15. Editorial Note
On March 8, 1983, President Ronald Reagan delivered an address to the National Association of Evangelicals at their national convention in Orlando, Florida, in which he referred to the Soviet Union as an “evil empire.” While most of the speech dealt with domestic and spiritual issues, the section on the Soviet Union and the nuclear freeze movement has received the most historical attention. In his diary on March 8, Reagan wrote: “My speech was well received—3 standing ovations during the speech. I talked of parents rights (squeal rule) abortion, school prayer and our need for a strong defense.” (Brinkley, ed., The Reagan Diaries, volume I, January 1981–October 1985, page 203)
White House Speechwriter Anthony Dolan drafted the speech. On March 4, Sven Kraemer of the NSC Staff received a draft of the speech [Page 54] for his review. In a memorandum to Richard Boverie, Kraemer noted: “The great bulk of the speech deals with domestic issues involving church, state and spiritual values. I have made no comments on those aspects.
“Beginning on page 12, there is a strongly worded characterization of the Soviet ideology and of Soviet practices. All the statements made are true and need to be said, but I believe senior NSC levels will need to review their tone.
“I have proposed a number of revisions for pages 13 through 15 in order to make clear the high ground of the Administration’s arms reductions proposals and to soften the direct attack on the entire freeze movement.
“At the end of the afternoon I passed my revisions on informally to Tony Dolan with a note indicating the revisions have no official NSC status at this time.” (Reagan Library, Sven Kraemer Files, March 1983, Chron File: [No. 12–13]) Kraemer’s focus was on arms control and national security, not on ideology or the “evil empire” remark. In fact, he made other edits to the sentence containing the “evil empire” phrase, but did not note anything about this language. Most of Kraemer’s revisions were incorporated into the speech.
In the defense section toward the end of the speech, Reagan stated: “And this brings me to my final point today. During my first press conference as President, in answer to a direct question, I pointed out that, as good Marxist-Leninists, the Soviet leaders have openly and publicly declared that the only morality they recognize is that which will further their cause, which is world revolution. I think I should point out I was only quoting Lenin, their guiding spirit, who said in 1920 that they repudiate all morality that proceeds from supernatural ideas—that’s their name for religion—or ideas that are outside class conceptions. Morality is entirely subordinate to the interests of class war. And everything is moral that is necessary for the annihilation of the old, exploiting social order and for uniting the proletariat.
“Well, I think the refusal of many influential people to accept this elementary fact of Soviet doctrine illustrates an historical reluctance to see totalitarian powers for what they are. We saw this phenomenon in the 1930’s. We see it too often today.
“This doesn’t mean we should isolate ourselves and refuse to seek an understanding with them. I intend to do everything I can to persuade them of our peaceful intent, to remind them that it was the West that refused to use its nuclear monopoly in the forties and fifties for territorial gain and which now proposes 50-percent cut in strategic ballistic missiles and the elimination of an entire class of land-based, intermediate-range nuclear missiles.[Page 55]
“At the same time, however, they must be made to understand we will never compromise our principles and standards. We will never give away our freedom. We will never abandon our belief in God. And we will never stop searching for a genuine peace. But we can assure none of these things America stands for through the so called nuclear freeze solutions proposed by some.
“The truth is that a freeze now would be a very dangerous fraud, for that is merely the illusion of peace. The reality is that we must find peace through strength.
“I would agree to a freeze if only we could freeze the Soviets’ global desires. A freeze at current levels of weapons would remove any incentive for the Soviets to negotiate seriously in Geneva and virtually end our chances to achieve the major arms reductions which we have proposed. Instead, they would achieve their objectives through the freeze.
“A freeze would reward the Soviet Union for its enormous and unparalleled military buildup. It would prevent the essential and long overdue modernization of United States and allied defenses and would leave our aging forces increasingly vulnerable. And an honest freeze would require extensive prior negotiations on the systems and numbers to be limited and on the measures to ensure effective verification and compliance. And the kind of a freeze that has been suggested would be virtually impossible to verify. Such a major effort would divert us completely from our current negotiations on achieving substantial reductions.”
After recounting the story of a speech he had heard years ago about communism, Reagan continued: “So, I urge you to speak out against those who would place the United States in a position of military and moral inferiority. You know, I’ve always believed that old Screwtape reserved his best efforts for those of you in the church. 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.
“I ask you to resist the attempts of those who would have you withhold your support for our efforts, this administration’s efforts, to keep America strong and free, while we negotiate real and verifiable reductions in the world’s nuclear arsenals and one day, with God’s help, their total elimination.” (Public Papers: Reagan, 1983, Book I, pages 362–364)
In his memoir, Shultz commented on the reaction to this speech: “The ‘evil empire’ phrase would take on a life of its own. Calling the [Page 56] Soviet Union an ‘evil empire’ transformed this into a major speech, even though it had not been planned or developed through any careful or systematic process. No doubt Soviet leaders were offended, and many of our friends were alarmed. How conscious of the implications of their words the president and his speechwriters were, I do not know. Whether or not he was wise to use this phrase to describe the Soviet Union, it was in fact an empire and evil abounded.” (Shultz, Turmoil and Triumph, page 267)
Soviet Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin wrote in his memoir: “What seemed most difficult for us to fathom were Reagan’s vehement public attacks on the Soviet Union while he was secretly sending—orally or though his private letters—quite different signals seeking more normal relations. On March 8, less than a month after our first White House conversation [see Documents 10 and 11] when he seemed to be trying to open a working relationship with the Soviet leadership, he publicly described the Soviet Union, in a phrase both memorable and notorious, as the evil empire.” He continued: “The speech was not designed to be a history-making event in foreign policy, and according to Shultz no one outside the White House, including him, had a chance to review the text in advance, but the phrase quickly spread throughout the world.” (Dobrynin, In Confidence, pages 526–527)
Sergei Tarasenko, who was an adviser in the Soviet Ministry of Foreign Affairs, however, noted: “At the Foreign Ministry, we were quite indifferent to this remark because we understood that it was normal. If you look at the relationship between the United States and the Soviet Union, it was normal for our leaders to exchange rather unflattering remarks about each other. We called you names; you called us names. It was part of the game. If you look at our propaganda, we used awful names—imperialist, capitalist, and the nest of all this evil—so for us, it was nothing. I barely noticed it.” (Strober and Strober, Reagan: The Man and His Presidency, page 228)
Jack Matlock, who in March 1983 was Chargé d’Affaires at the U.S. Embassy in Prague, but in July 1983 returned to Washington as Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for European and Soviet Affairs in the NSC Staff said of the speech: “It amazed me that people got so upset. You could say, ‘This isn’t tactful or diplomatic, but it’s true. They did lie and cheat, and if you don’t recognize that to start with, people are much more apt to think you don’t understand them.’
“Actually, as it turned out, it was a brilliant stroke, because later, when he was asked about it, when they were changing, he could say, ‘Yes, they were, but that was another time, another place.’ It in effect legitimized the changes in the Soviet Union, so when Reagan finally turned up in Red Square [in May 1988], kissing babies and saying, ‘You’re on the right track,’ it had an enormous impact.” (Strober and Strober, Reagan: The Man and His Presidency, page 229)[Page 57]
For more on Reagan’s address to the National Association of Evangelicals, see Foreign Relations, 1981–1988, volume I, Foundations of Foreign Policy, Document 143.