In 1980, Ronald Reagan was elected president of the United States of America.
On November 9, 1989, a little more than two years after President Reagan issued his famous demand in a speech at the Brandenburg Gate – “Mr. Gorbachev … Tear down this Wall” - the Berlin Wall fell.
What binds these three events together? As we mark the 20th anniversary of this momentous event, the symbol of the collapse of totalitarian communism, it is worth remembering not only because it marked the end of the world’s most savage regime, but also for the cause of the Soviet Empire’s collapse.
For decades, the Soviet Union was seen as a powerful adversary for the West, economically, ideologically, and militarily. Consequently the West, lead by the United States, followed a policy of cooperation and “trade”, or “building bridges”, with the Soviets. At the same time, the United States pursued a military policy called “Mutually Assured Destruction” (MAD), which consisted of building and maintaining a nuclear arsenal sufficiently strong to enable a retaliatory attack that would demolish the Soviet Union should they attack first.
Very few people of either major American political party, or among America’s allies in Europe, Asia, or the Western Hemisphere (who benefited from its protective nuclear “umbrella”), doubted the inherent strengths of the Soviet Union. The Cold War was here to stay, the consensus held, so we just have to get along as best we could. One of those few who bucked the consensus view was Ronald Reagan.
In his book Reagan’s War, Peter Schweizer documents Reagan’s long-held conviction, dating back to the 1950s, that the Cold War was winnable based upon communism’s inherent weaknesses. Those weaknesses stemmed from the lack of individual freedom, which made it impossible for the Soviets to compete with the United States either militarily or economically, if only the West would stop propping them up with its policies. Former Nixon national security adviser Richard Allen recalls a 1978 discussion in which Reagan told him, “My idea of American policy toward the Soviet Union is simple … We win and they lose.” (page 106)
Ronald Reagan got at least one big thing right. He recognized that the Soviet Communist Empire was an economic house of cards propped up only by the West. But he not only understood their economic weakness, but their ideological weakness as well. “Reagan knew that ideas reinforced the bricks and mortar that held up the Iron Curtain. And he already knew that when he attacked the legitimacy of communism, it set off aftershocks inside the Soviet empire” (page 190).
And against almost universal skepticism, opposition, and even hostility, victory is what the president set out to achieve upon taking office in 1981. Reagan understood the power of ideas. Shortly after taking office, he attacked the very moral legitimacy of communism in his famous Evil Empire Speech, in which he declared the Soviet Union to be “the focus of evil in the modern world” … “an evil empire” whose system of communism “is another sad, bizarre chapter in human history whose last pages are even now being written”.
“But his views were … ridiculed by scholars who believed he was fooling himself about the weakness of communism…” Schweizer writes, recounting on page 143 a sampling of opinions that summed up the prevailing conventional wisdom, even of Reagan’s own party:
Seweryn Bialer of Columbia University – “The Soviet Union is not now nor will it be during the next decade in the throes of a true system crisis, for it boasts enormous unused reserves of political and social stability that suffice to endure the deepest difficulties.”
Lester Thurow of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology described the Soviet Union as “a country whose economic achievements bear comparison with those of the United States [and that] it is a vulgar mistake to think that most people in Eastern Europe are miserable.”
“John Kenneth Galbraith of Harvard concluded as late as 1984 that ‘the Russian system succeeds because, in contrast to the Western industrial economies, it makes full use of its manpower.’ ”
Historian Arthur Schlesinger returned from a trip to Moscow in 1982 with the declaration “that Reagan’s vision of pushing the Kremlin over the brink was nonsense”, denying that 'the Soviet Union is on the verge of economic and social collapse, ready with one small push to go over the brink…' ”
But viewed in full historical context, “one small push” was all it really took to push the mighty Soviet Empire “over the brink”.
The Evil Empire speech electrified dissidents behind the iron curtain and ignited a resistance that would pressure the Soviet system from within, even as Reagan systematically carried out what KGB Deputy Chairman Georgy Tsinov called “an economic war against us” (page 215) from without. The United States’ policies of moral equivalence – “détente” and “peaceful coexistence” – were officially over. As former British Prime Minister and Reagan ally Margaret Thatcher recounted in her eulogy at his funeral:
“Yes, he warned that the Soviet Union had an insatiable drive for military power and territorial expansion, but he also sensed that it was being eaten away by systemic failures impossible to reform.
“So the president resisted Soviet expansion and pressed down on Soviet weakness at every point until the day came when communism began to collapse beneath the combined weight of those pressures and its own failures.”
Eight years after the seizure of her family’s business, Alisa Rosenbaum left Russia for America, never to return. Keeping her original initials, she adopted the name Ayn Rand, and became a novelist and a philosopher. Continuing a line of thought that stretched from Aristotle to Aquinas to Locke to the Founding Fathers, her philosophy upheld the supreme values of reason and individualism. The role of ideas in the progression of human history is a central theme in her work.
