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The Evil Empire
On the 25th anniversary of two famous Reagan speeches, the former Speaker of the House asks why we haven’t learned more from the 40th president
Spring/Summer 2008 | Volume 58, Issue 4
The scale of Reagan’s courage emerged clearly in light of the responses to these two speeches. The pushback from the mainstream media was particularly strong, not unsurprising because the American news media was deeply committed to the secular left. In the tradition of H.L. Mencken, the media reacted viscerally, instinctively, and savagely to any reference that suggested religious, moral, or other kind of judgment. Anthony Lewis wrote in The New York Times that “Reagan used sectarian religiosity to sell a political program. The Evil Empire speech was primitive, a mirror-image of crude Soviet rhetoric. What is the world to think when the greatest of powers is led by a man who applies to the most difficult human problem of a simplistic theology?” The core notion of Lewis’s criticism was of moral equivalence. How could America judge the Soviets?
Reagan achieved an extraordinary strategic victory: an entire empire disappeared and millions of people were liberated
Tom Wicker, also at The New York Times, wrote, “The Evil Empire speech was smug and a near proclamation of Holy War.” Wicker nearly got it right: it was clearly a proclamation of intellectual, moral, and political warfare. And the Reagan administration waged that war against the Soviets with the Pope, the British Prime Minister, labor unions, and the Catholic Church in Poland as our allies.
The administration squeezed the Soviet Union on many fronts simultaneously: reducing the price of oil, passing laws that slowed or prohibited the sale of advanced technology, and accelerating the pace of science and technology.
Reagan’s grand strategy worked. He did it without a traditional war. Poland converted without firing a shot, followed by Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and then the Soviet Union. This achievement ranks as one of the most extraordinary strategic victories in recorded history: An entire empire disappeared and hundreds of millions of people were liberated.
Yet, many of the people who disagreed with Reagan in the 1980s have still not learned anything. Their view of the world today, their understanding of foreign policy, is as factually wrong and likely to get us in trouble as it was then. Why don’t we hold them accountable when they clearly are out of touch with reality? Is the side which was right about the elimination of the Soviet Empire potentially right about the current conflict across the planet with the irreconcilable wing of Islam? Or is the group who was fundamentally wrong about the Cold War and fundamentally wrong about the Soviet Union, now suddenly correct?
The greatest presidents educate America—and are willing to stand up for what is right
The greatest of our presidential leaders consistently educate the nation and move it toward a keener understanding of its moral purpose. And they do it sometimes with speeches that are astonishingly dense with detail. I saw Reagan give fact-and-number-laden speeches 20 times during his eight years as president. He would just pile on the facts. No political consultant in America would have thought these speeches effective. But Reagan intuitively knew that neither the news media nor the academic community was giving the American people the facts.
In the few months after he gave one of these speeches, the American people would read and think about them. There were debates—and the country gradually would become educated and think differently. Too often Reagan’s speechmaking has been described as glib when Reagan’s genius actually was the ability to offer a logical argument based on facts and driven by moral purpose. He challenged people to fundamentally reassess their beliefs and succeeded. It took enormous moral courage as well as extraordinary skill.
Compare Reagan’s communications ability with those of Lincoln’s, who was arguably the most brilliant presidential communicator. Reagan used fewer Shakespearian and biblical references; he was less of a poet. But both used facts and logic effectively. Both strove to establish moral superiority.
Over the past half century, the academic left has taught us that thinking in terms of right and wrong is fundamentally inappropriate because it is judgmental. Reagan, Lincoln, and other great leaders understand instinctively that the opposite is true: there is no choice except to render judgment in everything that truly matters. In the final analysis, judgment requires individuals in positions of authority to determine with conviction that one course of action is right while another is wrong. Then stand up and say that the nation should do the thing that’s right and not do what is wrong.
Reagan will be regarded as one of our greatest presidents not only because he eliminated the Soviet Empire, relaunched the American economy, and rebuilt American civic culture, but because of his underlying core set of beliefs that gave a generation of Americans a new grip on what it means to be an American.