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January 2012 - Volume 18, Number 1


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Ronald Reagan's Moral Courage

by Andrew Roberts

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. Yet Reagan responded to those brickbats with the cheery resolve that characterized not only the man, but his entire career. 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. 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. Reagan’s was a great American success story. He ended his days as the single most important American conservative figure of the last century. Not bad for an ignorant cowboy.


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, a corrupt judicial system, huge standing armies, children spying on their parents, the Berlin Wall, a gagged media, a shackled populace, a privileged nomenklatura, 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. Today, thanks to his published correspondence, we know that he was anything but.


Reagan 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 — 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.


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 marked a turn away from the doctrine of containment. Reagan bravely declared that communism’s march would not merely be checked but reversed. Non-Communist governments would be supported actively, and Communist governments would be undermined and if possible overthrown.


Reagan did not act in the name of American imperialism, as his opponents alleged, but rather in the name of human dignity. As he fought the Communists, he received more and more support from the American people.


The Kremlin soon recognized that in Reagan it had a powerful and committed 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.


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 — gave 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.


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. 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.


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 that it was “Morning in America.” His confidence in the country and its abilities spread to the American people and to the markets. 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. Unemployment came down to 5.5 percent as 18 million new jobs were created.


Beneath Reagan’s 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 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. 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 would not hesitate to explode a nuclear device in America.


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.


Indeed, some of our present-day leaders only seem to make matters worse. Reagan wrote in his 1994 farewell message to the American people: “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 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.


Reprinted by permission from Imprimis, a publication of Hillsdale College.


Andrew Roberts received his Ph.D. at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge. He wrote A History of the English-Speaking Peoples Since 1900, Masters 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.

FACTS & OPINIONS is one of our quarterly membership newsletters, arriving in January, April, July, and October. It consists of short articles of public interest with an emphasis on current issues.


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