In preparing to write about missile defense, I talked to a longtime expert in the field. He said that he considered Reagan’s SDI speech one of a pair of speeches: the other being the “Evil Empire” speech. Both were given in March 1983. The SDI speech was given on television, in the Oval Office. That was on March 23. The other speech was given at the annual convention of the National Association of Evangelicals in Orlando. That was on March 8.
It would be hard to describe to those who weren’t around how hated Reagan’s speech was — well, both of them, but I’m thinking of the “Evil Empire” speech in particular. By “hated,” I mean by the liberal establishment (to use a crude but handy term). Reagan had invited aggression, shown himself to be a boob, and embarrassed us all.
Henry Steele Commager will give you a sense of the atmosphere. He was a famous historian of the United States, kind of a teacher to the nation. Of Reagan’s address in Orlando, he said, “It was the worst presidential speech in American history, and I’ve read them all.”
Reagan, needless to say, knew exactly what he was doing. He said he gave that speech, and others like it, “with malice aforethought.”
Anyway, back to my friend the missile-defense expert. He told me about meeting a Polish businessman, some years ago. Making conversation with him, my friend said something nice about John Paul II — how he was a hero of the Cold War. But the Pole wanted to talk about Reagan.
He said he used to listen to the VOA, in the middle of the night, on a transistor radio. He would do it about two nights a week. The radio was hidden in his house, hidden even from his family. When they were asleep, he’d go into a room with no windows. He would put a towel underneath the door and an earpiece in his ear. And then listen.
One night, he heard about Reagan’s “Evil Empire” speech. And he knew the Cold War was over, and that the Americans had won. It was only a matter of time.
Clarity, truth, and purpose are helpful in geopolitical life, as in other types of life.
P.S. Several years ago, I did an interview with George Shultz. He remembered a day when Paul Nitze was testifying before the Senate. Nitze was a veteran diplomat, a tremendously urbane man. One of the Democrats said to him, “How can you serve in an administration whose president calls the Soviet Union an ‘evil empire’?” Nitze answered, “Did you ever consider the possibility that it’s true?”