Mariano Caucino

40 Years of Ronald Reagan’s Evil Empire Speech

Air Force One landed smoothly at the Orlando Airport (Florida) and Ronald Reagan sped to the National Association of Evangelicals Annual Convention to deliver a speech. Just another routine event in the President’s schedule.

But on March 8, 1983, Reagan surprised his country and the entire world.

Because when he started describing the Soviet Union, the Free World Leader said that Moscow ran an “Evil Empire”.

Reagan explained that the Soviet Union was not only a strategic rival but the most complete expression of a disgraceful totalitarianism that sought world domination.

Two weeks later, Reagan launched his “Strategic Defense Initiative” (SDI), an ambitious missile defense system to prevent a nuclear attack. An initiative that was immediately dubbed “Star Wars” amid the disbelief of the military establishment.

It was then that someone recalled that afternoon in July 1980, when in the middle of a campaign flight, a consultant approached Reagan to ask why he wanted to be President.

“To win the Cold War”, the candidate answered.

Another evoked a conversation in 1975, in which the then California governor confided to his later first National Security adviser, Richard Allen, that his approach was simple: “We win, they lose.”

Reagan’s aggressive rhetoric sought to reverse what he assumed had been the excesses of Detente. According to Reagan, as a consequence of the extraordinary increase in the price of oil after the Yom Kippur War (1973) and the Iranian crisis (1979), the Kremlin had strengthened itself in the bipolar confrontation.

Reagan thought that the hyper-realism of the Nixon-Kissinger-Ford era and Jimmy Carter’s weakness had led to impotence in the face of Soviet expansion in the Third World. In  Afghanistan, Iran, and Nicaragua, US national interests had been in retreat.

The “Reagan Doctrine” would imply a fundamental change in American foreign policy. In his view -perhaps as the most extreme expression of Wilsonian idealism- the US was not just another country among nations. Reagan interpreted that his country was the bearer of a manifest destiny and a missionary vocation that had to be carried out through a freedom crusade.

In Diplomacy (1994), Henry Kissinger wrote that Reagan would conduct Wilsonianism to its most extreme conclusion. The US would not passively await the evolution of free institutions, nor would it limit itself to resisting national security threats.

Instead, Washington would actively promote democracy and reward countries that lived up to its ideals while punishing those that didn’t. Thus, they would target socialist regimes but also put pressure on right-wing dictators like Pinochet (Chile) and Marcos (Philippines).

The bipolar confrontation would no longer be explained as Great Power confrontations, but as a clash between Good and Evil, in which the US had to lead the West as a consequence of the responsibilities derived from the moral superiority of its political and economic system.

But while some interpreted that Reagan’s belligerent rhetoric was only a discursive resource of the Great Communicator, the Kremlin’s masters took his words seriously.

Perhaps assuming that he was really determined to attack the USSR, the White House head’s words alarmed Yuri Andropov, who shortly before had succeeded Leonid Brezhnev as Soviet top leader. It was then that -in the midst of paranoia- the KGB former chief ordered “Operation RYAN” consisting of a massive collection of intelligence information pursued in order to detect any hint that would allow to detect an American attack.

The weeks that followed resembled those of October 1962 when the world was on the brink of nuclear conflict. But this time, the crisis would be kept hidden and would take place only in the underworld of spy networks and secrets. While everyone hummed the hit of that year: “Every breath you take-Every move you make-I’ll be watching you” (The Police), it was precisely that what the Russians and Americans were doing.

The criticism about the intrinsic evil nature of Communism would intensify shortly after, when the tragedy of flight KAL 007 occurred. That day, a Korean Airlines Boeing 747 bound from New York to Seoul with 269 people on board -including an American congressman- was shot down while flying over Soviet territory, apparently unknowingly, without authorization and as a result of a navigation system error.

Naturally, the event contributed to harming Moscow’s image. Especially since the Politburo, cynically, only admitted its responsibility several days later, in an attitude that seriously damaged the Soviet prestige, as the legendary Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin later admitted.

But the tragedy reaffirmed Reagan’s convictions, who described it as “a crime against humanity”. A belief endorsed by his UN Ambassador Jeanne Kirkpatrick, who denounced that “the Soviets decided to shoot down a civilian plane and then lied about it.”

Although without the spectacularity and drama of the Missile Crisis, the events of 1983 marked one of the Cold War most dangerous moments. To the point that in that same year the episode of Able Archer took place in which, without a prudent interpretation, the simulation of a military exercise could have been interpreted as a nuclear attack, putting humanity on the brink of Armageddon.

Today, the international system is largely different from that of the 1980s. However, the US and the Russian Federation continue to hold the two largest nuclear arsenals. A possession that entails an unavoidable responsibility towards the shared aim of maintaining peace and international security.

About the Author
Mariano Caucino was Argentine ambassador to Israel (2018-2019) and to Costa Rica (2016-2017).