The third season finale of The Americans, aptly titled “March 8, 1983,” ends with a quietly seething Elizabeth watching Reagan’s famed “Evil Empire” speech, which took a hard line against the Soviet Union’s nuclear missile installation and almost single-handedly escalated the Cold War. The episode included only a few of the most recognizable lines, ending on the fear-mongering mic drop: “…they are the focus of evil in the modern world.” But when reading the speech in full, it becomes clear that the meaning of its inclusion is multi-layered, as it precisely reflects the ideological conflict–and implicit critique of American culture–that is central to the show.
The “Evil Empire” speech was a key offensive on the rhetorical front of the Cold War, and is remembered as Reagan’s blistering indictment of Soviet totalitarianism and imperialism. So one would only assume that the speech extols the superior values of “the land of the free” over the repressive Soviet Union. We believe in freedom of speech, while they believe in smothering dissension. We champion individualism, while they work to collectivize individuals into a podlike whole. We’re a democracy, we’re the democracy, while they’re a bastion of communism-turned-dictatorship rapidly returning to the values of the Stone Age.
And in point of fact, the USSR was not a “free country,” as America loves to call itself. There were legitimate criticisms to launch against the Soviet Union: at this point in history, they didn’t have freedom of the press, atheism was advanced by the government to the point that Christians were systematically persecuted, and their war in Afghanistan was a bald-faced attempt to impose their values on a country that didn’t share them or want to share them.
But Reagan’s speech doesn’t mention any of the Soviets’ human rights violations; it barely even mentions their military aggression or plans for nuclear armament, which is ostensibly the entire point of the exercise. Instead, the oration, fittingly given to the National Association of the Evangelicals, is a naked assertion of American exceptionalism based on our superior spiritual purity, and their comparative heathenism and “godlessness.”
“While America’s military strength is important… the real crisis we face today is a spiritual one; at root, it is a test of moral will and faith.”
In fact, one of the most famous speeches of the Cold War is hardly about international relations at all; the lion’s share of the speech is devoted to domestic issues, and the noble struggle to bring back the “traditional values that have been the bedrock of America’s goodness and greatness.” In other words, Reagan wanted to MAKE AMURRICA GREAT AGAIN, by re-focusing on societally-approved institutions like “families,” “neighborhoods,” and most of all, “churches.”
“Not until I went into the churches of America and heard her pulpits aflame with righteousness did I understand the greatness and the genius of America. . . . America is good. And if America ever ceases to be good, America will cease to be great.”
It only makes sense that he never calls out the Soviet Union for being a repressive regime, because every single domestic reform proposed in the speech aims to restrict personal freedoms. He decries Planned Parenthood’s contribution to America’s moral decay, and suggests taking away young girls’ autonomy by requiring them to get permission from their parents for birth control. (And casually slut-shames them in the process, derisively referring to them as “girls termed ‘sexually active’—and that has replaced the word ‘promiscuous.'”) He then proposes a Constitutional amendment forcing young children to pray in public school, because in his words, children should be “entitled to the same privileges as Supreme Court Justices and Congressmen.” How fascinating that he uses the rhetoric of freedom to justify authoritarian policies, considering that the notion of big government “guaranteeing” individual freedoms is a bedrock of communist theory.
“Freedom prospers when religion is vibrant and the rule of law under God is acknowledged.”
And there’s the rub, both in the speech itself and in The Americans‘ small-scale depiction of the conflict between Russian and American culture. Reagan doesn’t condemn Russians for worshipping a despot, but for worshipping the wrong one:
“If we will not be governed by God, we must be governed by tyrants…The Western World can answer this challenge… ‘but only provided that its faith in God and the freedom He enjoins is as great as communism’s faith in Man.'”
While capitalism is, at least superficially, more individualistic than communism, the Cold War was less about defending freedom of thought than it was about defending a “traditional” way of life. Regarding Planned Parenthood and parental notification, Reagan said, “The right of parents and the rights of family take precedence over those of Washington-based bureaucrats and social engineers.” But really, he’s saying that the rights of the institutions of which he approves–the Church and the nuclear family–supersede the rights of individuals (especially when they’re young women). Reagan wanted God to serve the same function as the government in the Soviet Union, proving that, in our own way, we’re just as collectivist and dogmatic as the Soviets.
“While they preach the supremacy of the state, declare its omnipotence over individual man, and predict its eventual domination of all peoples on the Earth, they are the focus of evil in the modern world.”
