Communism: Still an Evil Empire
Forty years ago today, Ronald Reagan ignored his advisers and shook the world with one of history’s most important speeches.
God or Man?
In the open letter to his children at the beginning of his landmark autobiography, Witness, Whittaker Chambers calls this “the most revolutionary question in history.”
It’s a helluva statement.
God or Man? Chambers posed that question more than 70 years ago, but it rings just as true today. “If man’s mind is the decisive force in the world,” he wrote, “what need is there for God?” He was speaking about Soviet communism and its threat to Liberty everywhere, but he would just as surely see the same threat in today’s Chinese communism. Communism, after all, is communism.
We suspect Ronald Reagan felt much the same way exactly 40 years ago today, when, at the Annual Convention of the National Association of Evangelicals, he ignored the rhetorical realpolitik of his most trusted advisers, threw Cold War caution to the wind, and let ‘er rip.
The Gipper began by thanking the clergy in attendance for their prayers. “Nancy and I have felt their presence many times and in many ways,” he said. “And believe me, for us, they’ve made all the difference. … I think I understand how Abraham Lincoln felt when he said, 'I have been driven many times to my knees by the overwhelming conviction that I had nowhere else to go.’”
He then told a joke about a minister and a politician at St. Peter’s gate, and then he got down to business. He invoked Jefferson: “The God who gave us life, gave us liberty at the same time.”
Then Tocqueville: “Not until I went into the churches of America and heard her pulpits aflame with righteousness did I understand the greatness and the genius of America. … America is good. And if America ever ceases to be good, America will cease to be great.”
One wonders if those on the Left have ever pondered Tocqueville.
Reagan’s speech was, of course, delivered during the height of the Cold War, amid a nuclear arms buildup that he ardently wanted to dial back — but not from a position of weakness. At the time, Congress was debating a resolution in support of a nuclear freeze — one supported by the Soviet Union because it would’ve prevented the U.S. from the deterrent step of deploying Cruise and Pershing II missiles in Europe. Reagan rightly opposed this proposal because he knew communism, and he knew how communists behaved.
It was a speech rich in Christian religiosity, and rightly so, especially given his audience. But its message was, throughout, perfectly relevant to the present moment.
“There is sin and evil in the world,” he said, “and we’re enjoined by Scripture and the Lord Jesus to oppose it with all our might. Our nation, too, has a legacy of evil with which it must deal. The glory of this land has been its capacity for transcending the moral evils of our past. For example, the long struggle of minority citizens for equal rights, once a source of disunity and civil war, is now a point of pride for all Americans. We must never go back. There is no room for racism, anti-Semitism, or other forms of ethnic and racial hatred in this country.”
These same words could be uttered today, by a politician with the guts to do so.
In an essay reflecting upon the speech, Elizabeth Edwards Spalding, who chairs the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation, noted Reagan’s sense of his country and what made it great: “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.”
Reagan referred to communism as “the focus of evil in the modern world,” but he didn’t drop the term “evil empire” until near the end of his speech:
I urge you to speak out against those who would place the United States in a position of military and moral inferiority. You know, I’ve always believed that old Screwtape [of C.S. Lewis’s classic The Screwtape Letters] reserved his best efforts for those of you in the church. So, in your discussions of the nuclear freeze proposals, 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 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.
I ask you to resist the attempts of those who would have you withhold your support for our efforts, this administration’s efforts, to keep America strong and free, while we negotiate real and verifiable reductions in the world’s nuclear arsenals and one day, with God’s help, their total elimination.
While America’s military strength is important, let me add here that 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.
In an interview earlier today at the Victims of Communism Museum in Washington, DC, Florida Republican Congressman Carlos Gimenez, who fled communist Cuba as a child, reflected on Reagan’s speech: “What I remember is that people didn’t want him to say that. They didn’t want him to call out the Soviet Union for what it was. And there’s parallels to today, because people are saying, ‘Hey, maybe we shouldn’t be doing the same thing with the Chinese Communist Party,’ but, yeah, we need the spirit of Ronald Reagan today, because we need to confront what I believe is even a greater challenge, which is the communist party of China.”
And that’s the message and the timeless relevance of the Evil Empire speech: So long as there is communism, Liberty-loving people everywhere must oppose it.
Today, as yesterday, the question is: “God or Man?” And today, as yesterday, there’s only one right answer.
POSTSCRIPT: In his 1989 book “Speaking My Mind: Selected Speeches,” Reagan writes, “At the time, [the speech] was portrayed as some sort of know-nothing, archconservative statement that could only drive the Soviets to further heights of paranoia and insecurity. … 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.” (Incidentally, the book also contains a photo of Reagan’s hand-written and hand-edited draft of the speech. This photo, and other such photos throughout the 2001 book “Reagan In His Own Hand,” not only reveal the man’s visionary thinking — they also make mincemeat out of the well-worn leftist canard that Reagan was some sort of “amiable dunce.”)
Ronald Reagan: right then, and right now.
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