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East/West: Analysis From Washington -- The Man Who Called The Empire Evil

Washington, 6 February 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Today (6 February) is the 90th birthday of former U.S. President Ronald Reagan, whose actions and words played a key role in the destruction of communism, the end of Soviet dominance in Eastern Europe, and ultimately in the demise of the Soviet Union itself.

Reagan came to office in 1981, a time when communism and the Soviet Union appeared to be advancing. The United States had left Vietnam, The Soviets had invaded Afghanistan. An anti-American revolution in Iran had resulted in the seizure of the U.S. embassy and its personnel in Tehran. And many analysts East and West suggested that communism was on the march and American values in retreat.

But when Reagan left office eight years later, things were very different. Moscow had withdrawn its forces from Afghanistan. The Iranian revolution appeared increasingly marginalized in international affairs. Soviet control over Eastern Europe was slipping and would soon be lost. And democratic and national independence movements were growing in the Soviet Union itself.

No one individual was responsible for all of that, but Reagan did perhaps more than anyone else to turn the tide. His infectious optimism about the American system of democracy and economic freedom, his fundamental understanding of the real state of the Soviet Union and its satellites, and his undoubted willingness to challenge Moscow all contributed to the creation of the post-communist world of today.

Throughout his life, Reagan has been noted for his optimism and confidence in the future of freedom, political and economic. At a time when his predecessor Jimmy Carter had spoken of "a malaise" among Americans, Reagan said it was "morning again in America." And that shift in attitude of the president affected the attitude of Americans and others as well.

Having regained their own self-confidence, Americans began to act as if the future would bring only better news, and along with Reagan, they worked to produce it. The path was far from smooth, and Reagan's own policies often drew serious criticism as in the Iran-Contra case, which involved the attempted exchange of arms for hostages. But he changed the tone and with that change came other changes as well.

Even more important for the fate of communism than Reagan's optimism, however, was his understanding of the communist system. At a time when many in the West accepted Moscow's self-descriptions as reality, Reagan understood and said that the communist system was both economically weak and morally evil. In any open competition, Reagan insisted, communism could not defeat freedom.

Reagan's understanding was communicated in many ways but perhaps nowhere more critically than in his description of the Soviet Union as "the evil empire." This phrase, taken from the movie "Star Wars," had a double effect, far greater than even its author may have expected at least at first.

On the one hand, it had the effect of refocusing attention on the moral dimension of international affairs, on the need to fight a system that was so clearly "evil" in its effects if not in its announced intentions. And on the other hand, by calling the Soviet Union an "empire," Reagan invited both its subjects and Americans to see it as a candidate for decolonization and dismemberment.

Reagan understood that words matter, and because his were spoken with optimism rather than anger, they stirred both halves of a continent to action, a trend only reinforced by Reagan's call to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to "tear down" the wall physically dividing Berlin and symbolically dividing the world.

And Reagan backed up these words with a willingness to take on Moscow around the world as John F. Kennedy had promised the United States would do a generation earlier. Under Reagan, the U.S. supported anti-Soviet guerillas in Afghanistan. It strengthened NATO. And it announced plans for a strategic defense initiative which even its critics acknowledged transformed the arms control debate.

Not every one of these policies was without problems, as even Reagan's most ardent supporters have admitted, but together they meant that a system whose leader once promised to be the gravedigger of Western democracy and freedom would itself be buried thanks to the rise of the ideas that President Reagan did so much to promote.