On the 100th anniversary of Ronald Reagan's birth, and the 25th anniversary of Natan Sharansky crossing the Gleinicke Bridge to freedom in West Berlin, it's important to remember some of the people who made that crossing possible.
According to Sharansky, Reagan was at the top of that list, along with human rights activist Andrei Sakharov and Senator Henry 'Scoop' Jackson (a Joe Lieberman kind of Democrat, fairly liberal on domestic issues but right-wing tough when it came to defending Israel and identifying America's enemies abroad, which in those days meant Communism and the Soviet Union.)
And right after Sharansky, Sakharov, Reagan and Jackson, let's add Jacob Birnbaum and Glenn Richter and all the activists led by Birnbaum who gave Reagan and Jackson the political and "street" support they needed.
You remember Reagan, don't you? He was one in a long string of Republican presidents who were supposedly so stupid. Democrats didn't just disagree with Reagan, they demeaned him, they demeaned anyone who voted for him, much as they do now with Sarah Palin and her voters. When Reagan called the Soviet Union an "evil empire," the Upper West Side thought that was pathetic.
Today, we'd think of that phrase as something Avigdor Lieberman might say, or Sarah Palin. Sophisticated "progressives" never spoke of the Soviet Union like that, it just wasn't done. just as J Street and Obama would never speak of the international phenomenon of Islamic fascism -- from Paris to the Palestinians to Brooklyn mosques -- as an "evil empire" today.
Obama's approach is the opposite of Reagan's. Last year, Obama ordered his administration to stop using words such as "jihad," "Islamic terrorism," or "radical Islam." Reagan called the Soviet's "evil." Obama won't even say the words Islamic jihad.
Meanwhile, Democratic presidents and candidates, such as Cater, Obama, even losers like Dukakis, are always advertised as being so smart. So much smarter than their Republican opponents. We heard about Carter's engineering degrees, and how brilliant Obama was. Then the dust settles and we see who was what.
"Remember," Sharansky told The Weekly Standard, "we accepted it as a given that Jimmy Carter was the world's great human rights advocate. Only later, after we saw what words without action can mean, did it occur to us that words were all he could offer.."
Then Reagan and Scoop Jackson came along, offering not just words but linkage, the Jackson-Vanik Amendement being just one example. While some, such as Henry Kissinger, continue to dispute the law's diplomatic usefulness, Jackson-Vanik's unapologetic defiance of the Soviet Union and the encouragement that defiance gave to Soviet Jews is incontestable.
In 2004, The Weekly Standard had an interesting interview with Sharansky, in which Sharansky recalled that "beautiful moment" when news of Reagan's "Evil Empire" speech reached into the Siberian gulag.
Sharansky was asked, were there any particular Reagan moments that you can recall being sources of strength or encouragement...
"I have to laugh," said Sharansky. "People who take freedom for granted, Ronald Reagan for granted, always ask such questions. Of course! It was the great brilliant moment when we learned that Ronald Reagan had proclaimed the Soviet Union an Evil Empire before the entire world. There was a long list of all the Western leaders who had lined up to condemn the evil Reagan for daring to call the great Soviet Union an evil empire right next to the front-page story about this dangerous, terrible man who wanted to take the world back to the dark days of the Cold War.
"This was the moment. It was the brightest, most glorious day. Finally a spade had been called a spade. Finally, Orwell's Newspeak was dead. President Reagan had from that moment made it impossible for anyone in the West to continue closing their eyes to the real nature of the Soviet Union.
"It was one of the most important, freedom-affirming declarations, and we all instantly knew it. For us, that was the moment that really marked the end for them, and the beginning for us. The lie had been exposed and could never, ever be untold now. This was the end of Lenin's 'Great October Bolshevik Revolution' and the beginning of a new revolution, a freedom revolution--Reagan's Revolution.
"We were all in and out of punishment cells so often -- me more than most -- that we developed our own tapping language to communicate with each other between the walls. A secret code. We had to develop new communication methods to pass on this great, impossible news. We even used the toilets to tap on.
"The first time I met President Reagan I told him this story. I felt free to tell him everything. I told him of the brilliant day when we learned about his Evil Empire speech from an article in Pravda or Izvestia that found its way into the prison. When I said that our whole block burst out into a kind of loud celebration and that the world was about to change, well, then the president, this great tall man, just lit up like a schoolboy. His face lit up and beamed. He jumped out of his seat like a shot and started waving his arms wildly and calling for everyone to come in to hear 'this man's' story.
"It was really only then that I started to appreciate that it wasn't just in the Soviet Union that President Reagan must have suffered terrible abuse for this great speech, but that he must have been hurt at home too. It seemed as though our moment of joy was the moment of his own vindication. That the great punishment he had endured for this speech was worth it."
