Words Matter

When Ronald Reagan called the Soviet Union an “evil empire,” it was considered to be a scandalous remark by so many well-heeled left wing intellectuals. Throughout America and Europe, liberals pounced on Reagan’s comments as an example of impolitic speech that was sure to enrage our Soviet adversaries (by the mid-80s the Left was no longer thinking of the Soviets as enemies). Reagan was told that it was far better to approach the Soviets with an open hand, to speak with them as an equal superpower. He was told the Soviets could be trusted. The nuclear freeze movement fretted that an arms race would only lead to a nuclear cataclysm. The nuclear disarmament crowd insisted that if America destroyed all of their nuclear weapons, the Soviet Union would be morally compelled to follow suit.

Of course, Reagan had other methods. He referred to the Soviets as an “evil empire” and stood at the Berlin Wall and challenged Mikhail Gorbachev to “tear down this wall!”

Reagan’s method worked. Aided by Margaret Thatcher and Pope John Paul II, Reagan’s public and unflinching call for an end to Communism started revolutions in the Soviet states brewing. The Solidarity movement in Poland, started a few months before Reagan’s first victory in 1980 found friends in the White House, at 10 Downing Street, and in the Vatican. The moral support those three world leaders lent to Solidarity was like a cannon shot in the halls of the Kremlin. The KGB even tried to have the Pope assassinated because of his talk of freedom in his native country of Poland.

Liberation movements began to grow throughout the Soviet Empire, culminating in the dissolution of the Soviet Union itself.

Importantly, word even reached those who had no voice. Imprisoned in a Soviet gulag on trumped up espionage charges, the great dissident Natan Sharansky still got word of Reagan’s “evil empire” speech, and word spread throughout the gulag via a series of taps on walls and toilets.

I have to laugh. People who take freedom for granted, Ronald Reagan for granted, always ask such questions. Of course! It was the great brilliant moment when we learned that Ronald Reagan had proclaimed the Soviet Union an Evil Empire before the entire world. There was a long list of all the Western leaders who had lined up to condemn the evil Reagan for daring to call the great Soviet Union an evil empire right next to the front-page story about this dangerous, terrible man who wanted to take the world back to the dark days of the Cold War. This was the moment. It was the brightest, most glorious day. Finally a spade had been called a spade. Finally, Orwell’s Newspeak was dead. President Reagan had from that moment made it impossible for anyone in the West to continue closing their eyes to the real nature of the Soviet Union.

It was one of the most important, freedom-affirming declarations, and we all instantly knew it. For us, that was the moment that really marked the end for them, and the beginning for us. The lie had been exposed and could never, ever be untold now. This was the end of Lenin’s “Great October Bolshevik Revolution” and the beginning of a new revolution, a freedom revolution—Reagan’s Revolution.

We were all in and out of punishment cells so often—me more than most—that we developed our own tapping language to communicate with each other between the walls. A secret code. We had to develop new communication methods to pass on this great, impossible news. We even used the toilets to tap on.

The point of all this is that words matter. They are important. A simple speech or declaration by an American President can echo throughout the world and reach even the blackest depths of prison camps. In the Age of Twitter, the word can spread within hours.

As I type, Iranian dissidents are protesting an election that is almost certainly rigged and that has ensured another term for the Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The protesters are being beaten and jailed. The press has been shut down in Iran. The internet is shut down (though it seems they forgot about Twitter, which is earning its plaudits in Iran right now). The human desire for freedom is being crushed, and the cold hand of authoritarianism is wrapping itself around the throats of people who expect their elections to count and who want their voices to be heard.


I don’t expect an Evil Empire speech, although one is deserved. It is too early for that. The White House is, apparently, “monitoring” the situation. What a profile in courage our President is!

Mr. President, a simple statement of solidarity with the protestors, a simple acknowledgement that the election appears to have been rigged, a simple quote expressing outrage at the Iranian government for the harsh treatment of protestors and the suppression of speech and the press…that’s all. Your words will be heard, Mr. President. They will resonate in the Iranian streets, in the jail cells of Tehran, and all throughout the Middle East. You will send a strong message to our sole ally in that region, Israel, that you will not be cowed by Iranian strongmen. Mr. President, you are gifted with an almost supernatural eloquence. It’s time to use it.

Update: Hot Air is providing really good coverage.

One Response to Words Matter

  1. […] I said in my earlier post, now is not the time for an “Evil Empire” speech, though the mullahocracy in Iran […]

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