Reagan’s Moral Courage

Andrew Roberts
Author, A History of the English-Speaking Peoples Since 1900

Andrew Roberts received his Ph.D. at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, where he is also an honorary senior scholar. He has written or edited 12 books, including A History of the English-Speaking Peoples Since 1900Masters and Commanders: How Four Titans Won the War in the West, 1941-1945, and The Storm of War: A New History of the Second World War.

The following are excerpts from a speech delivered at Hillsdale College on October 7, 2011, at the dedication of a statue of Ronald Reagan by Hillsdale College Associate Professor of Art Anthony Frudakis.

The defining feature of Ronald Reagan was his moral courage. It takes tremendous moral courage to resist the overwhelming tide of received opinion and so-called expert wisdom and to say and do exactly the opposite. It could not have been pleasant for Reagan to be denounced as an ignorant cowboy, an extremist, a warmonger, a fascist, or worse by people who thought themselves intellectually superior to him. Yet Reagan responded to those brickbats with the cheery resolve that characterized not only the man, but his entire career. What is more, he proceeded during his two terms as president to prove his critics completely wrong . . . .

During Reagan’s presidency, America enjoyed its longest period of sustained economic growth in the 20th century. Meanwhile, in the realm of foreign policy, the Reagan Doctrine led to the defeat of the worst totalitarian scourge to blight the globe since the defeat of the Nazis in World War II. By the time he left office, the faith of Americans in the greatness of their country had been restored. In retrospect, Reagan’s was a great American success story. Born in rented rooms above a bank in Tampico, Illinois, he ended his days as the single most important American conservative figure of the last century. Not bad for an ignorant cowboy.

From his own reading and observation of life, Reagan understood that the doctrines of Marxism and Leninism were fundamentally opposed to the deepest and best impulses of human nature. Enforcing such doctrines would require vicious oppression, including propaganda, secret police such as the KGB, a debased and corrupt judicial system, huge standing armies stationed across Eastern Europe, children spying on their parents, the Berlin Wall, a gagged media, a shackled populace, a privileged nomenklatura, prisons posing as psychiatric hospitals, puppet trade unions, a subservient academy, and above all, what Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn dubbed a “gulag archipelago” of concentration camps. In sum, the entire apparatus that Reagan characterized so truthfully in a March 1983 speech as an “evil empire.” Yet he was immediately accused—not just in Russia, but also here in the West—of being mad, bad, and dangerous. He was written off as stupid, provocative, and oafish by huge swaths of the Western commentariat. Today, thanks to his published correspondence, we know that he was anything but. Indeed, he was very widely read and a thoughtful man, but it suited his purposes to be underestimated by his opponents. The cultural condescension of those experts and intellectuals who denounced his evil empire speech as unacceptably simplistic—even simple-minded—might have been despicable, but it worked to Reagan’s advantage. Although history was to prove him right in every particular about the true nature of the U.S.S.R., none of his critics have ever admitted as much, at least publicly, let alone apologized.

What helped to make Reagan great was that he couldn’t care less what his critics thought of him. He knew the image of the swaggering cowboy was very far removed from reality, but if his opponents chose to be mesmerized by it, all the better for him. It was he, not they, who in 1987 would stand at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin and demand: “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” The Left’s strategy of détente had been tried for 40 years, and it had led to ever wider Communist incursions, especially during the 1970s, into territories across Africa, Asia, and Latin America. The Reagan Doctrine, by contrast, marked a turn away from the doctrine of containment, adhered to by every president since Harry Truman. Reagan bravely declared that communism’s global march would not merely be checked but reversed.

For decades the Politburo in the Kremlin had been testing the West’s defenses, looking for weakness. Where it encountered strength and willpower, as during the Berlin airlift and the Cuban missile crisis, it pulled back. Where, as was all too often the case, it instead found vacillation and appeasement, it thrust forward until whole countries fell under its control. Under the Reagan Doctrine, non-Communist governments would be supported actively, and Communist governments, wherever they were not firmly established, would be undermined and if possible overthrown. Reagan did not act in the name of American imperialism, as his opponents predictably alleged, but rather in the name of human dignity. As he fought the Communists, he received gradually more and more support from the American people. He supported anti-Communist movements in Poland, El Salvador, and Guatemala, as well as open insurgencies in Afghanistan, Cambodia, Ethiopia, Laos, and Nicaragua. The Kremlin soon recognized that in Reagan it had a powerful and committed ideological foe on its hands, one who took seriously JFK’s words in his Inaugural Address, that the United States “shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, and oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and success of liberty.” Believing in American exceptionalism, Reagan deployed an extensive political, economic, military, and psychological arsenal to confront the Soviet Union. And he did so mostly through proxies: Except for the Caribbean island of Grenada, where American citizens were in danger, he did not commit American troops to the battle . . . .

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In the 1980s, Americans felt confident enough in their country’s future to spend, produce, and consume in a way they hadn’t under Jimmy Carter and don’t today. Reagan genuinely believed, as the 1984 campaign slogan put it, that it was “Morning in America.” His confidence in the country and its abilities spread to the American people and to the markets. After all, strong, confident leadership is infectious. There can be a virtuous cycle in economics, just as there can be a vicious one. Reagan’s Economic Recovery Act and his Tax Reform Act were the twin pillars of America’s renaissance in the 1980s. He reduced the highest marginal tax rate to 28 percent and simplified the tax code. He deregulated industry, tightened the money supply, and reduced the growth of public expenditure. By 1983, America had completely recovered economically, and by 1988, inflation, which had been at 12.5 percent under Carter, was down to 4.4 percent. Furthermore, unemployment came down to 5.5 percent as 18 million new jobs were created.

