For seven weeks starting in April 1989, university students occupied Tiananmen Square in Beijing and the Communists were terrified. Though there were some hardliners, the Communists understood the need for economic reforms. They did not want a repeat of the disastrous Cultural Revolution of the 60s when Maoists doubled down on statism and Communism, and 30 million people died as a result. The Chinese people remembered this devastation from a scant twenty years before. In the spring of 1989, they would not stand for it again. In support of the students, millions protested across China for market reforms, free speech, free press, and a way to remove the intolerably corrupt politicians of the Communist government.
But unlike the Soviets and the communists of Eastern Europe, the Chinese Communists were under no illusions about what would happen if they held elections. However, they did have one advantage that the other communist governments did not have: the People’s Liberation Army was not state controlled as in the Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc, they were party controlled. They could be relied upon for use against the Chinese people. First subjugation, then economic reforms. In early May 1989, a concerted effort was made to mobilize and bring formations up to fighting standard, and on 20 May 1989, the communists declared martial law.
250,000 PLA soldiers descended on Beijing. However, by 24 May, they were stopped cold by millions of peaceful protesters. For a week there was an impasse, but on 3 June, the communists had had enough. They ordered the PLA to use force to remove the protestors. Although some units refused to shoot civilians, thousands were killed when communist soldiers opened fire that night and into the next day. Almost immediately, vicious street battles broke out after students and shopkeepers banded to together to fight tanks and machine guns with rocks and fists. By the end of 4 June at least three thousand lay dead, and many more wounded. The fighting was largely unnoticed by the outside world.
The communists, like all tyrannical governments, feared scrutiny and transparency so they either coopted or coerced the domestic media into submission. But their censors did not apply to foreign journalists so they had placed severe restrictions on them, including harassment, isolation, and cutting their communications. Nevertheless, on 5 June 1989, those journalists locked in the Beijing Hotel witnessed an amazing event from their balconies. As a column of Type 59 tanks approached Tiananmen Square on Chang’an Avenue, an unnamed man crossed the broad street carrying two bags of groceries. The lead tank came to a stop just before hitting the man. The man, looking up, stood in front of the tank and then refused to move. The driver attempted to go around him, but the young man moved with it. The driver eventually stopped and shut down his engine, and soon the entire column did the same. For a long moment, it seemed that this one courageous individual had defeated the communist regime. The young man talked with the tank crew for a while, but was eventually seized by two goons from the People’s Security Bureau. The column continued on. Tank Man was never identified, nor was he seen or heard from again.
Despite the international exposure that the photos of Tank Man gave the events in China of early June 1989, the PLA successfully dispersed the protestors by 7th of that month. Afterwards, the communists rounded up and arrested anyone with connections to the protests. The People’s Republic of China is one of the few communist regimes that survived 1989. Today, due to censorship, Tank Man is unrecognized and unknown in China.
In April 1989, Lech Walesa’s Solidarity movement in Poland won the right to run candidates in the first fairly free parliamentary elections since before Poland was invaded by Germany and the Soviet Union 50 years before. On 4 June 1989, the Polish people headed to the polls (Ha!).
The Communists knew they were not popular, but they had several critical advantages. First, they still controlled the bureaucracy and the election apparatus. Also, their commissars still controlled the Polish military. Furthermore, more than half of the seats were rigged so only communists were allowed on the ballot. And finally, there was still 60,000 Red Army soldiers stationed on Polish soil.
The Communists believed they could not possibly lose the election utilizing these and every plausibly deniable, and not so deniable, electoral dirty trick. And many Solidarity candidates agreed with them. But the Polish people’s dissatisfaction with Communism’s inherent hypocrisy and corruption ran deep. Despite bureaucratic harassment, voter intimidation, and widespread election fraud, observers estimated that 98% of eligible voters turned out, virtually all for Solidarity.
Early ballot counts immediately showed that Solidarity and its allies had won a decisive victory. By the next day, it was confirmed: Solidarity had won 90% of the seats. Even seats where there was only a communist name on the ballot were lost to write-in candidates. It was a stinging rebuke of collectivism.
