Grounded Optimism – Ronald Reagan

Exactly 41 years ago today, June 8, 1983, Ronald Reagan spoke to the British parliament. He was confident, compelling, and confirmed a common vision – shared by then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher – about the world. Soviet Communism was destined for the “ash heap of history.” Their grounded confidence helped make it happen. Seven years later, the Berlin Wall fell.

Began Reagan, with humility and humor: “This moment occupies a special place in my heart and in the hearts of my countrymen, a moment of kinship … Mrs. Thatcher hoped I was not distressed to find staring down at me … a portrait of George III” and “suggested best to let bygones be bygones…” She said many would “agree with Thomas Jefferson that ‘a little rebellion now and then is a very good thing.’  Conservatives … had just won power.

Reagan continued, said he was headed for West Berlin. “A few hundred kilometers behind the Berlin Wall, there is …another symbol. In the center of Warsaw, there is a sign … In one direction … Moscow, in the other … Brussels, headquarters of Western Europe’s tangible unity. The marker says that the distances … are equal. The sign makes this point: Poland is not East or West” but “the center of European civilization” and “magnificently unreconciled to oppression.”

Reagan spoke about freedom’s power, Poland’s Solidarity movement, Mankind’s quest for liberty. Solidarity, in time, would cripple the Soviet grip on the Eastern Europe.

Today, Taiwan is twice the distance to Beijing of Warsaw to Moscow, and draws support from America, Europe. Japan, Australia and the Philippines. Like Cold War Poland, Taiwan is “magnificently unreconciled to oppression.”

Reagan focused. What Poland wanted was freedom from oppression. “We dare not take those rights for granted,” since the 20th Century was “plagued by a terrible political invention – totalitarianism.”

A realist, Reagan said: “Optimism comes less easily today, not because democracy is less vigorous but because democracy’s enemies have refined their instruments of repression.”

An idealist, he doubled back: “Yet optimism is in order, because day by day democracy is proving itself to be a not-at-all-fragile flower … Regimes planted by totalitarianism have had more than 30 years to establish their legitimacy, but none – not one regime – has yet been able to risk free elections.”

He told Americas allies: “There are threats now to our freedom, indeed to our very existence, that other generations could never even have imagined … global war… the enormous power of the modern state.”

“History teaches the dangers of government that overreaches — political control taking precedence over free economic growth, secret police, mindless bureaucracy… combining to stifle individual excellence and personal freedom.”

“If history teaches anything, it teaches self-delusion in the face of unpleasant facts is folly. We see around us today … totalitarian forces … who seek subversion and conflict … a barbarous assault on the human spirit.”

Reagan asks the question: “Must freedom wither in a quiet, deadening accommodation with totalitarian evil?” Answer: No. “Our mission” is “to preserve freedom as well as peace … we live now at a turning point.”

Reagan recognized Communism “runs against the tide of history by denying human freedom and human dignity to its citizens,” the Soviet Union faced a reckoning, economic and political, had become “unable to feed its own people.”

Since 2004, China – on a military binge like the former Soviets, has likewise become a net importer of food, unable to feed itself.

Reagan saw a world increasingly unwilling to “subordinate the rights of the individual to the superstate, the realization that collectivism stifles all the best human impulses,” insisting on self-determination.

“Even in the Communist world … man’s instinctive desire for freedom and self-determination surfaces again and again” despite constant repression. He meant Soviet, but lived to see China’s brutality at Tiananmen in 1989.

His guidance: “We must take actions to assist the campaign for democracy,” not look away, not fail to lead. The fight was worthy and winnable.

“Any system is inherently unstable that has no peaceful means to legitimize its leaders,” and “repressiveness … drives people to resist it.”

Reagan noted: “While must be cautious about forcing the pace of change, we must not hesitate to declare our ultimate objectives and to take concrete actions,” including a “staunch… conviction that freedom is not the sole prerogative of a lucky few, but the inalienable and universal right of all human beings.”

He ended here: “I don’t wish to sound overly optimistic,” but “the march of freedom and democracy … will leave Marxism-Leninism on the ash-heap of history as it has left other tyrannies which stifle the freedom and muzzle self-expression …”

“Our military strength is a prerequisite to peace, but let it be clear we maintain this strength in the hope it will never be used … The ultimate determinant in the struggle … will not be bombs and rockets but a test of wills and ideas, a trial of spiritual resolve, the values we hold, the beliefs we cherish, the ideals to which we are dedicated.”

From 41 years ago today, Reagan’s words resonate. They fit communist China as easily as Soviet Russia. The key is to prepare for the “test of wills and ideas, a trial of spiritual resolve,” defending “the values we hold, the beliefs we cherish, the ideals to which we are dedicated.” If we can do that, we will be fine.

Robert Charles is a former Assistant Secretary of State under Colin Powell, former Reagan and Bush 41 White House staffer, attorney, and naval intelligence officer (USNR). He wrote “Narcotics and Terrorism” (2003), “Eagles and Evergreens” (2018), and is National Spokesman2 for AMAC.

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