In one area, however, Reagan knew that he had to increase public spending dramatically, if the global threats to America were to be neutered. The overly cautious, nerve-wracked, and humiliated America of 1979 and 1980—when 52 American diplomats were taken hostage in Tehran for 444 days and were paraded, hooded and blindfolded, in the streets—was about to give way to a virile and self-confident America. It was no accident that, on the very day of Reagan’s inauguration, the Iranian regime released the hostages rather than face the fury of the incoming President. It was the last smart thing that regime ever did.

When Reagan entered office, defense spending had fallen to less than five percent of GDP from over 13 percent in the 1950s. His belief that the Soviet system would eventually crack under steady Western pressure encouraged him to increase defense spending from $119 billion under Carter to $273 billion in 1986, a level that the U.S.S.R. simply could not begin to match. The Left criticized what they believed to be wasteful spending, but this expenditure led to a massive savings once the U.S.S.R. no longer posed the global existential threat it once had.

America had achieved a huge technological advantage by the 1980s, which allowed Reagan to embark on the controversial Strategic Defense Initiative, nicknamed “Star Wars” by its opponents. The system was based on the idea that incoming ballistic missiles could be destroyed over the Atlantic or even earlier. Though the technology was still very much in its infancy, judicious leaking of suitably exaggerated test results further rattled the Soviet leadership. As Vladimir Lukin, the Soviet foreign policy expert and later ambassador to the U.S., admitted to the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in 1992: “It is clear that SDI accelerated our catastrophe by at least five years.” Besides SDI, Reagan pursued rapid deployment forces, the neutron bomb, the MX Peacekeeper missile, Trident nuclear submarines, radar-evading stealth bombers, and new ways of looking at battlefield strategies and tactics . . . . In response to the deployment of these weapons, the Left issued strident denunciations and organized massive anti-American demonstrations all across Europe. These were faced down with characteristic moral courage by Ronald Reagan, ably supported by Margaret Thatcher. “Reagan’s great virtue,” said his former Secretary of State George Shultz, “was that he did not accept that extensive political opposition doomed an attractive idea. He would fight resolutely for an idea, believing that if it was valid, he could persuade the American people to support it.”

. . . In the words of Margaret Thatcher, Reagan helped the world break free of a monstrous creed. He understood that, in addition to being morally bankrupt—as it had been since the Bolshevik Revolution—the Soviet system was also financially bankrupt. Numerous so-called five-year plans had not delivered, because human beings simply will not work hard for an all-powerful state that will not pay them fairly for their labor. By contrast, Reagan believed that low taxes, a minimal state, a reduction in bureaucratic regulation, and a commitment to free market economics would lead to a dramatic expansion of the American economy. This would enable America to pay for a defense build-up so large that the Soviets would have to declare a surrender in the Cold War. That surrender began on September 12, 1989, when a non-Communist government took office in Poland. Within two months, on the night of November 9, the people of East and West Berlin tore down the wall that had separated them for over a quarter of a century. This was the greatest of Reagan’s many fine legacies.

The extension of freedom to Eastern Europe was not merely a political or military or economic phenomenon for Reagan; it was a spiritual one, too. Reagan believed that America had lost its sense of providential mission, and he meant to re-establish it. Beneath his folksy charm and anecdotes was a steely will and a determination to re-establish the moral superiority of democracy over totalitarianism, of the individual over the state, of freedom of speech over censorship, of faith over government-mandated atheism, and of free enterprise over the command economy. As the leader of the free world, he saw it as his responsibility to defend, extend, and above all proselytize for democracy and human dignity.

Reagan understood leadership in a way that I fear is sadly lacking in the West today. “To grasp and hold a vision,” he said in 1994, “that is the very essence of successful leadership. Not only on the movie set where I learned it, but everywhere.” Indeed, in some ways the world is an even more perilous place than it was in Reagan’s day. For all its undoubted evil, at least the Soviet Union was predictable, and it was fearful of the consequences of mutually assured destruction. By contrast, President Ahmadinejad of Iran is building a nuclear bomb while publicly calling for Israel to be wiped off the map. We know from the experience of 9/11 that Al Qaeda and its affiliates would not hesitate to explode a nuclear device in America if they got the chance. As the IRA pronounced when it narrowly missed murdering Margaret Thatcher in 1984: “You have to be lucky every time, we only have to be lucky once.” Yet, when looking at the dangers facing civilization today, there is this one vital difference from 30 years ago: I can see no leaders of the stamp of Ronald Reagan or Margaret Thatcher presently on hand to infuse us with that iron purpose and that sense of optimism that we had in the 1980s. Indeed, some of our present-day leaders only seem to make matters worse. This is why it is all the more important to erect splendid statues like this one. “The longer you can look back,” said Winston Churchill, “the further you can look forward.”

The point of raising a statue to Ronald Reagan is not just to honor him, although it rightly does do that. A statue inspires and encourages the rest of us to try and emulate his deeds, to live up to his ideals, to finish his work, and to “grasp and hold” his vision. Reagan wrote in his farewell message to the American people in November 1994 announcing his retirement from public life: “When the Lord calls me home, I will leave with the greatest love for this country of ours and eternal optimism for its future. I now begin the journey that will lead me into the sunset of my life. I know that for America, there will always be a bright dawn ahead.” Though characteristically upbeat, it will only remain true so long as America continues to produce leaders with the moral courage and the leadership abilities of Ronald Reagan, one of America’s greatest presidents.