However, there was still the specter of military intervention. Fortunately, cooler heads prevailed. Polish military units began marginalizing, neutralizing or even out right arresting their commissars after the election, particularly if they attempted to take over units from their commanders. The Polish Army would not influence the election and the Poles did not have to worry about the Soviets. Like everything else about communism, the Red Army in 1989 was a facade. The Soviet 6th Motorized Rifle Division and 20th Tank Division had not received fuel or spare parts in months, because their supply system was so horribly corrupt. They had huge discipline problems and soldier-gangs ruled the barracks, where officers refused to go. What soldiers they did have control of were needed to tend the farms around the cantonment areas, which was the only way the divisions could be fed adequately. The Brezhnev Doctrine was dead, not because Gorbachev disavowed it, but because he had no choice.
Solidarity’s landslide victory was a reality on 6 June, 1989.
In July, the communists managed to hold onto the presidency through a series of back room deals, but a Solidarity candidate became prime minister in August. In September, 1989, the first non-communist government in the Eastern bloc in was sworn in.
The rest of Eastern Europe took notice
Since 1988, two former Soviet Republics, Armenia and Azerbaijan fought over the Nagorno-Karabakh region in the Lesser Caucuses Mountains after the Armenian population voted to secede from Azerbaijan and join Armenia. The Nagorno-Karabakh War was fought through the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. On 5 May 1994, Armenia and Azerbaijan signed a cease fire agreement in Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan, temporarily halting their destructive war. The agreement left the unrecognized Republic of Artsakh as the defacto ruling government of the area as neither Armenia could annex the region nor Azerbaijan control it.
Throughout the late 80s, Communism’s inherent flaws and fundamental inconsistencies could no longer be covered up with propaganda by state controlled media or coercion and terror waged by internal security forces. This was especially true in the more liberal (relative to the Soviet Union) states of the Warsaw Pact: Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary. Some political and economic concessions had already been made, but their people clamored for more. When this happened in previous decades, the Soviet Union responded with force. But in 1988 and 1989, the Soviet Union had just withdrawn in defeat from Afghanistan and the Red Army was paralyzed from corruption and the need for its soldiers to participate in the spring planting, lest they starve. Furthermore, the Soviet Union was going through an economic crisis that was 40 years in the making. Soviet Russia could only look on.
Events came to a head in the spring of 1989. Two symbolic events in April 1989 stood out. First, the Solidarity movement in Poland gained a crucial victory when it secured permission to participate in parliamentary elections in June. (They would go on to win 90% of the seats.) But it was the second that was most distressing to the Soviets at the time because they relied on the false perception that Communism was for “the people”. In a reaction to Solidarity’s victory, the Hungarian parliament, who saw the writing on the wall, unanimously voted to change the official name of the country from “The People’s Republic of Hungary” to “The Republic of Hungary” which was more in line with the names of Western governments. This removed the farcical “People’s” from the name. By the late 80s, it was obvious Communism only served a totalitarian, oligarchic, and bureaucratic elite in the name of the “Greater Good”. Still, the name change was only a symbolic gesture, but the reformers in the Hungarian Parliament, who were the sons and daughters of those curb stomped by the Soviets in 1956, knew it was an important one.
On 2 May 1989, that symbolic gesture had substantial consequences. On that day, the Hungarian Border Police, following the lead of their Parliament’s vote, began removing the border fence with Austria, to kick start improved economic ties with the West. Although there were hundreds of small symbolic acts of defiance against the Soviets that spring, the dismantling of the Hungarian border fence was the first concrete act by a Warsaw Pact government toward a peaceful end to the Cold War.
As a popular tourist destination for Warsaw Pact subjects, Hungary was relatively easy for East German, Czech, and Polish families to obtain travel papers. Tens of thousands of “holdiaymakers” fled their countries for the West by ostensibly going to Hungary for vacation. The summer of 1989 was the most successful tourist season in Hungary’s history.
Just a little over a month after he was elected Pope of the Catholic Church and sovereign of Vatican City, Pope John Paul I died in his bed on 28 September 1978. Two weeks later on 16 October the Second Papal Conclave of 1978 elected Pope John Paul II after two days of deliberations. Pope John Paul II was the greatest Roman Catholic Pope of the modern age.
