Study Guide

Evil Empire Speech Analysis

By Ronald Reagan

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  • Rhetoric


    When Ronnie took the stage at the convention of the National Association of Evangelists in 1983, his metaphorical gloves came off, and he was ready to get down and dirty talking about the state of the country, and the state of the world in the midst of nuclear arms negotiations with the Soviet Union.

    In discussing such "lighthearted topics" (they said sarcastically), Reagan knew the key to packing a punch began with tugging on the heartstrings of his audience, which he does from the very beginning by highlighting a bunch of patriotic quotes that make you wanna stand up and wave the stars and stripes while eating a slice of apple pie.

    Reagan's appeal to the patriot inside us all kindles an emotional response from the audience, called pathos, and he continues to feed the flames throughout his speech. By reminding everyone of their love of country, they become way more invested in the problems he's talking about, because they're everyone's problems, and everyone needs to be part of the solution.

    First, he takes the time to address the ever-rising rates of abortion in the United States, particularly that young women are able to just walk into a clinic and undergo the procedure without parental permission.

    And isn't it the parents' right to give counsel and advice to keep their children from making mistakes that may affect their entire lives? (54)

    It's a powerful line, and the use of pathos here is stellar. He's appealing to every parents' desire to protect their children, and in using the word "promiscuous" to describe the girls having the abortions, he is almost shaming both parties for not preventing this from happening. And shame is a really powerful emotion.

    He goes on to talk about other issues in American society, including infanticide and mercy killings, saying they "lead to a decline in respect for human life" (80). And as leaders in the fight to contain communism and protect oppressed populations around the world, the U.S. cannot condone anything that disrespects human life.

    Reagan is a master with pathos all throughout his Evil Empire speech. He detailed all the bad things happening in America, followed by some information on the nuclear arms negotiations that are not going super well. By the time he's halfway through, the audience is about ready to go grab a pint—of Ben and Jerry's, of course—and wallow like Rory Gilmore.

    …and a Pinch of Logos

    But, instead of kicking everyone while they're down, Reagan flashes that award-winning smile and tells them not to worry—Americans have the solutions to all these problems, and they'll be found in the basic traditions and principles that define the ol' US of A.

    In line 89, he says,

    There's a great spiritual awakening in America, a renewal of the traditional values that have been the bedrock of America's goodness and greatness.

    At this point, Reagan brings the logos, the logic, to the front of his argument. He offers statistics on the value of family in America, as well as the number of people who wholeheartedly disapprove of "adultery, teenage sex, pornography, abortion, and hard drugs" (91).

    He's using a combination of reason and emotion to assure his audience that while America still has her problems, the average person does have the power to make some real change. And it's super important that people understand this, because Reagan's speech is intended to inspire the world to fight the Soviet Union with words, instead of on the battlefield. If the audience doesn't believe they can solve the national problems, they're not even going to try and touch the international ones.

  • Structure

    Rear-View Mirror: Objects May Be Closer Than They Appear

    No matter your opinion of our 40th president, you can't deny Ronald Reagan was a smart dude, and it's super obvious he ate his Wheaties the day he delivered his Evil Empire speech.

    Instead of standing up and going on and on about America's greatness and strength and superb fashion sense, he spent a lot of time reflecting on the blooper reel: anti-Semitism, racism, infanticide—all terrible parts of American history that really didn't happen all that long ago.

    There's a method to the madness, however. Reagan wanted everyone—Americans, Soviets, citizens of Westeros—to know he was aware of some rather evil parts of America's past. But the difference was that Americans weren't afraid to create a better future by looking in the rearview mirror and learning from their mistakes.

    That's why Ronnie the Renegade was able to totally dis a moody country with access to nuclear weapons, and basically get away with it. He spent the first half of his speech talking about the bad stuff, which gave him the right to spend the second half talking about an evil empire that didn't even seem to have rearview mirrors.

    And, really, that's just downright dangerous—someone should call the DMV.

    Oh, and before you go—take a glance at the Rhetoric section of this learning guide for the specifics on the structure of the speech.

    How it Breaks Down

    Section 1: "It's Been a Hard Day's Night, and I've Been Working Like a Dog."

    President Reagan, after thanking the good people of the National Association of the Evangelists, quotes Abraham Lincoln to illustrate how tired and frustrated he is with the state of America, as well as the state of the world.

    Section 2: St. Peter and the Politician

    Reagan shares a short anecdote about a politician meeting St. Peter in Heaven to emphasize that while there are many good, spiritual people in the public eye, it is the responsibility of the average American to keep them good and spiritual, to hold them accountable.

    Section 3: "Our [Founding] Fathers, Who Art in History..."

    With a few quotes from some of those old white guys in American history, Reagan makes it clear that liberty has always been connected to religion, to godliness, and that shouldn't ever change.

    Section 4: Parental Controls

    According to Reagan, the government is taking all sorts of liberties, interfering with parents' rights to take care of their kids. Why are the American people letting that happen?

    Section 5: It's All Downhill From Here.

    Here's a video of puppies protecting their baby friends. You'll need to watch something cute and uplifting after reading this section of Reagan's speech.

    Section 6: Wait! It's Not All Downhill From Here…

    Just when you think all hope is lost, Reagan reminds his audience that Americans always have the power to share their principles and values with the rest of the world. And the nation has overcome so much already—Americans are definitely equipped to solve this problem, too.

    Section 7: "And That Brings Me To My Final Point Today."

    Here's the crux of things, kids—nuclear freeze is a bad idea, as are any negotiations with totalitarian groups. It comprises all the U.S. stands for, which is completely unacceptable.

    Section 8: "Can We Fix It?"

