The Evil Empire

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A quarter century ago, President Ronald Reagan delivered two masterful addresses within two weeks of one another: the so-called “Evil Empire” and “Star Wars” speeches. In them, Reagan laid out two great strategies for dismantling the Soviet Empire. He did it boldly without backing off, not permitting the economy, news media, polling numbers, or the permanent governing elite to intimidate him.

By calling the Soviet Union an “evil empire,” Reagan sent a clear signal that America was going to challenge the Soviet Union morally, win the psychological information war, and de-legitimize it. If the government was evil, he argued, how could it have authority? In the second speech, Reagan announced the space-based Strategic Defense Initiative, thus instigating a scientific and technological arms race that the Soviet Union could not win.

Reagan’s strategy worked indisputably, leading to the collapse of the Soviet Union. Yet we tend to forget that Reagan’s ideas—and overall approach—were so radical at the time that almost no one accepted them as the basis of sound policy. At the time, paths were clear to a somewhat more conservative Cold War à la Nixon and Ford or a more liberal Cold War à la Jimmy Carter, but the grand strategy to eliminate the Soviet Union needed Reagan’s vision.

Even today, few in the academic left and news media believe Reagan was right. The anniversary of these two speeches provides an opportunity to examine this critical period and ask, “What are the lessons for today we might learn from Ronald Reagan?”

Reagan’s ideas were so radical that almost no one—including his own staff—accepted them as the basis of sound policy

In Victory: The Reagan Administration’s Secret Strategy That Hastened the Collapse of the Soviet Union, Peter Schweizer argued that Reagan methodically pursued a coherent general strategic goal. Ambassador Jean Kirkpatrick, who had served in Reagan’s cabinet and had an office next to mine at the American Enterprise Institute, confirmed Schweizer’s premise during one of our conversations.

The Ambassador admitted that neither Reagan nor anyone serving with him would have predicted the Soviet Union would disappear in 1991. However they believe it was much weaker than the elite thought, and that if America kept crowing it that something good would result. This was the underlying psychology of the team that Reagan assembled in 1981.

The United States was a mess in the early 1980s. Reagan had inherited an economy from Carter that was in collapse. The recession that Carter’s policies induced did not fully kick in until 1982, so it became Reagan’s problem. Pundits and some academics talked about a permanent recession. In his newsletter, Alan Greenspan conceded that the economic situation would not get much rosier. As a result, Reagan had fallen behind in the polls.

Internally there was much dissension. Most of his senior staff second-guessed him. The State Department consistently undermined his foreign policy. Even senior people in the White House, including his wife, thought he should retire.

During this difficult period, Reagan fell back on Reagan, much like Lincoln fell back on Lincoln during the Civil War. Great willful presidents have enormous capacities to outmaneuver the bureaucracy. But they have to pay attention.

Officials from the National Security Council and State Department routinely receive advance copies of foreign policy speeches for their input. Reagan knew they would try to prevent him from describing the Soviet Union with the clarity and forcefulness he knew was necessary to establish moral dominance. So he chose a different venue.

An opportunity arose on March 8 for an address to the National Association of Evangelicals in Orlando, Florida. Few remember now that the Evil Empire speech was primarily a comprehensive discussion of domestic policy. Only at the end does Reagan being to talk about foreign policy in the context of its moral meaning.

“So, in your discussions of the nuclear freeze proposals,” said Reagan, “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 simply call the arms race a giant misunderstanding and thereby remove yourself from the struggle between right and wrong and good and evil.”

In one short but unequivocal statement he asserted that the core of totalitarianism was evil by definition. No other statement of moral purpose would be more important in bringing about the end of the Soviet Empire.

The Strategic Defense Initiative, or Star Wars speech, which Reagan gave to the nation from the Oval Office on March 23, 1983, also generated little enthusiasm—and even hostility—from his advisors. Every major element of his administration, except his National Security advisor, Judge William P. Clark, and the head of the Science Counsel, Jay Keyworth, who had drafted the speech at Reagan’s direction, opposed it. Secretary of State George Shultz vigorously objected.

Speaking with clarity and conviction, Reagan fundamentally dismantled the entire strategic framework of “mutually assured destruction,” the arms negotiation mindset that had defined American policy for the past two decades. That he could do this in one speech demonstrates his decisiveness and the power of the presidency.