The first year of President Ronald Reagan’s first term was dominated by the economy and domestic politics. Even in 1982, he only gave one important foreign policy speech at Westminster to the British House of Commons. For several years, the Soviet Union had moved more SS-20 intermediate range nuclear missiles into Eastern Europe. Reagan and NATO leaders wanted to counter this with a “dual-track” policy of arms control negotiation and deployment of US Pershing II missiles to Europe. However, the Soviets stonewalled the negotiations, and encouraged a “freeze” of nuclear weapons in Europe, which of course they could violate much more easily. Reagan’s domestic opposition, and European anti-nuclear parties supported the freeze as a step toward “de-nuclearizing” Europe.
In early 1983, the “freezniks” were making inroads into a core element of Reagan’s base: religious leaders. Several prominent religious organizations had already publically come out in support of the freeze, including the National Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Synagogue Council of America. On 8 March 1983, Reagan made a speech in Orlando, Florida at a convention of the National Association of Evangelicals to clarify the stakes of the Cold War in Europe.
The televised speech was 32 minutes long, but it was one large 72 word sentence, toward the end of the speech, that sent shockwaves throughout the world:
“So in your discussions of the nuclear freeze proposals I urge you to beware the temptation of pride – the temptation to blithely 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 and good and evil.”
For the first time in the Cold War, an American leader had the courage to use the word “evil” in a public forum to describe the totalitarian nature of world Communism. Up to this point in Reagan’s presidency, speech censers excised the word, which was originally supposed to appear in the Westminster speech, or removed it at behest of Reagan’s domestic opposition as a “sign of respect” for the Soviet Union.
The New York Times derided the speech as “primitive and dangerous”, but the “Evil Empire Speech” galvanized dissidents in Communist countries. Millions of people around the world that suffered under Communism and state socialism felt that finally someone understood their travails. In Poland, the Solidarity Movement was reeling under the Communist marshal law, and Lech Walesa credited the speech as breathing new life into the movement. The speech broke the tradition of “détente” with the Soviet Union and cemented the Sino-Soviet split. The crusade to end Communism led by Ronald Reagan, Lech Walesa, Margaret Thatcher and Pope John Paul II had begun, and would hasten the end of the Soviet Union by decades.
No one in 1983 would have predicted, even in their wildest fever dreams, that the Soviet Union would fall just seven later.