Saturday, March 8, 2008

"Reagan Was Right": the 25th anniversary of a pivotal speech

The title of a brief essay by Paul Kengor in World...

It was 25 years ago, on March 8, 1983, that President Ronald Reagan addressed the National Association of Evangelicals in Orlando, Fla., where he characterized the Soviet Union as the "focus of evil in the modern world"—an "evil empire."

The president's pronouncement was a shot heard round the world, as were his motivations: "There is sin and evil in the world," said Reagan to his Christian brothers, "and we're enjoined by Scripture and the Lord Jesus to oppose it with all our might."

Those who wished to accommodate rather than oppose the USSR, and who were not as troubled by atheistic communism, denounced the speech. In The New York Times, Anthony Lewis described the speech as "sectarian," "outrageous," "simplistic," and "terribly dangerous," before concluding it was "primitive—the only word for it." Historian Henry Steele Commager asserted, "It was the worst presidential speech in American history, and I've read them all." This was because of its "gross appeal to religious prejudice."

Certain quarters in the Kremlin hoped to turn Reagan's remarks into a propaganda tool to deride the president as a warmonger. The tactic backfired. One case in point was Natan Sharansky and his fellow inmates inside Permanent Labor Camp 35—the gulag. The Soviet prison guards shared Reagan's "primitive" words with Sharansky. Rather than being horrified, Sharansky couldn't contain his excitement. The moment his persecutors left, he eagerly tapped out Reagan's words in Morse code on his cell wall, a pattern repeated throughout the ecstatic prison camp, as the words "Evil Empire" echoed from its very source. Sharansky called Reagan's words "a great encourager for us."

The Evil Empire speech was not an anti-communist rant. It was a moral statement laying out a just cause in a just war against a militantly atheistic empire that killed tens of millions. It was a historic line in the sand 25 years ago.


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