Evil Empire

evil empire

The evil empire is a term which was used by the US president Ronald Reagan to describe the Soviet Empire in 1983, which consisted of the republics of the Soviet Union and the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance (Comecon). Members of this council were satellite states, which where formally independent, but were steered by the Soviet Union with military pressure, if they considered it as necessary. Reagan, took an aggressive, hard-line stance that favored matching and exceeding the Soviet Union’s strategic and global military capabilities, in calling for a rollback strategy that would, in his words, write the final pages of the history of the Soviet Union. The characterization demeaned the Soviet Union and angered Soviet leaders; it represented the rhetorical side of the escalation of the Cold War.

Reagan’s chief speechwriter at the time, Anthony R. Dolan, reportedly coined the phrase for Reagan’s use. Some sources incorrectly refer to a 1982 speech before the British House of Commons as the ‘Evil Empire’ speech, but while Reagan referred twice to totalitarianism in his London speech, the exact phrase ‘evil empire’ did not appear in any speech until later in his Presidency. Rather, the phrase ‘ash heap of history’ appeared in this speech, used by Reagan to predict what he saw as the inevitable failure and collapse of global communism. Ironically, this latter phrase was coined by Bolshevik revolutionary Leon Trotsky in 1917, using it against his opponents (the Mensheviks) and suggesting that communism was the future; the irony may not have been lost on Reagan’s speech writers.

In the famed speech, Reagan proposed to continue the endless war between good and evil. He emphasized a nuclear freeze required the participation of both sides. If only the US reduced their nuclear weapons, he argued it ‘would be a very dangerous fraud, for that is merely the illusion of peace.’ Reagan’s philosophy has been called ‘peace through strength,’ which has become a conservative slogan.

‘So, in your discussions of the nuclear freeze proposals, I urge you to beware 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 call the arms race a giant misunderstanding and thereby remove yourself from the struggle between right and wrong and good and evil. … They preach the supremacy of the state, declare its omnipotence over individual man and predict its eventual domination of all peoples on the Earth. They are the focus of evil in the modern world.’

In the ‘evil empire’ speech, which also dealt with domestic issues, Reagan made the case for deploying NATO nuclear armed missiles in Western Europe as a response to the Soviets installing new nuclear armed missiles in Eastern Europe. Eventually, the NATO missiles were set up and used as bargaining chips in arms talks with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, who took office in 1985. In 1987, Reagan and Gorbachev agreed to go farther than a nuclear freeze. In an atomic age first, they agreed to reduce nuclear arsenals. Intermediate- and shorter-range nuclear missiles were eliminated.

The Soviet Union, for its part, alleged that the United States was an imperialist superpower seeking to dominate the entire world, and that the Soviet Union was fighting against it in the name of humanity. In Moscow, the Soviet press agency TASS said the ‘evil empire’ words demonstrated that the Reagan administration ‘can think only in terms of confrontation and bellicose, lunatic anti-communism.’

During his second term in office, in 1988, more than five years after using the term, Reagan visited the new reformist General Secretary of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev in Moscow. When asked by a reporter whether he still thought the Soviet Union was an ‘evil empire,’ Reagan responded that he no longer did, and that when he used the term it was a ‘different era’; that is, the period before Gorbachev’s perestroika and glasnost reforms. Still, Reagan remained a critic of the Soviet regime for its absence of democratic institutions.

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