Ronald Reagan was not the establishment’s candidate for president. He spoke eloquently on behalf of limited government and individual liberty. He sharply criticized expansive state regulations and programs. And he challenged the moral as well as practical infirmities of communism.
Few Americans disagreed with his analysis of the latter. But articulating those sentiments still was not popular with professional diplomats. Not that they liked communism, and especially the variant practiced by the Soviet Union. Nevertheless, it just wasn’t politic in their world to so sharply criticize the very nature of the opposing system.
Reagan, however, had a much different background than his predecessors. Although originally a fan of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Reagan understood that communism was not just an extension of modern liberalism. While head of the Screen Actors Guild, Reagan fought against communist influence. When he later moved right and joined the rubber-chicken circuit, he challenged the threat posed by totalitarian ideologies.
Reagan carried his ill-suppressed disgust with and hatred of totalitarianism to the presidency. Contrary to his critics’ charges, he was no warmonger. In fact, as he later proved, he was surprisingly progressive in his attitudes toward nuclear weapons. He was horrified that America’s only “defense” against a Soviet attack was to respond with a massive strike against that nation’s cities, killing millions or tens of millions, so-called mutual assured destruction. That animated his support for building missile defense and eliminating nuclear weapons.
But Reagan was unwilling stay silent about a system that reflected inhumanity at every turn.
The Soviet Union was born in a war that never should have been waged. Europe in 1914 was prospering economically amid rising trade and commerce. Political progress was real, as well. The three major empires, Austro-Hungarian, German, and Russian, were liberalizing. Had not a “damned foolish thing in the Balkans” come along, as German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck warned — an act of Serbian state terrorism that felled Austro-Hungary’s heir apparent — the continent might have stumbled along in peace. The empires might have navigated the transition from ancien regimes to liberal democracies.
It was not to be, however. Serbian nationalist Gavrilo Princip, armed by military intelligence in Belgrade, traveled to Sarajevo in Bosnia and with two well-aimed shots murdered Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie. A month later, Austro-Hungarian forces shelled Serbia’s capital, Belgrade, quickly bringing Russia, Germany, France, and the United Kingdom into the war. Many other countries followed, including the United States.
The Russian Empire, though a manpower colossus, had proverbial feet of clay. Men fought and died in prodigious numbers for an aristocratic elite that produced little of value. In early 1917, the Russian people were tired of defeat, privation, and death for no good reason. Czar Nicholas was overthrown in a largely democratic revolution. But the provisional government decided to continue the war. By November, widespread disillusionment allowed the Bolsheviks to seize control. Their victory in the ensuing civil war was a close-run affair, but the brutally determined tandem of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin and Leon Trotsky proved tougher than the disunited opposition. Lenin died in 1924, opening the way for Joseph Stalin, one of history’s most accomplished killers.
Some leftish sympathizers accuse Stalin of distorting the revolution, but Lenin no less believed in the use of terror. Trotsky led the campaign that crushed the 1921 Kronstadt rebellion, staged by sailors and others opposed to Bolshevik repression. Stalin was merely the culmination, the ultimate example, of what happens when a sinful human being gains absolute political power. And the USSR became an example for and supplier of putative revolutionaries worldwide.
World War II enabled Moscow to impose its murderous system on its Eastern and Central European neighbors. In Albania and Romania, uniquely crackpot leaders took control. The political virus later spread most importantly to China, along with other Third World states as different as Cuba, Ethiopia, Cambodia, North Korea, and Grenada.
Nazism always will represent a unique evil, in attempting to eradicate the long-persecuted Jewish people. But in raw numbers communism has slaughtered far more. The Black Book of Communism, produced by a group of European intellectuals, put communism’s collective death toll in excess of 100 million. The mind boggles. Political scientist R. J. Rummel offered similar overall estimates in Death by Government, though specifics of individual nations sometimes differed. It isn’t easy to accurately count victims when they are dying so prodigiously. Although the USSR is gone, even in our new modern, liberal age, repression in China is rising sharply as the Chinese Communist Party moves back to Maoism.
Dictators sometimes exercise a modicum of restraint so long as they believe they can maintain control. Not so the Soviet Union, where Stalin lethally combined paranoia with terror. During his time, wrote Rummel, “murder and arrest quotas did not work well. Where to find the ‘enemies of the people’ they were to shoot was a particularly acute problem for the local NKVD, which had been diligent in uncovering ‘plots.’ They had to resort to shooting those arrested for the most minor civil crimes, those previously arrested and released, and even mothers and wives who appeared at NKVD headquarters for information about their arrested loved ones.” There was not even the barest logic to the slaughter.
What to call such a system? Ronald Reagan knew. In March 1983 he spoke to the National Religious Broadcasters Association, famously terming the Soviet Union “an evil empire.”
The bulk of the speech was a discussion of domestic politics and an appeal to religious Americans. But Reagan closed with a discussion of the nature of America’s superpower competitor. And it was not positive. He told the audience, “Let us be aware 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.”
He understood that murder and oppression suffused the system, that seemingly civilized officials sat atop a national charnel house. Reagan quoted from C. S. Lewis’ classic Screwtape Letters:
The greatest evil is not done now … in those sordid “dens of crime” that Dickens loved to paint. It is … not even done in concentration camps and labor camps. In those we see its final result, but it 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.
Although Reagan believed that a strong military was critical for America’s defense, he looked beyond weapons for America’s defense:
I’ve always maintained that the struggle now going on for the world will never be decided by bombs or rockets, by armies or military might. The real crisis we face today is a spiritual one; at root, it is a test of moral will and faith.
Reagan closed with a hopeful message, though. It was two years before Mikhail Gorbachev rose to General Secretary of the Soviet Communist Party and more than six years before the Berlin Wall fell. Yet Reagan glimpsed the better future that was rapidly approaching, that the USSR was headed for the “ash heap of history,” as he had told the British parliament the previous year.
He optimistically explained to the broadcasters,
I believe that communism is another sad, bizarre chapter in human history whose last pages even now are being written. I believe this because the source of our strength in the quest for human freedom is not material, but spiritual. And because it knows no limitation, it must terrify and ultimately triumph over those who would enslave their fellow man. For in the words of Isaiah: “He giveth power to the faint; and to them that have no … might He increased strength. But they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary.”
Reagan was out of office on Nov. 9, 1989, when the Berlin Wall fell. There was still more to come — Romania’s ousted dictator and dictatress, Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu, were executed on Christmas Day. Their removal was the best present their nation could have hoped for.
Nevertheless, it was the wall that so aptly symbolized the evil empire, a system that had to imprison its own people and gun down those who sought to flee. In June 1987, Reagan stood before Brandenburg Gate and issued his famous challenge: “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” And Gorbachev effectively did so, when he stood aside and kept the Red Army in its barracks. Unlike East Germany in 1953, Hungary in 1956, and Czechoslovakia in 1968, the satellites were left to shift their orbits to the West and free their peoples.
The Cold War is not even a distant memory for the young now proclaiming themselves to be socialists. Yet it demonstrated that coercion and collectivism naturally give rise to the most grotesque tyrannies. Americans must never forget what Bernie Sanders apparently never learned, that the Soviet Union was an evil empire. And its destruction was a vital moral victory that we should continue to celebrate.
Doug Bandow is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute. He is a former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan and the author of several books, including Foreign Follies: America’s New Global Empire.