President Reagan’s Evil Empire Speech, often credited with hastening the end of Soviet totalitarianism, almost didn’t happen.
According to presidential papers obtained by The Morning Call, Reagan was thwarted on at least one earlier occasion from using the same blunt, anti-communist phrases he spoke from the bully pulpit 17 years ago this week.
And former Reagan aides now say it was their furtive effort in the winter of 1983 that slipped the boldest of words past a timid bureaucracy.
With clever calculation, the Evil Empire Speech eluded U.S. censors to score a direct hit on the Soviet Union.
“It was the stealth speech,” said one Reagan aide.
In the spring of 1982, the president felt the reins on his rhetoric. The first draft of his address to the British Parliament labeled the Soviet Union the world’s “focus of evil.” He liked the text. But Parliament never heard those words.
U.S. diplomats and cautious Reagan advisers sanitized the text of the speech, removing its harshest terms, according to documents from the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, Calif.
But nine months later, Reagan spoke in Orlando, Fla., and delivered many of the passages deleted from the London address. His Orlando speech is known as the Evil Empire Speech.
The speech alarmed moderates of the West, delighted millions living under Soviet oppression and set off a global chain reaction that many believe led inexorably to the fall of the Berlin Wall and to freedom for most of Eastern Europe.
The Reagan Library papers provide fascinating insights into the drafting of what may have been the most important presidential statement of the Cold War. They also reveal that, despite the unremitting influences on him, the president himself decided what he would say.
“Let us be aware that while they preach the supremacy of the state, declare its omnipotence over individual man, predict its eventual domination of all peoples of the Earth, they are the focus of evil in the modern world,” Reagan told the National Association of Evangelicals on March 8, 1983.
An audience of 1,200 was first to hear the words “focus of evil” in the Citrus Crown Ballroom at the Sheraton Twin Towers Hotel in Orlando.
And other phrases slashed from the Parliament speech were resurrected in the Evil Empire Speech.
» The 1982 first draft said, “Those cliches of conquest we have heard so often from the East are … part of a sad, bizarre, dreadfully evil episode in history, but an episode that is dying, a chapter whose last pages even now are being written.” The sentence was censored in London, but in Orlando Reagan said, “I believe that Communism is another sad, bizarre chapter in human history whose last pages even now are being written.”
» The London first draft included the words of the late British novelist C.S. Lewis: “The greatest evil is not in those sordid dens of crime that Dickens loved to paint. … It is conceived and ordered … in clean, carpeted, warmed and well-lighted offices, by quiet men.” The words were held until Orlando.
» The British were to be told that appeasement is “the betrayal of our past, the squandering of our freedom.” The phrase was cut. In Orlando then, Reagan said, “But if history teaches anything, it teaches: simple-minded appeasement or wishful thinking about our adversaries is folly — it means the betrayal of our past, the squandering of our freedom.”
» Also eliminated from the London speech was the reference to the Soviet Union as a “militaristic empire” whose ideology justifies any wrongdoing. In the Evil Empire Speech, the empire concept returned in a more powerful form.
Anthony R. Dolan, Reagan’s chief speechwriter at the time, said he doesn’t remember exactly which excised parts of the Parliament speech, often called the Westminster Address, resurfaced in the Evil Empire Speech. But he said it wasn’t unusual for a White House writer to try the same words twice.
“You mean, was I recycling? Yes,” Dolan said in a phone interview. “Sure, we did that all the time.”
Dolan, now a Washington, D.C., consultant to Republican politicians, was principal author of both the Westminster Address and the Evil Empire Speech, but he doesn’t claim either speech as his own.
“They’re the president’s phrases,” he said of the Evil Empire Speech. “I wrote a draft. The president gave a speech.”
But Dolan did write the paragraph that gave the Evil Empire Speech its name. In it, Reagan called on the evangelical ministers to oppose a “nuclear freeze,” which would have prevented deployment of nuclear-tipped missiles in Western Europe to counter Soviet missiles in Eastern Europe.
