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I travel to Russia quite often and I'm famous for a variety of reasons, but one of them is that I allegedly coined the expression, the Evil Empire, and I deny it. The truth is, and I'd like this to go on the record, that I returned to Harvard in early '83 because I could only stay two years away from the university. Tony Dolan called me up and said, Dick, what do you think of using the expression The Evil Empire? I by then was back at Harvard already an academic and I said, I'm queasy about it. We scholars don't use such expressions as "evil," but I do want to confess that I was wrong. The President and Tony were entirely right to use it and I'm sorry that I am known as the author of this expression and not my predecessor, our speaker here.
The Westminster Speech was a very important speech and I'm glad that it's recognized as such and celebrated today because, as has been mentioned previously, it predicted to a highly skeptical audience in England the imminent demise of the Soviet Union. There were phrases such as, "I believe we are now at a turning point," "The march of freedom and democracy will leave Marxism and Leninism on the ash heap of history."
I may add here as a historian that the expression "ash heap of history" was actually coined by Leo Trotsky. It's something he flung at the Mensheviks when they walked out in late 1917 from the Second Congress of Soviets, which proclaimed Soviet power as essentially Bolshevik leadership, and as they were marching out, he said, "Well, into the ash heap of history." Its a good expression.
When the Westminster speech was being drafted, I was asked by Tony to send my contribution in, and I sent essentially one paragraph about Marxism to explain what was happening in the Soviet Union. I was astonished when it was used because somehow you didnt expect Ronald Reagan to say yes, Marx was right. But he was right in a certain sense, (and these phrases are in the speech) that when the political system is out of step with the socio-economic base you'll find yourself in a revolutionary situation and you face a great crisis; but this applies to them and not to us.
And this, as Tony Dolan mentioned, created absolute pandemonium there because never before that -- I know from the beginning of the Cold War in Truman's day -- had any American President challenged the underlying philosophy of the Soviet system.
Until Westminster, the prevailing presumption in the West was that we all should be concerned with in the Soviet Union is their behavior. What Reagan did is question the premise that behavior is what matters and not the system. Here I take some credit, for I persuaded the President that the aggression in which the Soviet Union engages is rooted in the system.
Reagan, for all his hard-line reputation, was in some respects naive politically. He was a kind man who believed in goodness, even in his enemies. I once heard him say that he was quite confident that if he could sit down with the Soviet leaders, like Brezhnev, and explain to them why the system wasn't working, that Marxism-Leninism was a false philosophy, they would change because they had the welfare of the people at heart. It took a lot of doing to persuade him that they did not -- that, in fact, their power and privilege rested on the fact that people were poor and miserable and oppressed.
With such a premise, then, you had to work to change the system -- which was totally unacceptable at the time to the Sovietological community, to the State Department, to the CIA and so on, because it was generally believed that the moment that you started tampering with the Soviet system, attacking the Soviet system, you threatened the very life of Soviet leaders, and they would react by re-Stalinizing and you would have a harder line than before. Nevertheless, the premise was embodied in NSDD-75, National Security Decision Directive 75, which the President signed off on in January '83. It contains a revolutionary paragraph -- that the basic purpose of our policy is to force the Soviets to reform the system.
This ran into a tremendous amount of opposition, particularly in the State Department. They thought that reform was not our business, that it was, and even if it were possible to do, it would produce a right-wing reaction in the Soviet Union which would be counterproductive. But NSDD-75 became the basic foreign policy document of the Reagan administration and many of the actions that followed were based on its premises.
Similarly, the Westminster speech flatly contradicted the opinion of virtually the entire Sovietological establishment both in and out of government. Both the State Department and the CIA were closely linked to the academic community. Most of its policy makers and analysts were people with PhDs from the major universities in Soviet studies and they shared all the same prejudices and policies of the academic community.
The academic community was firmly convinced that the communist regime enjoyed a broad base of support among the population because of the social services they provided and because their skillful use of nationalism made regime basically stable. That was the premise -- you could not disagree with it. If you disagreed with that premise, you were ostracized from the academic Sovietological community. There were just a handful of us who disagreed, and we were never invited to any of the symposia at which these matters were discussed. We were simply ignored.
Furthermore, it was argued that if there was resistance to the regime and it became too dangerous, the regime had the capability of suppressing it, as it had shown repeatedly since October 1917. Every time a challenge arose, the government successfully repressed it. So if you pursued a hard anti-Communist line, not only would you not achieve what you wanted, you would achieve the very opposite because if the regime felt threatened it would increase its repression.