    Well, yeah, of course we can fix it—but not with military might. The solution comes from U.S. values and morals, as well as remembering the spiritual powers of American principles.

  • What's Up With the Title?

    "The Evil Empire" refers, first and most obviously, to the Soviet Union. The government killed millions of people in the twentieth century—not to mention how few citizens enjoyed basic human rights, and how many spent time in state-sponsored prisons.

    So, yeah, if it walks like an evil duck and quacks like an evil duck, it's probably an evil duck.

    But, just in case you've forgotten, the U.S. has quite a tangled history on its own, with the good guys doing bad things for selfish reasons. Which means the title referred to us a little bit, too.

    Reagan could've stood in front of the world and said the U.S. was perfect and pretty, and the Soviet Union was not. Instead, he chose to be really honest, to reveal he knew that (*gasp*) U.S. history was actually really messy, and we have a little bit of evil in there, too. The difference is we had learned from our mistakes, and it was high time the USSR did the same.

    P.S. This speech is the first time Reagan actually refers to the Soviet Union as "the evil empire," which is how the speech gets it nickname. It would also technically be the address to the National Association of Evangelists, but that just doesn't have the same ring to it.

  • What's Up With the Opening Lines?

    Those of you in the National Association of Evangelicals are known for your spiritual and humanitarian work. And I would be especially remiss if I didn't discharge right now one personal debt of gratitude. Thank you for your prayers. Nancy and I have felt their presence many times in many ways. And believe me, for us they've made all the difference. (3-7)

    Do you feel a little like you're eavesdropping on a conversation? Like any minute Crookshanks is going to saunter on by and grab your Extendable Ear like it was some cheap cat toy?

    Don't be fooled. It may seem like Reagan is indulging in a wee bit of small-talk prior to getting into the nitty-gritty of his speech, but that's just what he wants you to think.

    Actually, the opening lines of his speech are intended to set the stage for his main point: caring about other people, speaking up for them, even praying for them, may bring some good juju to one and all. Reagan said he and his wife were grateful for the copious amounts of prayer and good wishes sent their way, and, more than that, they're better for it.

    So imagine what could happening if everyone, like he and you and all of America, sent some of that good juju to fight back against the Evil Empire?

  • What's Up With the Closing Lines?

    Yes, change your world. One of our Founding Fathers, Thomas Paine, said, "We have it within our power to begin the world over again." We can do it, doing together what no one church can do by itself. (169-171)

    At the time, Reagan's speech was controversial for a number of different reasons, including how often he mentioned prayer and church, which was usually a no-no for politicians.

    But, just for fun, let's replace the word church with the word voice.

    When Marx wrote The Communist Manifesto, he talked about the working class banding together as a group to overthrow the bourgeoisie. Banding together—as in, creating a community of people all working toward the same thing.

    The last few lines of Reagan's speech are actually rather similar to what Marx was saying. Ronnie wholeheartedly believed communism was a horrible phase in human history and no one person could fix it. Everyone had to hold hands, sing Kumbaya, and agree to start over. Whether it happened in a church, a conference room, or Walt Disney World didn't really matter, so long as it happened.

  • Tough-o-Meter

    (6) Tree Line

    At first glance, Reagan's address seems rather straightforward—he doesn't use crazy $15 words, and there are probably only a couple of historical figures and terms that'll be unfamiliar to you.

    What makes the speech challenging is all the underlying meaning. Reagan isn't in the business of making things easy for you, so there'll be moments when he quotes Scripture, or shares a couple of anecdotes, where you'll have to figure out how they're significant to the argument he's trying to make. Prepare to do a little spelunking.

  • Shout-Outs

    In-Text References

    Literary and Philosophical References

    Marxist-Leninists (112)
    C.S. Lewis, Screwtape Letters (151)
    Charles Dickens (148)
    Whittaker Chambers (161)

    Historical and Political References

    Abraham Lincoln (11)
    William Penn (26)
    Thomas Jefferson (27)
    George Washington (28)
    Alexis de Tocqueville (29)
    First Amendment (60)
    Declaration of Independence (63)
    Little Pencil v. Lubbock Independent School District (70)
    Senator Jeremiah Denton (72)
    Senator Mark Hatfield (72)
    Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (83)
    Representative Henry Hyde (86)
    Soviets (112)
    Appeasement (153)
    Hiss-Chambers Case (161)
    Thomas Paine (170)

    Biblical and Religious References

    National Association of Evangelicals (3)
    St. Peter (15)
    Amos 5:24 (96)
    Garden of Eden (162)
    Isaiah 40:29 (168)

    References to This Text

    Historical and Political References

    Donald Trump, The 2016 Campaign Trail, CNN.
    Fordham University, Modern History Sourcebook: Ronald Reagan's Evil Empire Speech
    Harrison E. Salisbury, "A Reagan Antecedent in Revolution," The New York Times

    Pop Culture References

    "The Evil Empire." Radio Active. 3 October 1998
    Star Wars: Episode IV—A New Hope. 25 May 1977

  • Trivia

    Reagan can make a joke—even if it sounds more like gallows humor. (Source)

    Ronnie played a villain in what was supposed to be the first made-for-TV movie, but he was just sooo good at being all violent, The Killers had to be released theatrically. This was also his last movie role. (Source)

    Ol' Ronnie was once a...Democrat. We imagine the switch was something akin to a Yankee fan pahking his cah in Hahvahd Yahd on the way to a Red Sox game. (Source)

    There's an entire Buzzfeed page attributed to Reagan and his YOLO moments. (Source)

    Rebel Reagan was not only the first POTUS to be divorced (scandal) but his second wife, Nancy Davis, was almost blacklisted as a Communist, but her future hubby helped her prove the case of mistaken identity. (Source)

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