Historian Paul Johnson once observed that one of the most important qualities of a statesman is the capacity to make moral distinctions in the realm of geopolitics. Probably no president over the last century enlisted this quality to greater effect than Ronald Reagan. Indeed, Reagan’s ability to discern the nature of the existential crisis of his day—the ideological war between democratic freedom and communist tyranny—undoubtedly hastened the collapse of the Soviet Union.

“The real crisis we face today is a spiritual one,” Reagan told a gathering of evangelicals on March 8, 1983. “At root it is a test of moral will and faith.” It was this conviction that lay at the heart of Reagan’s “Evil Empire” speech, delivered forty years ago. It is hard to think of another world leader who could combine, convincingly, the themes of spiritual salvation, the reality of evil, and the nature of the totalitarian state:

“Yes, let us pray for the salvation of all of those who live in that totalitarian darkness–pray they will discover the joy of knowing God. But until they do, let us be aware that 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.

Secular elites in the academy and in the media, of course, excoriated Reagan for his “simple-minded” and “Manichean” approach to U.S. foreign policy. It is easy to forget the mood of the hour: Conventional liberal wisdom was that the United States and the Soviet Union had equally flawed political systems. They must work to “converge” and compromise for the sake of world peace.

Reagan took this liberal dogma to the woodshed. Quoting from C.S. Lewis in The Screwtape Letters, he warned his religious audience not to be deceived by smooth-talking Soviet leaders, “quiet men with white collars and cut fingernails and smooth-shaven cheeks who do not need to raise their voices.” He cautioned against the dangerous temptation of “blithely declaring yourselves above it all and label both sides equally at fault, to ignore the facts of history and the aggressive impulses of an evil empire.” In this outlook—as popular today as it was a generation ago—Reagan saw the sin of spiritual pride.

Although Reagan believed deeply in American exceptionalism, he was not blind to the nation’s shortcomings. Although labeled a racist by today’s left, Reagan spoke candidly about America’s racist history: “Our nation, too, has a legacy of evil with which it must deal.” It is a remarkable fact that the same president who extolled America as a “shining city on a hill” also lamented its “legacy of evil,” a record of ethnic and racial hatred that has deeply burdened America’s democratic journey.

Unlike the political and religious left that cannot distinguish the United States from the dark realm of Mordor, Reagan understood something of the complexity of the American story. Part of the reason, of course, was that Reagan was born in 1911 and lived long enough to witness profound changes in the nation’s political life: He watched America abandon its isolationism and lead the West in destroying Nazism during the Second World War. He saw the nation’s resolve to resist Soviet plans for global domination at the start of the Cold War, and to preserve Western Europe through the Berlin airlift, the Marshall Plan, and the creation of NATO. Reagan experienced the Jim Crow South as well as the civil rights movement and the passage of the Civil Rights Act, vivid proof of the capacity of the American people to confront age-old prejudices and bring about a more just society.

Predictably, liberals and progressives never saw the collapse of the Soviet Union coming. As late as 1984, Harvard’s John Kenneth Galbraith echoed the mood of moral equivalency: “The Russian system succeeds because, in contrast to the Western industrial economies, it makes full use of its manpower.” Galbraith and others neglected to mention communism’s morally degraded view of the human person: that the regime in Moscow regarded its “manpower” as disposable cogs in the merciless machinery of the State.

Reagan knew better. He knew that to those who lived under the shadow of Soviet totalitarianism, the Soviet Union was a truly evil, horrific empire: an empire built on the gulags and the concentration camps; on show trials, purges, and political assassinations; on the abolition of fundamental human rights; on the denial of God and the assault against religion as a rival source of authority; and on the secret police and the knock on the door in the middle of the night.

Not since Abraham Lincoln had a president drawn such attention to the political and spiritual sources of America’s democratic achievements: its national creed of human equality and individual liberty under God. How could soulless communism stand up to that? “I believe that communism is another sad, bizarre chapter in human history whose last pages even now are being written,” Regan predicted. “I believe this because the source of our strength in the quest for human freedom is not material, but spiritual.”

Within five years of Reagan’s speech, beginning in 1989, democratic revolutions would sweep across the Soviet bloc, soon putting an end to the evil empire once and for all.