ST. PETERSBURG, Russia -- "What are you Americans thinking?" asked the young woman in perfect, if slightly accented, English. She was wearing a name tag with "Marie" in both Cyrillic and Latin print and had greeted us pleasantly when we ducked out of the rain and into her store to buy postcards and mementos for our grandchildren. Her question about American "thinking" came in the midst of a conversation about how dramatically life in Russia had changed during her 27 brief years.
"What do you mean?" I replied.
"What are you Americans thinking about freedom?" Marie asked.
Somewhat perplexed, I answered: "We think individual liberty is wonderful. Why do you ask?"
Her response was a reproach: "Why isn't America supporting freedom for the people of Iran?"
My meandering rejoinder about "uncertainty" and "unique challenges" was unsatisfying to both of us -- a tawdry example of my inability to criticize our government while in a foreign country. A few hours after this encounter, our ship sailed into the Baltic Sea, past the nearly abandoned base at Kronshtadt, once a stronghold of the no-longer-mighty Soviet navy. Seeing its now-dilapidated structures and rusting hulls was a reminder that we have not always had a problem explaining what America stands for.
Twenty-two years ago this month, President Ronald Reagan stood at the Brandenburg Gate, in Berlin, boldly pointed to the barrier dividing the city, and declared: "There is one sign the Soviets can make that would be unmistakable, that would advance dramatically the cause of freedom and peace. General Secretary Gorbachev, if you seek peace, if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe … Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!"
President Reagan's words were the knockout punch that buckled the knees of the Soviet empire. While some may think it was just a great line in a speech, Marie and tens of millions of other once-captive people know better. The challenge Mr. Reagan issued in the heart of Europe precipitated the end of a tyrannical system that had bullied, enslaved and murdered three generations of human beings for more than six decades. It wasn't just a sound bite. It was a consistent part of what Ronald Reagan said he wanted to achieve as president of the United States.
Oliver North is a nationally syndicated columnist, the host of War Stories on the Fox News Channel, the author of the new novel Heroes Proved and the co-founder of Freedom Alliance, an organization that provides college scholarships to the children of U.S. military personnel killed or permanently disabled in the line of duty. Join Oliver North in Israel by going to www.olivernorthisrael.com.