On March 8, 1983, in his speech to the National Association of Evangelicals in Orlando, Florida, US President Ronald Reagan introduced the term “evil empire” to describe the Soviet Union. Reagan exhorted the audience to “pray for the salvation of all of those who live in that totalitarian darkness – pray they will discover the joy of knowing God.”
He subjected the Soviet leaders to criticism, as the embodiment of the “darkness” and reproached the “aggressive impulses of the evil empire.” The Soviet Union, for its part, accused the United States of being the center of imperialism, holding out for world domination; it was the Soviets’ duty to fight this in the name of communism. In Moscow, the Soviet press agency TASS said the use of the words “evil empire” only proved that the Reagan administration “can think only in terms of confrontation and bellicose, lunatic anti-Communism.”
Reagan, however, genuinely believed that all he had done was call a spade, the only right thing to do under the circumstances; any euphemisms would signal the concession of the free world to totalitarianism. His approach to the problem was vastly supported by conservatives, but was showered with criticism by pacifists. The latter viewed such an attitude as perfectly capable of triggering a nuclear war between the two superpowers. The “evil empire” concept received a warm welcome in Europe, threatened by the strengthening of the Soviet foreign and domestic policies that General Secretary Yury Andropov brought with him. In the USSR, Reagan’s formula was favored by the dissident movement, and particularly, by the academician Andrey Sakharov. It was also popular among Soviet émigrés.
During his second term in office, three years after the phrase “evil empire” had first been pronounced, Reagan paid a visit to the new reformist General Secretary of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev, who took office in 1985. When asked by a reporter whether he still thought the Soviet Union was the “evil empire,” Reagan admitted that he no longer did. The time when he used the term was a “different era,” that is, the period before Gorbachev's perestroika and glasnost reforms. Still, throughout his career, Reagan’s antagonism against the Soviet regime, with its absence of democratic institutions, persisted.