“The real crisis we face today is a spiritual one; at root, it is a test of moral will and faith.” Ronald Reagan
In 1983 President Reagan gave a famous speech in which he outraged American liberals, and warmed the hearts of conservatives, by describing the Soviet Union as an “evil empire.”
College faculties were pretty uniformly left wing in the 1980’s, and reflexively hostile to anything anti-Communist. Professors on campuses all around the nation reacted to the President’s speech with outrage. Dr Henry Steele Commager, a history professor at Amherst College, spoke for many of his colleagues when he said that this was “the worst presidential speech in American history, and I’ve read them all.”
History professors haven’t gotten much more moderate over the ensuing years. They still tend to lean very far to the left, and they still resent Reagan.
Conservative and Liberal Views of the Speech
Conservatives, of course, celebrate America’s triumph over totalitarian Communism in the Cold War as one of America’s proudest moments. Most conservatives give Reagan the lion’s share of credit for the victory, and regard the “Evil Empire” speech as a turning point in the war. Biographer Dinesh D’Souza, for example, says that “In the Cold War, Reagan turned out to be our Churchill; it was his vision and leadership that led us to victory.”1 D’Souza says that the Evil Empire speech was “the single most important speech of the Reagan presidency” because of the effects it had on freedom loving people on both sides of the Iron Curtain.2
Unfortunately for Reagan, conservatives don’t get to write college history textbooks.
Most of the freshman history textbooks in wide use today make only mocking references to that 1983 speech. The textbook American Journey, for example, says accusingly that Reagan “considered the Soviet Union not a coequal nation with legitimate world interests, but an ‘evil empire,’ like something from the Star Wars movies.”3
Another textbook acknowledges that conservatives credit Reagan with winning the Cold War, and then goes on to quote various liberals who have attempted, however weakly, to refute the claim. The textbook authors even resort to quoting a fictitious character from a John le Carre spy novel!4 The fictitious character, living as he does in a fictitious world, does a better job than any real-life liberal of challenging Reagan’s role in defeating the Soviet Union.
The Context of the Speech
Reagan gave the speech for a specific reason. In the early 1980’s the Soviets, who already threatened Western Europe with overwhelmingly superior conventional forces, were rapidly building and deploying intermediate range nuclear missiles in western Russia to further intimidate the democratic governments of the West. Given the well-established tendency of the Soviets to attack and absorb any nation that appeared to be too weak to defend itself, conservatives in Europe and the US feared that the Soviets might be tempted to use their growing military advantage to enlarge their empire in a westward direction.
Reagan supported a plan to install American missiles in Europe to counter the Russian threat. He also offered the Soviets a “Zero Option,” plan, under which the USSR would remove its missiles from Europe, and the US would abstain from installing any.
Soviet dictator Leonid Brezhnev hated the Zero Option idea almost as much as he hated the idea of American missiles in his back yard. The Soviet Union had been on an expansionist roll during the four years of Jimmy Carter’s presidency, and the last thing Brezhnev wanted was to lose an advantage that he already held over the free nations of Europe.
On February 21, 1981, one month after Reagan succeeded Carter in the White House, Brezhnev gave a speech in which he called for a freeze on the construction of new nuclear weapons. Almost immediately, leftist in the United States began a political push for a “Nuclear Freeze,” under which the US would stop building or deploying nuclear weapons of any kind, and the Soviets would be asked to promise to do the same.
There were Communist agents involved in the Nuclear Freeze movement right from the beginning, but the movement gathered its real strength from the millions of well-intentioned American liberals who accepted the argument that stopping the construction of new nuclear weapons was the morally right thing to do.
The moral framework offered by the leaders of the Nuclear Freeze movement was that weapons, rather than people, were the real villains of the Cold War. (Leftists, including many who teach history at our universities today, still tend to hold that point of view.) Many religious groups found the argument persuasive. The National Council of Churches quickly endorsed the Freeze movement, as did the National Conference of Catholic Bishops. The organizers of the Freeze movement targeted church groups as a way of seizing the moral high ground in the eyes of the public.
