30 years ago today: President Reagan’s Farewell Address to the Nation

In November, I was in Budapest. One day, I took a walk down to the Szabadság tér which runs around the parliament building. There, you can see a statue of Ronald Reagan, who gave his farewell address 30 years ago today.

Until 1989, Hungary was ruled by communists taking their direction from Moscow. Life there was pretty miserable. The Hungarians, like people under communist rule all over Eastern Europe, were oppressed. In the early 1950s, my uncle’s father was grabbed off the street and taken to a prison. He was brought back a year later without ever being told why he’d been imprisoned. There are some who would accept bigger government if it meant more material well being. In Hungary, government was nearly as big as it could get yet its people were far worse off than the average American. They got oppression and poverty.

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In 1989 this came to an end. Faced with growing opposition and a crumbling economy, the Soviets pulled their armed forces out and communism collapsed. In 1991, communist rule even collapsed in the Soviet Union, as people there likewise rose up against the poverty and oppression of communism.

The ‘experts’ didn’t see it coming

The experts failed to see this coming.

In 1982, the learned Sovietologist Seweryn Bialer said “The Soviet Union is not now, nor will it be during the next decade, in the throes of s true systemic crisis, for it boasts enormous unused reserves of political and social stability”.

The historian Arthur Schlesinger Jnr. observed that “those in the United States who think the Soviet Union is on the verge of economic and social collapse [are] wishful thinkers” who were “kidding themselves”.

In 1984, the economist John Kenneth Galbraith wrote “That the Soviet system has made great material progress in recent years is evident both from the statistics and from the general urban scene…One sees it in the appearance of well-being of the people on the streets…and the general aspect of restaurants, theaters, and shops…Partly, the Russian system succeeds because, in contrast with the Western industrial economies, it makes full use of its manpower”.

Even as late as 1989, economist Lester Thurow wrote “Can economic command significantly…accelerate the growth process? The remarkable performance of the Soviet Union suggests that it can…Today it is a country whose economic achievements bear comparison with those of the United States”.

Galbraith and Thurow wrote this rubbish of a country where, in 1976, only two thirds of families had a refrigerator, a level the USA reached in the early 1930s. Soviet families had to wait years to get one, and when they finally got a postcard giving notice they could buy one, they had a fixed one hour slot during which they could pick it up. They lost their chance if they did not arrive in time

The ‘B’ movie actor did

These experts looked pretty foolish in when the Soviet Union collapsed. Schlesinger said that “no one foresaw these changes”. He might not have, but Ronald Reagan had.

In 1980, Reagan told a group of reporters “The Soviets can’t compete with us”.

In 1981, he said “The West won’t contain Communism. It will transcend Communism. It will dismiss it as some bizarre chapter in human history whose last pages are even now being written”.

In 1982, he told the British Parliament “In an ironic sense, Karl Marx was right. We are witnessing today a great revolutionary crisis…But the crisis is happening not in the free, non-Marxist West, but in the home of Marxism-Leninism, the Soviet Union”. He added that “it is the Soviet Union that runs against the tide of history by denying freedom and human dignity to its citizens” and predicted a “march of freedom and democracy which will leave Marxism-Leninism on the ash-heap of history”.

In 1987, he said in Berlin that “In the Communist world, we see failure, technological backwardness, declining standards”.

Reagan, a ‘B’ movie actor turned politician was right on one of the major questions to face humanity in the 20th Century and the experts were wrong. They never forgave him for that.

“All in all, not bad. Not bad at all.”

As president, Reagan played a key role in confronting communism, winning the Cold War peacefully, and freeing the hundred million people enslaved by communism in Eastern Europe. The statue in Budapest is a small token of appreciation. If you’re ever there, pay him a visit.

John Phelan is an economist at the Center of the American Experiment.