Ronald Reagan: Thank you, Mr. President!
The 1970s were a catastrophic decade not only for us, citizens of Hungary and other captive nations, but for the United States as well. During those years the Soviet Union was gaining strength while the U.S. was becoming weaker. This downturn did not only manifest itself in the military sphere, but also – and more significantly – as a political and emotional crisis of confidence. In the eyes of the world, the legendary protective, helping America, a land of successful businessmen was becoming a vulnerable and pathetic giant. By the end of the decade, ten African states became Marxist and belonged to the Soviet sphere of influence. In 1979, Militant Islam overthrew the pro-American Persian Shah, and installed an openly anti-U.S. terrorist regime that took American hostages, and, when in the spring of 1980, President Carter finally decided to rescue the hostages, the operation failed miserably. The détente policies of the seventies – as seen from Hungary - resulted in the United States losing ground, while the Soviet Union dramatically bolstering its self-confidence. From our vantage point, the seventies were nothing less than a decade of Western moral capitulation to the Soviet giant.
But by 1980 everything had changed.
By then the conservative orientation, so heavily ridiculed and scorned when Reagan had been campaigning for Goldwater in the 1964 Presidential race, had picked up strength and was becoming increasingly effective against a hesitant left wing. What had been embarrassing for more than a decade and a half, became suddenly acceptable, even trendy. From 1930 to 1970, capitalism had about as much appeal as communism has today. In the eighties, money, consumption and the market economy came back into fashion. The political and intellectual defeats of the left became indisputable. The emergence of Ronald Reagan, followed by his election, caused a distinct shift in American politics, but also in the values shared by Americans. The need to stand up against the Soviet Union and against political adventurism in Latin America was starting to gain vocal supporters.
Ronald Reagan, the fortieth President of the United States, was primarily an ideologue – conservative and radical. Therefore Reagan was depicted by the New York, and naturally by the pro-Soviet, press as an idiot, a semi brain-dead character, a practically illiterate, empty-headed, stupid cowboy, an uncultivated, ignorant puppet. The contemporary Hungarian press described him as a warmonger, putting our Planet in dire danger. As someone who didn’t know the first thing about politics or diplomacy, someone who didn’t understand the Russians. American presidents had never had a good press in communist Hungary, but Reagan was getting adjectives offending common sense. We understood immediately what that meant: they were afraid of him, which filled us with hope. We started paying attention to him. We understood that for the first time, the President of the United States was someone who was acquainted with communists and who had personally clashed with them on innumerable occasions as a trade union leader. Therefore he knew what to expect from them. He embodied for us the „American dream” as a self-made man, who had fought his way up to the top. And who cared for us too. Who was taking our side.
Reagan was also confident that, due to its own internal contradictions, the great enemy, communism would be destroyed within the foreseeable future. He believed and proclaimed that communism was nothing more than a bizarre chapter in human history, whose last pages would be written under his presidency. We had been nurturing such hopes too, and having our beliefs shared by the President of the number one world power was a great source of strength and confidence.
President Regan realized the great opportunity the Soviet Union’s war in Afghanistan (launched in December 1979) meant for the U.S., as did the Polish Solidarity movement, which shook communism in Poland. He ordered Secret Service operations, propaganda campaigns, and introduced technological and economic embargoes. In the days after the Jaruzelski coup, Reagan believed that „this may be the last chance in our lifetime to see a change in the Soviet empire’s colonial policy in Eastern Europe,” and therefore he decided completely to isolate the Soviet Union.
The fact that the Soviet Union did not dare to use the Budapest and Prague method that is open military occupation to „solve” the Polish problem, made it clear to Reagan – and to us too – that the communist regime had lost its self-confidence. Communists no longer believed themselves to be the depositories of historical necessity, nor that their system was superior and more advanced than that of their opponent. On the other hand, the advocates of freedom became increasingly confident and forceful. The legitimacy of communist ideology crumbled, the invincible Red Army was defeated in Afghanistan, while the Poles made it clear that they had their fill of socialism. With the loss of certainty in its own mission and strength, the foundations of the increasingly insecure communist regime were cracking. Its economic performance made it increasingly hopeless for it to maintain the advantage gained in the arms race. On March 8, 1983, Reagan called the Soviet Union the “focus of evil in the modern world.” Reagan impugned the legitimacy of the Soviet Union and excommunicated it from the civilized world. It was an open declaration of war. It signified the spectacular end of détente and the start of the new policy of gradual demolition and destruction. It was the beginning of the rollback strategy. The Soviet Union – the „evil empire” – had to disappear. We were jubilant, while the communist press was ejecting venomous poison.