Born Karol Wojtyla outside of Krakow, Poland, he was the son of a Polish Army noncommissioned officer and attended university in Krakow where he studied history and languages until the Nazis closed it down in 1939. By 1941, his entire family was killed by the Germans, but Wojkyla survived by taking jobs in factories that got him exempted from the random detention and execution of Polish civilians. He spent his free time studying at an underground seminary while protecting and hiding Polish Jews from the Nazis.
After the war, Wojtyla was ordained a priest and spent the next 30 years in the difficult position of an outspoken Roman Catholic in a country dominated by Communism. His unpretentious demeanor and wise counsel earned him the nickname “Uncle” which his parishioners and peers used until he was elected Pope in 1978, when he took the name John Paul II.
Pope John Paul II was the first non-Italian pope in 500 years, and one of the youngest and healthiest. He had a worldly view that contrasted greatly with previous popes. Pope John Paul II spoke eight languages fluently and was the most widely traveled pope in history. He spent much energy repairing relations with the other world religions and was the first Pope ever to pray in a mosque. Pope John Paul II was not against contraception for health reasons i.e. to prevent the spread of HIV, and routinely affirmed Catholicism’s stance that evolution and creationism are not mutually exclusive. He publicly apologized for many of Roman Catholicism’s historical sins, and the first ever papal email was sent apologizing for the church sex abuse scandals.
Despite this, Pope John Paul II was hated throughout much of the world due to his staunch and outspoken nature against totalitarianism. He specifically decried Apartheid in South Africa, the Mafia in southern Italy, Latin and South American dictators, Socialist Liberation Theology, and was the one of the few world leaders with the courage to call the fighting in Rwanda what it was: genocide. He was a consistent opponent of war in general, but more importantly, Pope John Paul II was the world’s moral leader against Communism.
He survived numerous attempts at humiliation (a favored tactic of socialists) and two actual assassination attempts, one of which was bankrolled by the KGB, due to his voracious anti-communism. His homilies and sermons on the evils of Communism and Socialism gave hope to hundreds of millions of oppressed people around the world, particularly in Eastern Europe. Most historians agree with Polish Solidarity leader Lech Walesa and former Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev, both of whom said that without Pope John Paul II there would have been no Solidarity, and without Solidarity there would not have been the Fall of the Iron Curtain and Berlin Wall in 1989.
In 2004, Pope John Paul II was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease and died in the Vatican on 2 April 2005. On 8 April 2005, four million people packed into Rome, St Peter’s Square, and the Vatican to attend the funeral of Pope John Paul II. His funeral is the single largest gathering in the history of Christendom. It was attended by over 90 heads of state, and in a historical anomaly, was attended by the spiritual leaders of 14 of the world’s largest religions, including Islam, Judaism, the various Protestant denominations, and Eastern Orthodoxy. It was the first time the Archbishop of Canterbury attended Catholic Mass since the 16th Century, and the first time the Patriarch attended a papal funeral since the Great Schism between the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches a thousand years before.
He was canonized St. John Paul II on 27 April 2014.
Flight Lt Victor Belenko was one of the Soviet’s best and most experienced pilots, and in 1972 was assigned to fly the newest fighter in the Communist arsenal: the MIG-25 Foxbat. (Cue ominous music)
In the early 70s the Foxbat was the Boogie Man. It’s radar could see farther than any comparable American or NATO system, and the plane itself could accelerate, cruise, and climb faster, with greater range, than any fighter in the Free World. The CIA, much less the US Air Force, knew precious little about it, and what they did was only picked up from electronic hints by SR-71 Blackbird reconnaissance pilots trying to outrun its missiles.
Belenko was the training officer for a MIG-25P fighter squadron outside Vladivostok in eastern Siberia. As such, he was responsible for not only flight instruction but political indoctrination, which he considered a waste of precious time. He was a smart and practical man, and for several years, struggled with the cognitive dissonance inherent in a Communist society. The propaganda simply did not match reality. As a fighter pilot, he intimately knew the consequences of ignoring information that contradicts a perceived situation. But unlike most of his peers whom just became subdued cynics, Belenko turned skeptical of the entire system.
