“Evil empire” was President Ronald Reagan’s name for the USSR.
Reagan often portrayed the struggle between the US and the USSR as a moral war between good and evil. In some of his most famous speeches, he advocated a strong stance against the USSR, warning that the alternative was to abandon the struggle between right and wrong.
Reagan first referred to the USSR as the “evil empire” during a speech he delivered to the British House of Commons in 1982. The following year, he used the phrase again when he spoke to a convention of the National Association of Evangelicals.
In the 1983 speech, Reagan urged Evangelical leaders to do their part in what he described as a “spiritual” crisis, a “test of moral will and faith.” He insisted that the USSR needed to be totally eliminated in order to keep America free:
…in your discussions of the nuclear freeze proposals, I urge you to beware the temptation of pride–the temptation of blithely..uh..declaring yourselves above it all and label both sides equally at fault, to ignore the facts of history and the aggressive impulses of an evil empire, to simply call the arms race a giant misunderstanding and thereby remove yourself from the struggle between right and wrong and good and evil.
I ask you to resist the attempts of those who would have you withhold your support for our efforts, this administration’s efforts, to keep America strong and free, while we negotiate–real and verifiable reductions in the world’s nuclear arsenals and one day, with God’s help, their total elimination. [Applause]
While America’s military strength is important, let me add here that I’ve always maintained that the struggle now going on for the world will never be decided by bombs or rockets, by armies or military might. The real crisis we face today is a spiritual one; at root, it is a test of moral will and faith.
Reagan’s supporters have argued that his hard-line stance against the Soviet Union was crucial for bringing about the fall of the USSR and dismantling the Soviet bloc. Writing a quarter of a century after Reagan’s “evil empire” speeches, Newt Gingrich praised the “radicalism” behind those speeches.
“By calling the Soviet Union an “evil empire,” Reagan sent a clear signal that America was going to challenge the Soviet Union morally, win the psychological information war, and de-legitimize it. If the government was evil, he argued, how could it have authority?” Gingrich reasoned.
Ironically, Reagan himself distanced himself from his “evil empire” rhetoric towards the end of his presidency. In 1988, the president visited Moscow, met with Mikhail Gorbachev, and toured the Kremlin and Red Square. A reporter asked him directly whether he still thought of the Soviet Empire as an evil empire, and he said that he did not. “You are talking about another time, another era,” Reagan explained.
During the same visit, Reagan spoke at the House of Writers in Moscow. There, he said that it was vital not to caricature any nation or group of people. He explained,
“Pretty soon,” he said, “at least for me, it becomes harder and harder to force any member of humanity into a straitjacket, into some rigid form in which you all expect to fit.”