At year's end, it is often useful to look back at the year past and seek to learn its lessons. But it's more useful now, I think, to look back at the past quarter-century.
Twenty-five years ago, in December 1980, Jimmy Carter was serving his last full month in office and Ronald Reagan was president-elect. More than 50 Americans were being held hostage in Iran -- an act of war by the revolutionary mullahs. The Soviet Union was on the march in Afghanistan. The American economy was finishing a decade of high inflation and sluggish growth, at best -- stagflation. The past three presidents had been repudiated: Richard Nixon in 1974, Gerald Ford in 1976 and Jimmy Carter 1980.
Experts preached that America's best days were behind it, counseled that we seek accommodation with the Soviet Union and urged nations of the avaricious North to share their wealth with nations of the deserving South. Low-inflation economic growth was no longer possible.
Now we know, with as much certainty as is possible in these things, that these experts were dead wrong. Less than a decade later, the Berlin Wall fell -- and not long after that, the Soviet empire was no more. If you had told anyone in the early 1970s that advances in human freedom would be led by the king of Spain and the pope, he might have doubted your sanity. But King Juan Carlos I moved to bring democracy to Spain, with reverberations in Portugal and Latin America, while Pope John Paul II, speaking to crowds of millions in his native Poland, spread the message that the people of Eastern Europe need not be afraid and could build for themselves a better future.
Ronald Reagan had similar hopes -- and produced similar results. The hint that he would use force persuaded the mullahs to return the hostages the moment he took office. His assertion that communism was on the ash heap of history gave heart to jailed dissidents like Natan Sharansky, and his robust defense budgets laid down a challenge that the Soviets' sclerotic economy could not meet. Reagan's tax cuts and tight money squeezed the inflation out of the economy and produced vast economic growth.
What are the lessons of the past 25 years?