Thirty-six years ago, Ronald Reagan gave a speech in July – this time of year. It was empowering, eminently hopeful. His words are timeless. Twelve years later, a collection of tributes included one by a great American historian, author of The Icon and the Axe, former Librarian of Congress, 42 honorary degrees, James H. Billington. Their words are timely.
On that hot July day, Reagan spoke with conviction. One paragraph stands out, should be read – or seen again – by all who aim to divide America, who fail to appreciate our greatness, who misunderstand that we are rightly proud, and unique in all human history.
Reagan said, Nancy beside him, the wind in his hair: “Believe me, if there is one impression I carry with me after the privilege of holding for five-and-a-half years the office held by Adams, Jefferson, and Lincoln, it is this – that the things that unite us, America’s past of which we are so proud, our hopes and aspirations for the future of the world, and this much-loved country, these things far outweigh what little divides us…”
He continued: “So tonight, we reaffirm that Jew and gentile, we are one nation under God, that black and white, we are one nation indivisible, that Republican and Democrat, we are all Americans. Tonight, with heart in hand, through whatever trial and travail, we pledge ourselves to each other and to the cause of human freedom, the cause that has given light to this land and hope to the world…”
The entire speech is poignant, but this bit makes Reagan’s point. We are what we believe, understand, and appreciate about ourselves and what we aspire to be. At our best, the entire world pivots to our beacon, follows the light, and understands real leadership and freedom’s call.
In less than two years, Reagan would talk Gorbachev down from a crumbling communist ledge, humbly giving credit to him and the Russian people for freedom’s hard advance – ending 70 years of brutal Soviet rule.
Billington, who wrote incisive books on the Soviet Union and Russian people, would write a moving tribute to Reagan in 1998. In it, Billington celebrates the magic of Reagan and America.
Said Billington: “Ronald Reagan was the single most important person in ending the Cold War, without either major loss of human life or serious concessions. It was an astonishing accomplishment…I had the privilege of observing some of the special magic …”
He is incisive. “The first part of the strategy was to make it absolutely clear at the beginning of his administration that tokenism in arms reduction…would no longer do. By pressing ahead, despite an intimidating chorus of negative criticism, with significant military strengthening, by introducing the wild card of strategic defense, by going beyond normal diplomatic language…Reagan raised the ante to a level the strained Soviet system could not meet.”
But more. “His support for human rights encouraged the forces of moral reconstruction…challenging from within the legitimacy of the Soviet rule…”
“The second part of his strategy…was his ability to be a gracious winner. He eased the transition away from communism in a way that did not humiliate, but…honored his opponent who was moving things,” and Reagan instinctively reached out “to the Russian people.”
How did Reagan do that, take what was best about America and use it to leverage freedom for hundreds of millions, not a shot fired? Fortifying our own believe, he exported freedom. How?
“He presented the values of freedom and democracy not just as American exports, but with universal appeal that could draw on the deep religious and cultural traditions of Russia, just as they drew on such traditions in America.” Reagan knew that respect and universal values work.
In short, what did Reagan do – that we might incorporate now into our time? “In the deadly world of high diplomacy, trying to diffuse the potentially most dangerous conflict in history, President Reagan brought into play both inner serenity and an outgoing ability to spread contagious pleasure through a shared story.”
In sum, he channeled America. At our best, we see the world as it is, envision it better, ignore critics and danger, and consciously leverage what we know and the lessons we learned to shape the future.
This month, that many years ago, Reagan captured the essence of who we are – when we are at our best. He applied it in his time to the biggest challenges we faced as a nation – and he won, with faith and fortitude, grace and graciousness, humor and resolve, patience and persistence.
When we wake up, the burden is on us not to groan at the world, hide, or become snide, but to make of the day what we know it should be, do what he did, turn into the wind, speak truth, and know we can prevail. That was true, is true, works at home and abroad. So, are we ready?