In October 1987 Ronald Reagan stood at the Brandenburg Gate and said, “General Secretary Gorbachev, if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, if you seek liberalization…tear down this wall.” Two years later, in what may be the most spectacular political event of our lifetimes, the Berlin Wall came tumbling down, the Soviet empire collapsed, and the world entered a new period of relative peace and prosperity.
But how and why did the wall come tumbling down? I want to argue that it was Reagan’s statesmanship that made possible this epochal event. Reagan didn’t, of course, do it alone. But without him it probably wouldn’t have happened.
As early as 1981, when virtually everyone considered the Soviet empire a permanent fixture of the international landscape, Reagan spoke at the University of Notre Dame where he predicted that “the West won’t contain communism; it will transcend communism. It will dismiss it as a bizarre chapter in human history whose last pages are even now being written.” The next year Reagan told the British Parliament that freedom and democracy would “leave Marxism-Leninism on the ash heap of history.”
When Reagan made these forecasts the wise men in the media and academia scoffed. Today these same pundits maintain that the Soviet Union collapsed by itself due to economic failure, or that Mikhail Gorbachev was responsible. Reagan, they insist, merely presided over an event that his policies did little to influence.
This analysis makes no sense at all. Sure, the Soviet Union had economic problems on account of its socialist system. But the Soviet economy had been ailing for most of the century. Never in history has a great empire imploded due to poor economic performance alone. The Roman and Ottoman empires survived internal corrosion and domestic strains for generations before each was destroyed by military force.
Like many empires suffering from domestic strains, the Soviets during the 1970s compensated for these by pursuing an aggressive foreign policy. Between 1974 and 1980, while the U.S. wallowed in post-Vietnam angst, 10 countries fell into the Soviet orbit: South Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, South Yemen, Angola, Mozambique, Ethiopia, Nicaragua, Grenada and Afghanistan. The Soviet nuclear arsenal surpassed that of the United States, and the Soviets deployed a new generation of intermediate-range missiles targeted at Western Europe. Far from being on the verge of collapse, the Soviet Union in 1980 seemed to be in the vanguard of history.