Notre Dame had already meant much to me. In 1980, when I visited my brother for a few days, I not only heard Pink Floyd’s “The Wall” for the first time, but I also watched the Americans defeat the Soviets in hockey.
I knew then, at age twelve, that I wanted to attend this great university.
And, I did, but not until the fall of 1986.
Back to May 17, 1981, the day that saw the beginning of the end of the Berlin Wall.
At the commencement exercises, the Class of 1981 enjoyed the return of President Ronald Reagan to the public forum. He had yet to speak publicly on any substantial matter since John Hinckley had attempted to assassinate him nearly seven weeks earlier.
Not only did Reagan speak publicly at Notre Dame, he also spoke openly—for the first time in his presidency—about his desire to end the failed and morally bankrupt policy of “Containment,” the foreign policy of the United States since that Irish mafia-backed haberdasher from Missouri implemented it in 1946.
A purely materialist foreign policy, Containment called for equality and parity in the world, at least between the two post-war superpowers. All others would have to fit into one camp or the other, us or them, to quote Pink Floyd.
The West would not persuade tyrannies to dissolve, it would not present arguments of moral superiority (probably because it did not recognize its own superiority—at least in regards to its highest teachings of the dignity of the human person in liberty and under law), and it would not openly challenge the Communist Enemy where it now stood.
Instead, it would contain the Communist Enemy, preventing it from enslaving even more citizens of the world than it already had.
Those who happened to have been enslaved as of 1946, tough luck. “Citizens” found on the “wrong side” of the line, at least according to Anglo-American Operation Keelhaul, would have to be repatriated, back to the “right side” of the line, regardless of the cost in lives or of human dignity.
Containment, at its deepest core, relegated those we betrayed in World War II to a prison and terrorist existence under one of the deadliest ideologies ever invented by that fallen creature, man. Containment, at its most basic level, served as a justification for all of our mistakes in World War II. It was, after all, implemented by the same men who interned loyal Japanese-American citizens in “camps” and wiped out with atomic weaponry entire civilian populations of their former brethren back in the Japanese homeland.
Admittedly, as a child of the 1980s and the Cold War, it’s very difficult for me to see Containment as anything but a compromise with evil and, therefore, a partial evil itself. Despite my employment as a professional historian, I won’t even pretend to proclaim historical objectivity in this matter. But, my subjectivity here matters. I write here as a citizen of the West and as a Christian, and not as a knee-jerk, jingoist pro-American nationalist New Deal liberal or, as often known today, a neo-conservative.
My own thoughts, though, even in 1981, came not from me, but from those I respected, a minority of western citizens–such as Russell Kirk and Whittaker Chambers and Barry Goldwater–who knew the Soviets represented the greatest evil of the second half of the twentieth-century. Though I was only 13 in 1981, I learned of the thought of these men from good teachers and neighbors in small-town Kansas.
Quite a bit further West, and four years before I was even born, a grand western citizen began giving considerable thought to a strategy to end Soviet tyranny, perhaps without a shot being fired.
As early as 1963, Ronald Reagan had begun to think about bringing down the Soviets, rolling them back. As he told one of his closet aides, a graduate of the University of Notre Dame, fourteen years later, his strategy was and had been simple. “My theory of the Cold War is, we win and they lose. What do you think about that [“Interview with Richard V. Allen,” May 28, 2002, Charlottesville, VA, Ronald Reagan Oral History Project, University of Virginia, 26]
And, yet, there was much more to Reagan’s plan than a simple bumper-sticker length slogan, quipped to an ally.
Reagan outlined much of his nearly two-decades of thought given to this grave matter in a famous spring 1980 interview:
I think that the Soviet intentions are exactly what they’ve always said they are. The ultimate goal is a one-world state in which the entire world adopts Marxism, Communism. And they’ve said it repeatedly, every Russian leader has said that and has never retreated from that position: to support socialist revolutions wherever they take place in the world. But the trouble is they’re going out there make them take place.[“Reagan: ‘It Isn’t Only Washington That Has a Compassionate Heart,’” National Journal (March 8, 1980): 391.]
And, yet more:
Well, we’ve got a couple of things, and certainly a defensive weapon. Before I am too pessimistic, let me again reiterate that I believe the Soviet Union is not going to move unless they have far more strength than they now have. I could be wrong; I don’t think so. But let me give you a strategic plan for the Soviet Union. They have picked off Central Europe–Eastern Europe is gone already–and they have moved down into Africa. They have shown the intention of moving forward and have made some steps toward Latin America. The idea is to isolate and leave us, as I say, the last domino, the last bastion of capitalism in the world. But they don’t want to blow us up. They want what we have. They can say, ‘Look, fellows, we’re not going to send the bombers over and everything. We just want some agreements from you, and here’s what they are.’ Now, I don’t think the Soviet Union has the margin they want to deliver that kind of ultimatum–surrender or die. And as long as they feel that way, I think we still have some time if we start now and move as fast as we can move. The Soviet Union, I believe, is up to its maximum ability in developing arms. Their people are denied many consumer products because it is all going into the military. They know that if we turned our full industrial might into an arms race, they cannot keep pace with us. Why haven’t we played that card? Why haven’t we said to them when we’re sitting a the SALT table, ‘Gentlemen, the only alternative to you being willing to meet us halfway on these things is an arms race’? And maybe we wouldn’t have to have the arms race because that the last thing they want us to do. [“Reagan: ‘It Isn’t Only Washington That Has a Compassionate Heart,’” National Journal (March 8, 1980): 392.]
