The Evil Empire Speech at 40: Timeless Insights From Reagan - The American Spectator | USA News and Politics
The Evil Empire Speech at 40: Timeless Insights From Reagan
President Ronald Reagan speaks to the press, Washington, D.C., May 22, 1984 (mark reinstein/Shutterstock)

March 8 marks the 40th anniversary of President Ronald Reagan’s “Remarks at the Annual Convention of the National Association of Evangelicals in Orlando, Florida,” better known as the “Evil Empire” speech. This tour de force must be remembered and understood as a central message of Reagan’s grand strategy.

Denigrating Reagan as a has-been actor who talked his way into political office misses the importance of the words — often in his own hand — that form the rhetorical core of his presidential statesmanship. Reagan’s rhetoric framed both high and practical politics as well as needed long-term strategy. Nowhere is this clearer than in his approach to the Cold War.

The line drawn from putting Marxism-Leninism on the “ash-heap of history” in the 1982 British Parliament address to recognizing the “aggressive impulses of an evil empire” in this 1983 speech to “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” in the 1987 remarks at Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate marks Reagan’s rejection of and challenge to the Soviet regime. It ran ahead of and parallel with his two tracks of policy to build up American strength of all kinds and, only under favorable circumstances, conduct negotiations from that position of combined political, economic, military, and moral strength. As Reagan memorably expressed his ultimate goal several years before his presidency: “We win, they lose.”

Reagan’s rhetoric about communism and totalitarianism and about freedom and democracy highlight one of his timeless insights: the centrality of regime distinctions. Reagan started with the moral character of the regime, encompassing the form of government and the mores of that society’s culture. He knew he was at odds with the mainstream view of world politics coming out of the détente years, which portrayed moral equivalence between the two sides in the Cold War, accepted the conflict as a permanent reality, and upheld negotiated accommodations as the highest end.

In the “Evil Empire” speech, Reagan described religious faith as the bulwark against the main threats to freedom. At home, secularism, relativism, and unmoored choice undermined “the American experiment in democracy,” which rested on the “much deeper realization that freedom prospers only where the blessings of God are avidly sought and humbly accepted.” Drawing on Washington, Jefferson, William Penn, Tocqueville, and the Bible, Reagan spent over half of his remarks making the case for God, prayer, vibrant faith, religious liberty (including prayer in public schools), and the Hyde Amendment to restrict publicly financed abortions. While positive about America and her history, Reagan acknowledged the nation’s past sins and affirmed “we must never go back” to “racism, anti-Semitism, or other forms of ethnic and racial hatred in this country.”

Calling upon the nation’s most prominent evangelical Christian leaders to live up to their faith and speaking to his broad audiences of the American public and the world, Reagan exhibited his steady optimism about man and his future as well as his belief in the reality of sin. “No government schemes are going to perfect man,” he said. “We know that living in this world means dealing with what philosophers would call the phenomenology of evil or, as theologians would put it, the doctrine of sin.” Further, he stressed, “we’re enjoined by Scripture and the Lord Jesus to oppose” sin and evil “with all our might.”

As a diagnostician of American democracy — its virtues and vices, its strengths and vulnerabilities — Reagan identified what needed to be preserved and passed on, and what needed to be excised or repaired. Just as astutely, Reagan then turned his full attention to the fundamental challenge from Soviet communism.

A second timeless insight pertains to Reagan’s understanding of freedom. For Reagan, freedom had moral content and inherent responsibilities. Though not perfect, constitutional government was built on real rights and permanent principles, democratically legitimate, and oriented toward a full understanding of individual liberty. In contrast, Reagan viewed the Soviet Union as an illegitimate government — indeed, as one of the worst regimes in human history. And he made this argument at a time when elite opinion sought accommodation within an amoral context of great-power rivalry that mistakenly expected moderated Soviet behavior in return. Reagan rejected that thinking and argued that the USSR was illegitimate and offensive by its totalitarian nature.

