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
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.
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.
this mandate, Gorbachev created a climate in places like East Germany much
friendlier to revolution. "What we have now is the Sinatra Doctrine," his chief
spokesman, Gennady Gerasimov, told the world on Good Morning America. "He has a song: 'I Did it My Way.'" Gorbachev
also made clear repeatedly that he wished to see the reform of socialism in
Eastern Europe and warned of the consequences of stagnation. Even as hundreds
gathered outside East Berlin's Palast der
Republik shouting "Gorbi, hilf uns"
-- "Gorbi, help us" -- on the 40th anniversary of East Germany in August 1989, East
German leader Erich Honecker proclaimed, "Den
Sozialismus in seinem Lauf hält weder Ochs noch Esel auf," -- "Neither an
ox nor a donkey is able to stop the progress of socialism". But, as Gorbachev put
it around the same time, "Life punishes those who come too late."