There was also much more to President Ronald Wilson Reagan than his critics have given him credit for. As David Gergen, a moderate Republican, said of the great man:
Working for him, I saw he was no dullard, as his critics claimed. From his eight years as governor and his many other years of writing and speaking out, he had thought his way through most domestic issues and knew how to make a complex governmental structure work in his favor. In the first year of his presidency, I also saw him dive into the details of the federal revenue code and become an authority as he negotiated with Congress. When he wanted to focus, he had keen powers of concentration and could digest large bodies of information. He was also one of the most disciplined men I have seen in the presidency (much more so than Clinton, for example), sot that he worked straight through the day, reading papers and checking off meetings on his list. At day’s end, headed off for a workout and would plow through more papers in the evening in the upstairs residence. He made the presidency look easy in part by keeping a strict regimen. He also had a retentive mind. After years of memorizing scripts in Hollywood, he would recall verbatim a lot of what he had read. He recited Robert Service poems as well as he did jokes. [Gergen, Eyewitness to Power, 197]
Barbara Elliott, author of the best book on the fall of communism in 1989 and 1991, Candles Behind the Wall, and a member of the Reagan White House, has confirmed for me Reagan’s penetrating intelligence many times.
No “sleepwalking through history” as Haynes Johnson once libelously wrote.
So, on May 17, 1981, at the ACC at the University of Notre Dame, President Reagan finally spoke openly and bluntly—the first time in his presidency thus far—about his policy toward the Soviets.
To anyone listening—and I was, as a 13-year old—Reagan’s words were electrifying.
The years ahead are great ones for this country, for the cause of freedom and the spread of civilization. The West won’t contain communism, it will transcend communism. It won’t bother to denounce it, it will dismiss it as some bizarre chapter in human history whose last pages are even now being written.
No president had spoken like this since long before Truman had created the policy of Containment. In just these few words, spoken under the shadow of the Golden Dome of Our Lady of the Lake, Reagan overturned nearly forty years of United States policy, and he gave strength and hope to the oppressed peoples of the world as well as to those of the West who only awaited someone to lead them, to speak for them, against Soviet Evil.
We were not alone in listening to Reagan. TASS, the official Soviet news agency, listened carefully as well. It reacted, not surprisingly, in bewilderment.
Pravda today dismissed President Reagan’s statement that communism is a dying political philosophy and compared his administration to medieval crusaders. The Communist Party newspaper was commenting on Reagan’s May 17 speech at Notre Dame University [sic] in which he said, ‘The West will not contain communism, it will transcend communism.’ The president called communism ‘a sad bizarre chapter in human history whose last pages are even now being written.’ The response from Pravda said, ‘This is not the first time that prophets foretelling the imminent death of communism emerge in the West. The anti-communist crusade which began in 1917 has always featured fanaticism characteristic of medieval crusaders rather than rational thinking. The Reagan administration also bears the mark of such fanaticism.’ [“Pravda Likens Reagan to Medieval Crusaders,” UPI (June 3, 1981)]
When American news officials later pushed Reagan on his statement, he explained a bit more, but he gave no ground.
The first question at the news conference, the third Reagan has held since taking office, dealt with a statement he made at his Notre Dame Commencement speech last month when he said that ‘Western civilization will transcend communism,’ which he referred to as ‘a sad, bizarre chapter in human history whose last pages are even now being written.’ Reagan was asked whether he related this to Poland. He replied:
…I think the things we’re seeing, not only in Poland, but the reports that are beginning to come out of Russia itself about the younger generation and its resistance to long-time government controls, is an indication that communism is an aberration, it’s not a normal way of living for human beings, and I think we are seeing the first cracks, the beginning of the end. [Lou Cannon, “President Expresses Sympathy for Israel on Raid against Iraq,” Washington Post (June 17, 1981), pg. A1]
But, back to the ACC, May 17, 1981. Ronald Reagan’s conclusion:
William Faulkner, at a Nobel Prize ceremony some time back, said man “would not only [merely] endure: he will prevail” against the modern world because he will return to “the old verities and truths of the heart.” And then Faulkner said of man, “He is immortal because he alone among creatures… has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance.”
One can’t say those words—compassion, sacrifice, and endurance—without thinking of the irony that one who so exemplifies them, Pope John Paul II, a man of peace and goodness, an inspiration to the world, would be struck by a bullet from a man towards whom he could only feel compassion and love. It was Pope John Paul II who warned in last year’s encyclical on mercy and justice against certain economic theories that use the rhetoric of class struggle to justify injustice. He said, ‘In the name of an alleged justice the neighbor is sometimes destroyed, killed, deprived of liberty or stripped of fundamental human rights.’
For the West, for America, the time has come to dare to show to the world that our civilized ideas, our traditions, our values, are not—like the ideology and war machine of totalitarian societies—just a facade of strength. It is time for the world to know our intellectual and spiritual values are rooted in the source of all strength, a belief in a Supreme Being, and a law higher than our own.
When it’s written, history of our time won’t dwell long on the hardships of the recent past. But history will ask—and our answer determine the fate of freedom for a thousand years—Did a nation borne of hope lose hope? Did a people forged by courage find courage wanting? Did a generation steeled by hard war and a harsh peace forsake honor at the moment of great climactic struggle for the human spirit?
On a day like today, thirty years after President Ronald Wilson Reagan gave that speech, it’s well worth remembering that every word spoken and written is a reflection—for good or ill—of The Word.
A word, properly and morally presented, can bring move mountains. It can also bring down walls and evil empires.
Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.