The “evil empire” paragraph was never part of the Westminster Address. But in the 32-minute Orlando speech, it was the centerpiece. It was the longest sentence — so long that, on the day of the speech, only one television network, CBS, let viewers hear all 72 words:
“So in your discussions of the nuclear freeze proposals I urge you to beware the temptation of pride — the temptation to blithely declare yourselves above it all and label both sides equally at fault, to ignore the facts of history and the aggressive impulses of an evil empire, to simply call the arms race a giant misunderstanding and thereby remove yourself from the struggle between right and wrong and good and evil.”
Energized by a sentence that wrapped the entire Cold War around two radioactive words, the Evil Empire Speech defined the Reagan presidency. The words are forever linked to the man, who today is suffering from advanced Alzheimer’s Disease at his home in Bel-Air, Calif.
And as the Reagan papers show and former Reagan aides confirm, the speech was the climax of a continuing debate, in and outside the White House, about how the president should talk about the Soviet Union.
At his first news conference on Jan. 29, 1981, Reagan said of Soviet leaders, “They reserve unto themselves the right to commit any crime; to lie; to cheat.” There was ample evidence of Soviet misdeeds then, but Reagan’s critics accused him of choosing fighting words when the world’s other superpower deserved a respectful tone.
By 1982, as Reagan prepared for a trip to Europe, the White House staff was divided over how he should approach East-West relations in the speech before Parliament. Various speechwriters submitted proposals.
But Reagan was not impressed until National Security Adviser William P. Clark Jr., his horse-riding friend from California, showed him the dauntless draft that Dolan had written on his own. Five times, the draft branded the Soviets “evil.”
Because this was to be Reagan’s first major address on foreign policy, the draft would pass through the State Department, other executive agencies and senior White House staffers before Reagan could complete it.
Reagan Library documents do not reveal what Secretary of State Alexander Haig, his State Department, or Reagan’s staff said about Dolan’s draft, but all but one reference to evil in the Soviet Union vanished from the final text. The reference that survived was not a statement, but a question: “Must freedom wither — in a quiet deadening accommodation with totalitarian evil?”
Of the written comments available on Dolan’s Westminster draft, Clark’s are the most candid and complete. Next to an introductory joke, he wrote, “Not funny.” Next to another joke, he wrote, “Too many jokes.”
And beside a proposed conclusion — not written by Dolan — reminding Britain of “the dark days of the Second World War when this place — like an island — was incandescent with courage,” Clark noted, “It is an island.” “This place — like an island” eventually was changed to “this island.”
Reagan wanted the Westminster Address to echo the themes of Winston Churchill’s March 5, 1946, “Iron Curtain” speech in Fulton, Mo. So Dolan borrowed Churchill’s phrase, “from Stettin on the Baltic to Trieste on the Adriatic,” for an update on Communism.
Clark checked a map and objected to “Trieste on the Adriatic.” As the southern point of the Iron Curtain, Trieste was too far west to suit him. “Avoid lumping Yugoslavia in with the Soviet bloc,” he wrote. There were Austria and Greece to keep in the Free World, too. In the end, Churchill was rewritten.
“From Stettin on the Baltic to Varna on the Black Sea,” Reagan told Parliament, “the 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. Regimes planted by bayonets do not take root.”
The president was accompanied to London by Clark, Haig, Chief of Staff James A. Baker and aides David R. Gergen, Michael R. Deaver and Richard Darman. Dolan flew out, too.
“They called me at the last minute, probably because they thought I was angry at the changes made,” he said.
Dolan said he believes a few senior advisers muffled the sterner words of his first draft. The problem, he said, was that “the pragmatists” in the White House were afraid to let Reagan be Reagan while they steered “the true believers” away from the president.
“The speechwriters were looked at as true believers,” he recalled. “Now Jim Baker and Gergen and Dick Darman and Mike Deaver — that group was thought of as people who wanted him to tone down his anti-Soviet rhetoric and raise taxes and sort of go back on the Reagan Revolution.”
The true believers resented the influence of the pragmatists. They saw the pragmatists as trying to remake and restrain the leader they helped elect. The true believers wanted a chance to set Reagan loose.
