Americans -- and people in many other countries -- are mourning the death on June 5th of former President Ronald Reagan. As President George W. Bush said, “Ronald Reagan won America’s respect with his greatness, and won its love with his goodness”:
“He leaves behind a nation he restored and a world he helped save. During the years of President Reagan, America laid to rest an era of division and self-doubt. And because of his leadership, the world laid to rest an era of fear and tyranny.”
When Ronald Reagan took office in 1981, hundreds of millions of people in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe were suffering under Communist dictatorships. And the whole world was menaced by an aggressive Soviet regime armed with thousands of nuclear weapons. Only about a year before, the Soviets had invaded Afghanistan. And in other countries, Soviet-aided factions were seeking to install Communist regimes by force.
President Reagan realized that the U.S. and its allies needed to confront this “evil empire,” as he called it. Mr. Reagan accelerated the military buildup initiated by President Jimmy Carter, his predecessor. But he also called for the U.S. to seek to develop defenses against Soviet ballistic missiles -- the Strategic Defense Initiative. And when the accession to power of Mikhail Gorbachev in 1985 made it possible, Mr. Reagan began arms reduction negotiations with the Soviet Union -- leading, among other things, to the 1987 treaty to eliminate short- and intermediate-range nuclear missiles in Europe.
At the same time, President Reagan carried on a campaign, first announced in 1982 in London, to promote democracy around the world. In 1987, he went to Berlin, which since 1961 had been divided between a Communist East and a free West by an ugly wall. In words meant for the Soviet leader, President Reagan said, “if you seek peace, if you seek prosperity. . .Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”
On November 9th, 1989, less than a year after Ronald Reagan left office, the Berlin Wall came down. Within months, Communist regimes had been thrown out across Eastern Europe. At the end of 1991, the Soviet Union itself broke up. The “evil empire” was history.
Ronald Reagan once told a group of students about some of the burdens as well as the satisfactions of being U.S. President. Summing up, he said:
“Well, all I can tell you is, every morning when I wake up, I thank God for having given me the opportunity to serve.”
To which, millions of Americans can only say, “Thank you, Mr. President.”