While many critics have noted The Americans’ apt illustration of the Soviet/American conflict through the “Cold War” of Elizabeth and Philip’s marriage, this speech was especially germane to the third season, which manifests the culture clash through Elizabeth’s relationship with Paige. At first, Elizabeth is horrified that her daughter has pledged her fealty to Jesus. But she is mollified, proud even, when she discovers that Paige’s church group is encouraging her to make a positive difference in the world through civil disobedience. Elizabeth realizes that Paige is just like her, in that she wants to believe in something higher than herself (she’s simply taking a distinctly American avenue to get there).
Elizabeth clearly loves her daughter, but horrifies Philip with her willingness to send Paige to the Center, and essentially sacrifice their daughter to their cause. But from Elizabeth’s perspective, this is an expression of love towards her daughter, a bestowal of an honor and an opportunity to do something meaningful with her life. In broad strokes, this is meant to contrast Elizabeth’s Russian collectivism with Philip’s American individualism, and yet Reagan eerily expresses the exact same sentiments in his speech:
A number of years ago, I heard a young father, a very prominent young man in the entertainment world, addressing a tremendous gathering in California. It was during the time of the Cold War, and communism and our own way of life were very much on people’s minds. And he was speaking to that subject. And suddenly, though, I heard him saying, “I love my little girls more than anything——” And I said to myself, “Oh, no, don’t. You can’t—don’t say that.” But I had underestimated him. He went on: “I would rather see my little girls die now, still believing in God, than have them grow up under communism and one day die no longer believing in God.”
The Americans is not just a simple critique of American culture, but rather a relatively even-handed portrayal of capitalism’s advantages and shortcomings in relation to communism. Paige has internalized the revolutionary spirit, egalitarian streak, and idealistic dogmatism that arguably could have come from either culture, while Henry’s comfortable and privileged American existence makes him entitled enough to break into their neighbor’s home and play their coveted video games. Elizabeth is discomfited by their pampered suburban life while homeless people starve and freeze only a few blocks away, and Philip agrees, but also gets her to admit that she likes owning all of those fabulous boots and sweaters. Adorable KGB recruit Hans marvels that he can buy things like stone-washed jeans, to which Elizabeth quotes Marx: “The production of too many useful things results in too many useless people.”
According to The Americans, America does have a culture of pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps individualism, but is also teeming with economic inequality to the point that real social mobility was not much more than a fairy tale. The quality of life is, indeed, higher in America than in countries like the Soviet Union, but Americans can’t appreciate it as a result of our insatiable materialist consumer culture. In the Soviet Union, children didn’t get to be children; in America, children weren’t given any responsibility and remained children forever. The Soviet Union may have invaded a Middle Eastern country to impose and spread communism, but America does the same thing in the name of democracy approximately every other week.
This ethnocentric hubris brings us right back to the “Evil Empire” speech. Since The Americans isn’t a straightforward indictment of American culture, Elizabeth isn’t necessarily meant to be a stand-in for the audience in that last enraged shot of season three, but it may be the closest she’s ever come. “Evil Empire” is remembered as a red, white, and blue moment, the moment at which America nobly and righteously entered into the “age-old struggle between good and evil” and endeavored to save the world from the godless Communists. Regardless of whether the nuclear freeze made sense at the time, the speech itself is full of imperialistic rhetoric, a call for the “good” people of America to arm themselves against another country, not for human rights violations or genocide, but for holding different beliefs. Reagan is quite explicitly claiming the moral high ground on the basis of the Soviet Union’s “aggressive impulse” to expand their communistic empire with military force, while in the same breath advocating the use of military force to “protect” (read: spread) God-fearing capitalism. Like most international conflicts, the Cold War was complex, and both sides had their strengths and weaknesses; but in this speech, in this moment in US history, in this moment on The Americans, America is the goddamn Evil Empire.
It was the perfect moment, the focus on Elizabeth in that moment Reagan mentions the USSR as the focus of evil in the modern world, the evil empire. She is the face of that evil in the show. Throughout the season Elizabeth came to represent that evil personified but she is blind to it herself, though Phillip never is. The woman in episode 9 dismissed her fatuous “making the world a better place” with that simple truth: “That’s what evil people tell themselves when they do evil things.”
You can try and flip it around by putting America as the evil empire in the show–or in reality–but it just doesn’t work, not in the show, not historically. Interesting piece though.