Reagan's chief speechwriter at the time, Anthony R. Dolan, reportedly coined the phrase for Reagan's use. Some sources refer to the June 1982 speech before the British House of Commons as the Evil Empire speech, but while Reagan referred twice to totalitarianism in his London speech, the exact phrase "evil empire" did not appear. Rather, the phrase "ash heap of history" appeared in this speech, used by Reagan to predict what he saw as the inevitable failure and collapse of global communism. Ironically, this latter phrase was coined by Bolshevik revolutionary Leon Trotsky in November 1917, using it against his opponents (the Mensheviks) and suggesting that communism was the future; the irony may not have been lost on Reagan.
In your discussions of the nuclear freeze proposals, I urge you to beware the temptation of pride, the 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, to simply call the arms race a giant misunderstanding and thereby remove yourself from the struggle between right and wrong and good and evil.
In the "evil empire" speech, which also dealt with domestic issues, Reagan made the case for deploying NATO nuclear-tipped missiles in Western Europe as a response to the Soviets installing new nuclear-tipped missiles in Eastern Europe. Eventually, the NATO missiles were set up and used as bargaining chips in arms talks with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, who took office in 1985. In 1987, Reagan and Gorbachev agreed to go farther than a nuclear freeze. In an atomic age first, they agreed to reduce nuclear arsenals. Intermediate- and shorter-range nuclear missiles were eliminated.
The phrase also proved useful to Western anti-Communists in justifying a significantly more forceful defense and foreign policy stand against the Soviets. In addition to using the phrase "evil empire," Reagan described the Soviet Union as a "totalitarian" regime.
Michael Johns, writing for the Heritage Foundation's Policy Review magazine, prominently defended Reagan's assertion. In "Seventy Years of Evil: Soviet Crimes from Lenin to Gorbachev," Johns cited 208 acts by the Soviet Union that, he argued, demonstrated the Soviet leadership's evil inclinations.
The Soviet Union, for its part, alleged that the United States was an imperialist superpower seeking to dominate the entire world, and that the Soviet Union was fighting against it in the name of communism. In Moscow, the Soviet press agency Tass said the "evil empire" words demonstrated that the Reagan administration "can think only in terms of confrontation and bellicose, lunatic anti-Communism.
During his second term in office, almost three years after using the term "evil empire," Reagan visited the new reformist General Secretary of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev. When asked by a reporter whether he still thought the Soviet Union was an "evil empire," Reagan responded that he no longer did, and that when he used the term it was a "different era"; that is, the period before Gorbachev's perestroika and glasnost reforms. Still, Reagan remained a critic of the Soviet regime for its absence of democratic institutions.
Recent historians, such as Yale University's John Lewis Gaddis, have grown more favorable towards the use and influence of the phrase "evil empire" in describing the Soviet Union. In his book The Cold War Gaddis argues that, in their use of the phrase "evil empire," Reagan and his anti-Communist political allies were effective in breaking the détente tradition, thus laying the ground for the ultimate collapse of the Soviet Union.
Others, however, like al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, questioned this claim, declaring in 2007 that one of the prime reasons for the collapse of the Soviet Union was its defeat in the Afghanistan war by the Afghan mujahideen resistance. In his statement, however, bin Laden did not mention the significant role of the United States and Saudi Arabia in providing military aid to the anti-Soviet mujahideen.
Reagan and Gorbachev had their last meeting at the Reagan ranch, Rancho del Cielo, in 1992. By this time, the Soviet Union was no more.