Keynote Speech Commemorating President Ronald Reagan’s 112th Birthday Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation & Institute

Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation & Institute, Washington D.C.

Keynote Speech Commemorating President Ronald Reagan’s 112th Birthday Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation & Institute

(as prepared for delivery)

I would like to thank John Heubusch for that kind introduction.

Friends, it is special for me to speak here today as we honor again an extraordinary human being, and a hugely successful American President. As we all know, Ronald Reagan was a truth teller, and for this he was called “the great communicator.” But he rejected that title, saying: “I wasn’t a great communicator, but I communicated great things. And they didn’t spring full bloom from my brow, they came from the heart of a great nation.” He was too modest about the first part, but he was right about the second. Reagan crystallized much of what makes this nation great, and, just as importantly, much of what makes it good.

His charisma and core decency were irrepressible. His personality was so compelling that a deep trait of his character – compassion – went sometimes unrecognized. On the day of attempted assassination, the grievously wounded Ronald Reagan recalled the parable of the “lost sheep,” then he, and I quote, “began to pray for . . . the mixed-up young man who had shot me. . . that he would find his way back to the fold.”

Ronald Reagan was a fierce Cold Warrior and, less acknowledged and appreciated, an avid and insistent Peacemaker. For him, America’s international strength was not a national vanity nor an end in itself. Rather, it was a necessary instrument to produce flexibility and compromise by America’s adversaries.

His abiding vision had both a moral and strategic clarity, and he refused to accept that leaders had to choose between the two. He was convinced, as Churchill put it, that there is nothing which adversaries “admire so much as strength, and there is nothing for which they have less respect than for military weakness.” But he also knew that a country that demands moral perfection in its foreign policy will achieve neither perfection nor security.

President Reagan was also an inveterate joker, especially about the Soviet Union. One he loved involved an American and a Russian arguing about the differences between their countries. The American says: “In my country, I can walk into the Oval Office; I can hit the desk with my fist and say, ‘President Reagan, I don’t like the way you’re governing the United States!’” And the Russian said, “I can do that.” The American asked, “What?” The Russian continued, “I can walk into the Kremlin; into Brezhnev’s office; I can pound Brezhnev’s desk and I can say, ‘Mr. President, I don’t like the way Ronald Reagan is governing the United States!’”

President Reagan was a large part of my life for a long time. I first knew him from afar as an actor and public speaker, but I came to admire him as a man, and as a public servant, for the six years when he governed California and I served as National Security Advisor and Secretary of State. During that period, we spoke monthly about foreign policy.

Reagan offered thoughtful counsel and sometimes crucial advice. I remember on one occasion, in the midst of the 1973 Yom Kippur War, we planned to resupply lost Israeli aircraft, but were unsure how to limit the reaction of Israel’s adversaries. His suggestion: “Why don’t you say that you will replace all the aircraft they claim to have shot down,” thereby turning the wildly inflated boasts of Egypt and Syria against them. Alongside his legendary affability, Ronald Reagan was a consummate international poker player.

Reagan came to the Presidency powered by his anti-Communist convictions. While in office, these did not waver – he saw the fundamental moral failures of the Soviet system – but they were tempered by the responsibility he felt for avoiding catastrophic war. He and I had in the order of 60 or 70 conversations, mainly about foreign policy, during his Presidency; three aspects of those discussions seem especially relevant today.

First, Reagan believed that America was most secure and prosperous if it worked to shape a stable world. This was the lesson he took from the 20th century. When commemorating the “Boys of Pointe du Hoc” on the rugged coast of Normandy where so many young men had died to liberate Europe, Reagan declared that “isolationism never was and never will be an acceptable response to tyrannical governments with an expansionist intent.” It was not in the American interest to see Europe fall under domination, but Reagan’s promise was essentially a moral one: “We were with you then; we are with you now. Your hopes are our hopes, and your destiny is our destiny.”

Second, Reagan knew that America needed to be powerful in matter and in mind to protect world order by force, if necessary. But strength he never glorified, nor sought for its own sake; it was always a means to secure peace. Thus, his favored phrase, “peace through strength.”

To this end, Reagan ordered the upgrade and expansion of nuclear warheads and delivery systems in the first year of his Presidency. But, later the same month, he told Lady Thatcher – his closest international friend – that he did so because, and I quote, “without this program, there would be no incentive for the Soviets seriously to negotiate meaningful and substantial arms reductions, a course to which my government remains fully committed.”

This basic approach, to build up arms and develop a strategic advantage, so that one can then dismantle those arms, had never been tested before, and has never been equaled. It was President Reagan, and him alone, who led the United States and the Soviet Union to abolish an entire class of nuclear weapons in the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty.

Third, Reagan made clear to the Soviet Union that America – though diametrically opposed to its philosophy and its system of government – did not seek to threaten its existence. Publicly, Reagan stated that “there is no reconciliation we would welcome more than a reconciliation with the Soviet Union, so, together, we can lessen the risks of war.” Privately, while in recovery from the assassination attempt, Reagan wrote to Brezhnev to this end, noting that America had already forgone its opportunity to dominate the world, when it possessed a nuclear monopoly. Instead, it had followed a course “unique in all the history of mankind. We used our power and wealth to rebuild the war-ravaged economies of the world, including those nations who had been our enemies.”

The most profound national interest the two countries shared was the avoidance of nuclear war. Reagan’s vision swept beyond the limits of his time, as he sought not just to avoid it, but to prevent its potential; he sought to eliminate nuclear weapons from the Earth. This was the impetus of the missile defense program, the “Strategic Defense Initiative,” in which Reagan so deeply believed, based on the supremacy of American technology. That he promised – I believe sincerely – to share SDI with the Soviet Union upon its achievement reflected his conviction that the Soviet people ought not live in fear of nuclear annihilation. In his mind, no one should. That sentiment underpinned Reagan and Gorbachev’s joint statement from Geneva in 1985, that “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.”

American leaders are often criticized as belligerent when they build defenses, and weak when they practice conciliation. Reagan overcame this divide. In June 1987, Reagan in Berlin proclaimed: “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” Five months later, Reagan delivered a broadcast throughout Europe in which he shared his hope that “someday, General Secretary Gorbachev and I could meet in Berlin and together take down the first bricks of that wall – and we could continue taking down walls until the distrust between our peoples and the scars of the past are forgotten.” Though this vision would be incarnated 10 months after he left office, no American did more to undermine “that dreadful gray gash across the city” than Ronald Reagan. In this, as in so many other ways, we stand in Reagan’s shadow still.

President Reagan assumed office after a period of internal turmoil and international withdrawal, epitomized in the protests over Vietnam and the Iran hostage crisis. Over his eight years at the helm, he quieted each. He left America more unified and more secure than it had been in decades.

Domestically, despite serious policy differences, he never believed that the political opposition was the enemy, still less unpatriotic. Internationally, he laid the groundwork for the peaceful resolution of the Cold War, then the most dangerous contest in human history. I have before said that great leaders take their societies from where they have been to where they have never before imagined going. Ronald Reagan did just that.

Today, we again suffer domestic division and international disorder. Amid arguments about who we are and what we stand for, we find it difficult to muster the internal cohesion necessary to confront the challenges that we face. In the Middle East, a hollow theocracy is on the brink of the world’s most destructive weapons. In Asia, China’s ambition as the “Middle Kingdom” constitutes a challenge to the world order that America built. Most urgently, Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine shows no signs of abating. Most profoundly, the emergence of Artificial Intelligence may transform human consciousness itself.

Each of these pressing developments requires a combination of strength and conciliation. The “Peacemaker,” as a recent, formidable biography describes the President, understood perhaps better than any prior or subsequent leader how to integrate these elements.

Today we need Ronald Reagan’s courage. As he said in his Challenger speech, “The future doesn’t belong to the fainthearted; it belongs to the brave.” We need his civic faith: “We are too great a nation,” he reminded us, “to limit ourselves to small dreams.” And we need his vision. In his farewell address, he described the “City on the Hill,” as he’d always seen our country, as: “a beacon, a magnet for all who must have freedom, for all the pilgrims from all the lost places, who are hurtling through the darkness, toward home.”

Ladies and Gentlemen, what we need most is another Ronald Reagan. Thank you for inviting me.