In early 1983, the National Association of Evangelicals invited the president to speak before its convention. “We suggested a topic: generally, religious freedom and the Cold War,” said Richard Cizik, then a legislative researcher for the NAE’s Washington office.
Tensions were building over the planned deployment of Pershing II and cruise missiles in Western Europe. President Carter had agreed to ship the intermediate-range missiles to counter the Soviets’ SS-20 missiles, but Carter’s decision was left to his successor to implement.
Reagan offered the Soviet Union a “zero-zero option” on the missiles. If the Soviets dismantled their SS-20s, he said, he would cancel deployment of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization missiles.
At the arms negotiations in Geneva, the Soviets were not taking the offer. Instead, they encouraged the nuclear freeze movement, whose leaders in America and Europe were arguing persuasively that the world already had so many nuclear weapons it would be immoral to deploy even one more.
U.S. religious leaders joined the debate. The National Conference of Catholic Bishops was considering a resolution in favor of the freeze, and the National Council of Churches, a Protestant organization, and the Synagogue Council of America already supported it.
The National Association of Evangelicals, long known for its social conservatism, nevertheless discovered increasing numbers of its membership opposed deploying the NATO missiles, even if the Soviets did not remove theirs. Many of its members were pacifists, most notably the Quakers and Evangelical Mennonites.
The association’s leaders decided a presidential speech might clarify the stakes.
Cizik wrote Reagan, asking him to speak at the NAE convention in Orlando. The invitation went out over the signature of Cizik’s boss, Robert P. Dugan, director of NAE public affairs in the capital. Reagan accepted.
At the White House, Aram Bakshian Jr., director of speechwriting, assigned Dolan, then 34 and a former Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, to write a draft. Other White House aides didn’t pay much attention.
“They thought it was a routine speech,” said Dolan, a Catholic and a Reagan fan since he was 13. “It was a group of conservative ministers, and since I was the staff conservative they’d give it to me.”
At a steakhouse across the street from the White House, Dolan and fellow presidential speechwriter — and future California congressman — Dana Rohrabacher sat down in a booth with Cizik and Dugan.
“I told the speechwriters that day, ‘Look, the freezeniks are making real inroads into the evangelical heartland, and the president needs to address this issue,'” remembered Cizik.
“I told them, ‘You’ve got to understand our crowd. If you think you’re going to come down there and encounter an entirely receptive audience, no.’ I was pitching sort of a theological content.”
Dolan and other speechwriters met with Reagan on Feb. 18, 1983. They might have commented on the coming NAE speech then, but Dolan does not recall for certain. According to Reagan Library records, Gergen, Baker, Darman and Deaver also were at the meeting.
Reagan had other speeches to discuss. That night, he would speak before the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington. On Feb. 22, he would talk to the American Legion. And there were many smaller toasts, talking points and Rose Garden statements in between.
The president also was planning a six-day trip to California, where on March 1 he would greet Queen Elizabeth II at his mountaintop ranch near Santa Barbara. After stops in Los Angeles, San Francisco and Oregon, he would return to Washington on March 5, three days before speaking to the evangelicals in Florida.
In the meantime, Dolan wrote his first draft at his office in the Old Executive Office Building, next to the White House. “It took a few days, maybe half a week” to write the 16 pages, he said.
The first half of the draft was on domestic policy, including abortion and school prayer. The second half was on world affairs, principally the nuclear freeze and the “evil empire.”
The “evil empire” paragraph was in the first draft, the Reagan papers show.
“Beware the temptation of pride — the temptation to blithely declare yourselves above it all,” he wrote.
Dolan now explains that, in denouncing pride, he was thinking about elitists who regularly soft-pedaled the repressions, invasions and mass killings of totalitarian regimes.
“You always had the New York Times trying to strike a neutral position and advise both sides of its lofty and higher perspective editorially,” he said. “That’s just people who are puffed up.
“Pride causes foolishness — pride in the sense of one of the deadly sins.”
