The U.S. president and his famous speech, commemorated yesterday by the Berlin government, surely played a role, but Mikhail Gorbachev's reforms and East German protesters were far more important.
On Wednesday, Berlin unveiled a plaque in honor of the 25th anniversary of Ronald Reagan's speech demanding that Mikhail Gorbachev "tear down this wall," delivered June 12, 1987. It was an exquisite, powerful, and truly historic moment worthy of commemoration. But Reagan's sometimes-overeager boosters are making some bold claims about the role that both this speech and its deliverer played in the course of world history, another example of the ways that the politics of today are distorting our memory of one of the most complicated conflicts of the 20th century.
It's not surprising that Reagan-boosters are getting a little carried away with his legacy, but the extent of their adoration is getting a little extreme. John Heubusch, Executive Director of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and Library, wrote for Fox News that the states of Eastern Europe "fell to freedom like dominoes" after Reagan's words "pushed the first one over. One cannot ignore how his powerful conviction ended the Cold War by firing a verbal salvo, an oratorical demand to let freedom prevail."
It is certainly true that the Reagan presidency helped usher along the opening of the inner German frontier and later the demise of the Soviet Union. After all, his changes to U.S. foreign policy toward Moscow challenged, among other things, the status quo that assumed the Berlin Wall's existence as inevitable. And Reagan reasserted the idea that simple coexistence with the totalitarian regimes in Eastern Europe was neither desirable nor acceptable.
But did Reagan's 1987 address have much bearing on the actual fall of wall? That's a newer idea, one that happens to put Reagan at the center of a wider narrative of communism's descent in Europe. In fact, not only was Reagan out of office by the time the wall collapsed in the summer of 1989, but his speech had received very little coverage in the media, according to Time and to historian Michael Meyer, who wrote in his history of 1989's revolutions, "Major U.S. newspapers with correspondents in Europe, such as the New York Times, carried stories that ran in the back pages." Reagan also delivered the speech to an audience of about 45,000, one tenth the crowd estimated to have attended John F. Kennedy's 1963 speech. When Reagan declared "Tear down this Wall," it's easy for us to forget now, he was the visibly aged leader of a lame duck administration clouded by scandal and corruption, Iran-Contra in particular.
Historians still dispute, and likely will for many years, the extent to which the Soviet Union collapsed due to pressures from the U.S. or from within. But the Berlin Wall's fall was a moment when Gorbachev's actions, not Reagan's, played a particularly prominent role. The revolts Eastern Europe began in large part because of the Soviet leader's 1985 decision to launch the reforms of glasnost (openness) and perestroika (restructuring). Gorbachev also reneged on the Brezhnev Doctrine, which had asserted that problems within any Warsaw Pact nation were considered "a common problem and concern of all socialist countries" -- in other words, Moscow would intervene in Soviet bloc countries to keep them in line.