Reagan, Air Force One, & Spies at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library

Reagan, Air Force One, & Spies at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library

Ever since seeing Geena Davis in “The Long Kiss Goodnight”, a flick from the late ‘90s about an amnesic suburban wife and mom who discovers that she’s really a CIA agent, I’ve been fascinated with the CIA and spies. At one point when I was young, I even told my parents that I wanted to work for the CIA. They exchanged concerned glances and asked if I really knew what the life of a covert agent entails. Over time, that desire waned as I learned about the agency’s extensive and sometimes detrimental meddling in other countries’ business, but all of the Jason Bourne movies and episodes of “Homeland” still pique my curiosity from time-to-time.

So when I heard that Spy: The Secret World of Espionage, an exhibit at The Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, was on display for a limited time, we decided to buy tickets to check it out so that we could have a firsthand look at the tricks of the espionage trade as use(d) by agencies like the CIA, KGB, and the FBI. As I researched the library online, I discovered that an old version of Air Force One and Marine One are also permanently on display which made the 50-or-so-minute drive from L.A. to Simi Valley that much more appealing.

Despite how we align ourselves politically, overall, we found our visit to the Reagan Library to be quite worthwhile, and I’d even go so far as to say that the library is one of California’s gems. In this post, I’ll share the highlights of our visit.

The Reagan Years

After entering the museum, visitors can sit here to watch a brief 4-minute movie highlighting some of the key moments in Reagan’s presidency.

After college, Reagan worked as a radio broadcaster in Iowa before he moved to L.A. to pursue a career in acting. While serving in his role as president of the Screen Actors Guild (SAG), he met Nancy who he later married.

Displays highlighting Reagan’s youthful days in Tampico, IL, followed by his college years at Eureka College

Reagan’s political career began while working as a spokesperson for General Electric (GE) Theater, a role which required him to tour GE plants as part of a series of weekly television dramas. While Reagan started off as a Democrat, he began to switch views during his time at GE as he began to adopt more conservative, pro-business, limited government views. He veered so far to the right that he’s even quoted opposing certain civil rights legislation saying, “if an individual wants to discriminate against Negroes or others in selling or renting his house, it is his right to do so.”

Sigh. As I said, our visit to the library wasn’t the least bit prompted by our admiration or respect for Reagan but by our curiosity surrounding the spy exhibit and Air Force Once.

Continuing on…

Californian Republicans loved Reagan’s political views and encouraged him to run for the office of Governor of California. The themes of his campaign: 1) “to send the welfare bums back to work”, and with respect to the anti-war, anti-establishment protests at Berkeley (go, Bears!), 2) “to clean up the mess at Berkeley.”

Reagan was elected in 1966, and despite efforts to recall him in 1968, he was reelected in 1970.

During our visit, there were several school kids there on field trips
During our visit, there were several school kids there on field trips

There are several exhibits on display highlighting Reagan’s presidential campaign of 1976…

His inauguration…

The inaugural outfits
The inaugural outfits
Jave, my Mr. President
Jave, my Mr. President

And of course, his presidency…

…which included an assassination attempt that just missed his heart.

We found the replica of the Oval Office to be particularly interesting…

I was also distracted by this display which features screens with questions about subjects like the rules of etiquette to adhere to at a state dinner.

There are a few exhibits dedicated to Nancy Reagan as well.

This display highlights some of Nancy Reagan’s wardrobe during her time as the First Lady including this getup that she wore to allay the media’s criticism of her lavish spending on clothes, china, and decorations for the White House.

And who can forget Nancy’s campaign against the War on Drugs?

Although I was a kid at the time, I still remember Nancy’s “Just Say No” ads, the basis of her War on Drugs campaign. Because America’s drug problem is as simple as just saying no, right?

There are also exhibits that taught us a bit about Reagan’s involvement in the Cold War.

In previous efforts to keep the Soviets at bay, the U.S. took the stance that its weapons were bigger and badder than the Soviets’. But when Gorbachev took the office of General Secretary in the Soviet Union, over the course of four summits, Reagan made diplomatic efforts to encourage the Soviets to enter into arms agreements.