Reagan was a man of peace. Soon after his election to governor of California, in 1966, the great Hungarian scholar Edward Teller invited him to visit the weapons laboratory at Livermore where they worked towards developing a ballistic missile defense system. Reagan accepted, and on November 22, 1967, he made the trip and received, during a two-hour presentation, what must have been his first exposure to the serious issue of missile defense. “What we told the governor was not simple, but he listened carefully and asked perhaps a dozen salient questions. Those questions made two points clear: The topic was quite new to the governor, and he understood the essence and importance of what we were discussing. Reagan was often described as someone fund of shooting from the hip. My view is that he heard about it in 1967 and only started shooting in 1983. In the meantime he would consult a high number of people. He was very careful in taking a decision. But once he had come to a decision, he would remain adamant”– wrote Teller in his Memoirs. The relationship between Teller and Reagan would remain a close one later on as well. It was on the basis of this decades-old experience and due to Teller’s persuasion that on March 23, 1983, Reagan would declare his Star Wars program. By then the Soviets had already a significant surplus of certain kinds of offensive weapons. The ballistic missile defense system would make the huge Soviet military potential useless and obsolete in one fell swoop. They too would have had to change over to the new technologies, but their economic performance was too poor. Reagan substantially increased U.S. defense spending, a crucial part of which was used for the Star Wars program and the related new technologies. Reagan considered the Star Wars plan the most important mission of his presidency. „I want to be remembered as the President of the United States who brought a sense and reality of peace and security. I want to eliminate that awful fear that each of us feels sometimes when we get up in the morning knowing that the world could be destroyed through a nuclear holocaust” – he said.
From the very first moment, the Star Wars program was the work of the devil in the eyes of the Soviets. Gorbachev was virtually paralyzed by the prospect of this new development, as is well shown by the following episode. When President Reagan gave a reception at the White House in the honor of the Gorbachev couple on December the 8Th, 1987, he also invited Edward Teller. Reagan introduced Teller to Gorbachev, who ignored the former’s outstretched hand. Reagan repeated: Allow me to introduce the famous Dr. Teller! Gorbachev simply said: I know very well who Teller is, but did not shake hands. Teller was proud until the end of his life on his effect on Gorbachev. „I regard this incident with Gorbachev as a great tribute.”
President Reagan spoke several times about Hungary. He knew we were a freedom loving and courageous nation and never lost an opportunity to pay his tribute to our country. Hungary was an inspiration for President Reagan because Hungarians had never given up, even after their uprising in 1956 was brutally put down by the Soviets. He knew several heroes of 56 by name. On the 30th anniversary of the 1956 uprising, Reagan issued a National Hungarian Freedom Fighters Day proclamation, saying:
„The people of Hungary have contributed many chapters to the history of the struggle for liberty, but never more nobly than 1956. The Hungarian freedom fighters of 1956 perished or suffered exile, but their sacrifice lives on in the memory of the Hungarian people…”
We particularly cherish Reagan’s message about Hungary’s Holy Crown, broadcast on the 9Th of January, 1978.
At the end of World War II our departing forces were asked to take the Crown of St. Stephen to keep the Russians from getting it and hold it in trust until Hungary was once again free. For more than 34 years it has been kept in the vaults of Fort Knox. Now the White House has declared this crown, which confers legitimacy and the blessings of Heaven upon Hungarian government to be the rightful property of the Godless, Communist rulers of that captive land.
At Teheran we sold a freedom not ours to sell. Now we give legitimacy not ours to give to an illegitimate government. Are we really serious about human rights?
This is RR. Thanks for listening.
Taking stock of his presidency in his Farewell Address to the Nation on the eleventh of January, 1989, Ronald Reagan, the fortieth President of the United States declared: „We meant to change a nation, and instead, we changed a world.”
Thank you, Mr. President!
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