Reagan: On the right side of history

The long-expected death of Ronald Reagan is not just the passing of a president; it is also the passing of an era, or rather, a farewell to an era long past– an era of great historical change, and of special personal significance to me.

I came to the United States in 1980, a few months before Reagan was elected president, as an emigre from the Soviet Union. My first eight years were the Reagan years– in my new homeland and, in some sense, in my former homeland as well.

Even in the first days of mourning, the Reagan legacy was already the subject of often heated debate. Did his presidency usher in "morning in America" or a dark night of selfishness and greed? Did he win the Cold War or just happen to preside over its end?

Even among Reagan admirers, different factions– the social conservatives and the libertarians– are disputing his legacy amongst themselves.

Respect should not equal hagiography. Certainly, there are things to criticize in Reagan's record, such as his failure to speak out on the then-emergent AIDS epidemic– surely a failure of moral leadership, though it's absurd to blame it, as some do, for the lack of success in halting the disease. When Reagan was in the White House, I disagreed with him on plenty of issues, such as abortion. But had I been able to vote in 1984 (I was not yet a U.S. citizen), I would have voted for Reagan– if only because, to me, he was the man who spoke the truth about communism.

In March 1983, when I was a student at a community college in New Jersey, Reagan gave a now-famous speech in which he referred to the Soviet Union as "an evil empire." One of my classmates, an older woman active in various left-of-center causes, clucked in disapproval and said to me sympathetically, "You must have been so offended– after all, he was talking about your native country!"

I felt like saying, "Why do you think I left, you dunderhead?" (though my actual response was more diplomatic). My classmate was shocked to learn that my own reaction to the speech was, "Finally, someone gets it!"

At the time, Reagan's "red-baiting" and "bellicose" rhetoric, as it was branded in the press, elicited widespread disapproval from the pundits. Malcolm Toon, U.S. Ambassador in Moscow from 1976 to 1979, deplored "the awful 'evil empire' speech." Then-New Republic editor Hendrik Hertzberg told The Washington Post that "words like that frighten the American public and antagonize the Soviets," condemning the speech as "not presidential."

"Primitive: that is the only word for it," sniffed then-New York Times columnist Anthony Lewis. "What is the world to think when the greatest of powers is led by a man who applies to the most difficult human problem a simplistic theology . . . ?"

But those "simplistic" words resonated with many on the other side of the Iron Curtain, where Reagan's comments were reported by official propaganda as an example of horrific warmongering and seen by quite a few people as long-overdue truth-telling.

In the early years of glasnost, when the Soviet authorities under Mikhail Gorbachev began to permit political protest, I was struck by a photo I saw in a newspaper: a demonstrator in front of KGB headquarters in Moscow holding up a sign that said, in Russian, "It is the Evil Empire!"

The collapse of communism was brought about by many factors. The internal rot of an inherently unviable system certainly had something to do with it, though the economic pressure caused by Reagan's much-maligned military buildup may well have precipitated the decline.

But one should not underestimate the importance of rhetoric, either. Reagan confidently said that communism was destined for the "trash heap of history." It ended up on that trash heap sooner than anyone, including Reagan himself, might have expected.

Nothing in politics or history is ever black and white. Reagan's anticommunism led him into alliances with some pretty bad guys, including Latin American military dictators. Yet even Luis Hernandez, who fled a U.S.-backed, right-wing regime in El Salvador and is now director of economic development at the Association of Salvadorans in Los Angeles, told the Associated Press that while he disapproved of many of Reagan's methods, he thought that Reagan "helped in that way, trying to stop the expansion of communism in our countries."

When it came to the issue of communism and human liberty, Reagan was ultimately on the right side of history. He was also wise enough to recognize when history began to change.

Cathy Young is a contributing editor at Reason magazine and a columnist at The Boston Globe, which is where this essay first appeared.