March 08, 2017

On this date, Ronald Reagan gave his famous “evil empire” speech—but he didn’t coin the phrase…

Ronald Reagan giving his evil empire speech 1983
If you’re like me, you’re a tired of hearing about Donald Trump and Russia.

However, as I was editing this post today on March 8, 2017, I couldn’t help being struck by the fact that Trump’s political hero, President Ronald Reagan, had a very different view of Russia than “The Donald.”

It was on March 8, 1983, that President 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.

Reagan was vehemently opposed to recent calls by dovish political groups for a “nuclear freeze” that would limit America’s nuclear weapons arsenal.

In fact, he wanted to increase the number of American nuclear missiles in Western Europe under the auspices of NATO, claiming that it was a necessary response to the Soviets’ deployment of nuclear missiles in Eastern Europe.

Reagan reiterated these views in his 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.

In a part of the speech that dealt with the nuclear freeze proposal, Reagan said:

“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.”

Although some books and websites suggest that Reagan coined “evil empire,” that’s not quite true.

I did a Google “NGram search” on the phrase and found a handful of uses in sources that date back as far as 1831. (A Google NGRAM search creates a graph showing the number of uses of a word or phrase in tens of thousands of books and magazines published during the past few centuries, along with links to see digitized copies of the sources.)

NGRAM search for 'evil empire'A literary publication called “The Anglo-Genevan Critical Journal for 1831” has an interesting early use of “evil empire” that some observers might deem relevant to modern American politics.

It says:

"The wicked misleader, who is allowed to go unanswered, will obtain a most despotic and evil empire over the minds of a whole people: and the minister of a Government, who neglects the press, is deserving of the deepest execration."

There’s a British history journal published in 1917 that calls Austria “the evil Empire of the Hapsburgs.”

“Evil empire” is also used in an anti-gambling Christian tract published in 1938.

There have probably been a smattering of other uses scattered throughout history and literature over the centuries.

But President Reagan definitely popularized the phrase and gave it its modern historic meaning.

Soon after the words left his lips during his March 8, 1983 address, it was being quoted, discussed and analyzed in news reports, embraced by Reagan supporters, and criticized by his opponents.

Thus, Reagan’s use ultimately became both one of his most famous and most infamous quotations and it’s what made the phrase a common part of our language. (See how the graph line in the NGRAM shown at right zooms upward after 1983.)

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the “evil empire” of the Soviet Union steadily crumbled and ultimately split apart.

The Cold War faded away and, although the threat of “mutually assured destruction” didn’t disappear, it became significantly less likely.

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 that theory in the “Evil empire” entry in Wikipedia.)

So, was Reagan right on the issue of nuclear weapons? I don’t know.

But as someone who grew up during the Cold War decades, I do know I was relieved that the nuclear war between the US and USSR that many people thought was inevitable didn’t happen. Those “duck and cover” drills I practiced at my elementary school in the 1950s never quite made me feel optimistic about the odds of surviving.

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