Her first novel, We the Living, is a story of three people set in Soviet Russia. It is a moral denunciation not merely of communist totalitarianism, but of the individual life-crushing nature of all tyrannies. In her novelette Anthem, she depicts an extreme world without individualism, in which the word “I” has been banished from society. It was published before George Orwell’s more famous 1984. Like 1984, Anthem has an anti-collectivist, anti-totalitarian theme, but with one crucial difference. Orwell portrayed a technologically advanced totalitarian society in which the state harnesses the power of science to control and enslave its people. Rand considered that a logical impossibility, since she considered reason to be the source of human progress. Since man’s mind, and thus reason, is solely the possession of the individual, freedom is the basic social requirement necessary for man, and a nation, to flourish. In Anthem’s dystopian version of the nightmare totalitarian world in which the individual mind is essentially banned, society has retreated into a primitive world of candles and hand plows.
The role of the mind in man’s existence, and the indispensability of individual freedom to the reasoning mind, is a theme that is fully developed in The Fountainhead and especially Atlas Shrugged. Needless to say, Ayn Rand was one of the lonely voices who believed that Soviet Russia was an ideological and economic house of cards that would collapse of its own weight if Western support were withdrawn. What’s interesting is that Ronald Reagan claimed to be an admirer of Rand (Reagan - A Life in Letters, page 281-282) and is believed to have been influenced to some degree by her. In Letters, Reagan (who was considering a run for president in 1968) acknowledged receipt from a friend (Ampower Corporation president William Vandersteel) of a pamphlet by Ayn Rand entitled Conservatism: An Obituary, in which Vandersteel told Reagan that “Rand argues that many conservatives are opposed to statism but don’t seem to realize the only good alternative is capitalism.”
In this essay, Rand says that the only way to counter Khrushchev’s declaration that communism will “bury you” is with a strong moral and intellectual defense of America and capitalism. Reagan responded to Vandersteel in a letter: “Thanks very much for the pamphlet. Am an admirer of Ayn Rand but hadn’t seen this study.”
This raises an intriguing question. Did Ayn Rand play an indirect part in bringing about the collapse of the Soviet Union?
There is anecdotal evidence to support the possibility that Rand’s long-held and outspoken advocacy of the approach ultimately adopted by Reagan, which is also implicit throughout her written works both fiction and non-fiction, may have had a direct role in the formulation of the president’s convictions.
We know that she and Reagan were on the same intellectual page in regard to Russia. Though an outspoken critique of Reagan (she did not vote for either he or President Carter in 1980), she nonetheless had strong words of support for his policy towards the Soviet Union. In 1981 at Boston’s Ford Hall Forum, where she made frequent appearances, she had this to say about the fledgling administration’s policy in an address entitled The Age of Mediocrity:
“In the field of foreign policy, I like the tone and style of Mr. Reagan’s and Mr. Haig’s statements about Soviet Russia. It was a shocking and wonderful surprise to hear an American president speak of the Soviets as they really are – as a gang of thugs – after hearing the disgraceful appeasement of Russia that has been going on for some 50 years. And observe that the Russians responded by starting to appease America, by asking for a summit meeting to talk things over – which has always been the response of bullies, thugs, and communists at the first sound of a firm statement. But these were merely statements. We have not seen, as yet, any significant actions by the Reagan Administration in foreign affairs. So it is too early to judge.” [Alexander Haig was Reagan’s Secretary of State in 1981.]
Though she did not live long enough to see them, she undoubtedly would have looked favorably upon the general thrust of the actions Reagan was to take. Notice she was already attuned to the nature of the struggle between the two superpowers, noting Russia’s quickness “to appease”.
In addition to his explicit recognition of her, another of the few people who saw things as Rand and Reagan did was Richard Pipes, a Baird Professor of History at Harvard whom Schweizer reports “had arrived at the same conclusions [as Reagan] about the Soviet Union”. Pipes was charged by President Reagan with the task of developing “a detailed plan and strategy” to “weaken the Soviet alliance system by forcing the USSR to bear the brunt of its economic shortcomings”. The result was “a stunning forty-three-page secret paper that largely confirmed what Reagan had been saying for twenty years”. (quotes from pages 155-157) As it turns out, Pipes was familiar with Ayn Rand, citing her work on property rights from Capitalism, the Unknown Ideal in his important book Property and Freedom (page 288).
Both Reagan and Rand battled against communist influence in Hollywood, and both were members of the 1940s Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals, so they undoubtedly knew each other personally. Reagan was a co-founder, and Rand wrote a pamphlet for the Alliance, entitled Screen Guide for Americans.
As members, both testified before the United States House of Representatives' Committee on Un-American Activities (also known as HUAC) – Rand on October 20, 1947, and Reagan three days later. In her testimony, Rand gave a brief but impassioned account of what life is like under a communist regime where individual freedom is non-existent:
Rep. John R. McDowell: You paint a very dismal picture of Russia. You made a great point about the number of children who were unhappy. Doesn't anybody smile in Russia any more?
Rand: Well, if you ask me literally, pretty much no.
McDowell: They don't smile?
