Ronald Reagan Address Parliament | 8 June 1982
On June 8, 1982, Ronald Reagan addressed members of the British Parliament in London. His speech at Westminster Hall harkened back to Winston Churchill’s 1946 “Sinews of Peace” address in Fulton, Missouri. Churchill’s speech provided many of the key concepts of an emerging Cold War with the Soviet Union; thirty-four years later Reagan presented his vision for how it might end. While Churchill coined “Iron Curtain” in 1946, Reagan introduced one of the most recognizable phrases of the late Cold War: that communism would be left on “the ash-heap of history.” In the aftermath of the speech, some observers saw Reagan offering a coherent grand strategy to end the Cold War; others saw it as a prime example of the administration’s dangerously belligerent policy toward Moscow. Reagan’s performance was, in many respects, an encapsulation of an administration whose Soviet policy was so often pulled in competing directions.
On the campaign trail in 1980, Jimmy Carter described Reagan as reckless and warmongering. Reagan’s anti-communism was well known, dating back to the 1950s and his work as a spokesman for General Electric. His 1976 bid for the White House had condemned the Nixon and Ford administration’s pursuit of détente for giving away too much to the Soviets. After Reagan entered the White House in January 1981, his rhetoric and his policies did little to reduce fears of a hardline, anti-Soviet administration. He dismissed the détente of the 1970s and, in his first press conference as president, called the Soviet Union a nation willing “to lie, to cheat, to steal” to spread communism. The Reagan administration’s rhetoric and the deterioration of US-Soviet relations caused alarm. In capitals across the globe, demonstrators took to the streets to denounce Reagan’s policies and express their fears that a nuclear war might break out, by accident or otherwise.
Reagan visited in London in June 1982 as part of a European tour, including a NATO summit in Bonn, the G-7’s Versailles summit, and stops in West Berlin, Rome, and the Vatican. Within the White House, administration officials saw the trip as a prime occasion to improve the president’s image. They hoped to assuage public concerns about Reagan’s leadership, convincing audiences in Western Europe (and at home) that he was a responsible custodian of US power.
Reagan’s address was the first by a US president to the two houses of the British Parliament. Because it was unprecedented, and because British parties were deeply polarized in their views of the American president, a majority of the opposition Members of Parliament refused to acknowledge Reagan’s address; only some 30 Labour representatives attended of a total of 225.
Reagan’s talk of a crisis in the Soviet system confirmed existing impressions of the president in the eyes of many: he seemed a bombastic button-pusher, keen on confrontation with the Soviet Union. His calls for a crusade for democracy, critics charged, were a throwback to the harsher Cold War of the 1950s. Others concluded that the more conciliatory elements of the speech, such as Reagan’s references to the importance of US-Soviet arms control talks, were nothing more than pablum, written in by the speechwriters. “Our commitment to early success in these negotiations is firm and unshakable,” Reagan asserted, “and our purpose is clear: reducing the risk of war by reducing the means of waging war on both sides.” The real Reagan, many concluded, was the one who referred to “the decay of the Soviet experiment.” In changing Reagan’s image, the speech failed. Perceptions of Reagan as a hardliner continued to be a major point of concern for the administration at home and abroad. The New York Times pointed to the president’s “militantly anti-Communist tone.”
Symbolically, Reagan’s address mirrored Winston Churchill’s 1946 “Iron Curtain” speech. Churchill’s address took place at Westminster College, and Reagan’s at Westminster Hall. Churchill addressed his audience in Fulton with Harry Truman at his side. Margaret Thatcher was, of course, present as Reagan spoke, seated next to Nancy Reagan. Reagan referenced Churchill explicitly, pointing to the prime minister’s “gift of vision” and “sense of history” before laying out his own sense of the Cold War struggle.
The Westminster speech may have failed to change Reagan’s image and that of his administration’s Soviet policy. But, it illustrated some of the central impulses that would shape the president’s—and his administration’s—approach to the Soviet Union and, later, to Mikhail Gorbachev. Reagan’s address, for example, foreshadowed portions of National Security Decision Directive 75 (NSDD 75), the administration’s January 1983 policy on relations with the Soviet Union, which called for a three-pronged strategy to contain Soviet expansionism, promote change in the Soviet Union, and to negotiate with the Soviet Union. Reagan’s remarks at Westminster also laid the groundwork for administration initiatives on democracy promotion, such as the National Endowment for Democracy (NED).
Reagan’s remarks at Westminster remain one of the most well-known speeches of his presidency, thanks in large part to his “ash-heap of history” comments. Yet, in the years since, Reagan’s speech has been held up as a coherent expression of his Soviet strategy. The fact that it could be both says a lot about the president’s image, both then and now.
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Rowland, Robert C. Reagan at Westminster: Foreshadowing the End of the Cold War. College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2010.
Wilson, James Graham. “How Grand was Reagan’s Strategy, 1976–1984?,” Diplomacy and Statecraft, Vol. 18 (2007): 773-803.