Ronald Reagan was elected in 1980 with a mandate not just to contain communism, which was the U.S. policy since 1947, but to roll it back.
Between 1975 and President Reagan's election, Angola, Afghanistan, Laos, Cambodia, Ethiopia, Mozambique, Nicaragua, Somalia and South Vietnam - to name a few - had come under Soviet domination. A Soviet naval base was established on the island of Socotra, capable of intercepting vital shipping in the Persian Gulf and the Red Sea. Many believed that after the Vietnam defeat, the United States would lose the Cold War.
Mr. Reagan turned everything around. Working with Mr. Reagan's clear and compelling overview, his team designed a complex strategy of defeating the Soviets. As the renowned Chinese strategist Sun Tsu taught, he won the Cold War (which can be compared to World War III) without firing a shot - a great strategic feat.
Mr. Reagan succeeded in convincing the Soviets that competing in the Strategic Defense Initiative, a ballistic missile defense program that opponents nicknamed "Star Wars," would bankrupt them. By convincing the Kremlin that it would lose the arms race, he effectively triggered Soviet capitulation.
The Reagan Doctrine postulated that engaging and bleeding the Soviets and their allies in Third World arenas where people resisted their domination would not only contain, but roll back communist expansion. The Reagan administration did so despite resistance from Democrats in Congress, which defunded aid to the Contras.
The Reagan Doctrine also made U.S. allies out of the many "captive nations" that made up the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, which were sent clear signals that independence was attainable.
As a young audience researcher for Radio Liberty in 1988, I remember the Kyrghyz who told my interviewers that they were watching what was happening in Estonia: If the little Baltic republic were successful in gaining freedom, they, too, would fight for independence. Thus, Mr. Reagan created a chain reaction of liberation, which ultimately blew up the Soviet empire.
There was an economic dimension to Mr. Reagan's strategy, as well, which he demonstrated when he convinced the Saudis to flood the market with cheap oil in order to deny hard currency to the Kremlin. Yes, those were the days - a mere $10 a barrel - as the Saudis were frightened by the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, and the Soviet air force was only a striking distance from their oil fields in the Persian Gulf.
Another economic move in the grand chess game Mr. Reagan played against the "evil empire" was intercepting the flow of technology and credits necessary for building a Soviet cash cow - the gas pipeline from Siberia to Western Europe.
Finally, there was Mr. Reagan's war of ideas. This crucial aspect of the fight involved telling the Soviets and their satellites the truth - the truth about the gulag, Stalin's prison labor camp system in which millions of people died for their political and religious convictions - or for no crime at all. These gulags were replicated by KGB clones everywhere - from Albania to Yugoslavia.
The war of ideas extended to the promotion of great freedom fighters such as Nobel Prize winners Andrey Sakharov, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Joseph Brodsky (whom Mr. Reagan made a U.S. poet laureate in 1987) and Czeslaw Milosz.
There was also support for the Polish independent trade union Solidarity and for Charter 77 in Prague headed by a playwright, Vaclav Havel, the first president of an independent Czech Republic more than a decade later.
There was, above all, the great mastery of symbol and slogan: paraphrasing Karl Marx, an "evil empire" that belongs on the ash heap of history and "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall."
So, those who claimed that Mr. Reagan was a simpleton, a "primitive anti-communist" were dead wrong. Just as Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill defeated Nazism, Mr. Reagan and Britain's Margaret Thatcher defeated communism.
The legacy of Ronald Reagan is alive today. It is alive in the liberated countries liberated from the evil empire, which only recently became U.S. allies by joining NATO. It is alive in retaining Russia a friendly neutral power over the Gorbachev, Yeltsin and Putin administrations. And it is in the main lesson of his Cold War victory: You must fight your adversary with the word, as well as with the sword. You must win the war of ideas, as well as the battle of bullets.
Today, what would Mr. Reagan do? He would appeal for the liberation of women in the Muslim world, he would call for the freedom of Sudanese Christians from slavery and genocide, he would demand that the brainwashing of Palestinian and Iraqi youth to become suicide bombers be stopped. He would also launch a strategic energy initiative to liberate the United States from its worst chemical dependency - Middle Eastern oil.
Ronald Reagan promoted freedom, upholding the American example of the shining city on the hill. We cannot do less.
Ariel Cohen is a research fellow at the Heritage Foundation.
First appeared in The Washington Times