Rand: Not quite that way; no. If they do, it is privately and accidentally. Certainly, it is not social. They don't smile in approval of their system.
McDowell: Well, all they do is talk about food.
Rand: That is right.
McDowell: That is a great change from the Russians I have always known, and I have known a lot of them. Don't they do things at all like Americans? Don't they walk across town to visit their mother-in-law or somebody?
Rand: Look, it is very hard to explain. It is almost impossible to convey to a free people what it is like to live in a totalitarian dictatorship. I can tell you a lot of details. I can never completely convince you, because you are free. It is in a way good that you can't even conceive of what it is like. Certainly they have friends and mothers-in-law. They try to live a human life, but you understand it is totally inhuman. Try to imagine what it is like if you are in constant terror from morning till night and at night you are waiting for the doorbell to ring, where you are afraid of anything and everybody, living in a country where human life is nothing, less than nothing, and you know it. You don't know who or when is going to do what to you because you may have friends who spy on you, where there is no law and any rights of any kind.
The central element in Reagan’s view of the inherent weakness of communism, and a recurring theme in his speeches, is the fundamental importance of individual freedom to the economic vitality of a nation – the same view held by Rand. Of course, many people hold to that view. But the state of chronic fear brought to life in Rand’s description is obviously anathema to an economically vibrant society, and it is entirely likely that Reagan heard, in personal conversations, much more from Rand about the stark dismal nature of life inside the Soviet Union. This could only strengthen Reagan’s convictions.
Perhaps the strongest link between Rand and Reagan was a man who was personally close to both, Alan Greenspan. Greenspan was integrally involved in the Reagan administration, and in 1987 was nominated by Reagan to be Federal Reserve Board Chairman. Greenspan was also a part of Ayn Rand’s intellectual inner circle and a close friend. In his memoirs, despite revealing some basic philosophical disagreements with her, he wrote:
“Ayn Rand became a stabilizing force in my life… Ayn Rand and I remained close until she died in 1982, and I’m grateful for the influence she had on my life. I was intellectually limited until I met her.” (pages 51-52)
Of the issue of the Soviet Union, he wrote:
“At the height of Soviet Power, she held that the system was so inherently corrupt that eventually it would collapse from within (page 40).
“ ‘End of the Soviet Union; Gorbachev, Last Soviet Leader, Resigns; U.S. Recognizes Republics’ Independence’ read the headline of the New York Times on December 26  – I looked at it and felt regret that Ayn Rand hadn’t lived to see it. She and Ronald Reagan had been among the few who had predicted decades before that the USSR would ultimately collapse from within.” (page 138)
Indeed she did. From at least World War II (and probably sooner), Rand steadfastly opposed “peaceful co-existence”, “détente”, economic trade and other American policies that she believed propped up and gave moral legitimacy to the Soviet Union. On The Tonight Show in 1967, she told Johnny Carson:
“We have nothing to gain by that war and it is draining the country. Therefore, I am enormously opposed to the whole Vietnam mess… I am against the war because … it does not serve any national interest.
“[If] we wanted to save the world from Communism, it’s not necessary to go to war. All we would have to do is stop helping the Communists economically. Stop building bridges to them, which have supported them for fifty years now. Soviet Russia would collapse of its own evil if the semi-free world did not constantly help it.” (Objectively Speaking, pages 195-196)
To say that Ronald Reagan defeated the “Evil Empire” is not accurate. It is now generally recognized that Soviet Russia was inherently flawed and would have collapsed of its own weight anyway. But when? From the 1920s until the 1980s, thanks to a steady stream of economic support - from loans that were never repaid, to credits, to subsidies, to aid, to trade, to technologies borrowed, copied, and stolen by the Soviets – communism’s failures were papered over. The cost of Western support in terms of human destitution, oppression, mass deaths totaling in the tens of millions, and war causes one’s mind to break down when considering the enormity of the evil that could have been prevented.
Yet only Ayn Rand, Ronald Reagan, and a few others recognized it. If they had been listened to, how much suffering could have been avoided? How much more suffering would still be going on if not for them? The Soviet Empire could have dragged on for one, two, or more generations with Western support.
It’s now clear that Ronald Reagan hastened the inevitable demise of Soviet communism. Did he act alone, ideologically? Did Ayn Rand – the philosopher who said that “evil is impotent and has no power but that which we let it extort from us” - play a role, possibly a pivotal role, in inspiring Reagan’s policies and actions? The connection between the two is clear, and Reagan’s speeches contain a recognizable element to those of us who are familiar with Rand’s ideas.
But I could not find any evidence of a direct, causal link between Ayn Rand and Ronald Reagan’s adoption of his views and policies. Still, the circumstantial evidence suggests that Ayn Rand’s influence may have been consequential.
Did the young girl who watched her family lose its livelihood and get driven into poverty by the communists ultimately inspire the chain of events that would destroy it? It’s a tantalizing hypothesis and, if true, must be history’s greatest demonstration of the truth of the words of Edward Bulwer-Lytton: The pen is mightier than the sword.