Throughout, Reagan saw the dangers of radical ideology — a fixed, single, unified worldview that has within it a revolutionary plan to transform state and society — in Soviet communism. This led to a third timeless insight. Peace could only be defined in light of true freedom. This connection between peace and freedom informed the philosophical reason behind Reagan’s insistence on arms reductions rather than arms control. Reagan spent paragraphs of the “Evil Empire” speech explaining the promise of arms-reductions talks and the problems with a nuclear freeze. He said that the Kremlin “must be made to understand we will never compromise our principles and standards. We will never give away our freedom. We will never stop searching for a genuine peace.” He advanced “peace through strength,” as he explained that a freeze was impossible unless “we could freeze the Soviets’ global desires.” Under the current circumstances, Reagan thought a nuclear freeze would “reward the Soviet Union for its enormous and unparalleled military buildup” and “would be virtually impossible to verify.”

Then Reagan spoke the words that are perhaps most quoted from this speech. While urging prayers for those “who live in that totalitarian darkness,” he said “that while they preach the supremacy of the state, declare its omnipotence over individual man, and predict its eventual domination of all peoples on the Earth, they are the focus of evil in the modern world.”

To underscore his point, Reagan drew purposely on two believers: C.S. Lewis and Whittaker Chambers. From a 1961 paperback preface to Lewis’ classic The Screwtape Letters, Reagan noted that the “greatest evil” is “conceived and ordered (moved, seconded, carried, and minuted) in clear, carpeted, warmed, and well-lighted offices, by quiet men with white collars and cut fingernails and smooth-shaven cheeks who do not need to raise their voice.” In the next line, which Reagan elaborated but did not quote, Lewis added that his symbol for Hell is “something like the bureaucracy of a police state.”

Some wondered why Reagan made the seemingly obscure reference to Chambers. For Reagan, Witness (1952) was a testament of all that was wrong with communism and right about freedom. Chambers reinforced for Reagan that communism’s root problem is its atheism — the vision of man without God — and that “Marxism-Leninism is actually the second oldest faith, first proclaimed in the Garden of Eden with the words of temptation, ‘Ye shall be as gods.’” And Reagan agreed with Chambers that the West already possessed the answer to communism’s challenge, “provided that its faith in God and the freedom He enjoins is as great as communism’s faith in Man.”

Between these bookends, Reagan defined the Cold War as the “struggle between right and wrong and good and evil” that was caused by an “evil empire.” He maintained the importance of America’s military strength, yet concluded: “The real crisis we face today is a spiritual one; at root, it is a test of moral will and faith.”

At the time, critics castigated Reagan for calling the USSR an “evil empire” and accused him of reigniting the Cold War and declaring World War III. But then and in retrospect, Reagan spoke the truth. He took the Soviets at their word that they acted according to Marxist-Leninist ideology and replaced faith and morality with the interests of class warfare and world revolution. By calling a spade a spade — which he had begun to do even before the 1950s — Reagan laid his sure foundation for peace through strength in the essential elements of his Cold War grand strategy: the modernized multiyear buildup of America’s defenses from the start of his presidency; NSDD-32, NSDD-66, and the beginning of START in 1982; NSDD-75 and the deployment of the Pershing II and cruise missiles to Western Europe in 1983; NSDD-166 and the Reagan Doctrine in 1985; and the reinvigoration of the U.S. economy, enhancement of public diplomacy, renewal of alliances, and an overall commitment to winning (rather than just waging) the Cold War throughout his presidency. All this flowed from Reagan’s insight about the spiritual, moral, and political illegitimacy of the USSR.

It would be heavenly if the time of evil empires was over. But this is the real world. The “Evil Empire” speech remains applicable to a post–Cold War world in which communism and other systems of totalitarianism persist. China today represses well over a billion people and works hard to shape tomorrow’s global architecture. Russia is run by not-so-former communists who, by war, terror, and disinformation, aim to restore the former Soviet empire. Regional, mini evil empires — from Iran to North Korea to Cuba — ally with their model states. Everyone — including aspirants to political office — should read or reread Reagan’s timeless insights on “the American experiment in democracy” and the persistence of evil in the modern world.

Elizabeth Edwards Spalding, PhD, is Senior Fellow at the Pepperdine University School of Public Policy, Chairman of the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation, and a frequent speaker and writer on the American presidency, the Cold War, and communism.

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