Things have changed so much that it’s hard to remember what the world was like in the years immediately before and after Reagan’s first inauguration as president. In those days, many scholars and pundits believed we were not really to blame for the fact that we were losing the Cold War. After all, their argument went, democracies are by their very nature incapable of defending themselves over the long run against determined opposition by a totalitarian power like the Soviet Union. On the grand stage of world history, democracy is destined to be an effervescent phenomenon experienced by–in the words of Jean-Francois Revel–”only a tiny minority of the human race.” The paperback version of Revel’s How Democracies Perish, a best-seller during the first Reagan administration, featured a cover drawing of a ferocious bear mauling a bald eagle.
Near the beginning of the book’s first chapter Revel says:
Democracy probably could have endured had it been the only type of political organization in the world. But it is not basically structured to defend itself against outside enemies seeking its annihilation, especially since the latest and most dangerous of these enemies, communism–the current and complete model of totalitarianism–parades as democracy perfected when it is in fact the absolute negation of democracy.
At the start of Ravel’s second chapter it gets worse:
The distinguishing mark of our century is not so much communism’s determination to erase democracy from our planet, or its frequent success in pursuing that end, as it is the humility with which democracy is not only consenting to its own obliteration but it is contriving to legitimize its deadliest enemy’s victory.
This is how many of the most thoughtful people in the West regarded our prospects when Ronald Reagan became president. But President Reagan himself did not feel powerless in the face of Soviet hostility. He announced early and often, before and after he became president, that he intended for the United States to win the Cold War. Throughout his political career, Reagan was viciously and unfairly characterized as a stupid man. In reality, together with Margaret Thatcher and Pope John Paul II, he understood the world situation better than anyone else who was in a position to do something about it. Reagan believed that human beings have a God-given right to govern themselves and that no totalitarian regime could overcome a free people that used its freedom wisely and energetically.
Many of the thinkers who once told us that we did not have a chance against the Soviet Union now tell us that we cannot really credit Ronald Reagan for our victory in the Cold War. After all, the new argument goes, totalitarian systems like the Soviet Union are by their very nature incapable of competing with the innovation and prosperity that are natural to liberal democracies like the United States. So, we would have triumphed no matter whom we had chosen to lead us.
In truth, those who think that the great impersonal forces of history made our victory in the Cold War inevitable are just as mistaken as those who thought those same forces made our defeat unavoidable. History shows many examples of a free people using its freedom foolishly. Our own nation almost destroyed itself 141 years ago next month because many of us were foolish and selfish enough to try to use the principle of self-government to justify governing others without their consent. To become strong and stay strong, democracy always requires not just popular sovereignty but also wise, vigorous, and skilled leadership; and Reagan’s leadership was no more inevitable than was Washington’s or Lincoln’s.
We should be grateful to Ronald Reagan for changing the world to such an extent that it now seems to many that we were never in danger of losing the Cold War. But the denial of real danger is itself dangerous. After the ancient Kingdom of Judah survived the worst the Assyrians could do to it, the Judeans’ escape made them complacent about the dangers they had faced and were facing. This complacency contributed to their later defeat at the hands of the Babylonians. (See the Book of Jeremiah and the Second Book of Kings for an inspired exposition of the victory-complacency-defeat cycle.)
We must not allow our escape from the dangers of the Cold War to lead us to think that we are guaranteed deliverance from our problems. In acknowledging what we owe to Ronald Reagan, we are keeping faith not only with our past, but with our future.
When the Cold War was at about the same stage as our current war against terrorism, many told us that fear of the Soviet Union was a greater threat to our liberties than the Soviet Union itself. Ronald Reagan didn’t believe it. Some of those same people are now saying the same thing about terrorism: Consider, for example, the panic among some self-styled civil libertarians about the Patriot Act, a piece of legislation that passed the United States Senate by a vote of 98 to 1. I do not think Reagan would believe it, and I pray that Reagan’s passing will provide occasion to renew our appreciation of what he taught us not so long ago.