The United States saw its first documented case of AIDS in 1981, and by the end of the year it had seen approximately 160 cases of this mysterious new disease. By 1985, AIDS had killed an estimated 5600 Americans. It became apparent quickly that this outbreak was serious. Americans began to realize that this was not just a fleeting illness, but a disease that would grow more prevalent and deadly if we didn’t learn how to prevent its occurrence. As was true with many problems faced in the 1960’s through 1980’s, Americans turned to their government for the answer.
The US government responded by increasing the budget for AIDS research, though it was not enough. Top AIDS researchers recognized the severity of the situation and begged for Congress to significantly raise the budget for research, but to no avail. The Reagan administration cited “budgetary constraints” as holding back further funding, and additionally justified its contribution of “$126 million in a single year for research” as being more than sufficient. However, “FDA AIDS-related funds in [that year] were only $10 million.” Researchers and advocates alike found it very difficult to convince the federal government to push funding for AIDS research.
This effort to raise awareness of AIDS and spending to combat the disease was made even more difficult by President Reagan’s apparent indifference towards the issue for the majority of his two terms. Reagan argued that AIDS had been “one of the top priorities” of his administration since the outbreak began in 1981, though he never even publicly spoke on the issue until September 17, 1985. Though forgotten by many of his supporters, others would remember this as one of President Reagan’s enduring legacies: his refusal and failure to speak or act on the AIDS crisis. Officials within the FDA perceived that “the Reagan administration didn’t want to talk about AIDS for a long time.” By the time Reagan had left office in 1989, there were an estimated 46,000 deaths from AIDS. There was still only one AIDS drug on the market.
This government failure to respond quickly to the apparent crisis allowed thousands of AIDS patients to die. Not only did the lack of appropriate funding prevent researchers from developing a cure sooner, but the Reagan administration’s silence averted a more immediate public discussion of the issue. However, the government’s dithering response had reflected some of the widely-held beliefs of the time, those still left over from past generations. Negative perceptions of the gay community were still alarmingly prevalent, as the AIDS outbreak was minimized and marginalized as being the “gay plague.” The initial American apathy towards the outbreak was grounded in the belief that since it only affected undesirable groups, it shouldn’t become an issue of particular worry. This initial reaction shouldn’t be surprising considering that the ‘undesirable’ groups of homosexuals and intravenous drug users had been deliberately excluded from the American consensus for decades.
The White House and the Epidemic
Many critics of the Reagan administration cite the silence of the federal government, particularly of Reagan and his administration, as being a major cause of the rapid spread of AIDS throughout the US. Since 1981, many advocacy groups spawned and numerous protests erupted against the government’s lack of action towards solving the crisis. In 1984, Paul Boneberg, the founder of Mobilization Against AIDS, had begged Reagan to relate that he too knew someone who had AIDS, as thousands of other Americans had been doing at the time, yet he received no response. Even after the death of Hollywood icon Rock Hudson, a noted friend of the Reagan family, the White House essentially remained silent. Due to the Reagan administration’s apparent apathy during the first several years of the epidemic, the White House missed the opportunity to provide more funding for research and disseminate knowledge about the disease at a more opportune moment.
As has been conveyed throughout “Viewing America,” perhaps the single most powerful engine for social and economic change is the federal government. Whether it be the government’s anti-segregation policies in light of the Civil Rights movement or the measures it took to ensure American prosperity and opportunity in the post-war generation via the GI Bill, the federal government has possessed an unmatched capacity for inciting change, that is, once politicians finally agree there should be change. This is no more apparent than in the AIDS crisis: the American public had screamed for change, but none came until the Reagan administration finally looked past its erroneous preconceptions of the disease.
Below is a released press room recording from the early Reagan administration featuring Larry Speakes, the acting press spokesman for the White House at the time. The members of the press question Speakes about the growing prevalence of AIDS, but most in the room, particularly Speakes himself, do not appear to take the issue too seriously. In fact, many people in the room are laughing and joking throughout. When Speakes is told by a reporter that one in three people who get AIDS have died, he jovially quibs, “I don’t have it… do you?” to which the room responds with a burst of laughter. The room erupts in laughter when that same reporter mentions the term ‘gay plague’, a testament to the widespread homophobia of the time, which prevented many from taking the AIDS issue seriously before it exploded into a global epidemic.
The Moral Majority
Ronald Reagan’s popularity grew in part from the rise of the Moral Majority, a prominent American political party which represented the views and beliefs of many Republicans and fundamental Christians. In many ways, the Moral Majority could be viewed as a counter to the leftist movements of the late 1960’s and 1970’s, with its insistence on traditional Christian values of celibacy and same-sex relationships. Members of the Moral Majority saw the rise of gay rights, women’s liberation and the sexual liberation as a deterioration of moral principle. Ironically, the Moral Majority, like the social movements they opposed, grew through grassroots activism . Homophobia was rampant in the Moral Majority, and to them AIDS appeared to be an issue created by homosexualaity and homosexual behavior rather than a dangerous disease that anyone could receive. Moral Majority founder Jerry Falwell erroneously attributed AIDS to homosexuality when he said “AIDS is not just God’s punishment for homosexuals; it is God’s punishment for a society that tolerates homosexuals.” Although Reagan never specifically came out with a statement equivalent to Falwell’s statements, his silence on the issue only helped the spread of hysteria surrounding AIDS. It was not until 1987 that Reagan began efforts to raise public awareness about AIDS. For many, however, Reagan’s prolonged silence and general absence on such a serious issue would become one of his most enduring legacies.
Video: Ronald Reagan’s AIDS Message
Everett Koop and AIDS Education
Although federal departments such as the Center for Disease Control (CDC) and the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) had long pushed for funding towards AIDS research, no one had a greater impact on raising awareness for AIDS than Dr. Everett Koop, who was appointed by President Reagan as Surgeon General in 1981. “Political reasons” prevented Koop from speaking out about AIDS following CDC reports during the early 1980s, which explains why it took until 1986 for Koop to be given the permission to prepare a report on AIDS. In the report, Koop discussed the disease, how it was transmitted, and, more importantly, ways that people could protect themselves from AIDS. Koop diverged from the Right’s stance on sexual education in schools, arguing that such education should begin as early as elementary school. The report sought to treat AIDS as purely a disease, rather than as some false notion of moral decline in society. As Koop put it, “We’re fighting a disease, not people” He took ideas from both sides of the political spectrum, arguing for abstinence and monogamy just as fervently as safe sex practices like the use of condoms. Amidst the government’s overall failure to recognize the AIDS epidemic, Surgeon General Koop remains a lone bright spot.
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