It seems fitting -- as we learn that not just retired Russian spies are being poisoned but their daughters as well -- to point out that March 8 is the 35th anniversary of Ronald Reagan’s “evil empire” speech. The latest attack, apparently with a rare nerve agent, targeted former Russian double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia. They were found in a peaceful park in the southern English city of Salisbury and are in critical condition as of this writing.
This is the latest in a series of such malevolent machinations on British soil, which has taken the lives of numerous enemies of Vladimir Putin. Until now, authorities in the U.K. haven’t seemed too eager to even investigate these assassinations, let alone castigate the most obvious culprit. But something has changed this time, perhaps because Skripal’s 33-year-old daughter was targeted or maybe because a British first responder is in the hospital himself.
“No attempt to take innocent life on UK soil will go either unsanctioned or unpunished,” vowed British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, who accused Moscow of undermining “the fundamental basis of international order.”
Sadly, these developments make clear that Reagan's 1983 address is relevant again. He was the headliner that March day at the annual conference of the National Association of Evangelicals, held in Orlando. Reagan warmed to his theme slowly, prefacing it with ruminations about his own religious faith and the animating beliefs of America’s Founders. To do this, the president and his speechwriters provided the requisite out-of-context reflections of Thomas Jefferson and William Penn (as well as an absurd and invented Alexis de Tocqueville quote later employed frequently by Bill Clinton), along with a denunciation of Roe v. Wade.
The only passages of Reagan’s speech remembered today had nothing to do with any of that.
In prefacing his central point, Reagan took aim at the “nuclear freeze” movement then sweeping the West. His objections were two-fold. First, he characterized it as counterproductive. By creating false hopes, it was undermining his strategy to eventually effectuate deep reductions in the nuclear arsenals of the world’s two superpowers.
More importantly, in Reagan’s telling, the freeze movement was based on a false moral equivalency between the United States and its main Cold War adversary. Reagan rejected that construct. In his speech to the evangelicals, he referred to the Soviet Union as “the focus of evil in the modern world.” He then made news -- and history -- with this passage:
“So in your discussions of the nuclear freeze proposals, I urge you to beware of the temptation of pride -- the temptation of blithely declaring 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 remove yourself from the struggle between right and wrong and good and evil.”
This was the second time Reagan had used that language as president. Nine months earlier, while appearing before members of Parliament at the Palace of Westminster, Reagan outlined his vision of the status of the Cold War. The Soviet Union and the bloc of nations under its control, he said, were in the throes of “a revolutionary crisis” within their own borders. Their system, he added, was nearly bankrupt.
“It is the Soviet Union that runs against the tide of human history in denying human freedom and human dignity to its citizens,” Reagan proclaimed. “It is also in deep economic difficulty.”
Reagan rhetorically tossed back at the Soviets the infamous Leon Trotsky boast, by proclaiming that he believed “freedom and democracy will leave Marxism and Leninism on the ash heap of history.” This was not “containment” Reagan was discussing in his June 8, 1982 speech to Parliament, but ultimate triumph over Soviet-style communism. The victory of good over evil.
To intellectual elites on both sides of the Atlantic, Reagan’s formulation seemed simplistic back then. To the British police officers and bystanders who witnessed the results of a nerve gas attack in Salisbury this week, and to a government finally coming to terms with the implications of a modern Russia controlled by a former KGB colonel, well, sometimes the lines between good and evil are pretty clear.