- - Thursday, June 4, 2015

When Ronald Reagan was inaugurated as President on the 20th of January, 1981, he and the nation faced a host of major problems. Foremost among them was a hostile and aggressive Soviet Union. Less than two years earlier Red Army units had invaded Afghanistan, while at the time of the inauguration Marxist forces were spreading subversion and totalitarianism in Africa, Asia and even Central America.

Ronald Reagan believed that the United States positions of “detente” and “mutually assured destruction” were too weak a response to Soviet aggression, particularly since the communist leaders were cheating on their agreements and were oppressing millions of people in the captive nations. Too many journalists and foreign policy “experts” were viewing the contest between freedom and totalitarianism as a matter of moral equivalence. They claimed that Soviet communism was just another system of government, no worse than the democratic systems of the Western world. As a Reagan speech writer explained, the President deplored the thinking of some elitists “who regularly soft-pedaled the repressions, invasions, and mass killings of totalitarian regimes” and labeled “both sides equally at fault” in the Cold War.

That was why President Ronald Reagan was determined to take America and the free world in a different direction in dealing with the Marxist powers. He was particularly well prepared to provide the leadership for such an effort. For over thirty years he had been studying communism and thinking deeply about how to contend against it. This work had begun in the late 1940’s when the communist movement in the United States attacked the motion picture unions in Hollywood, seeking to take over the movie industry and use it for propaganda purposes.

Ronald Reagan, as president of his union, The Screen Actors Guild, led the other labor organizations cameramen, writers, stage hands, etc. in resisting the leftist takeover of the studios and their workers. Strikes, organizational battles, and even violent confrontations ensued, but ultimately The Marxist onslaught was defeated. Thus, the future president began a struggle against communism which would continue for the rest of this life.

As President of the United States, Reagan had developed a strategy to deal with the increasing threat of the Soviet Union. The foundation of his plan was to rebuild our national defense capability, which had deteriorated in the aftermath of the Vietnam War. He championed the concept of “Peace through Strength,” as he worked with Congress to build a strong military force and, with other free nations, to develop an international alliance to protect against Soviet aggression.

To contend directly against the threat of communist expansionism, President Reagan initiated a three-point plan which became known as the “Reagan Doctrine”: To engage the Soviet Union on a moral basis; to prevent the Soviets from future aggression; and to support freedom fighters around the world in their efforts to roll back previous aggression. It was to implement the first of these steps, to initiate a moral crusade, that a talk that became known as the “Evil Empire Speech” was delivered in 1983 and which, as one writer described, “started an historic chain reaction for liberty.”

On March 8, 1983, President Reagan was scheduled to speak at the annual convention of the National Association of Evangelicals, in Orlando, Florida. The organization’s leaders had suggested a speech that included remarks about religious freedom and the Cold War. It was a time of great debate about the struggle between the Communist powers and the free nations of the West. Particular attention was being given to the deployment by NATO of intermediate-range missiles in Europe, to counter the weapons that had been installed by the Soviet Union and which were pointed at the nations of Western Europe. The Soviets were encouraging a “nuclear freeze” movement to give themselves a massive strategic advantage. Likewise, other efforts were taking place in the name of pacifism, to limit the West’s military build-up. The speech to the National Association of Evangelicals provided an opportunity for the President to explain the reasons for “Peace Through Strength” and to promote an understanding of the struggle between good and evil, between freedom and totalitarianism, which was inherent in the Cold War.

In his presentation to the Convention, Ronald Reagan spoke of his own faith and his moral views about the state of the modern world. He talked about the shortcoming in our own Country and particularly the importance of free people to work against racial and ethnic intolerance. He also spoke of our responsibility to keep alight “the torch of freedom, but not just for ourselves, but for millions of others around the world.” It was in this sense that he cautioned that we must maintain a united front with other free nations to thwart “the Soviets’ global desires.” He further explained that the people of America and the West must be aware that as long as those who live in totalitarian darkness “preach the supremacy of the State, declare its omnipotence over individual man, and predict its eventual domination of all peoples on the earth, they are the forces of evil in the modern world.”

President Reagan went on to warn against accommodating the “aggressive impulses” of the Soviet Union. He said that “if history teaches anything, it teaches that simple-minded appeasement or wishful thinking about our adversaries is folly. It means the betrayal of our past, the squandering of our freedom.” He urged his audience not “to ignore the facts of an evil empire, to simply call the arms race a giant misunderstanding and thereby remove yourself from the struggle and the aggressive impulses of an evil empire, between right and wrong and good and evil.”

The reaction to that speech was immediate and strong. On the left and among some in the news media, liberal pundits criticized the speech as “primitive” and “dangerous.” The Soviet press agency, Tass, called it “bellicose” and “confrontational.” As historian Paul Kengor wrote, “Just as American liberals went bonkers, so, of course, did the Soviet leadership, denouncing Reagan with every name in the Marxist book.”

But the most important reaction came from the oppressed people in the captive nations and in the gulags of the Soviet Union itself. The famous Jewish dissident, Natan Sharansky, who was condemned as an inmate in a Soviet Labor Camp, later stated that when he and his fellow prisoners heard of Reagan’s speech, “we dissidents were ecstatic. Finally, the leader of the free world had spoken the truth a truth that burned inside the heart of each and every one of us.”

After the collapse of the communist regime in 1991, even many officials of the Russian government looked back and admitted that Reagan was correct in calling the U.S.S.R. an evil empire. As Paul Kengor described the importance of the President’s words, “Ronald Reagan cut through the clutter, and the moral equivalency and accommodation, and spoke loudly and boldly, with uncompromising courage and confidence that was so uniquely [his].”

As we look back on Ronald Reagan’s historic address, we can best understand its significance by reading this summary by author Frank Warner: The Evil Empire Speech signaled a new directness in American foreign policy. In spite of hysterical calls in Europe for a freeze on nuclear weapons, Reagan’s approach resulted in the first-ever reduction in nuclear arsenals. And in spite of the panic of those accustomed to making excuses for dictators, Reagan’s straightforward words challenged the Soviet Union’s cruel repression and helped inspire the end of the totalitarian nightmare.

• Ed Meese is the former U. S. Attorney General.

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