The West will not contain communism; it will transcend communism.

ronald reagan notre dame

For two full minutes on May 17, 1981, the attendees of the graduation ceremonies at the University of Notre Dame offered President Ronald Reagan a standing ovation.[1] He entered the ACC—Notre Dame’s basketball and hockey arena—accompanied by priests, professors, and diplomats. Throughout his time on the stage, the crowd cheered “wildly.”[2]  Only those who are a part—even in the most limited of ways—of the Notre Dame or Texas A&M families understand such heartfelt but gushing and over-the-top enthusiasm. To be welcomed by either community is more akin to baptism by full immersion than by mere sprinkling.

“Knute, Knute,” the 12,500 graduates and their families and guests chanted, honoring Reagan’s friend, Pat O’Brien, who had played Rockne to his George Gipp, “The Gipper,” in the famed 1940 movie, Knute Rockne: All American.

The first appearance outside of Washington, D.C., since John Hinckley had nearly assassinated him, Reagan, the talking heads and pundits had reported, would be delivering a major foreign policy address while addressing the graduates.[3] Four years earlier, President Jimmy Carter had given his famous talk to the Notre Dame graduates of that year on why America had unhealthily acquired an “inordinate fear of communism.”[4]  To some of the loudest applause he would receive that day, Reagan began his speech claiming he most certainly would “not talk about the great issues of the day.”[5] Instead, he noted, he wanted to offer those graduating something more “inspiration” and “appropriate to the occasion.”[6]

The response of Notre Dame overwhelmed Reagan. Not only did he tear up when his friend Pat O’Brien received an award, but he found—probably for the first time in almost two months—his confidence again after his all-too-close brush with death. As Reagan aide Michael Deaver recalled:

The president drew strength and vigor from the sustained standing ovation. As he stood in front of the crowd, donning cap and gown, I could tell he was happy to be there… to be anywhere.[7]

ABC’s Sam Donaldson—no fan of Reagan—understood at the time just how important the visit to the University of Notre Dame was. “By most accounts, the President’s speech was not one which will be long remembered, but no matter, more important than anything he said was the fact the he had come here today to say it,” he calmly reported. “Mr. Reagan has resumed the public life of the his presidency.”[8] Donaldson’s assessment of the speech was not unique. The UPI as well as The New York Times also dismissed the speech as unimportant, a mere excursion into nostalgia for Reagan, taking him back forty-one years to his pre-war movie career.[9]

Oddly enough, no American press organ with the exception of The Christian Science Monitor understood the vital importance of the speech.[10] Somehow, nearly every American news agency missed ten important words, ten words that changed the entire course of American foreign policy since Truman implement it in the middle 1940s. “The West will not contain communism; it will transcend communism.”[11] With understandable irony, only the official Soviet news agencies, TASS and Pravda, understood what the speech meant.

These statements are made at a time when, according to the President himself, the United States is going through both a moral and an economic crisis. Reagan expressed concern over economic stagnation, born of inflation, “burdensome and unnecessary regulations and… a punitive tax policy.” The crime rate and violence, whose victim the President himself was recently, is speedily growing in the country. Even before President Reagan’s visit to Notre Dame University a movement of protest against his appearance started there. The newspaper National Catholic Reporter strongly criticized the administration for taking billions of dollars from social programmes and giving away those billions, and many others, to military programmes. The White House, the newspaper said, crudely flouts human rights, which is seen particularly vividly from the example of El Salvador.[12]

Pravda argued that the Catholic Crusades of the Middle Ages inspired the radical and outmoded fortieth president of the United States:

This is not the first time that prophets foretelling the imminent death of communism emerge in the West. The anti-communist crusade which began in 1917 has always featured fanaticism characteristic of medieval crusaders rather than rational thinking. The Reagan administration also bears the mark of such fanaticism.[13]

Pravda, perhaps for the first time in its existence, fully grasped America’s resolve.

As the first public words he had spoken about Soviet relations, or indeed about foreign policy, during his young presidency, Reagan’s address at the University of Notre Dame, far from being an “amiably rah-rah speech” as reported by Newsweek, set the stage for the beginning of the end of the Soviet Union’s totalitarian grip on its own citizens and on Eastern Europe, and and end to its expansionism. [14] Words matter. Ideas matter. Reagan understood this, and so did his enemies.

Reporters at home who even noticed the anti-communist words assumed that the president had thrown these in as a simple act of patriotism. In fact, these ten words reflected almost twenty years of intense thought on the president’s part. Since 1963, Ronald Reagan had been imagining what it would take to bring down the Soviet Union and its communist allies.  Now, as president, he had the power to do it.  And after surviving the assassin’s bullet, he had the will.

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[1] James Gerstenzang, “‘The Gipper’ Returns to Notre Dame as President,” AP (May 18, 1981)

[2] Dean Reynolds, “A Sad, Bizarre Chapter in Human History,” UPI (May 17, 1981)

[3] Bill Roeder, “The Gipper Will Hit the Line Hard,” Newsweek (May 11, 1981), pg 21; and William Safire, “The Notre Dame Shift,” New York Times (May 4, 1981), pg. A23

[4] Roeder, “The Gipper Will Hit the Line Hard,” 21.

[5] Diane Curtis, “Washington News,” UPI, May 18, 1981.

[6] Howell Raines, “Reagan is Welcomed on Notre Dame Trip, First Since Shooting,” New York Times (May 18, 1981), pg. A1.; and Helen Thomas, “Reagan Prepares for Sentimental Journey to Notre Dame,” UPI (May 16, 1981).

[7] Michael K. Deaver, A Different Drummer: My Thirty Years with Ronald Reagan (2001), 147.

[8] Sam Donaldson, “Reagan Gets Honorary Degree from Notre Dame Along with Pat O’Brien,” ABC News Transcripts (May 17, 1981).

[9] Domestic News,” UPI (May 18, 1981); and “News Summary,” New York Times (May 18, 1981), pg. B1.

[10] “America as a Beacon,” Christian Science Monitor (May 18, 1981), pg. 24.

[11] Wilson Miscamble, ed., Go Forth and Do Good: Memorable Notre Dame Commencement Addresses (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2003), 211.

[12] TASS Report, as reported in “President Reagan’s Speech in Indiana,” BBC (May 20, 1981).

[13] “Pravda Likens Reagan to Medieval Crusaders,” UPI (June 3, 1981)

[14] Tom Morganthau, et al., “The Gipper Loses One,” Newsweek (June 1, 1981), pg. 22

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