Thirty years ago today, Ronald Reagan delivered one of his most influential addresses to the National Association of Evangelicals in Orlando, Florida, referring to the Soviet Union as an “evil empire” and calling the Soviets “the focus of evil in the modern world.” In the decades before his presidency, Reagan had read and thought deeply about American foreign policy and brought with him to the White House a number of strong convictions. He regarded Communism as an immoral and destructive ideology and believed that the Soviet Union was bent on world domination. Reagan told the audience on March 8, 1983:
They preach the supremacy of the state, declare its omnipotence over individual man and predict its eventual domination of all peoples on the Earth. They are the focus of evil in the modern world....
Reagan used the speech to lobby the evangelical group to support the administration’s peace through strength approach to negotiating with the Soviet Union and to oppose a “nuclear freeze” that Congress was debating at the time. The Congressional resolution in support of a "nuclear freeze” would have prevented the deployment of U.S. cruise and Pershing II Missiles in Europe. Reagan made the case for deploying NATO nuclear-armed missiles in Western Europe as a response to the Soviets installing new nuclear-armed missiles in Eastern Europe.
Using the bully pulpit of the presidency, Reagan told the crowd:
The truth is that a freeze now would be a very dangerous fraud, for that is merely the illusion of peace. The reality is that we must find peace through strength…
So, in your discussions of the nuclear freeze proposals, I urge you to beware the temptation of pride, the temptation of blithely declaring 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.
Although Reagan, along with most other national leaders since Harry Truman, had supported the fundamental policy of containing the Soviet Union, he believed that the Soviets had taken advantage of détente, as practiced by Presidents Nixon, Ford, and Carter. As an example, Reagan contended that the SALT II nuclear treaty, negotiated by Carter but never ratified by the Senate, imposed greater limits on the United States than on the Soviet Union. Reagan, however, was also convinced that the Soviets were weaker economically than the intelligence community believed. As early as June 18, 1980, Reagan told reporters and editors at The Washington Post, that “it would be of great benefit to the United States if we started a buildup” because the Soviets would be unable to compete and would come to the bargaining table.
Yet, even Reagan was willing to negotiate with the so-called “evil empire” for the elimination of nuclear weapons. He was deeply worried about the accepted national policy that had prevailed since the Soviets acquired nuclear weapons of “mutual assured destruction,” calling it “a truly mad policy.” He believed that it was immoral to destroy the civilian population of another country in a retaliatory attack. He also worried that the two sides might blunder into nuclear war. Reagan's vision, not well understood when he took office and sometimes misrepresented even today, was of a world free of nuclear weapons and the terror they posed to all mankind. Indeed, even in the “evil empire” speech, Reagan told the audience:
I ask you to resist the attempts of those who would have you withhold your support for our efforts, this administration's efforts, to keep America strong and free, while we negotiate real and verifiable reductions in the world's nuclear arsenals and one day, with God's help, their total elimination.