Hot Words in the Cold War

On March 8, 1983, at 3:04 P.M., President Ronald Reagan stepped to the podium before a group of evangelical Christians at the Sheraton Twin Towers Hotel in Orlando, Florida. Knowing he had a friendly crowd, he began by thanking all those present for their prayers. He cited a favorite quote from Lincoln, about often being driven to his knees by the overwhelming conviction that he had nowhere else to go. He then commended the role of religious faith in American democracy.

That was all nice enough—standard fare, no surprise, preaching to the choir.

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Reagan then took a sharp theological-philosophical turn. He spoke of sin and man's fallen nature: "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." He then gave a glimpse of where he was heading: "There is sin and evil in the world, and we"re enjoined by Scripture and the Lord Jesus to oppose it with all our might."

Particularly possessed of that sin and evil, he told the National Association of Evangelicals, was America's principal foe: the Soviet Union was the "focus of evil in the modern world"; it was an "evil empire."

Reagan's audacious assertion was a shot heard 'round the world—and certainly within the packed Citrus Crown Ballroom of several hundred people. "It was a surprise to all of us," said Thomas McDill, president of the Evangelical Free Church, "but especially to the reporters down in front." It did not take long for the ripple effect to make waves outside the auditorium. In the Washington Post, Richard Cohen asked, "Question: What does Ronald Reagan have in common with my grandmother? Answer: They are both religious bigots." Historian Henry Steele Commager asserted, "It was the worst presidential speech in American history, and I"ve read them all." A damning indictment came from The New Republic, the political bible of the American left, in a sarcastic editorial titled "Reverend Reagan." "He is not in the White House to save our souls," the editors objected, "but to protect our bodies; not to do God's will, but the people's."

Not all reactions were negative. Upon learning what Reagan had said, Anatoly Sharansky, an inmate of U.S.S.R. Permanent Labor Camp 35, 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 U.S.S.R. Once the communist collapse came, Russian government officials were eager to talk openly and even to affirm the president's characterization. Arkady Murashev, Moscow police chief and a leader of Democratic Russia, who was close to Russian president Boris Yeltsin, told the Washington Post's David Remnick: "He [Reagan] called us the "Evil Empire." So why did you in the West laugh at him? It's true!"

A voice for the voiceless

Why did Reagan say what he said on that day in March 1983? As he explained after the presidency, "Although a lot of liberal pundits jumped on my speech at Orlando 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."

Reagan's chief motivation was laid bare in the speech itself. He believed he had no choice—morally or spiritually—but to condemn the Soviet system because it was evil. He would be remiss in his Christian duty if he did not denounce and oppose the Soviet Union.

This thinking was rooted in Reagan's spiritual upbringing. His mother, Nelle, made an indelible impact in numerous ways. She gave her son a Christian novel that he would always cite as the most influential book of his youth: Harold Bell Wright's That Printer of Udell"s. The protagonist is a "practical Christian" driven by a sense of duty to speak out against and to oppose evil. "I want to be like that man," an 11-year-old Ronald told his mom. "And I want to be baptized."

Reagan was also heavily influenced by his family's Disciples of Christ pastor, Ben Cleaver, in Dixon, Illinois. Cleaver was very patriotic, very anti-communist, and knowledgeable about early Disciples of Christ leaders like Alexander Campbell (1788-1866) who believed America had a "special mission in the world as a nation and a people." In fact, averred Campbell, it was "for this purpose [that] the Ruler of nations has raised us up and made us the wonder and the admiration of the world." Campbell spoke of America as a "beacon," a "light unto the nations," with a duty to "overthrow" "false religion [and] oppressive governments."

From such religious instruction, and, later, his own reading, Ronald Reagan came to view America as "A Shining City Upon a Hill" with a duty to cast light into the dark corners of the world. Reagan wanted America to be model for all others, a guiding light, a beacon—"wind-swept, God-blessed," as he put it— that would lead the world to freedom. He said only weeks before the NAE speech, "I've always believed that this blessed land was set apart in a special way, that some divine plan placed this great continent here between the two oceans to be found by people from every corner of the Earth—people who had a special love for freedom."

Reagan saw himself as a voice for the voiceless in the Soviet empire, those he called the "captive peoples" in the "captive nations." He saw the U.S.S.R. as the "heart of darkness" that imprisoned what was once a richly religious population. His was a public voice on behalf of the captives, with the potency of the presidential bully pulpit behind it.

War of words

Reagan also had tactical motivations. After his presidency he explained: "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. 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?"

Reagan believed such candor was needed to eliminate illusions and to "philosophically and intellectually take on the principles of Marxism-Leninism." Though he could not and would not fire weapons at the adversary, he understood that words could be extremely effective in a Cold War confrontation in which good vs. evil were at the very core. Such rhetorical cruise missiles would not knock down buildings, blast holes in the soil, or produce corpses, but, Reagan hoped, they might be lethal to the Soviet body in the long-term.

Herein, then, was another central motivation behind the speech: Reagan aimed to denounce moral equivalency. This doctrine, popular among segments of the political left, held that both the United States and the Soviet Union were equally responsible for the Cold War, and that neither country, nor their system of government, could be judged more (or less) good or evil than the other. The United States could not claim a moral high ground any more than the U.S.S.R.

Reagan called this "rubbish." He had always understood the U.S.S.R. as not just vicious but as an inherently atheistic system. Lenin had compared Christianity to venereal disease and established groups like the League of the Militant Godless. Speaking on behalf of the Bolshevik state, he declared in 1920, "We … do not believe in God." Stalin naturally followed suit, blowing up churches and gulaging nuns and priests. Marx himself had called religion the "opiate of the masses" and said that "communism begins where atheism begins."

It was the U.S.S.R., Reagan said, that repressed humans" God-given rights and killed tens of millions of its own. America, on the other hand, was a democratic country where "all people enjoy the right to speak, to worship God as they choose, and live without fear." As he told in a crowd in Miami, "don"t let anyone tell you we"re morally equivalent with the Soviet Union. … We are morally superior, not equivalent, to any totalitarian regime, and we should be darn proud of it."

After a decade of détente, in which both Republican and Democratic presidents had urged Americans to accept their differences with Soviet Union, Reagan was seeking to re-moralize the conflict. He wanted to make the case to the public that the Cold War was not a "giant misunderstanding" but a just war. And on a number of occasions, including a speech to the National Religious Broadcasters in January 1984, he said that while he prayed that he and his country were on the right side and doing the right thing, he was at least sure his country was not the evil one.

Fittingly, it was those who subscribed to moral equivalency who took greatest offense at Reagan's Evil Empire speech.

A larger plan

Finally, Reagan's speech needs to be placed in the context of what we now know was happening at the time: Reagan and a group of close advisers were laying out a multi-layered assault on the Soviet Union from numerous angles—from economic warfare to rhetorical warfare—in order to undermine the empire without nuclear war and direct military confrontation. The Evil Empire speech was a significant part of the plan, one that reflected both deeper personal motivations and far-reaching global ambitions.

Only now, decades later, as emotions and partisan inclinations have cooled—and knowing the story had a good (not tragic) ending—can we fully understand the Evil Empire speech and its purpose. Ronald Reagan told Nancy Reagan a few days after the speech, as she expressed misgivings over his bellicose language, "It is an Evil Empire. It's time to close it down."

In those private comments by Reagan, we see the direct connection between that first and second sentence. Calling it an Evil Empire was one step to something much larger.

This article is from Christian History magazine #99 Faith & the American Presidency. Read it in context here!

By Paul Kengor

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #99 in 2008]

Paul Kengor is professor of political science at Grove City College in Grove City, Pennsylvania.
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