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
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?”
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.
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?
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 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.