Monday, Mar. 31, 2003

Bedeviling an Empire

March 8, 1983

Ronald Reagan had carefully prepared for the moment, rewriting by hand several portions of the speech. An earlier draft read, "Surely historians will see [that the Soviets] are the focus of evil in the modern world." But speaking before the National Association of Evangelicals in Orlando, Fla., Reagan made the speech tougher by removing the business about the historians. He also denounced calls for a nuclear freeze, saying that to agree to one would be to accede to "the aggressive impulses of an evil empire."

His uncompromising rhetoric unsettled members of the Washington establishment, who warned that it would reheat the arms race and threaten peaceful coexistence with the Soviets. But Reagan managed to touch the hearts and minds of those who mattered: the rebels behind the Iron Curtain who ultimately brought it down. Nathan Sharansky read Reagan's speech in a cell in Siberia. Knocking on walls and talking through toilets, he spread the word to other prisoners in the Gulag. "The dissidents were ecstatic," Sharansky wrote. "Finally, the leader of the free world had spoken the truth — a truth that burned inside the heart of each and every one of us."