During Reagan’s speech at the Berlin Wall in 1987, Reagan encouraged Gorbachev to take a step further saying, “Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”

Replica of the Berlin Wall
Replica of the Berlin Wall

Air Force One Pavilion

Once you get past the majority of the Reagan exhibits, you’ll reach one of the museum’s highlights – the Air Force One Pavilion which houses the aircraft that flew President Reagan over 660,000 miles during his time in office. Many of Reagan’s speeches were handwritten inside of this aircraft.

Jave and I were completely impressed by the sheer size of this plane as its wings span the entire width of the pavilion. Walking underneath Air Force One offers a different vantage point of the plane’s enormity.

Reagan’s motorcade
Reagan’s motorcade
Reagan’s motorcade
Reagan’s motorcade

While pictures aren’t allowed inside of the plane, visitors are allowed to walk through the plane which offers close up views of the cockpit, the galley, and the seat of the military official responsible for guarding “the football” which contains all of the nuclear codes.

Marine One
Marine One
Marine One
Marine One

Spy: The Secret World of Espionage

The majority of the spy exhibit was dedicated to displaying some fascinating tricks of the espionage trade…

Fraudulently obtained documents used by illegals in the U.S. to support their espionage activities
Tape recorder and camera used by a spy named Hansen in his espionage efforts on behalf of the KGB
Tape recorder and camera used by a spy named Hansen in his espionage efforts on behalf of the KGB
A variety of cameras, including miniature cameras, used by spies
More cameras in the form of a cigarette lighter, a glue stick, a tube of lipstick, a wristwatch, and more…
A Soviet agent in West Germany concealed coded messages in walnut shells
More than just a compact mirror, there are tiny decipherable codes written on the glass
Pigeons were some of the first drones as the CIA attached cameras to these birds
Remote controlled catfish like this one were used to take underwater images
Not a dragonfly, but a remote controlled flying camera
Shoe tap

This assassination umbrella was used to shoot a ricin-laced pellet into a Bulgarian defector and BBC reporter’s leg. He died four days later.

During WWII, welbikes like this were used by British Special Operations Executive (SOE) agents who wanted a quick getaway upon landing after parachuting out of airplanes. This collapsible bike was deliverable by parachute and could be deployed in 10 seconds at 30 mph for up to 90 miles on a single tank of gas.

Divers would navigate these underwater boats so that they could access big ships and attach explosives to them

As you can see, there’s a lot to see at the Reagan Library, so it’s great that they have an onsite café where you can buy lunch or snacks while enjoying views of Simi Valley.

A chunk of the actual Berlin Wall is housed outside on the library’s grounds (we’ll actually get to see the real wall next week during our upcoming trip to Berlin).

Plan Your Visit

  • The Spy exhibit will close on March 9
  • For info to plan your visit or to purchase tickets in advance, click here



Have you ever been to the Reagan Library?

  • I have always wanted to visit the Regan Library but the espionage exhibit just prompted this visit sooner. So, I’ve got 2 weeks 🙂 What a great array of exhibits and how neat to see Air Force One. I am so fascinated with everything you’ve included here used for espionage. Thanks for the inspiration to visit, Dana.

    • Dana Carmel

      Yup – 2 weeks, so you better hurry! 😉
      It really is such an interesting museum, and I hope that you make it there sometime soon.

  • Jave, for Prez…I loved that! Dana, Reagan is still to this day my favorite all time Commander in Chief. The Library is HIGH on my list of to-visit places. This may be one of my fav posts of yours ever! I spent a good 10 minutes on it and I’m going to come back later tonight for another look. Gosh, I wish my dad were around to read this. Awesome, awesome our friend and thank you 🙂

    • Dana Carmel

      Thanks so much, Mike. Glad you enjoyed this one and hopefully you get down to SoCal to visit the library someday!

  • From the post (the history, pictures, espionage tales and all), I will agree the Reagan library is a compelling place to visit, regardless of one’s political inclination.

    • Dana Carmel

      Absolutely, Rachel! 😉

  • It’s fascinating to see some spy gadgets and vehicles/planes used by the then president. It’s also interesting to know about some early facts about President Reagan.

    • Dana Carmel

      Definitely – the measures that spies take to get info is very interesting.


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