Today, Ronald Reagan’s Evil Empire speech turns 30 years old. It stands as one of the most memorable orations of the last three decades. It coined a phrase, a tag, a label—one that utterly fit. If the shoe fits, wear it. Well, this jackboot fit the Soviet ogre’s foot.
It was a searing speech, not merely because it was so provocative, which it was, or incendiary or controversial, which it also was, but because it was such an obvious truth that so desperately needed to be said by someone at the presidential level. Ronald Reagan cut through the clutter, and the moral equivalency and accommodation, and spoke loudly and boldly, with the uncompromising courage and confidence that was so uniquely Ronald Reagan.
Why did Reagan say what he said? Here’s his later explanation: “Although a lot of liberal pundits jumped on my speech … and said it showed I was a rhetorical hip-shooter who was recklessly and unconsciously provoking the Soviets into war, I made the ‘Evil Empire’ speech and others like it with malice aforethought.”
What malice aforethought?
The speech must be viewed from two crucial perspectives: 1) Reagan’s personal/spiritual motivation; and 2) his larger international/geo-strategic motivation. Both of these two contexts came together as part of a broader Reagan intention to try to undermine atheistic Soviet communism and peacefully win and end the Cold War.
On the first, Reagan’s chief motivation was laid bare in the speech itself. Reagan believed he had no choice (morally or spiritually) but to condemn the Soviet system because it was evil, and (as he said in the speech) both Scripture and Jesus Christ command Christians to oppose evil with all their might. He would be remiss in his Christian duty if he did not denounce and oppose the Soviet Union.
And as a matter of plain, undeniable historical truth, the Soviet Union was in fact an Evil Empire. In addition to completely violating the full sweep of most basic civil liberties—freedom of press, speech, assembly, religion, conscience, travel, emigration, and property, to name just a few—the Soviet Union was responsible for the deaths of tens of millions of people. Its wider communist ideology killed over 100 million in the 20th century, double the combined dead of World War I and II.
The numbers are staggering. It is difficult to identify any ideology or belief system in history that has killed more people, let alone in such a narrow period. It boggles the mind to imagine how one ideology could cause so much pain and suffering. The massive levels of death alone would justify Reagan’s charge that the Soviet Union was an Evil Empire, and that is before one even tries to comprehend (on the spiritual order) the vicious war on religion pursued by the USSR and its associated communist states. As to that, Soviet communists did indeed pursue, as Mikhail Gorbachev put it, a “war on religion.”
Given this, why wouldn’t Ronald Reagan—or anyone, for that matter—not see and judge such a state as inherently and endemically evil? Who could argue? And why, in Reagan’s view, should anyone hesitate to think so or even say so?
More than that, Reagan, though a humble man, saw himself as a voice for the voiceless in the Soviet empire, those he called the “captive peoples” held in the darkness of the “captive nations.” His was a public voice on behalf of the captives, with the potency of the presidential bully pulpit behind it.
Here again, only after the presidency, Reagan would explain: “For too long our leaders were unable to describe the Soviet Union as it actually was. The keepers of our foreign-policy knowledge … found it illiberal and provocative to be so honest. I’ve always believed, however, that it’s important to define differences, because there are choices and decisions to be made in life and history.” Few were willing to speak that truth to power, but Reagan was unafraid. He further explained: “The Soviet system over the years has purposely starved, murdered, and brutalized its own people. Millions were killed; it’s all right there in the history books. It put other citizens it disagreed with into psychiatric hospitals, sometimes drugging them into oblivion. Is the system that allowed this not evil? Then why shouldn’t we say so?”
To Reagan, this honesty was necessary for eliminating illusions. Reagan said such candor was needed to “philosophically and intellectually take on the principles of Marxism-Leninism.” “We were always too worried we would offend the Soviets if we struck at anything so basic,” he said. “Well, so what? Marxist-Leninist thought is an empty cupboard. Everyone knew it by the 1980s, but no one was saying it.”
And so, Reagan said it. On March 8, 1983, he told his audience of evangelicals: “Yes, let us pray for the salvation of all of those who live in that totalitarian darkness—pray they will discover the joy of knowing God. But until they do, 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 urged those assembled to “beware the temptation of pride—the temptation of blithely declaring yourselves above it all and label both sides equally at fault, to ignore the facts of history and the aggressive impulses of an evil empire, to simply call the arms race a giant misunderstanding and thereby remove yourself from the struggle between right and wrong and good and evil.”
What Reagan said was exactly right, and sorely needed. But that’s not how liberals saw it. The left, naturally, went bonkers, accusing Reagan of all sorts of evil and pride and temptation—worst of all, of America-centrism. But it’s funny what the left doesn’t remember: Before Reagan pointed the finger at the USSR, he paused in the speech to point it inward at the faults and “moral evils” of his own country: “Our nation, too, has a legacy of evil with which it must deal,” said Reagan. “For example, the long struggle of minority citizens for equal rights…. There is no room for racism, anti-Semitism, or other forms of ethnic and racial hatred in this country.”
That’s easily the most forgotten line of the entire speech.
And just as American liberals went bonkers, so, of course, did the Soviet leadership, denouncing Reagan with every name in the Marxist book.
But perhaps the best reaction to Reagan’s speech was one not caught by any television camera or reporter. It emanated from the very pit of the Evil Empire, from inside its most enduring symbol: the gulag.
Natan Sharansky, a Jewish dissident, was an inmate of Permanent Labor Camp 35. His Soviet captors informed him of what this saber-rattling, dangerous president had dared to utter. Upon learning what Reagan said, Sharanky (after the guards left) jumped for joy inside his prison cell and tapped in Morse Code to his fellow gulag residents the good news that “someone had finally spoken the truth” about the USSR. “We dissidents were ecstatic,” said Sharansky. “Finally, the leader of the free world had spoken the truth—a truth that burned inside the heart of each and every one of us.”
Imagine the scene inside that prison. As one inmate after another tapped out the words “Evil Empire,” truth was finally piercing the dungeon’s dark silence, as the gulag itself at long last rang out and proclaimed its rightful name: Evil Empire! Evil Empire! Evil Empire! Evil Empire!…
Ronald Reagan had, in essence, enabled the Soviet gulag to finally call itself what it was. It couldn’t tell the world of itself and its malevolent source, but Ronald Reagan could and thus did.
Once the communist collapse came, Russian government officials were eager to freely speak about their erstwhile empire. And once they were free, they sang a different tune from the pages of Pravda in March 1983. Andrei Kozyrev, Boris Yeltsin’s foreign minister, in August 1991 was quick to explain that the USSR really had been an Evil Empire. It was a mistake to call it “the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics,” said Kozyrev. “It was, rather, [an] evil empire, as it was put.” Arkady Murashev, Moscow police chief, a leader of Democratic Russia, and another person close to Yeltsin, added: “[Reagan] called us the ‘Evil Empire.’ So why did you in the West laugh at him? It’s true!”
And, yes, it was true. Truth be told. The Soviet Union was indeed an Evil Empire. And one day in March 1983, three decades ago, an American president finally was willing to stand up and say so. With that message, and more, he helped take down that empire, win the Cold War, and change the world.
It was a testimony to the power of words, the power of courage, and the power of truth. Such noble rarity is worth remembering.
Dr. Paul Kengor is professor of political science at Grove City College and executive director of the center for vision & values.