30 Years Later: Reagan’s ‘March of Freedom’ Speech Predicting the Fall of Soviet Communism Still Rings True

Christopher Goins | June 4, 2012 | 2:24pm EDT
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President Ronald Reagan speaks before the British Parliament, June 8, 1982. (Photo courtesy of Reagan Archive.)

(CNSNews.com) – It has been 30 years since President Ronald Reagan made his enduring “Westminster Speech,” but author and Reagan expert Paul Kengor tells CNSNews.com that there is wisdom for today in the speech, in which the Great Communicator predicted the fall of Soviet Communism and laid the foundations for spreading democracy throughout the world.

“That speech is not just a prophetic statement and a policy statement, but there is a statement there of political philosophy, and I would say -- even broader than that -- you see Ronald Reagan’s famous eternal optimism,” said Kengor, author of “The Crusader: Ronald Reagan and the Fall of Communism” and other books on Reagan.

Saturday, June 8, will mark the 30th anniversary of the speech, in which Reagan contemplated the end of Communism, and said that advances toward freedom and democracy would leave Marxism-Leninism “on the ash-heap of history” – a nod to the same phrase that Russian Marxist Leon Trotsky used in the 1920’s (“the dustbin of history”) to predict capitalism’s demise.

“What I am describing now is a plan and a hope for the long term -- the march of freedom and democracy which will leave Marxism-Leninism on the ash-heap of history as it has left other tyrannies which stifle the freedom and muzzle the self-expression of the people,” Reagan said.

Kengor said Reagan’s speech initiated a long-term transformation towards democracy across the globe, which included the fall of the Berlin Wall in the late 1980s, the collapse of the Soviet Union in the ‘90s, and the fact that by 1994 most of the former Eastern-bloc countries had become democracies.

“We're approaching the end of a bloody century plagued by a terrible political invention – totalitarianism,” Reagan told the House of Commons.

“Optimism comes less easily today, not because democracy is less vigorous, but because democracy's enemies have refined their instruments of repression,” Reagan said. “Yet optimism is in order, because day by day democracy is proving itself to be a not-at-all-fragile flower. From Stettin on the Baltic to Varna on the Black Sea, 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.”

Reagan warned that “there is a threat posed to human freedom by the enormous power of the modern state.”

“History teaches the dangers of government that overreaches -- political control taking precedence over free economic growth, secret police, mindless bureaucracy, all combining to stifle individual excellence and personal freedom,” he said.

“Now, I'm aware that among us here and throughout Europe there is legitimate disagreement over the extent to which the public sector should play a role in a nation's economy and life. But on one point all of us are united -- our abhorrence of dictatorship in all its forms, but most particularly totalitarianism and the terrible inhumanities it has caused in our time -- the great purge, Auschwitz and Dachau, the Gulag, and Cambodia.”

Reagan noted the end of the Cold War, and said it was not the free world which threatened the freedom and security of everyone – but totalitarian regimes.

“Historians looking back at our time will note the consistent restraint and peaceful intentions of the West,” Reagan said. “They will note that it was the democracies who refused to use the threat of their nuclear monopoly in the forties and early fifties for territorial or imperial gain. Had that nuclear monopoly been in the hands of the Communist world, the map of Europe -- indeed, the world -- would look very different today. And certainly they will note it was not the democracies that invaded Afghanistan or suppressed Polish Solidarity or used chemical and toxin warfare in Afghanistan and Southeast Asia.”

Reagan said the U.S. and the West were forced to maintain military strength in the face of challenges.

“Our military strength is a prerequisite to peace, but let it be clear we maintain this strength in the hope it will never be used, for the ultimate determinant in the struggle that's now going on in the world will not be bombs and rockets, but a test of wills and ideas, a trial of spiritual resolve, the values we hold, the beliefs we cherish, the ideals to which we are dedicated,” he said.

Now is the time to heed the lessons of history, the 40th president told the British.

“If history teaches anything it teaches self-delusion in the face of unpleasant facts is folly,” Reagan said.

He added: “We see around us today the marks of our terrible dilemma -- predictions of doomsday, antinuclear demonstrations, an arms race in which the West must, for its own protection, be an unwilling participant. At the same time we see totalitarian forces in the world who seek subversion and conflict around the globe to further their barbarous assault on the human spirit. What, then, is our course? Must civilization perish in a hail of fiery atoms?”

Reagan explained the reasons behind why Communism was doomed to failure.

“In an ironic sense Karl Marx was right,” Reagan told Parliament. “We are witnessing today a great revolutionary crisis, a crisis where the demands of the economic order are conflicting directly with those of the political order. But the crisis is happening not in the free, non-Marxist West, but in the home of Marxist-Leninism, the Soviet Union.

“It is the Soviet Union that runs against the tide of history by denying human freedom and human dignity to its citizens. It also is in deep economic difficulty. The rate of growth in the national product has been steadily declining since the fifties and is less than half of what it was then.”

The Westminster speech occurred one day after Reagan met with Pope John Paul II at the Vatican to discuss a plan to work together to undermine Soviet Communism.

“It is time that we committed ourselves as a nation -- in both the public and private sectors -- to assisting democratic development,” the 40th president stated.

“At the same time, we invite the Soviet Union to consider with us how the competition of ideas and values -- which it is committed to support -- can be conducted on a peaceful and reciprocal basis. For example, I am prepared to offer President Brezhnev an opportunity to speak to the American people on our television if he will allow me the same opportunity with the Soviet people. We also suggest that panels of our newsmen periodically appear on each other's television to discuss major events.”

Reagan predicted that the “the task I've set forth will long outlive our own generation.”

Kengor said both Reagan’s speech and the “plan” were roundly dismissed at the time the speech was given.

“[In] 1982, when he made that speech, people thought he was out of his mind,” Kengor told CNSNews.com. “That speech was ridiculed throughout the West. Soviets, of course, were apoplectic. They absolutely excoriated it, and Pravda and all their propaganda publications -- and I think that probably most American conservatives who adored Reagan thought “Well, I loved this but, really, c’mon – the Soviet Union end up on the ash-heap of history? That’s not going to happen for a long, long, long time.”

Kengor, who is also a government professor at Grove City College, in Grove City, Pa., suggested that there is a lesson in the Reagan speech for President Obama and all future U.S. presidents.

“What Obama desperately needs to learn is that the march of freedom is a pro-active process,” Kengor said. “Reagan believed that you shouldn’t just sit back and hope for these things to happen. You need to go out there and identify the freedom fighters, support them, give speeches on their behalf, call out the despots, the evil empires, the evildoers. You identify the freedom fighters in Poland. You identify the contras in Nicaragua. And I don’t think that Obama is doing that at all.”

To be true to Reagan's spirit, Kengor said, the U.S. could easily begin holding a “Captive Nations’ Day,” “Captive Nations’ Week,” or “Captive Nations’ Month.”

“It’s not enough to just say you support democracy,” Kengor said. “You have to come out and call Mahmoud Ahmadinejad names. You’ve got to attack the Iranian mullahs as persecutors of freedom fighters. And that’s not happening,” Kengor said.

(To view a copy of the Westminister Speech directly from the Reagan Archives, you must search the National Archives and Records Administration database.)

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