He was constantly bombarded by his commissars about “the greatness of the Soviet state and progressive society”, but he slowly noticed evidence to the contrary. His base conditions were horrible, and was called a “Bad Communist” for suggesting improvements to his men’s quarters. Due to a horribly inefficient and under funded maintenance system, he was routinely forced by his superiors to doctor training records, an act the commissars threatened with imprisonment. He found the entire system rife with corruption, and had to use his wife’s party connections to get anything done.
Belenko began to question everything. “If Communism worked, why did he, an elite fighter pilot, have to help with the harvest?”, “If America was backwards, why were their fighters so much better in Vietnam?” and, “If the West was falling apart why did they have so many more Nobel prize winners in science?” were just a few. Soon after his wife’s divorce due to their bleak existence in Siberia, Belenko reached the tipping point when he was presented with unmistakable proof of the commissars’ lies.
In June 1976, Belenko and his squadron were shown films of homelessness and poverty in American cities as affirmation of the failure of Capitalism. However, a closer analysis of the films’ backgrounds revealed stunning discoveries: he saw stores, but no massive queues. And they were lit with signs, and large windows that showcased huge varieties of goods. One film had a woman with bags of groceries with toilet paper poking out the top. (He “hadn’t used toilet paper in years”. He and his wife “cleaned themselves with old copies of the Pravda.”) Moreover, there were single houses completely at odds with the massive drab poorly maintained tenement block that he was forced to live in. Great swaths of Soviet society lived much worse than what he saw in the background of the propaganda films. The “‘Eureka!’ moment” came as cars drove past in all colors, shapes, and sizes. In a few frames passing by in a split second, he noticed “a Cadillac driven by a black man!”
The propagandists had said that African Americans were the most oppressed minority in the United States, but “how much worse must Communism be if a member of this oppressed minority can own a Cadillac, while I, an elite pilot high in the system, must wait for years on a list for a much smaller car?”
Belenko was convinced the propagandists were lying, and with no more ties to the USSR, decided to defect. Because the Soviets didn’t trust the pilots with a full tank of fuel for that very reason, he overstated his usage on a previous mission, and bribed his maintenance chief not to check. The next mission he received his allotment and with the prior overage, he figured he had enough to make the trip to Japan. Belenko smuggled operators and maintenance manuals into the cockpit, and hoped to buy his life in the West with his knowledge and his plane (the commissars told him the West tortured and killed prisoners).
On the afternoon of 6 September 1976, he broke formation, dove for the wave tops, slammed the plane into afterburner, and sped for Japan. Before his wingman could react, Belenko was gone.
He landed at Hakedate airport on the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido, with just 30 seconds of fuel left. Opening his cockpit, he fired two rounds in the air, and gave the startled white flag carrying Japanese officials a pre-written note asking for concealment of his plane, contact with American analysts, and asylum in the US (which he was eventually granted).
Belenko and his Foxbat were an intelligence windfall. The Air Force dissected the MIG-25 and found it to be far from the Boogie Man: it was a One Trick Pony. The Foxbat was the second fastest plane on the planet, but it was unmaneuverable, overly heavy, maintenance intensive, and extremely fragile. It was still a generation behind the contemporary the F-15 Eagle in all aspects but raw power.
Unfortunately, the Foxbat’s stay was much shorter than its pilot’s. The plane was ordered returned to the Soviets by President Jimmy Carter who wanted to increase goodwill with the Communists. The Air Force did exactly as the President ordered, but to their credit, with a bit of panache – the plane was completely disassembled down to individual bolts, and returned in thirty crates. Attached was a note that said:
“Dear Russian Bear, the US has everything we need anyway so here are the pieces to prove it. With best wishes, the Secretary of the Air Force.
PS: Nice plane, but nothing we need to keep.”
The passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the beginning of serious American involvement in Vietnam in 1965 began a new and more volatile phase in America’s Civil Rights Movement. The booming post war economy of the 50s and early 60s couldn’t keep up with the competing fiscal requirements of enforcement of the CRA, Johnson’s Great Society Programs, and the Cold War. A combination of Southern Democrats (for mostly racial reasons) and Northeastern Republicans (for mostly economic and political reasons) consistently steered money away from urban programs creating a widening economic gulf in America. In response to this, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, at the forefront of America’s Civil Rights Movement, organized the Poor People’s Campaign in late 1967 and early 1968, focusing on jobs and income for America’s urban poor.
As part of this campaign, Dr. King traveled to Memphis Tennessee in March 1968 to give support to the plight of black sanitation workers who received unequal pay and benefits compared to their white counterparts. Memphis was no stranger to Dr. King: he was there often and routinely stayed in the same hotel, even the same room. At 6pm on 4 April 1968, a gunman, James Earl Ray, took advantage of this situation. Ray shot and killed Dr. King as he stood on the 2nd floor balcony of his usual room in the Lorraine Hotel. Ray would escape, but would be captured in London two months later.
Later that evening, at a campaign stop in Indianapolis, Senator Robert Kennedy learned of Dr. King’s assassination. He had one last campaign speech to make that day but he tore up his remarks. During this impromptu address he gave one of the most memorable speeches in American history. He focused on Dr. King’s belief of non-violence and abhorrence of racial divisiveness. He concluded by saying,
“What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence or lawlessness, but love and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice towards those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or whether they be black.”
In 1962, the Geneva Accords declared Laos a neutral country in the fight for Vietnam. US and SEATO (South East Asia Treaty Organization, the Pacific’s NATO) pulled out immediately, but North Vietnam kept about 7000 troops in the north of the country to support the Pathet Lao, the Laotian Communist insurgents. Unwilling to accept the political costs of sending troops back into Laos, Kennedy and later Johnson supported the Royal Laotian government with cash, mercenaries, and covert support. The war in Laos became the purview of the CIA. The “Secret War in Laos” was the largest CIA covert operation of the Cold War until Afghanistan in the 80s.
In 1965, the monsoon disrupted US bombing campaigns against the Communists, specifically Operations Rolling Thunder in North Vietnam, Steel Tiger on the Ho Chi Minh Trail in the Laotian panhandle, and Barrel Roll against the Pathet Lao in northern Laos. So a navigational station was put on top of Phou Pha Thi, a jagged and steep mountain in the Hmong dominated area of Laos. The Hmong, like the Montagnards in Vietnam, were a tough mountain people who had been fighting Communists for a decade. A tactical navigational aid (TACAN) transponder was placed at Landing (Lima) Site 85 on the very top of Phou Pha Thi, a Hmong sacred mountain whose summit was thought to be impenetrable to anyone who hadn’t lived in the area their entire lives.
Lima Site 85 was just one of hundreds of landing sites for the CIA’s proprietary airline in Laos, Air America. Also, LS-85 was quickly discovered to be the perfect place for radar to cover the North Vietnamese heartland, and its height gave a straight shot to cover Hanoi and Haiphong, just 175 miles away to the east. The site was expanded but still small, just a landing pad, and three small buildings for commo, operations, and living quarters. However, the TSQ-81, a portable version of the venerable and reliable MSQ-77 radar, required a team of 12 US Air Force technicians to operate. This posed a problem: No US military personnel were allowed in the country. So the CIA “sheep-dipped” them. Sheep Dipping is the practice of asking for military volunteers for a covert mission, discharging them from the service, hiring them through a civilian company, in LS-85’s case Lockheed Aircraft Service Corp, and when the mission was over they releasing themd back into the service.
By the end of 1967, Lima Site 85 directed nearly a quarter of all US airstrikes in theater. The North Vietnamese knew of the site and in mid-1967 began a concerted effort to break into Hmong territory and seize Phou Pha Thi. By 1968, almost half of LS-85’s airstrikes were in support of Royal Laotian troops or CIA led Hmong militia. In January 1968, the first direct assault on LS-85 occurred when two North Vietnamese Antonov-2 Colt biplanes attempted to bomb the site. But the slow moving planes were shot down by Air America Huey crewmembers with small arms, a submachine gun in one case.
With the failure of their air attack, the North Vietnamese and Pathet Lao began ground operations against LS-85 in earnest. They were close enough to shell and rocket the site, but its position meant almost all of the incoming rounds either hit the side of the mountain or flew harmlessly overhead. Nonetheless, the indicators were ominous. The CIA brought in several companies of Hmong militia and a Thai Army infantry battalion that were under cover as “mercenaries” to defend the base of the mountain.
