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Ronald Reagan at 88: The Champion of Liberty and Peace

By Consul B. John Zavrel

Chancellor of the Alexander Order



"Let us build cathedrals of peace, where the people can be free."

Ronald Reagan


It was at the height of the Cold War, as Ronald Reagan uttered the words "Let us build cathedrals of peace, where the people can be free," expressing his vision of a better world. On February 6, 1999, America's most popular president of the 20th century will turn 88 years old. We do not hear much about him these days; but he is still alive, being kept in privacy by his family due to his Alzheimers condition.

But as this century draws to a close, we need to stop and take a look at the developments in America and the world at large in the last two decades. Is the world better today than it was twenty years ago, when Ronald Reagan took his oath of office? Do we look forward to the future with hope and optimismus, or with fear and premonitions of doom? Where are our leaders taking us and do we really have any confidence in their leadership?

Most of us can still recall well the dark mood in America in the late 1970s of the Carter era. Although he was a basically decent and well meaning man, things did not go well at all during his watch. Do you remember what the world looked like back then? The Soviet Union was building up their military at an alarming rate; millions of people in Central and Eastern Europe suffered under the Soviet yoke, and Russian just invaded Afghanistan. In Africa, the former Rhodesia and its people fell into the horrors of Marxist tyranny. Nicaragua was ruled by leftist gangsters and El Salvador was headed in similar direction. The inflation in 1980 was rising at an annual rate of 12 percent, and unemployment was above 7 percent. Real wages were plunging at a dizzying rate. Young couples could not afford to buy homes, because the mortgage rates were about twice what they are nowadays. But perhaps most threatening was the widespread decline of people's confidence in public institutions and leadership. President Carter, unable to lead the nation despite his diligent efforts, found the cause in a "crisis of confidence" afflicting the American people.

Ronald Reagan changed all this--and more. When he left office after eight years, America's economy was again the envy, and the engine of the entire world. Inflation was down, employment was up, international trade was expanding. The top income tax rates were reduced from 70 percent to 28 percent. The Cold War with the Soviet Union, which had dominated American foreign policy since the end of the Second World War -- was "won." The first nuclear arms reduction treaty was signed. The Soviet Union, publicly and unforgettably labeled as the "Evil Empire" by President Reagan, was brought to the brink of dissolution that finally came to pass during the administration of his worthy successor, President George Bush in 1989-1991. But above all, Reagan restored America's belief in itself. He proved conclusively that the presidency could be successfully handled. He restored public faith in the competence of our government. The oldest man to hold the office of the president had also a unique bond with the young: 87 percent of people from 18 to 29 years old approved Reagan "as a person."

It was a cold and cloudy day on January 20, 1981, and Washington was preparing for the inauguration of Ronald Reagan. President Carter, involved all night in last minute negotiations to free the hostages in Iran, was ashen and visibly exhausted. Reagan, at nearly 70, the oldest man to take the presidential oath, looked like a movie star. Watching the sun break through the clouds as Reagan stepped up to take the oath of office, Americans could already see that a new kind of leadership was coming.

What was the magic of Ronald Reagan? "At the heart of our message should be five simple familiar words. No big economic theories. No sermons on political philosophy. Just five short words: family, work, neighborhood, freedom, and peace," said Reagan during his campaign in 1980. His fundamental belief was in the freedom of the individual -- and in the one nation that was built around its pursuit. And he said during his 1984 reelection campaign: "Ours is the land of the free because it is the home of the brave. America's future will always be great because our nation will always be strong. And our nation will be strong because our people will be free. And our people will be free because we will be united, one people under God, with liberty and justice for all." Reagan would identify and challenge any threat to that freedom--at one time from corporate power, from domestic government and ultimately from the threat of a nuclear Armageddon posed by the Soviet Union. During his presidency, his actions were constantly aimed toward bringing into reality the principles encompassed by the five central concepts of his vision: family, work, neighborhood, freedom, and peace.

The family was the foundation of Reagan's vision for America. With an eye toward the many functions successfully handled by families, he sought to limit government regulation that could weaken them: "We fear that government may be powerful enough to destroy families; we know that it is not powerful enough to replace them." In his view, cutting taxation and regulation was not only a means of restoring overall economic prosperity, but also a means of strengthening the family unit.

Like many of his generation, Reagan was marked by the scars of the unexpected hard times that gripped America during the Great Depression of the 1930s. Reagan's generation always sensed a fragility in economic prosperity; they could take nothing for granted. Reagan's down-to-earth focus on work as the source of the basic material goods that made it possible to care for oneself and one's family served him well when he sought the presidency during the economic distress of the late 1970s. "Our economy was one of the great wonders of the world. It didn't need master planners. It worked because it operated on principles of freedom, millions of people going about their daily business and making free decisions how they wanted to work and live, how they wanted to spend their money, while reaping the rewards of their individual labor."

