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Higher Education Modules

Society at Odds: the Evolution of AIDS Outreach and Education in America

Class 4: Federal Government’s Responses

While Ronald Reagan is often criticized for a slow and insufficient response to AIDS, his administration contained diverse and divergent sets of ideas on how to educate the public about the disease. This class offers two examples of the administration’s response, while the secondary source piece from Brier provides an overview that historically and politically contextualizes the federal activities and offers additional examples of the competing agendas and ideologies that impacted the eventual responses. Former Surgeon General C. Everett Koop’s report on AIDS, which he wrote at the president’s request, is also included in this class’ readings. His recommendations provided a voice of reason among the many potential and conflicting approaches to AIDS education. Despite the administration’s more conservative (and vocal) tendencies, Koop’s recommendations echo the activists’ calls for open discussions of sex and condoms to help people protect themselves. Reagan’s speech to the American Foundation for AIDS Research (amfAR) in 1987 marked his second public address on AIDS and garnered significant public criticism for its timing and tone. Brier’s piece contextualizes the primary sources from Koop and Reagan, offering a historian’s perspective on how the conflicted responses generated from multiple layers of the federal administration evolved through the 1980s and into the early 90s.


Brier, Jennifer. “What should the Federal Government do to deal with the problem of AIDS? The Reagan Administration’s response.” In Infectious Ideas: U.S. Political Responses to the AIDS Crisis. Chapel Hill: University of North Caroline Press, 2009, pp. 78-121.

Koop, C. Everett. “Surgeon General’s Report on Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome.” United States Public Health Service, Office of the Surgeon General, October 1986, brochure.

Parvin, Landon. President Reagan’s amfAR Speech. Delivered by President Reagan. American Foundation for AIDS Research (amfAR) Dinner, May 31, 1987.

Discussion Questions
  1. How does Koop present the medical challenges of AIDS? How does he present the social challenges? What does he recommend to overcome them? How did Koop’s research process shape the recommendations in his report? Consider the social context that may have influenced his choice to present and recommend information about AIDS in this way.
  2. What examples of AIDS does Reagan offer? How are these different from other accounts you have seen, heard, or read in previous classes? How does Reagan address the issues of AIDS education and outreach? What strategies does he endorse to help prevent the further spread of AIDS?
  3. In your opinion, does Reagan’s amfAR speech approach AIDS as a medical issue or a social issue? Both? Neither? Find evidence to support your opinion.
  4. Early in the speech, Reagan thanks Dr. Koop (among others) because “they took personal risks for medical knowledge and for their patients well being.” In what ways was Koop’s report risky? What were the causes and consequences of taking these risks? What were these people risking?
  5. Brier discusses two responses to AIDS within the Reagan administration. Describe each perspective and its resulting, recommended response. What are the bases or motivations for each response? Where and how are they the same? Different?
  6. How did the definitions of PWAs (People with AIDS) and people at risk change throughout the Reagan administration’s discussions of how to respond to AIDS? How might the shifting definitions have impacted the administration’s response?
  7. What was the role of the activist agenda in helping shape the federal responses? When and how were the activists successful? What evidence do you see of activist efforts or impacts in Reagan’s speech or Koop’s report?