“Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” Those famous words uttered by President Ronald Reagan in a speech at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin on June 12, 1987, would forever change the course of history. It was these words that marked the beginning of the end of communism.
Although many have credited Reagan with the collapse of communism, a new book by renowned presidential historian Paul Kengor claims that this was not just one of many of Reagan’s accomplishments as President of the United States but was his life’s mission. In The Crusader: Ronald Reagan and the Fall of Communism, Kengor outlines how Reagan’s life was devoted to bringing down communism. From his humble beginnings in Dixon, Ill., to his political debut, Reagan was already preparing to be a great liberator. As a lifeguard during the 1920s, Reagan managed to save a total of 77 people from drowning. According to Kengor, this experience gave Reagan “the can-do confidence to one day pursue a much larger rescue mission: to spare Americans and the world of the scourge of communism.” Many years later, during the 1980 presidential campaign, when asked by a political consultant why he wanted to become President, Reagan decisively answered: “To end the Cold War. There has to be a way, and it’s time.”
Kengor, professor of political science at Grove City College and author of the bestseller, God and Ronald Reagan: A Spiritual Life, shows that, throughout his life, Reagan believed it was his mission to defeat communism. As early as 1947, the then-movie actor publicly defended the “Captive Peoples” behind the Iron Curtain. In 1950, Reagan joined a group called “The Crusade for Freedom,” which called for the liberation of Eastern Europe from Soviet domination.
Reagan understood what many in the Democratic Party and the liberal media elite did not: Communism was based on a totalitarian system of mass murder, torture, slave labor camps and the abrogation of human rights. It sought to eradicate religious faith, private property and basic political and civil freedoms. The Soviet Union was responsible for the state-sanctioned deaths of more than 60 million people. It was a multinational empire that enslaved not only the countries of Eastern Europe, but dozens of nations within its own borders—from the Baltic states to Ukraine to Kazakhstan. Moreover, as Reagan understood, Soviet communism was relentlessly expansionist. America had no choice but to confront it and defeat it.
Many have forgotten that, during his years in office, Reagan’s anti-Communist policies were deeply unpopular with Democrats, the liberal media establishment and much of Western Europe. Reagan was reviled and constantly mocked as a war-mongering, reckless cowboy—just as George W. Bush is today. Reagan’s famous speech describing the Soviet Union as an “Evil Empire” was widely ridiculed for being “simplistic,” “unsophisticated” and bellicose. Reagan’s hawkish policies—the massive build-up of the U.S. military, the invasion of Grenada, supporting the Solidarity Movement in Poland, assisting Nicaragua’s anti-Marxist Contras, the creation of the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), and providing arms to Afghan rebels fighting the Russian occupation—pushed the Soviets to military and economic bankruptcy.
Kengor does a fine job of chronicling Reagan’s role in bringing communism to its knees. Kengor also delves into newly declassified presidential papers, untapped Soviet media archives and exclusive interviews with key political players to document Reagan’s life-long crusade against communism. Among information uncovered is how Ted Kennedy attempted to sabotage Reagan’s policies with the U.S.S.R. and his 1984 re-election bid. A highly sensitive 1983 KGB document reveals that Kennedy contacted Soviet leaders in order to undermine Reagan’s foreign policy, hoping to propel a Democratic victory in 1984. Kennedy failed in his attempt. (See “How Teddy Kennedy Hampered Reagan’s Cold War Efforts,” by Paul Kengor, Feb. 19, 2007, and “Ted Kennedy Was a Collaborationist,” by Herbert Romerstein, Dec. 8, 2003.)
Reagan demonstrated that true statesmanship rests on bravery and steadfastness in the face of adversity. Reagan did what he knew was right. History has vindicated him. His legacy resulted in the expansion of democratic capitalism over large swaths of Eurasia.
Just as Reagan confronted the principal threat of his time (totalitarian communism), President Bush is confronting the principal threat in our time (totalitarian Islamofascism). Just as Reagan waged a crusade that liberated hundreds of millions from subjugation, Bush has waged a crusade that has liberated 50 million (and counting) in Iraq and Afghanistan. Just as Reagan was vilified by the Democratic and liberal elites, so is Bush.
Under Reagan’s presidency, America showed it had the inner fortitude and wisdom to stand up to Soviet communism. It must show the same kind of strategic vision and moral strength to prevail over radical Islam. Time will tell if Americans are up to the task.