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 . . . .