press Secretary Larry Speakes about the AIDS epidemic:
Kinsolving: “Larry, does the president have any reaction to the announcement—the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, that AIDS is now an epidemic and have over 600 cases?”
Speakes: “What’s AIDS?”
Kinsolving: “Over a third of [the victims] have died. It’s known as gay plague.’ (laughter) No, it is. I mean it’s a pretty serious thing that one in every three people that get this have died. And I wondered if the president is aware of it?”
Speakes: “I don’t have it. Do you?” (laughter)
Kinsolving: “No, I don’t.”
Kinsolving: “I just wondered, does the President–“
Speakes: “How do you know?” (laughter)
Kinsolving: “In other words, the White House looks on this as a great joke?”
Speakes: “No, I don’t know anything about it, Lester.”
Kinsolving: “Does the President or anyone in the White House know about this epidemic, Larry?”
Speakes: “I don’t think so. I don’t think there’s been any–“
Kinsolving: “Nobody knows?”
Speakes: “There has been no personal experience here, Lester… I checked thoroughly with [Reagan’s personal physician] Dr. Ruge this morning, and he’s had no– (laughter)– no patients suffering from AIDS or whatever it is.”
Meanwhile, the death toll from AIDS skyrocketed. By 1983 the HIV virus that causes the disease had been identified. Cases numbered in the thousands by the time of the 1984 Democratic National Convention in San Francisco, a city decimated by the AIDS epidemic. Desperate for some kind, any kind, of response from their leaders, 100,000 people marched in San Francisco during the Convention. Reagan either didn’t notice or pretended not to. The Great Communicator never uttered a word about AIDS in those days.
Even when 1950’s silver screen stud Rock Hudson, who was a personal friend of Ronald and Nancy Reagan, died of AIDS in 1985, the President remained silent. That year, Rep. Henry Waxman, a Los Angeles Democrat, wrote in the Washington Post:
“It is surprising that the president could remain silent as 6,000 Americans died, that he could fail to acknowledge the epidemic’s existence. Perhaps his staff felt he had to, since many of his New Right supporters have raised money by campaigning against homosexuals.”
Still, when it came to AIDS, Reagan preferred jokes to acknowledgment and funding for research. At the 100th birthday bash for the Statue of Liberty in 1986, attended by Ronald and Nancy Reagan and French President Francois Mitterand and his wife Danielle, aging comedy icon Bob Hope made a deplorable joke about AIDS in which he referred to the recently deceased Rock Hudson: “I just heard the Statue of Liberty has AIDS,” Hope tastelessly quipped. “Nobody knows if she got it from the mouth of the Hudson or the Staten Island Fairy.” As the cameras panned around, they caught a horrified expression on the faces of the Mitterands. The Reagans, on the other hand, were laughing it up.
Meanwhile, across the Hudson River in New York City, thousands of AIDS patients laid wasting, dying the most horrific deaths imaginable in those days before effective treatments, treatments that were willfully blocked by the indifferent unwillingness of our nation’s leaders to address the plague of our time.
Indeed, Reagan cared more about UFOs than he did about AIDS. Seriously. He claimed to have seen them at least twice, and he discussed alien invasions of earth during his 1985 summit with Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev. He also brought up the subject of UFOs before the United Nations and on several other occasions. By 1987, space aliens had killed exactly zero Americans. AIDS, on the other hand, had spread to more than one hundred countries, with more than 50,000 cases of the disease.
By the time Reagan finally mentioned AIDS on May 31, 1987, near the end of his second term in office, 36,058 Americans had been diagnosed with the disease and 20,849 of those had died. It was a gay activist named Andy Humm who finally got the President to discuss the epidemic by directly confronting him about it. It was probably the last thing the President wanted to do.
Indeed, Dr. C. Everett Koop, Reagan’s bowtied Surgeon General, later recounted how the Reaganites marginalized him and deliberately ignored AIDS, allowing the disease to claim tens of thousands of lives: “Transmission of AIDS was understood to be primarily in the homosexual population and in those who abused intravenous drugs,” Dr. Koop explained. Reagan’s right-hand-men “took the stand, ‘they are only getting what they justly deserve.'”
In the end, it doesn’t matter whether Reagan was a a fag-hating bigot who personally believed that AIDS was divine retribution or if he was simply unconcerned about what he considered to be a gay matter. Either one is bad enough. Reagan’s inaction and deafening silence on AIDS definitely cost many, many lives and for this he cannot be forgiven.
The American people, however, seem to believe otherwise. In a 2005 survey of 2.4 million Americans, Ronald Reagan was voted the “greatest American” of all time, beating out Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Jr. and George Washington. That Reagan had the blood of tens of thousands of Americans (not to mention hundreds of thousands of Central Americans) on his hands was apparently of no concern to those who voted in the survey. Today the “Teflon President” is downright revered as a sacred figure by tens of millions of Americans, led on by a distorted mythology propagated by the likes of Fox News, Sarah Palin and other leading luminaries of the reactionary right and swallowed hook, line and sinker by the ignorant masses with the collective historical memory of a fruit fly.
But those who lived at ground zero of the AIDS epidemic– those who survived, at least– will never forget.
“Ronald Reagan was either one of the stupidest or most evil people ever to hold this office,” Andy Humm told Democracy Now’s Amy Goodman in 2004. “If you just look at this crisis alone, which now is affecting 70 million people around the globe, this guy just sat on his hands and let this thing get out of control… it’s because he hated gay people and he hated people of color.”
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