In his draft, he also wrote that in the debate over the nuclear freeze, religious leaders ought not “label both sides equally at fault.” He says now he was rejecting an oft-repeated argument that Soviet totalitarianism was just another system, no worse than free and democratic systems.
“This is moral equivalence, remember?” he said. “The Left saved its real moral indignation for middle America, rather than Soviet aggression and oppression of others. It was blame America first, that was their first instinct.”
Then Dolan wrote of “an evil empire.” Today he denies the term was inspired by the 1977 hit movie “Star Wars,” in which an alliance of good guys battles the “evil Galactic Empire.” Nevertheless, the words conjured that mainstream image.
The term “evil empire” also was a form of psychological warfare.
“People who are involved in evil enterprises fear the truth,” said Dolan. “That’s why the mafioso fears the newspaper account of his wrongdoing more than jail time.”
Dolan used the word “evil” seven more times in the draft.
Two references to evil were applied to the United States: to its past denials of equal rights to minority citizens and to “hate groups preaching bigotry and prejudice.”
Dolan submitted his draft on March 3, while the president still was in California. James Baker, William Clark and other senior advisers were with Reagan.
At the White House, Aram Bakshian, the speechwriting director, went over the draft. Bakshian saw four references to the Soviet Union as evil. He particularly liked the term “evil empire.”
Bakshian and a small group of like-minded White House staffers remembered how similarly candid words disappeared from earlier Reagan speeches. They set out to save “evil empire.”
The draft began with churchly pronouncements on parental rights, school prayer and “pulpits aflame with righteousness.” As a result, Bakshian said, it didn’t appear at first glance to be anything the State Department or other senior officials would want to review.
“This was not a major speech on the schedule,” he said. “It looked like a speech for a prayer breakfast. It would have seemed like one of the lowest priority speeches.”
The Office of Speechwriting regularly placed drafts of presidential speeches in piles for circulation throughout the bureaucracy. Certain White House staffers were responsible for looking over the texts and routing them to the agencies that might want to comment. If the staffers didn’t notice the subject matter, the drafts might not go far.
“I made a point of not flagging it,” said Bakshian. “It was the stealth speech.
“If anyone in the State Department read it, they just read the first few paragraphs and set it aside. They didn’t know it was going to be a foreign policy speech. On the face of it, it wasn’t a foreign policy speech.”
Sven Kraemer, arms control director on the president’s National Security Council, was asked to review the draft, giving special attention to the section on the nuclear freeze debate.
Kraemer gave Dolan a few minor written suggestions on March 4, the Reagan Library papers show. Kraemer said he had even more to say out loud.
“Not everything that is said between friends is put on paper,” he said. He said he urged Dolan to mention Russian dissident Alexandr Solzhenitsyn’s 1975 description of the Soviet Union as “the concentration of World Evil.”
“A suggestion that I made was that the phrase ‘evil empire’ be correlated with Solzhenitsyn’s phrase, so that the location of those two words be linked.”
Solzhenitsyn was not added to the speech, but Kraemer joined the team dedicated to preserving Dolan’s draft.
“Relatively few people saw it (the draft), and some of the senior people saw it late in the process,” he remembered. “It got to be a pretty narrow circle, and it got to be pretty late in the day, and some of us agreed that this is wonderful that some others were not there.”
Reagan returned from his West Coast trip on March 5. His wife, Nancy, stayed in California to see her daughter, Patti Davis, and to tape a special anti-drug-abuse episode on the “Dif’rent Strokes” TV show.
By now, three days before the scheduled speech in Orlando, the West Wing “pragmatists” —David Gergen and others — had discovered Dolan’s draft and were raising objections, according to Dolan.
Memories are unclear here, but Dolan recalls his text came back with “a lot of green ink” crossing out the “evil empire” section.
“It’s not a vivid memory,” he said. “It’s just a recollection. It was not the phrase itself. It was the whole section in which all this was included.”
Whoever crossed out the section expected it to be deleted before the president saw the draft, but Dolan would not allow it.
