President Reagan addressed the nation from the Oval Office again at 3PM Eastern Time. This was the speech which will forever be attached to the man’s legacy. Quotes from it have appeared practically everywhere in one form or another in the post-war years from memorial statues, to countless textbooks. The address has been immortalized, and rightfully so. Reagan’s words came at a pivotal moment. The gravity of the crisis was sinking in, and for most Americans the realization was traumatic and horrifying. Reagan acknowledged this and through his words essentially told his fellow Americans that he was feeling similar emotions. Hearing the president admit he was every bit as worried as the average American was had a tremendously affirmative effect on people. They realized that they were not alone.
The heart of the address was, of course, the ‘choice we make today’ portion. Reagan laid out the two choices facing the United States. The country could stand aside, ignore its treaty commitments and allow the evil entity that was the Soviet Union to overrun Western Europe without lifting a finger to help. In that scenario, no American blood would be spilled on the battlefield, Europe would likely be spared a major war, and the horrors of nuclear war would never see the light of day But at some point in the future the enemy would arrive on America’s shores, likely after the rest of the world had been enslaved.
Or, the United States could assume its proper place as the leader of the free world, stand up for its ideals, and lead the defense of Western Europe. If war came, Reagan warned, it would be wrought with great destruction, and peril. Tens of thousands could perish on the battlefield, and there was no guarantee the nation would be kept safe from the ravages of modern war. Despite the unknowns, and danger, Reagan believed we were compelled to defend Europe. Standing aside guaranteed the world would slide into the abyss once and for all. “Europe,” he concluded bluntly and correctly, “Is worth fighting for.”
At the tail end of the speech, the president announced the immediate call up of 300,000 reservists, but stopped short of declaring a national emergency for the time being. Doing so would have contradicted the purpose of his speech. He wanted Americans cognizant and able to function, not to be consumed with fear and incapacitated. In this regard, Reagan was doubling down on his faith in Americans to do the right thing when it mattered the most.
That afternoon at Wrigley Field, the San Diego Padres were in town to play the Chicago Cubs. The game was delayed so the speech could be played over the stadium’s sound system for the sold-out crowd. When it ended, a long moment of reflective silence settled in. Wrigley had likely never been so quiet with a capacity crowd in attendance, though it was to be temporary. The silence was broken by the PA announcer asking the crowd to rise for the national anthem. What followed was the most inspiring recital of the Star Spangled Banner ever by a sporting event crowd. After the anthem, an ear shattering cheer rolled through the historic stadium, sparking a seven minute long “USA! USA!” chant that could probably be heard in Milwaukee.
Ronald Reagan had set the tone of the moment and America was responding. As the afternoon went on, a national resolve began to grow. The peace protests which cropped up were soon dwarfed in size by anti-Soviet and pro-USA rallies. By 5 PM on the east coast, flag waving citizens began converging upon many military installations in spontaneous shows of support for the soldiers, sailors, marines, and airmen who would soon be leaving for Europe. For officers and NCOs who served in Vietnam, the sight was almost overwhelming. This war…if it evolved to that point…was not destined be another Vietnam. Troops were not going to be spat upon, or labeled as ‘baby killers.’ It was clear the American people would support the troops and the mission.
Unlike Vietnam, this war would be about national survival, and that made all the difference in the world.