The Hmong were excellent guerrilla fighters but they were unsuited for a static defense against a deliberate attack by North Vietnamese regulars and a swarm of Pathet Lao. On 18 February 1968, a North Vietnamese officer was captured five miles south east of the site. On him were papers that indicated an imminent attack on the site by four battalions of the veteran 766th PAVN Regiment and one PL battalion, supported by a battalion of artillery. However, LS-85 was integral to the air campaign and would not be evacuated. The authority to evacuate rested solely with the American ambassador in the Laotian capital of Vientiane, and then only at the sole request of the Air Force. Furthermore, no more troops were brought in to defend the site as air power and the terrain were thought to be sufficient.
On 9 March, 1968, the Communists attacked. Despite massive American airstrikes, the North Vietnamese and Communist Laotians pushed the Hmong and Thai soldiers with their CIA commanders slowly up the mountain. Even during the attack, the Air Force did not want to request evacuation as the inclement weather in North Vietnam made the radar exceptionally valuable. But for the first time, they did issue the technicians M-16s, who up to this point had been unarmed because they were posing as civilians working for Lockheed. Only the senior NCO, CMSgt Richard Etchberger, knew how to competently operate the weapon. On 10 March, the fighting was dangerously close to the site, but even as late as 9pm the Air Force thought they could hold out. The ambassador authorized a dawn extraction by Air America for the technicians and the remaining Thai and Hmong soldiers. The CIA station chief immediately commented that it “was a day too late.”
The Air Force might have been correct, the Communists sustained significant casualties assaulting the mountain and looked to suspend attacks. But they were just waiting on their trump card – Communism is nothing if not dangerously seductive and a dozen local Hmong mountaineers volunteered to scale the northern cliff face to show their dedication to the cause. At 3 am on the morning of 11 March, the Hmong sappers attacked the compound from the rear. They killed several Air Force technicians in the barracks and surprised several more exiting the ops building fumbling with their weapons. The technicians weren’t ignorant of their precarious situation and knew they couldn’t rely on the ambassador and their own command for a timely evacuation. So they prepared ropes to rappel down the mountain to safety. The off-duty shift immediately did this, but the sappers killed them on the shelf below the cliff face. That any Americans survived the initial attack at all was due to Etchberg fighting from the commo building.
Upon hearing firing from the top of the mountain, the senior CIA commander, a former Green Beret Huey Marlow, took his Hmong radio man and trotted toward the site’s buildings. With his shotgun and some gratuitous close combat, he killed a sapper machine gun crew positioned to stop any counterattack from below, and scattered the remaining sappers. However, his missing presence from the fight at the base of the mountain was the final straw that broke the Hmong and Thai resistance from the unceasing Communist attacks.
After dawn Air America helicopters evacuated 8 of the 19 Americans on Lima Site 85, and as many Hmong and Thai soldiers as they could in four chaotic landing attempts. The last American brought off was the wounded TACAN technician Jack Starling, who had been playing dead underneath one of the buildings. At 9:46 am, nearly four hours after dawn and six after the sapper attack, an MH-53 Jolly Green Giant returned for him after a friend said he was probably still alive. Starling sprinted and jumped into the helicopter hovering off the cliff face while the door gunners returned fire against the multitude of Communists then at the site. Hollywood has nothing on reality.
Eight of the eleven remaining Americans were known to have been killed in the attack and three were initially thought captured. Later in the day, it was determined that they also were killed, and the Air Force bombed the hell out of the site to prevent the equipment from being analyzed by the Communists.
The surviving technicians of the Battle of Phou Pha Thi returned to Air Force service. Marlowe received an Intelligence Star for actions on the mountain during the night 10/11 March 1968. In 2003, a Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command expedition to Laos found the remains of one technician and the equipment of four more, whose bodies were thrown off the mountain by the North Vietnamese. CMSgt Etchberger’s widow (he was killed in the evacuation from ground fire that penetrated his helicopter’s floorboards) received a Medal of Honor from President Obama at a small White House ceremony in 2012.
The Fall of Lima Site 85 was a grievous blow to Operation Rolling Thunder. Without the TACAN and the radar, the bombing had to be severely curtailed during the monsoon season. Politically, ending the operation became more useful than any military effect it had when the monsoon arrived. President Johnson suspended Operation Rolling Thunder in May, 1968, and cancelled it completely in November.
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.