When he popularized his famous “peace through strength” axiom, Ronald Reagan never envisioned it would lead to anything but peace three decades later.
But now, two groups that claim a role in helping Reagan craft his foreign policy are battling it out over the use of the slogan. The American Security Council Foundation has secured a trademark and is suing the other group, the Center for Security Policy, for trying to use it in its own literature and fundraising.
The foundation says Reagan himself credited the group with crafting the phrase, and that its own long association with the words, going back decades before Reagan’s two terms in office, has earned them the right to the trademark.
The center, backed by a group of former Reagan administration officials, fired back this week, saying the phrase belongs to the ages, not to a policy think-tank.
“For those of us who proudly served with President Reagan, it is unimaginable that anyone would seek to own a phrase immortalized by him,” the 17 former Reagan officials wrote in a pointed plea Monday that called on the foundation to relent.
It’s the latest skirmish in what has become a series of battles over the former president’s legacy and memory. The fights range from presidential candidates sparring over who best claims his mantle, to the historical, where Reagan’s boyhood home was caught in a budget tussle between the National Park Service and the home’s owners.
This latest battle is being fought in federal district court in Washington, where the foundation and the center have offices.
“Peace through strength has been at the heart of everything that we do and that we’ve done. It’s not peripheral, it’s not a topic. We never do anything without focusing on that policy of peace through strength,” said Donald B. Smith, a retired Army brigadier general who is chairman of the foundation’s board.
He said the foundation, which from 1958 to 2003 was known as the Institute for American Strategy, doesn’t want to hog the historic phrase. But he said it also doesn’t want another security think-tank confusing the public by using the phrase to identify its own organization.
“We would like them to work with us and not attack us. I don’t think anyone wins when organizations attack other organizations,” Mr. Smith said. “We’re not attacking them, we’re not saying anything bad about them, all we’re doing is embracing our trademark.”
The foundation applied for the trademark in 2010, citing its use in everything from essay contests to bumper stickers to awards given back in the 1970s, and the U.S. Patent and Trade Office certified it this year.
Soon afterward, the foundation sued the center and its president, Frank Gaffney, an assistant secretary of defense in the Reagan administration who is a major figure in conservative defense circles. Mr. Gaffney contributes a weekly column to The Washington Times.
David Yerushalmi, a lawyer at the American Freedom Law Center who is representing Mr. Gaffney and the center, said the foundation cannot pick and choose to allow some uses, such as policy debate, but disallow others.
“They picked on the wrong group of people,” Mr. Yerushalmi said. “Frank Gaffney and the Center for Security Policy are not going to claim the mantle of Ronald Reagan, they’ll do what they do, but they’ll certainly protect the freedom to use that term in any way they want.”
Mr. Yerushalmi said the foundation waited until “when no one’s watching” to secure the trademark, but added it will have to surmount one key obstacle — that it was Reagan who popularized the phrase, not the foundation’s leaders.
“When you think about ‘peace through strength,’ do you ever think about the America whatever-it-is foundation? No,” he said. “It was strong back in the ‘70s, they promoted it for everyone, but they went dormant for decades.”
Mark McKenna, a professor at Notre Dame Law School, said trademarks can be granted on phrases, and the law doesn’t require that someone invented it or was the first to use it. The key is whether they were the first to attach it to their goods or services.
As for the infringement charge, he said it’s a tough call.
Mr. McKenna said the center could argue it is using the slogan to describe its policy agenda in the context of Reagan’s history, though at times the group strays close to the line by associating it so closely with its own name. He said it amounts to a jump ball for the court.
“In the political world where so many of the organizations have similar names, I’d bet that a court wouldn’t want to step in here and stop the use, but I can’t say I’m overly confident of that prediction,” he said.