“I said, ‘I just won’t go along with those. In this case, let’s just let the president decide on this.’ I rarely took a stand like this, but I was disgusted because this stuff was crossed out.
“I said, ‘Why don’t we just send the draft in as it is?'”
Reagan would see all the words, Dolan said, “but he was going to get the draft with people telling him, look, we don’t like this section, that section, the other section.”
Reagan received the draft, and probably worked on it the evening of March 5 and then again on March 6.
He wrote another page and a half on his opposition to providing birth control pills and devices to underage girls without the knowledge of their parents. He removed a section on organized crime. And on the foreign policy side of the speech, he added a further defense of his earlier comment that the Soviets lie and cheat.
“Somehow this was translated to be accusations by me rather than a quote of their own words,” he wrote.
After a paragraph proposing the reduction of U.S. and Soviet nuclear missiles, he scribbled in three sentences guaranteed to fire up a standing ovation: “At the same time, however, they must be made to understand we will never compromise our principles & standards. We will never give away our freedom. We will never abandon our belief in God.”
He also wrote two paragraphs about the faith of conservative actor-singer Pat Boone, whom Reagan did not refer to by name. And he tightened and edited other parts of the text.
When Reagan was done writing and rewriting, the Soviet Union still was “the focus of evil in the modern world.” It still was “an evil empire.”
David Gergen said six years later that he and Deputy National Security Adviser Robert “Bud” McFarlane toned down the “outrageous statements” in the draft, according to Reagan biographer Lou Cannon.
The Reagan Library documents show that the president — possibly with advice — removed parenthetical putdowns of the “intelligentsia,” the “glitter set,” the “unilateral disarmers,” the “old liberalism” and the anti-religious sectors of the news media in the United States.
“The fact of the matter is, the important stuff on the Soviet Union got in,” Dolan pointed out.
Gergen, now editor-at-large of U.S. News & World Report, could not be reached for comment for this story, either at his office at Harvard University or through U.S. News.
As the final draft of the Evil Empire Speech was typed on March 7, 1983, Reagan asked for a list of specific reasons to oppose a nuclear freeze.
The NSC’s Kraemer wrote up a two- or three-page memo, which the president boiled down to four paragraphs. Reagan also wrote out his position in a nutshell: “I would agree to a freeze if only we could freeze the Soviets’ global desires.”
The four new paragraphs were typed onto two index cards and clipped to the main text, with a note reminding him when to pull out the cards.
March 8, 1983, was a busy day for the 72-year-old president, the Reagan Library papers show. After breakfast at 7:45 a.m., he met with 22 members of the Senate and the House to discuss the bloody conflict in El Salvador. At 10:13 his helicopter lifted off from the White House lawn for Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland.
As he left, 5,000 supporters of a nuclear freeze were rallying in a cold rain at the Capitol.
“Do you want to freeze the arms race?” Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass., asked.
“Yeah!” yelled the crowd.
“Do you think President Reagan is going to freeze the arms race?”
And the protesters cheered when U.S. Rep. Jim Leech, R-Iowa, announced that the House Foreign Affairs Committee had just voted 27 to 9 in favor of sending a nuclear freeze resolution to the full House.
At 10:38, Reagan left on Air Force One for sunny Orlando, where he arrived at 12:14 p.m. Chief of Staff James Baker was with him, but not Dolan and not one member of Reagan’s cabinet.
Walt Disney World was the president’s first stop in Orlando. At Epcot Center, he saw a program — in film and audioanimatronics — on 300 years of American history. And after meeting at Epcot with foreign exchange students, he moved to an amphitheater to talk with outstanding math and science students.
At 2:33, the president arrived by motorcade at the Sheraton Twin Towers Hotel. At 3 p.m., Arthur E. Gay Jr., president of the National Association of Evangelicals, introduced Reagan to the 1,200 attending the NAE convention.
As the evangelicals applauded, the smiling president in a dark blue suit rose from his chair, his speech papers in his left hand. He shook hands with Gay, thanked him and set his 17 pages and two index cards on the lecturn. “Evil empire” was on page 15.
Sunday, March 5, 2000