The National Association of Evangelicals invited President Reagan to speak at its annual convention, and explain his position on the Nuclear Freeze issue. He gave the speech on March 8 of 1983.
What Reagan Said, and Why He Said It
It’s easy to understand why the Soviet oligarchs, and their supporters in this country, were outraged by the speech. After explaining his belief that a nuclear freeze would “reward the Soviet Union for its enormous and unparalleled military buildup,” Reagan directly addressed the moral questions that church leaders were concerned about: “So, in your discussions of the nuclear freeze proposals, I urge you to beware the temptation of pride — the temptation of blithely declaring yourselves above it all and label both sides equally at fault, to ignore the facts of history and the aggressive impulses of an evil empire, to simply call the arms race a giant misunderstanding and thereby remove yourself from the struggle between right and wrong and good and evil.”
It’s interesting to note that, while leftists in academia and the press reacted with outrage and contempt to the President’s use of the two words “evil empire,” no one on the left ever attempted to refute either of the words individually. The reason is simple: the noun was undeniably accurate, and so was the adjective.
The men who ruled the Soviet Union had been aggressively building an empire since 1917. Between 1917 and 1922, Russia forcibly annexed Ukraine, Byelorussia, Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan. Between 1939 and ‘41 the USSR conquered Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, and Bessarabia; and took parts of Bukovina and Finland. By the late 1940’s the Soviet Union had conquered and enslaved the populations of East Germany, Poland, Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria. In the 1970’s the Soviet Union and the Communists surrogates it armed and funded conquered South Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, South Yemen, Angola, Ethiopia, Mozambique, Grenada, Nicaragua, and Afghanistan.
Not an empire?
As for evil, Soviet founder Vladimir Lenin renounced all conventional morality in 1920, and his successors in power clearly had the same philosophy. The Soviet government murdered Soviet citizens by the millions, particularly in slave states like Ukraine. They built an Iron Curtain of walls and minefields to imprison the desperate millions who would otherwise have escaped to the West.
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What the Speech Accomplished
The immediate effect of the speech, other than outraging Mikhail Gorbachev and a few thousand Communist Party members and history professors in the United States, was to give joy and hope to people trapped behind the Iron Curtain. Jewish dissident Natan Sharansky was imprisoned in a Soviet labor camp when he heard about the Evil Empire speech. Once the jailers were out of eyesight, Sharansky jumped for joy in his cell, then started quietly sharing the news with other prisoners. After the Soviet Union fell and Sharansky was freed, he said that news of the speech had been “a great encourager” to himself and his fellow inmates. Reagan, he said, had demonstrated that he “understood the nature of the Soviet Union.”5
Vladimir Bukovsky, also a political prisoner in the Soviet Union at the time of the speech, has described similar reaction among his fellow prisoners. After his release he said that the words of the speech had become “incredibly popular” behind the Iron Curtain.6
The longer term effect of Reagan’s speech was to blunt the Nuclear Freeze movement and build political support for the installation of medium range missiles in Europe. The first of the missiles were in place and operational by the end of that year; and, just as Reagan had thought, the missiles eventually persuaded the Soviets to accept his Zero Option plan. In 1987 the USSR agreed to pull all medium range missiles out of Europe, in exchange for the removal of the American missiles. Four years later the Soviet Union officially ceased to exist.
Left-leaning scholars may berate President Reagan for refusing to see the Soviet Union as “a coequal nation with legitimate world interests,” but Reagan was right, and the professors are wrong. The Soviet Union was an empire, it was evil, and there was nothing “legitimate” in the Soviets’ efforts to conquer the world.
1Dinesh D’Souza, Ronald Reagan, Simon & Schuster 1999 paperback, p. 197
2 ibid., p. 135
3Goldfield, Abbott, Anderson, Argersinger, Argersinger, Barney, & Weir; American Journey (Volume II,2007 edition) p. 958
4Mark Carnes & John Garraty, American Destiny (Volume II, 2008 edition) p.881
5Paul Kengor, Dupes, ISI Books, p. 395
6ibid., p. 395-396