When Reagan battled the Soviets — and American journalists

This February 6th marks the birth centennial of Ronald Reagan, a president so universally admired that much of the media is doing tributes, from front-page profiles to full-blown commemorative issues. Many of these, even from mainstream/liberal sources, will unhesitatingly acknowledge Reagan’s bold, successful effort to undermine what was indeed an “Evil Empire.”

Ah, but it wasn’t always that way.

In the 1980s, liberals in the media viewed Reagan as a simpleton, even a Neanderthal, when it came to appraising the USSR and Marxist-Leninist ideology — and didn’t hesitate to say so. The Soviets recognized this and exploited it in ways that have never been acknowledged. There was, in effect, a sort of double-team against Reagan by liberals in our press and Soviet propagandists in Moscow. It wasn’t a conspiracy. The liberals were dupes, unwitting participants, as the Soviets constantly looked for ways to prod them and, more blatantly, pick up their anti-Reagan screeds as headlines in Soviet publications.

Again, this is not to suggest the two sides coordinated. Both were merely moving along the same leftward track, looking to ridicule their common political adversary — Ronald Reagan, conservative, anti-communist, simpleton.

I have read thousands of transcripts from Soviet media archives: Pravda, Izvestia, “Studio 9” TV broadcasts (Moscow’s leading “news” program), and innumerable less-known publications. They often featured encomiums raving about the sagacity of American liberals who excoriated Reagan. It was commonplace to catch a Soviet commentator authoritatively citing a liberal columnist or politician in making the case du jour against Reagan. It was not surprising for TASS, the official Soviet news agency, to take, say, a Washington Post op-ed — such as a lengthy November 1, 1983 piece blasting Reagan’s invasion of Grenada — and excerpt it into basically a press release disseminated throughout the Soviet empire. Liberals provided grist for the Kremlin propaganda mill.

Particularly interesting is that liberal journalists had no idea, amid their self-superiority, that Reagan was right on Soviet communism and they were wrong.

The new president spoke fearlessly, unapologetically, about the dangers of the USSR and its expansionary tendencies. He had strategic reasons, wanting to declare a just war against the foundations of Marxism-Leninism. The Great Communicator would use the bully pulpit to educate Americans on the nature of the beast.

Imagine the astonishment of liberal journalists: They had been educated in our universities, taught that uncompromising anti-communism was a bigger threat than uncompromising communism. Joe McCarthy was their demon in understanding the Cold War. Thus, Reagan’s warnings jolted their sensibilities. They reflexively went after Reagan when he dared to negatively quote Vladimir Lenin or insist the USSR was pursing global communism.

Surely, mused these liberals, Lenin could not have been as horrible as Reagan was suggesting. The Soviet leadership could not be that bad.

Criminals, liars, cheaters

This actually began with Reagan’s first press conference on January 29, 1981. The new president calmly explained to the press corps that the Soviet leadership had “openly and publicly declared that the only morality they recognize is what will further their cause, meaning they reserve unto themselves the right to commit any crime, to lie, to cheat….”

The press was horrified. Leading journalists, from the front pages of the New York Times and Washington Post to CBS Evening News — including an interview between Reagan and Walter Cronkite on March 3, 1981 — repeatedly pressed the president for clarification. And so, Reagan clarified, again and again. He did not back down. And why would he? What he said was accurate.

Did our liberals learn anything from Reagan’s initial tutorial on Marxism-Leninism? No, but the Soviets did. They sensed a major propaganda opportunity, firing back in full force from all three legs of their unholy trinity of government-controlled information: TASS and the twin “newspapers” Pravda and Izvestia.