When Ronald Reagan was sworn in as America’s 40th president on Jan. 20, 1981, the United States was reeling from a series of setbacks, and the Soviet Union was ascendant. He inherited a demoralized military, resulting in large part from America’s defeat in Vietnam, and the subsequent fall of Cambodia and Laos to Communism. Since the mid-1970s, Angola, Mozambique, Nicaragua and Grenada had also fallen to Soviet-aligned Communist forces. A Soviet-backed puppet regime had seized power in Afghanistan. American technology and economic support were helping to prop up the Soviet Union and its allies. In Western Europe, advocates of unilateral disarmament threatened to block NATO’s planned deployment of cruise missiles and Pershing-2 missiles to counteract Soviet SS-20s and other missiles deployed by the Warsaw Pact.
By the time Mr. Reagan left the White House eight years later, the balance of forces was undergoing a revolutionary transformation in favor of the West. The Soviet Union and the Communist dictatorships that dominated Eastern Europe were about to collapse, to be replaced by democratic governments. The Communist dictatorship in Grenada was no more, having been ousted by the American military in 1983. Daniel Ortega, the Communist boss in Nicaragua, had been forced to agree to hold free elections. A nascent democracy was in place in neighboring El Salvador, a nation which had been under siege from a Communist insurgency originating in Nicaragua. And in Afghanistan, the local Communist dictatorship was crumbling as well.
How did this happen? Under the leadership of Mr. Reagan’s secretary of defense, Caspar Weinberger, the U.S. military was rebuilt. Mr. Reagan forged ahead with intermediate-range nuclear missiles in Western Europe. He went forward with the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) — a defensive shield against incoming missiles that threatened to make Moscow’s arsenal obsolete. Reagan appointees at the National Security Council and the Pentagon worked to curb the flow of Western technology, low-interest loans and credits to the Soviet Bloc.
When it came to the failure of Communism as a political system, Mr. Reagan spoke with a refreshing, even brutal, candor about the nature of America’s Cold War foe. He referred to the Soviet Bloc as an “Evil Empire” and predicted that Marxist-Leninism would be relegated to “the ash heap of history.”
While Mr. Reagan was prepared to negotiate with the Soviets over arms control, he drove a hard bargain. A pivotal moment in this process occurred during the October 1986 summit in Reykjavik, Iceland, where Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev tried to force Mr. Reagan to confine SDI to the laboratory. Mr. Reagan refused, and the Soviets realized that they could no longer compete militarily with the United States. Over the next three years, the Evil Empire collapsed.
As a result, the people of Europe are no longer threatened by the Warsaw Pact’s army of occupation or ringed by thousands of Soviet and American missiles. By June 1991, more than 2,690 intermediate-range missiles that had ringed Western Europe had been destroyed, pursuant to the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces agreement reached by Mr. Reagan and Mr. Gorbachev four years earlier.
In all of American history, few presidents did as much as Ronald Reagan to advance the cause of freedom and make the world a safer place.