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.
It is no less problematic to attribute the Soviet collapse to Gorbachev. He was undoubtedly a reformer and a new type of Soviet general secretary, but why did the Politburo in 1985 feel the need to turn over leadership to this man? Certainly the communist bosses did not wish him to lead the party, and the regime, over the precipice.
Nor did Gorbachev see this as his role. On the contrary, he insisted throughout the second half of the 1980s that he sought to strengthen the Soviet economy in order to strengthen the Soviet military. The Politburo supported Gorbachev’s reforms because he promised “regained confidence in the Party.” In his 1987 book Perestroika Gorbachev presented himself as the preserver, not the destroyer, of socialism. No one was more surprised than Gorbachev when the Soviet regime disintegrated, and when he was swept out of power.
The only man who foresaw the Soviet collapse and implemented policies to bring it about was Ronald Reagan. During his first term Reagan pursued tough anti-Soviet policies aimed at curtailing the Soviet nuclear threat and stopping Soviet advances around the world. Calling the Soviets an “evil empire,” Reagan initiated a massive defense buildup. He deployed Pershing and Cruise missiles in Europe. He sent weapons and other assistance to anticommunist guerrillas fighting for self-determination in Soviet satellites like Afghanistan, Angola and Nicaragua. He announced a new program of missile defenses that would eventually “make nuclear weapons obsolete.”
These measures were fiercely resisted by liberal Democrats, who decried Reagan’s policies as confrontational and likely to make nuclear war more likely. Historian Barbara Tuchman spoke for many liberals when she urged that the West ingratiate itself with the Soviet Union by pursuing “the stuffed-goose option—that is, providing them with all the grain and consumer goods they need.” If Reagan had taken this advice when it was offered in 1982, the Soviet empire would probably be around today.
Reagan’s military buildup and his missile defense program threatened the Soviets with an arms race they could ill afford. The Reagan doctrine of aid to anticommunist guerrillas halted Soviet advances in the Third World: between 1980 and 1985 not an inch of real estate fell into Moscow’s hands and one small country, Grenada, reverted into the democratic camp. Thanks to Stinger missiles supplied by the United States, Afghanistan rapidly became what the Soviets themselves would later call a “bleeding wound.”
Clearly the Politburo saw that the momentum in the cold war had dramatically shifted. After 1985, the Soviets seem to have decided on a new course. It was Reagan, in other words, who was responsible for thwarting Soviet gains and introducing a loss of nerve that contributed to the elevation of Gorbachev to power. Gorbachev’s policies were responses to circumstances created not by him but by Reagan. No wonder that Ilya Zaslavsky, who served in the Congress of People’s Deputies, said later that the true originator of glasnost and perestroika was not Gorbachev but Reagan.
Reagan immediately recognized Gorbachev as a new breed of Soviet leader. He supported Gorbachev’s reforms and arms control initiatives during his second term, when many conservatives criticized him for being naïve and credulous. William F. Buckley, Jr. warned that Reagan’s new stance was “on the order of changing our entire position toward Adolf Hitler.” Columnist George Will mourned that Reagan had “accelerated the moral disarmament of the West by elevating wishful thinking to the status of political philosophy.”
These criticisms missed the larger current of events that Reagan alone appears to have understood. In attempting to reform communism, Gorbachev was destroying the system. Reagan encouraged him every step of the way; as Gorbachev himself joked, Reagan induce him to take the Soviet Union to the edge of the abyss and then take “one step forward.”
The tears of joy with which millions greeted the collapse of the Soviet empire proved that Reagan was entirely justified in calling it an “evil empire.” Even some of who were previously skeptical of Reagan were compelled to admit that they had been wrong and Reagan’s approach had been thoroughly vindicated. Reflecting on Reagan’s complex strategy of initial toughness toward the Soviet Union—in the face of denunciation from liberals—and later support for Gorbachev—in the face of criticism from conservatives—Henry Kissinger called it “the most stunning diplomatic achievement of the modern era.”
Margaret Thatcher composed Reagan’s epitaph when she said that “he won the cold war without firing a shot.” That’s how history will remember him. On the anniversary’s of the Berlin Wall’s collapse, we should do Reagan the honor of recognizing his prescient leadership that helped to produce that marvelous event.