Believing in the essential goodness of people, Reagan set great store by the ability of individuals to look our for one another in their own communities. "Neighborhood is the backbone of our country: Americans helping themselves and each other. Reaching out and finding solutions--solutions that government and huge institutions can't find."

The theme which runs like a golden thread through Reagan's life is his advocacy for freedom. He believed that moral and economic progress was based on achievements of individuals who believe in themselves, because they have faith in God. According to Reagan's vision, America has a unique place in the history of the world. "This blessed land was set apart in a very special way, a country created by men and women who came here not in search of Gold, but in search of God. They would be a free people, living under the law with faith in their Maker and their future. He often spoke of America as the "shining city on a hill." On leaving the White House in 1989, he spoke of John Winthrop, the author of that vision: What he imagined was important because he was an early freedom man…like the other Pilgrims, he was looking for a home that would be free." And he continued: "I've spoken of the shining city all my political life, but I don't know if I ever quite communicated what I saw when I said it. But in my mind it was a tall proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, wind-swept, God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace, a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity, and if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here."

As Reagan told a group of Russian students during his historical visit to Moscow, "Freedom is the recognition that no single person, no single authority or government has a monopoly on the truth, but that every individual life is infinitely precious, that evey one of us put on this world has been put there for a reason and has something to offer."

His twin goals were to cut back the rapid centralization of government authority in the United States since the 1930s and to confront and openly challenge Communism. That part of his vision was constant from the early 1950s on; his belief in the inevitable triumph of his vision was constant throughout these years. Reagan's view of freedom was connected with moral considerations. "Freedom, it has been said, makes people selfish and materialistic, but Americans are one of the most religious peoples on earth. Because they know that liberty, just as life itself, is not earned but a gift from God, they seek to share that gift with the world. "Reason and experience," said George Washington in his farewell address, "both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle. And it is substantially true, that virtue or morality is a necessary spring of popular government."

But above all, Reagan's vision put peace as the top priority; in the nuclear age there was no alternative. But it was not "peace at any price". As early as October 27, 1964, in a speech to a national audience and in a time when Communist regimes that achieved power by force and threatened to draw other countries into their dominion, he boldly challenged his fellow Americans and their conscience: "We cannot buy our security, our freedom from the threat of the nuclear bomb by committing an immorality so great as saying to a billion now in slavery behind the Iron Curtain, "Give up your dreams of freedom because to save our own skin, we are willing to make a deal with your slave masters."

He continued his support of "peace through strength" throughout his career, ultimately into the presidency. But he was equally clear that the goal was not merely the absence of armed conflict, but the eventual abolition of nuclear weapons themselves. In his second inaugural address in January 1985, Reagan cited "progress in restoring our defense capability," in response to the Soviet Union having undertaken "the greatest military buildup in the history of man." From a position of strength, he felt empowered to negotiate toward his ultimate goal: "We're not just discussing limits on a further increase in nuclear weapons; we seek, instead, to reduce their number. We seek the total elimination one day of nuclear weapons from the face of the Earth."

Reagan understood the madness of the American military doctrine at the time, which placed its entire faith in nuclear weapons of mass destruction, whose fundamental target was the civilian population. A nuclear war is aimed at people, no matter how often military men like to say, "No, we only aim to hit other missiles."

His visit to Moscow also showed him that "Soviet citizens…were generally indistinguishable from people I had seen all my life on countless streets in America," Reagan concluded: "It's not people who make war, but governments--and people deserve governments that fight for peace in the nuclear age." From this vision, Reagan successfully concluded the first agreement in history that would eliminate nuclear weapons. The United States and the USSR agreed to specific timetables for destruction of certain weapons enforced by unprecedented on-site monitoring.

The power of Reagan's vision was its simplicity. It is evident in the phrase "family, work, neighborhood, freedom, peace." Reagan constantly sought, throughout his career in elective office, to discipline public debate by returning to questions of vision and values. His vision encompassed the unprecedented changes at the end of the 20th century. These include the collapse of the Soviet empire, the defeat of the idea of socialism, the globalization of markets through trade and finance, and the shifting of authority and responsibility from centralized organizations to all types of smaller, more local enterprises and to individuals.

No one who observed Ronald Reagan could fail to be struck by his unshakable optimism. As he said in his address to the Republican National Convention in 1992: "Well I've said it before and I'll say it again -- America's best days are yet to come. Our proudest moments are yet to be. Our most glorious achievements are just ahead. America remains what Emerson called her 150 years ago, "the country of tomorrow."

And Ronald Wilson Reagan was one of the men in the history of America whose life work was dedicated to making America what she was, is and will continue to be: the land of the free and the home of the brave.


Thank you, Ronald Reagan, and God bless you.


Ronald Reagan--An American Hero, by B. John Zavrel




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