Thirty-five years ago today, on May 31, 1988, Ronald Reagan, who was in the last year of his presidency and was in Moscow for the last of his summits with Mikhail Gorbachev, delivered a landmark speech to an audience of students at Moscow State University, a hub of scientific and technical research. The occasion was unprecedented, and the speech itself a masterstroke: with palpable enthusiasm, Reagan talked up the ongoing technological revolution that heralded a new information age, and urged the young Soviets to embrace freedom and peace so that they could be part of it:
Standing here before a mural of your revolution, I want to talk about a very different revolution that is taking place right now, quietly sweeping the globe without bloodshed or conflict. Its effects are peaceful, but they will fundamentally alter our world, shatter old assumptions, and reshape our lives. It’s easy to underestimate because it’s not accompanied by banners or fanfare. It’s been called the technological or information revolution, and as its emblem, one might take the tiny silicon chip, no bigger than a fingerprint.
Reagan outlined some of the many ways in which our lives were being – or were about to be – transformed, from weather forecasting to instant computer translations to the mapping of the human genome. All of these developments, he underscored, were products not of government planning but of independent experimentation by individuals, some of them very young people – the near-contemporaries of those Moscow students – tinkering in their own garages. And their achievements, he pointed out, would have been impossible without the gift of freedom – a subject on which he proceeded to expound to that audience of Communist vassals with his customary eloquence:
Freedom is the right to question and change the established way of doing things. It is the continuing revolution of the marketplace. It is the understanding that allows us to recognize shortcomings and seek solutions. It is the right to put forth an idea, scoffed at by the experts, and watch it catch fire among the people. It is the right to dream – to follow your dream or stick to your conscience, even if you’re the only one in a sea of doubters. Freedom is the recognition that no single person, no single authority or government has a monopoly on the truth, but that every individual life is infinitely precious, that every one of us put on this world has been put there for a reason and has something to offer….
Cognizant that those students had learned the importance, in scientific and technological development, of ingenuity, innovation, and experiment, Reagan cannily played on this learning in his attempt to hook them on the idea of freedom. But he also mentioned other fruits of Western liberty that he knew would appeal to them: for example, he enticed them with the then unimaginable notion that someday, like their counterparts in the West, they might actually be able to spend a summer backpacking around Europe. “Is this just a dream?” he asked. “Perhaps, but it is a dream that is our responsibility to have come true.” In fact, it would come true in three years. Similarly, he floated the idea of sharing U.S. magazines and TV shows with the USSR by satellite. Of course, the Internet would soon make those items, and a great deal more, available to Russians.
“Your generation,” Reagan said by way of summing up, “is living in one of the most exciting, hopeful times in Soviet history. It is a time when the first breath of freedom stirs the air and the heart beats to the accelerated rhythm of hope, when the accumulated spiritual energies of a long silence yearn to break free.” Even now it’s touching to witness Reagan’s uncynical desire to instill in those students an excitement about the technological revolution (and thus about freedom), to use that excitement to bring East and West together, and to make it more likely, therefore, that younger generations on both sides of the divide would grow up in peace, liberty, and prosperity. It’s striking how unlikely real freedom in Russia seemed on that day in 1988, and how close the day of deliverance actually was. The Berlin Wall would come down a year later, and the USSR itself two years after that.
Indeed, to read Reagan’s speech now is to be hurtled back to a time of remarkable hopes – of hopes that, remarkably, came true, only to end in ashes. Reagan hailed “the winds of change that are blowing over the People’s Republic of China,” which was “getting its first taste of economic freedom.” Would Reagan ever have imagined that thirty-five years later, China, while still a Communist dictatorship (and a genocidal one at that) would be an economic powerhouse rivaling the U.S., with the yuan on the verge of replacing the dollar as the world’s reserve currency?
Painting a sunny portrait of American freedom, Reagan boasted that, during election campaigns, America’s “1,000 local television stations, 8,500 radio stations, and 1,700 daily newspapers – each one an independent, private enterprise, fiercely independent of the Government – report[ed] on the candidates, grill[ed] them in interviews, and br[ought] them together for debates,” after which “the people…decide[d] who w[ould] be the next President.” In 2023, who can read this without contemplating the endlessly repeated lies – e.g., about Trump’s Russian “collusion,” the January 6 “insurrection,” and the Hunter Biden laptop – that make today’s mainstream U.S. media look like the Soviet-era Pravda?
There was more. Reagan waxed sentimental about American schoolrooms in which children were “taught the Declaration of Independence, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights,” and so on. Again: flash forward to the 1619 Project, Drag Queen Story Hour, and second-grade lessons in gender identity. Also, Reagan celebrated the American justice system. “Go into any courtroom, and there will preside an independent judge, beholden to no government power,” etc. Alvin Bragg, anybody? Reagan even had good words for American colleges, where you could witness “an open, sometimes heated discussion of the problems in American society and what can be done to correct them.” Alas, even during Reagan’s presidency the terms of these “discussions,” particularly at elite institutions, were almost entirely controlled by radical-left professors – and neither Reagan nor any of his ideological confrères imagined how young people indoctrinated by those profs would end up transforming America.
Reagan’s excitement about the information revolution was patently sincere. He was right to recognize that it would transform the world in ways that would enabIe oppressed people to resist tyranny. What it’s also done is to provide to Americans – to those, that is, who are willing to see – a glimpse into the sinister recesses of the Deep State. In addition, it has put at everyone’s fingertips the entire history of the world, including a catalog of all the grisly facts about twentieth-century Communism – despite which millions of elite college grads prefer socialism to capitalism.
Alas, what Reagan didn’t count on was that, if the Soviet bloc did fall, something valuable to the West would be lost – namely, the moral clarity of standing for human freedom against an enemy whose lust for social control was symbolized by the very structure that he called on Gorbachev to tear down: the Berlin Wall. Once that wall vanished into history, it became infinitely easier to sell Marxism to Americans. There are those who still wring their hands over the purported cruelty of the Hollywood Blacklist; in my view, there should’ve been a lot more blacklisting, beginning in the 1970s, with an eye to ridding the ivory tower of radicals. We didn’t do it, and now the Democratic Party is essentially an updated version of the CPUSA, and the military, corporations, and mainstream churches have all bought into “wokeness,” the latest iteration of Marxism.
Reagan, the eternal optimist, foresaw a 21st century in which the information revolution would free all the oppressed peoples of the world and bring everyone into a peaceful, prosperous community of nations – led, of course, by the United States. He didn’t foresee the online social media that would prove emotionally harmful for American kids and that would foster almost unprecedented political division among American adults. He didn’t foresee 9/11 – or the long, foolish wars that ensued, which also contributed to political division. And he didn’t foresee that the megacorporations founded by the Internet pioneers of Silicon Valley – who for him had been the very embodiments of American liberty – would end up financing socialism.
Bottom line: Reagan wasn’t omniscient. But perhaps his main flaw was that he wasn’t immortal. If he had a rosy vision of 21st-century America, maybe it was because he expected more of his White House successors than they were able to deliver. Yes, he knew George Bush Sr., his chosen vice president, well enough to recognize the man’s lack of vision and devotion to the Deep State. But who could have foreseen the Clintons, George W. Bush, or Obama – who, elected largely because he seemed to promise post-racial harmony, willfully undid all the racial healing of the previous decades. If there’s something terribly poignant about revisiting Reagan’s Moscow State University speech today, it’s because it gives us a glimpse of America at its best, in the twilight of an American century that Reagan, bless him, couldn’t help but see as a beautiful new dawn.