March 08, 2012

On this date, Ronald Reagan gave his famous “evil empire” speech…

On March 8, 1983, President Ronald Reagan gave the speech in which he famously called the Soviet Union “an evil empire.”

At the time, the Cold War and nuclear arms race between the United States and the USSR was still ongoing and Reagan had taken a hard-line position against limiting America’s nuclear arsenal.

He was not only against the proposal for a “nuclear freeze.”

He was in favor of putting more NATO (read American) nuclear missiles in Western Europe, claiming that it was a necessary response to the Soviets’ deployment of nuclear missiles in Eastern Europe.

President Reagan discussed these issues in his hawkish evil empire speech on March 8, 1983.

Ironically, it was an address given to a convention of Christians, the annual meeting of the National Association of Evangelicals held that year in Orlando, Florida.

Among other things, Reagan told them this:

“I urge you to speak out against those who would place the United States in a position of military and moral inferiority...In your discussions of the nuclear freeze proposals, I urge you to beware the temptation of pride, the temptation blithely to declare 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, good and evil.”

It wasn’t the first use of the term “evil empire.”

The phrase had had previously been used in pulp magazines, comics, movies and political propaganda dating back to the early 20th Century.

But Reagan’s use of those words was new and notable in presidential rhetoric aimed at the Soviet Union.

It was quickly picked up and analyzed in news reports, embraced by Reagan supporters, criticized by his dovish critics — and ultimately became both famous and infamous.

I was in my early thirties in 1983 when I heard about Reagan’s speech. And, at the time, I was sure that he was crazy.

As a kid in the 1950s, I had practiced “duck and cover” drills at my elementary school and paid solemn attention when the teacher told us what to do if atomic bombs started dropping in the middle of a school day.

I remember being concerned that my family couldn’t afford to build a bomb shelter of our own. So, I memorized the locations of public shelters in my home town in Ohio.

Those childhood traumas, along with atomic war-themed TV shows, movies and books, ended up making me a supporter of nuclear disarmament during my college years.

I was also a fan of “The Bomb Song” by the legendary Hippie-era band Country Joe & the Fish. That’s the song with the sardonic chorus that goes: “I said please / Please don’t drop / Don’t drop that H-bomb on me...”

Of course, the bombs didn’t drop. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the “evil empire” of the Soviet Union went broke and ultimately split apart. The Cold War and the imminent threat of mutually assured nuclear destruction faded away.

In recent years, some historians have credited Reagan’s hard-line stance against a nuclear freeze — and even his use of the term “evil empire” — as reasons for the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union. (You can read more about this in the “Evil empire” entry in Wikipedia and read or view Reagan’s entire speech on various websites.)

So was Reagan right on the issue of nuclear weapons? Maybe.

But I still sing along when I occasionally listen again to that great 1967 album by the Fish, I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-To-Die, and hear Country Joe singing “The Bomb Song.”

“Well, you can drop it / Oh, you can drop it – on yourself!”

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