Now, why was the Sovietological community so wrong? One reason I've already alluded to was groupthink, the willingness to listen only to others who thought the same way. I attended a conference of the National Association of Scholars over the weekend. One of the participants referred to an interesting experiment which was conducted to show how people can be influenced by their peers.
The experiment called for people to be given three different lengths of a ruler, short, medium, and long. They were supposed to match these against the image projected on the screen. The image projected on the screen was medium length. The first two people who came up to the screen produced rulers that were exactly medium length. But the next three participants were conspirators of the professor conducting the experiment and showed rulers which were supposed to match the medium-sized ruler. They did this three times in succession. Those who followed were not conspirators, but all of them without exception, displayed short rulers. Such was the pressure of peers.
Exactly the same thing happened in the Sovietological community. You could not be respected and accepted if you said, Look, what you're saying is just simply not true. It is wrong. The CIA produced estimates at the time that the Soviets standard of living was approximately 40 percent of ours. Now, all you had to do was to spend one hour walking around Moscow, the Soviet Union's richest city, to see that this was absolute nonsense. There was absolutely no comparison us and them. And now President Putin says he hopes that in a few years Russia will catch up with Portugal in terms of living standards.
But you couldn't say this at the time because this was anecdotal evidence, whereas if you used Soviet statistics, you were being scientific. The State Department, both under Secretaries Haig and Schultz, did not approve of President Reagan's Soviet policy at all. Of course, they had to go along but they really didn't like it. Both Haig and Schultz convened bodies of experts to advise them on what our policy should be, and both of them agreed that it was absolutely useless to try to use economic weapons, as they put it, to bust the Soviet Union.
Of course, nobody hoped to bust the Soviet Union, but we hoped through our measures such as the embargos and so on to force them to shift towards their internal problems away from foreign aggression and military investment. Interestingly, I was not invited to any of these meetings though I was the main expert on the Soviet Union in the White House. So we achieved unanimity and groupthink flourished.
The other problem with the Sovietological community was the unwillingness to look at the human and moral side of the regime, and here Reagan, was way ahead of everybody. They saw the Soviets system as a system and as political scientists they were not to use any moral standards. I mean, science does not use moral standards. I mean, if you view a problem as a scientist, you are supposed to be absolutely morally objective and not have your own feelings involved.
But when you deal with human beings you're not dealing with inanimate objects. You're dealing with something called morality. And it plays a very big role in affairs of human beings. These scientists misunderstood all of this because they refused, for example, to listen to the immigrants who came here from the Soviet Union, the tens of thousands of Jewish immigrants.
All their testimony was discounted because allegedly they were biased, they were embittered, and their evidence could not be counted on. Traveling to the Soviet Union, looking around, talking to natives as some of us did, was also dismissed as being anecdotal and unreliable. So the human dimension of what was going on there was totally missed by the political scientists.
But Reagan understood it. I don't know how, but he understood it. He knew that a system which suppresses all that is natural to human beings, whether freedom of speech, the right to own possessions, or the right to pursue your religion, that any regime that suppressed all of these natural rights could not be stable, could not be sound, and didn't have much of a future. From this point of view, he was way ahead of the whole political science profession.
I may add here parenthetically that it's pathetic that the political scientists have not analyzed the causes of their failure. Political Sovietological theory dismally failed over a period of 40 years to predict what would happen, and if you were true scientists, as they claim to be, you would analyze the causes of this failure so as to prevent this in the future, but they have not done it. They have simply dismissed their mistakes, and they go on making more predictions based on the same faulty methodology.
Now, why did Ronald Reagan understand what these academics did not? Well, as has been mentioned by Ed Meese, it was his Hollywood experience. The communists attach enormous importance to cinema. Lenin is quoted as saying that cinema is the main vehicle of propaganda which has to be pursued by the Soviet regime. But Reagan had other qualities and one was intuitive judgment. I was not as close to him as the other two speakers here, but every time I did have a chance to see him on some important issue he displayed remarkably right judgment, and you're born with that. This is not something you learn.
His other important
quality was his humanity. His head was not filled with abstractions but
with an instinctive understanding of human beings, a liking for human
beings. He liked people and sometimes he liked the wrong people. You tended
to think he liked everybody, but in this sense he was much more in tune
with what mankind is about than those who want to be scientists and approach
human beings unemotionally and without any moral dimension being present.
And that was his greatness.
Note: The preceding remarks were part of a panel discussion held in The Heritage Foundation.