When Ronald Reagan became president in 1981, U.S. presidents had tried for three decades to find ways to keep peace with the Communist regimes in the Soviet Union. Much of the world was pretty clearly divided in those days. An Iron Curtain separated them. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill had coined the phrase Iron Curtain in March 1946 in a speech at a small college in Missouri. On that occasion, he said:
An iron curtain has descended across the Continent [i.e. Europe]. Behind that line lie all the capitals of the ancient states of Central and Eastern Europe.
The U.S., Great Britain, the U.S.S.R., and later France (after the Allies freed it from the Nazis) had teamed up to defeat German Nazis during World War II. As the British and American armies (and many other Allies) marched east toward Berlin, the Red Army of the Soviet Union had marched west. At the end of the war, the U.S.S.R. said in effect, “Ok, now, this land we have conquered while we were beating the Nazis belongs to us. It’s all going to be Communist.” That Communist land included the eastern section of Germany.
After a war, the winning side often stays awhile to make sure things are going to stay peaceful. Even though the city of Berlin lay completely inside East Germany, the Allies divided up the city of Berlin into four sectors: one Russian, one French, one British, and one American. At first Berliners could go between the free French, British, and American sectors and the Communist sector of Berlin at certain checkpoints. The problem was that, in the eyes of the Communists, too many citizens who went from their side to the free side didn’t want to come back. They were losing too many people. By 1961 they had lost 20% of the East German population, so they built the Berlin Wall to keep their own people from leaving.
In the U.S.S.R. and the other Communist countries of Eastern Europe, people could be imprisoned or even executed for doing what the Bill of Rights guarantees that Americans can do: say what they want, print what they want, worship how they wish, and assemble peacefully. The Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum displays actual objects that illustrate the abuses of the Communist leaders against their people, including a book they used to indoctrinate children.
One of the Reagan quotes on a wall in his library is from a speech he gave on July 4, 1984. In that speech, he asked:
Can you think of a time when any family, thirsting for opportunity, left a democracy to live in a country that was not free?
Reagan believed deeply that Communism was evil, and he was willing to say it out loud and in front of people. His museum does that, too. On one wall is this quote from the first leader of the U.S.S.R.:
It does not matter if three-fourths of the human race perished, the important thing is that the remaining one-quarter be Communist. – Vladimir Ilyich Lenin
When Reagan became president, his goal was not to coexist with Communism, but to make it history. In 1981 he said:
The West will not contain Communism; it will transcend Communism. We will . . . dismiss it as a sad, bizarre chapter in human history whose last pages are even now being written.
Those words must have sounded naive and even impossible to many. Reagan kept on saying what he really believed, in spite of the people in his own administration who tried to get him to speak more diplomatically. In a speech in Berlin in 1982, Reagan asked:
Do the Soviet leaders want to be remembered for a prison wall, ringed with barbed wire and armed guards whose weapons are aimed at innocent civilians—their own civilians?
In a speech to the National Association of Evangelicals in 1983, Reagan called the Soviet Union an “evil empire.”
Reagan built a relationship with Mikhail Gorbachev, a more open Soviet leader. In 1987 Reagan traveled to West Berlin to celebrate the 750th anniversary of Berlin. He gave a speech in front of the Berlin Wall and the Brandenburg Gate. During this historic speech, President Reagan issued a challenge to Gorbachev. Included in his remarks were these words:
There is one sign the Soviets can make that would be unmistakable, that would advance dramatically the cause of freedom and peace. General Secretary Gorbachev, if you seek peace, if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, if you seek liberalization: Come here to this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!
That didn’t happen while Reagan was president, but it did happen a short time later under President George H. W. Bush who succeeded him. In 1989 Mikhail Gorbachev allowed more freedom in the U.S.S.R. In March its citizens voted in nationwide elections for the first time in Soviet history. They elected Gorbachev as their president. In April he announced that the U.S.S.R. would be a democratic country!
In June Poland elected Lech Walesa as their president. Walesa believed in democratic principles. Soon the Eastern European countries of Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria, and Romania gave up Communism and became democratic.
On November 9, 1989, joyful Germans began to tear down the Berlin Wall. Families and friends who had not been together since 1961 reunited. In 1990 East and West Germany joined to form one democratic Germany.
In April 1990, the retired Ronald Reagan stood on the grounds of his presidential library beside a section of the Berlin Wall which is now on display there. The large butterfly graffiti seen in the picture below faced the free West. The eastern side of the wall is stark gray. On that day in 1990, Reagan said:
Let our children and grandchildren come here and see this wall and reflect on what it meant to history. Let them understand that only vigilance and strength will deter tyranny.
In 1991 Gorbachev dissolved the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. The U.S.S.R. no longer existed. It divided into several independent, democratic nations, the largest of which was Russia. The Cold War was over. American missionaries began going into the former U.S.S.R. and establishing churches. At that time, even the Russian government realized that Communism had left its citizens morally destitute and invited American missionaries to teach the Bible in schools.
In May 1992, Mikhail Gorbachev came to the Reagan Library. President Reagan presented him the first Ronald Reagan Freedom Medal and the two posed for this picture.
Good exists and evil exists. Ronald Reagan was willing to say so. Thank you for teaching your children the difference.
Woe to those who call evil good, and good evil;
Who substitute darkness for light and light for darkness;
Who substitute bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter!