A Tale of Two Speeches: the Queen’s imaginary World War III address; and the ‘Evil Empire’ speech, which showed why it was a futile exercise

A page showing President Reagan's edits to his 'Evil Empire' speech (AP)

This is a tale of two speeches by heads of state: one actually delivered, the other happily not. I begin by considering the first, a speech written in a weak parody of the Queen’s annual Christmas address (a parody which nowhere approaches the combination of simplicity and spiritual depth she so often reaches in these Christmas speeches, which she of course writes herself). It was intended to be delivered by her in the event of the outbreak of a Third World War. This was how she was supposed to begin: “When I spoke to you less than three months ago we were all enjoying the warmth and fellowship of a family Christmas. Our thoughts were concentrated on the strong links that bind each generation to the ones that came before and those that will follow. The horrors of war could not have seemed more remote as my family and I shared our Christmas joy with the growing family of the Commonwealth.

“Now this madness of war is once more spreading through the world and our brave country must again prepare itself to survive against great odds.”

Even in this exercise, the mentality of what was known as détente (a code for the appeasement of Soviet power by all means, including never being offensive to the potential enemy) is well in place: thus, the military forces of the now declared enemy are not to be blamed for their aggressive actions: Her Majesty is to be asked to say instead that “The enemy is not the soldier with his rifle nor even the airman prowling the skies above our cities and towns but the deadly power of abused technology”.

It is hardly too much to speculate that the panicky notion that we might be close to World War III was a direct result of the conviction of the government’s chief advisers in Whitehall that the dismantling of détente then in full swing because of the policies of both Margaret Thatcher (unwisely attacked by the Soviets even before she came to power as ”The Iron Lady”) and, above all, Ronald Reagan, had actually put us in danger of imminent attack. In fact, the end of détente had made us safer than we had been for years; it was precisely détente which had made war more likely: it had, for instance, led directly to the invasion by the Soviets of Afghanistan, after the cautious but nevertheless opportunist Leonid Brezhnev had concluded that the clearly pacifist attitude of President Jimmy Carter (the more aggressive so-called “Carter Doctrine” came only later) meant exactly what he supposed: that he could invade Afghanistan with impunity: and so he did. The whole thing came as a huge shock to Carter, who weakly admitted that it had “made a more dramatic change in my own opinion of what the Soviets’ ultimate goals are than anything they’ve done in the previous time I’ve been in office.”

The question is why he should have been so surprised. The Brezhnev doctrine, that the Soviet Union had the right to use military force to maintain the power of the Communist Party in nearby socialist countries (which the Soviets had made no secret that they regarded Afghanistan as now being) was clearly still in force.

It was only with the election of Ronald Reagan that the Soviets finally realised that the game was up. The same year that the bureaucrats imagined the Queen making “her” wet World War III speech, he delivered his magnificent “Evil Empire” oration, which undoubtedly terrified the pacifists in Whitehall. At last, an American President was speaking the truth about the nature of the Soviet Union and indicating the intention not to maintain a precarious balance with Soviet power, but in the end to dismantle it on moral grounds. It is significant that the same speech contains this attack on Roe v Wade: “Abortion on demand now takes the lives of up to one and a half million unborn children a year. Human life legislation ending this tragedy will some day pass the Congress, and you and I must never rest until it does.”

It also contains this: “There is sin and evil in the world, and we’re enjoined by Scripture and the Lord Jesus to oppose it with all our might. Our nation, too, has a legacy of evil with which it must deal. The glory of this land has been its capacity for transcending the moral evils of our past. For example, the long struggle of minority citizens for equal rights, once a source of disunity and civil war, is now a point of pride for all Americans. We must never go back. There is no room for racism, anti-Semitism, or other forms of ethnic and racial hatred in this country.”

It was only after he had firmly established the religious and moral foundations of his policy towards the Soviets that he began the most famous section of his speech (though most of what follows has been forgotten):

It was C S Lewis who, in his unforgettable Screwtape Letters, wrote: “The greatest evil is not done now in those sordid ‘dens of crime’ that Dickens loved to paint. It is not even done in concentration camps and labour camps. In those we see its final result. But it is conceived and ordered (moved, seconded, carried and minuted) in clear, carpeted, warmed, and well-lighted offices, by quiet men with white collars and cut fingernails and smooth-shaven cheeks who do not need to raise their voice…”

You know, I’ve always believed that old Screwtape reserved his best efforts for those of you in the church. So, in your discussions of the nuclear freeze proposals, I urge you to beware the temptation of pride – the temptation of blithely declaring yourselves above it all and label both sides equally at fault, to ignore the facts of history and the aggressive impulses of an evil empire, to simply call the arms race a giant misunderstanding and thereby remove yourself from the struggle between right and wrong and good and evil.

The irony of the reaction to this magnificent oration among the Western Establishment — in this country, precisely among those in Whitehall who had written that WWIII speech for the Queen to deliver — those “in clear, carpeted, warmed, and well-lighted offices, [the] quiet men with white collars and cut fingernails and smooth-shaven cheeks who do not need to raise their voice” — is that far from being closer to war, we had never, because of Reagan’s rearmament policies, been safer. One person who was not horrified was Margaret Thatcher, who a full seven years earlier had attacked
the then government’s defence policy
, by declaring that “the advance of Communist power threatens our whole way of life” and that “that advance is not irreversible, providing that we take the necessary measures now”. When she came to power, she did.

Margaret Thatcher’s attitude to the Soviet Union, like Ronald Reagan’s, was a moral one. For the simple fact is that the Soviet Union was indeed, in undeniable fact, a profoundly Evil Empire. It violated in the most cynical way the most basic civil liberties: all of them. Freedom of the press, freedom of speech (those who publicly criticised its policies were either sent to the gulags or, most cynically and horrifically of all, committed to mental institutions), freedom of assembly, religion, conscience, travel, emigration, property, everything. The Soviet Union murdered tens of millions, many more than Nazi Germany, simply among its own people. Its wider Communist ideology killed over 100 million in the 20th century, double the combined dead of World War I and II. The numbers are staggering.

Ronald Reagan told the truth. Within the decade the Soviet Union collapsed. And the Queen never had to deliver that silly bureaucrats’ speech.