Features

Reagan: Jedi Knight

Politics | Star Wars really did help defeat the Evil Empire

Issue: "Saber savior," May 22, 1999

The Star Wars movies arrived at a critical time in American history. Post-Vietnam malaise, the oil crisis, and an economic recession-as well as the feeling that "there was nothing right with America"-had characterized the 1970s. The Star Wars trilogy clearly served as a fresh tonic, rekindling a breezy optimism in the American psyche. While it might not have been a huge shift, it was enough to create a wellspring of feeling that President Ronald Reagan tapped into as he sought American popular support for his grand strategy to win the Cold War with the Soviet Union. The Star Wars movie trilogy is an essentially optimistic vision. The Rebel Alliance, which is composed of a broad variety of persons and alien species, clearly suggests "democratic, multicultural" America. Although the obvious model for the monochromatic, militaristic, Galactic Empire is Nazi Germany, the only concrete embodiment that Americans could possibly attach that image to, in the 1970s and early 1980s, was the Soviet Union. President Reagan's famous March 8, 1983, speech characterized the Soviet Union as an "evil empire." Media pundits and intellectuals jumped on the Star Wars allusion, criticizing such talk as threatening international cooperation and detente between the superpowers. But to many Americans, the allusion made good sense. It wasn't the first time President Reagan had used these terms. In a speech to the British House of Commons on June 8, 1982, Mr. Reagan dared to invoke moral categories in describing "Soviet totalitarianism" as "evil"-and destined to failure. While the cognoscenti were ceaselessly deriding the president's "crude dichotomies of good and evil," as more and more information became widely circulated about the horrors of the Gulag, many people began to think that the description of the Soviet Union as "the evil empire" fit to a tee. President Reagan played a major role in bringing down the Soviet Union. On his watch, the imperial expansion of the Soviet Union was stopped. After Mr. Reagan came to office, not a single new country came into the Soviet orbit. The Grenada invasion may have been militarily trivial, but it was symbolically critical. The Reagan administration supported anti-Communist national liberation movements in Angola, Mozambique, Nicaragua, Afghanistan, and Poland. Along with increasing military spending, Mr. Reagan announced his Strategic Defense Initiative just over two weeks after his "Evil Empire" speech. The SDI proposals, which emphasized zapping enemy missiles from space, was quickly called "Star Wars" by Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) and a hostile news media. But even if it were, as its critics insisted, "pure fantasy," it was certainly a superb bluff. SDI may have been one of the most important factors in causing the Soviet leaders to give up on the possibility of ultimate victory in the Cold War. The prospect of an anti-missile system in outer space reportedly created a sense of panic in the Soviet military. The "Star Wars" tag probably made the defense proposals more popular with the American public, not less. As the fight for SDI/Star Wars was in its sharpest phase, Return of the Jedi appeared in Summer 1983; that did not help the liberal cause. However, Mr. Reagan was fighting a two-front war, against the Soviet Union in foreign policy, and against the cultural Left domestically. Mr. Reagan won the Cold War resoundingly, but the domestic cultural war continues. The Evil Empire may have been overthrown, but the culture's Dark Side remains a powerful Force, in need of a hero who will take it on.
-Mr. Wegierski is a Canadian writer and researcher.

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