Sharansky was asked, is it fair to say that Reagan was responsible for the collapse of the Soviet Union?
"Yes," said Sharansky. "Absolutely. But not one man alone. If I would be permitted to widen the credit a little more, I would say the collapse of the Soviet Union is attributable to three men. Andrei Sakharov, Scoop Jackson, and Ronald Reagan. These were the people who brought moral clarity to the conflict
and started the chain of events which led to the end of Soviet communism. Sakharov to the Russian people, Senator Jackson to the American government, and Ronald Reagan on behalf of the American people to the world and thus back to the Soviet Union.
"They created the policy of linkage: That international relations and human rights must be linked. That how a government treats its own people cannot be separated from how that government could be expected to treat other countries. That how governments honor commitments they make at home will show the world how they will honor their commitments abroad."
Where did it come from, Reagan's uncompromising opposition to evil, that was yet so optimistic?
Sharansky: "It came from him. From inside Ronald Reagan. He had two things all of us need but few of us seem to have. Ronald Reagan had both moral clarity and courage. He had the moral clarity to understand the truth, and the courage both to speak the truth and to do what needed to be done to support it.
Today, the West, and its "progressives," advocate appeasement at home and abroad. Words about Islamic terror are neutered and sanitized. For all of the flaws in Peter King's upcoming hearings on the domestic threat of Islamic terror, most progressives would rather that the hearings not be held at all, rather than the flaws be fixed. In the Middle East, the J Street approach (and the Obama approach) is to give the Palestinians whatever they want:
No settlements? Sure, even before negotiations. Jews can't live in a Palestinian state? Sure. A death sentence for Palestinians who sell land to Jews? Sure, that's not evil. Jews shouldn't be allowed to build in Jerusalem? Whatever you say, sir. The UN should condemn Israel but not the Palestinians? Yes sir, the land is the Palestinians, we have no claims or rights to Judea and Samaria. We have no rights to "natural growth," only the Palestinians do. Muslim Brotherhood? Sure. They're really secular and safe. The White House prefers a government that includes them to a government that includes Mubarak.
If that doesn't scare you, you must be progressive.
Sharansky: "Appeasement is not the exception for democracies. It is the rule for democracies. Appeasement is a powerful side effect of democracy. The
West's appeasement policy toward the Soviet Union began almost the moment its appeasement policy toward Nazi Germany ended. It didn't end until Ronald Reagan. Democratic leaders need peace to survive. Because democracies have to reflect the will of their people, democratic leaders choose appeasement because anything is preferable to war. Free peoples go to war only when they have no other choice.
"By the way, this is democracy's great strength as well as its great weakness. Democracies are both so free, so stable, and so prosperous because their people don't want war. Therefore, Western leaders were only continuing in this tradition by believing that the Soviet Union needed to be transformed
from a deadly rival into a partner for cooperation. Even President Carter, who understood human rights better than any president before him, always chose to appease the Soviet Union rather than to force it to compete with the West.
The Weekly Standard asked, "Since we can't reproduce Ronald Reagan himself, what practical lessons from him can we apply today to achieve a similar effect?"
Sharansky: "Linkage. This is the most important thing Reagan did. He established the pattern and insisted upon compliance. It worked to bring down the greatest, most totalitarian empire in all history. It can surely work today against enemies no less dangerous but far less powerful. But linkage takes both courage and moral clarity. Reagan's great strength was his optimistic faith in freedom and that every human being deserved freedom and that this freedom is a force that can liberate and empower and enrich and ennoble."
WS: "It is hard to imagine two people more different in life experiences than Natan Sharansky and Ronald Reagan. Did you feel those differences on a
Sharansky: "We both saw the world similarly. That is what matters. Not the experiences themselves but what is learned from them. People used to say
that Reagan's jokes exposed him as a simpleton. To me they revealed his strengths and convictions. He took great joy in telling me the old joke about the time Soviet president Leonid Brezhnev and his deputy Alexei Kosygin discussed what would happen to the USSR if it really did conform to the Helsinki Accords and adopted a truly open emigration policy. 'You and I would be the only two citizens left in the USSR,' Brezhnev said. 'Speak for yourself,' answered Kosygin.
"Ronald Reagan understood the power of this joke. He stood up to evil. He had the courage to fight evil and the wisdom to defeat it."
You can read the entire Sharansky 'Weekly Standard' interview here.
Related & Recommended
Get The Jewish Week Newsletter
The Jewish Week feels comments create a valuable conversation and wants to feature your thoughts on our website. To make everyone feel welcome, we won't publish comments that are profane, irrelevant, promotional or make personal attacks.