The Gipper’s Legacy
Fifty-five years ago, Ronald Reagan delivered a speech that awarded him national recognition. Though nearly 20 years would pass until he became president, this oration reminded Americans that a better political route was rooted in the beliefs of the founders.
Ronald Reagan has been a beloved Republican icon for several decades. When America suffered from economic decline and communism seemed to be on the rise once again, Reagan was elected to assume the presidency. As Commander in Chief, he would restore pride and patriotism in the hearts of many Americans, and help end the Cold War by bringing the Soviet Union to its knees with his “Peace Through Strength” initiative.
Conservatives had been well-acquainted with Reagan before his presidency, following his delivery of an impressive speech at the Republican National Convention in San Francisco, California. Before getting into the subject matter of the speech, it is important to understand the politics and figureheads of the era.
The Cold War and the Early Sixties
In the opening years of the 1960s, several incidents occurred which drove the world closer to the brink of another global conflict. In April 1961, the Bay of Pigs Invasion – an attempt to overthrow Fidel Castro – resulted in utter failure. As a consequence, Cuba forged an even stronger relationship with the Soviet Union. In August of that year, the Soviets began constructing the Berlin Wall, separating the citizens of East Germany from those in West Germany. Then, in October 1962, Soviet Missiles were discovered in Cuba.
For two weeks, the world watched as President John F. Kennedy and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev negotiated. The Cuban Missile Crisis came to an end when Khrushchev decided to withdraw the missiles. Upon the assassination of Kennedy in November 1963, Lyndon B. Johnson assumed the presidency. While Kennedy had supported several conservative positions, Johnson embraced a new Progressive platform. Following in the footsteps of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “New Deal,” Johnson proposed a series of social programs under the banner of a “Great Society.”
In opposition to the rampant progressivism that was engulfing the Democrat Party and various members of the Republican Party was Barry Goldwater, a US Senator from Arizona and founder of the “New Right.” During the campaign season for the 1964 election, Johnson deceptively portrayed Goldwater as a nuclear warmonger. Likewise, Johnson’s campaign team released a video portraying the Ku Klux Klan as endorsing Goldwater. Contrary to popular belief, Goldwater was not anti-civil rights. Before 1964, he had been a supporter of numerous civil rights legislation and even helped co-found the NAACP chapter in his home state.
In Goldwater’s eyes, however, the 1964 Civil Rights Act was different, and he viewed it as trampling on the rights of the private business owner. Nonetheless, Goldwater’s stance pushed many black Americans away from the GOP and into the arms of the Democrat Party. As a result, Johnson continued to pursue the ‘64 Civil Rights Act, and so began the myth of the “party switch.” Despite this, a larger percentage of Republicans voted for the ‘64 Civil Rights Act than Democrats.
Reagan Reaches Prominence
With Johnson’s “Great Society” pushing America closer to socialism, Goldwater and the New Right stood against the progressive incline. Aiding Goldwater on October 27, 1964, at the Republican National Convention in San Francisco, was former Democrat and soon-to-be governor, Ronald Reagan. As the Republican governor of California from 1967-1975, Reagan would be far from perfect.
Nonetheless, Reagan’s iconic speech – “A Time for Choosing” – restored hope in many hearts that there was a better route. This path would consist of a return to America’s founding principles, and Reagan himself would later be able to introduce his ideas to the presidential arena.
“If Freedom is Lost Here…”
Reagan’s speech was televised and gained him national recognition. For anyone familiar with the oration, it is easy to understand why. Near the start of the speech, Reagan states, “I am going to speak of controversial things. I make no apology for this.”
Today, as well as back then, the far Left all-too-often refers to those who disagree with them as radicals. But in actuality, who are the real radicals? Reagan said, “Those who deplore use of the terms ‘pink’ and ‘leftist’ are themselves guilty of branding all who oppose them as right-wing extremists. How can we afford the luxury of this family fight when we are at war with the most dangerous enemy ever known to man?”
Reagan then turns to a prime example of the exceptionalism offered by America. In a strong sense, he echoes Lincoln’s claim that America is the “last best hope of earth.” Reflecting on the dictatorship in Cuba, Reagan states, “Not too long ago, two friends of mine were talking to a Cuban refugee. He was a businessman who had escaped from Castro. In the midst of his tale of horrible experiences, one of my friends turned to the other and said, ‘We don’t know how lucky we are.’ The Cuban stopped and said, ‘How lucky you are? I had some place to escape to.’ And in that sentence, he told the entire story. If freedom is lost here, there is no place to escape to.”
A Time for Choosing
With the New Deal having been in practice for 30 years, the conservative faction within the GOP knew that Johnson’s Great Society would plunge America even closer to the brink of socialism. From the New Deal to Johnson’s presidency, the size of the federal government had grown significantly, bringing forth a call for a restoration of individual rights from Reagan.
“So we have come to a time for choosing. Either we accept the responsibility for our own destiny, or we abandon the American Revolution and confess that an intellectual elite in a far-distant capitol can plan our lives for us better than we can plan them ourselves.”United States President Ronald Reagan
It is all-too-often said among the Left that American and Western heritage should be vilified, due to imperialist history. Reagan addressed this, stating, “Is there not something of hypocrisy in assailing our allies for so-called vestiges of colonialism, while we engage in a conspiracy of silence about the peoples enslaved by the Soviet in the satellite nations?”
Throughout the oration, Reagan covers almost every aspect of the political arena, from careless spending abroad to religious freedom. Nearing the end of the speech, he makes it clear that returning to an effective but small federal government would help restore what the founding fathers intended. With socialist policies running rampant and communism seemingly-expanding across the globe, some people suggested that it was possibly time to embrace communism.
Reagan, however, full-heartedly disagreed, saying, “Alexander Hamilton warned us that a nation which can prefer disgrace to danger is prepared for a master and deserves one…some of our own have said, ‘better red than dead.’ If we are to believe that nothing is worth the dying, when did this begin? Should Moses have told the children of Israel to live in slavery, rather than brave the wilderness? Should Christ have refused the cross? Should the patriots at Concord Bridge have refused to fire the shot heard ‘round the world?’ Are we to believe that all the martyrs of history died in vain?”
A Rendezvous with Destiny
“You and I have a rendezvous with destiny. We can preserve for our children this, the last best hope of man on earth, or we can sentence them to take the first step into a thousand years of darkness. If we fail, at least let our children and our children’s children say of us we justified our brief moment here. We did all that could be done.” As the speech concluded, Reagan’s own destiny was sealed. Twenty years later, he would prove to be the leader that America needed. May his legacy never be forgotten.