To millions around the world he reflected the lofty ideals of the United States itself – freedom, decency and democracy.
But to others he was the epitome of 1980s greed and selfishness, and represented the hypocrisy of US foreign policy.
Reagan, who was 93 when he died in California, still exerts a profound influence on the Republican party and US politics more than 15 years after he left the White House.
He championed a conservative agenda of reduced taxes and government, a strong military and proactive challenges to overseas threats.
Reagan initiatives such as free trade zones and a missile defence system are now established government policy, while his staunch opposition to communism was credited with ending the cold war.
Cold war warrior
Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, Reagan’s ideological soulmate throughout the 1980s, said he would be sorely missed “by millions of men and women who live in freedom today because of the policies he pursued”.
“Reagan gave the Republicans a discernible ideology, and it is the ideology that has been in vogue ever since – smaller government, less taxes, more spending for defense, more reductions in regulations and government services”
She said: “Ronald Reagan had a higher claim than any other leader to have won the cold war for liberty, and he did it without a shot being fired.
“To have achieved so much against so many odds and with such humour and humanity made Ronald Reagan a truly great American hero.”
But perhaps his most lasting mark was his relentless optimism in the aftermath of the Vietnam war, the Watergate scandal and the hostage crisis in Iran, analysts said.
“He restored America’s spirits,” said Stephen Hess, a political analyst at the Brookings Institution. “Those were not the happiest times for America, and he restored faith and optimism.”
On the other hand, in the Arab world and beyond Reagan’s foreign policy was roundly condemned.
Rights groups accused him of opposing democracy and human rights in Central America, and of supporting brutal dictators to further the US’s economic and strategic interests.
During the Reagan years the US
Libyan president Muammar al-Qadhafi said on Sunday he regretted Reagan had died without ever being tried for 1986 air strikes that killed dozens of people, including his adopted daughter.
Reagan ordered the 1986 air strikes in response to a disco bombing in West Berlin that killed three people, including two US servicemen. Washington blamed Libya for the blast but no connection was ever proved.
Meanwhile, Reagan’s death was given only a brief mention on Iranian state television, although the Kayhan evening newspaper did give a short commentary.
“During the Reagan administration, weapons of mass destruction flooded Iraq and were used against Iran.
“Also under Reagan’s orders, an Iranian passenger jet was shot at over the Persian Gulf by an American warship, and 290 passengers lost their lives,” it said in reference to the 1988 downing of an Iran Air flight by the USS Vincennes.
The Reagan administration was a major supplier of weapons to Iraq during the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war, during which close to a million people – a majority of them Iranians – were killed.
Another scandal to dogg Reagan was the discovery of a secret programme to send military supplies to Iran in contravention of US policy.
“Ronald Reagan had a higher claim than any other leader to have won the cold war for liberty, and he did it without a shot being fired”
It later emerged the profits from these sales had gone to help the Contra rebels fighting the leftwing government of Nicaragua.
A congressional report laid the blame on the president, saying: “If the president did not know what his national security advisers were doing, he should have.”
Domestically, Reagan had little impact on social policy but his “Reagan revolution” completely transformed the Republican party which had been split into conservative and liberal wings.
Since Reagan, the term “liberal Republican” has been consigned to history books, with the party’s power base shifting from the elitist, Wall Street-oriented days of Nelson Rockefeller to a more Western-oriented and strongly conservative outlook.
“He brought the Republican party into parity with the Democrats, something they had not been able to manage since the Great Depression,” said Stephen Wayne, a professor at Georgetown University in Washington.
“Reagan gave the Republicans a discernible ideology, and it is the ideology that has been in vogue ever since – smaller government, less taxes, more spending for defence, more reductions in regulations and government services.”
His presidency also spawned a new generation of conservative activists, who served him in the 1980s and have since infiltrated every level of Republican politics.
“He’s the reason we got into politics and came to Washington,” said Bill Kristol, editor of the conservative Weekly Standard and chief of staff to Education Secretary William Bennett under Reagan.
“He transformed the Republican party, making it a voice for the values of hearth and home,” said Gary Bauer, a former presidential candidate and a domestic policy adviser to Reagan.
Al-Qadhafi: Reagan should have
“His insistence that the American people were overtaxed led to the biggest decline in marginal tax rates in the history of the country and the revival of economic growth, the effects of which echo even today.”
But critics are quick to point out disparities between Reagan’s domestic rhetoric and his accomplishments.
He cut taxes, but the government piled up mammoth debts during his eight years in the White House, with the deficit rising to nearly $3 trillion from less than $1 trillion.
He vowed to reduce the size of government, but it was larger when he left than when he arrived.
And after promising to eliminate two government departments – education and energy – he kept both in place and added a new one for armed forces veterans.
On social policy, there was never a successful push to eliminate abortion or legalise school prayer. And Reagan’s talk of cutting welfare rolls was eventually left for Democrat Bill Clinton to accomplish.
Nevertheless, Reagan’s policies in office have undeniably served as a blueprint for successors as varied as Clinton and current President George Bush.