Peter Gibbons reflects on the fall of the Berlin Wall

November 10th, 2009 at 1:45 pm by Peter Gibbons

Mr Farrar posted earlier today with some of his thoughts on the fall of the 20 years ago.  I certainly recall my Legal and Political Studies teacher at school showing a slide of the Wall and intoning solemnly “you won’t see that down in your life time.”  Twenty months later and it was a pile of rubble.  When it happened, it all happened so quickly and with remarkably little bloodshed.  It was a watershed geo-political event.

The role of President in the reunification of Germany and indeed the end of the Cold War is still a matter of intense debate.  Russell Brown summed up one school of thought with his comment on David’s original post:

Trade unionists, dissidents, intellectuals and ordinary people drove the events that led to the wall opening.  Only months before it happened, Georgian protesters were shot in the street by their own security forces.  I think it’s much more important to remember them than Reagan, who merely read a catchy line.

Let’s look first at the role of Reagan in the end of the Cold War.  Though heavily criticised by media, experts and even some in his Administration at the time, Reagan consistently took a hard line on Soviet expansion and arms negotiations.  This hard line was predicated on Reagan’s belief that “the Soviet Union was economically weak and its vulnerability would not permit a matching acceleration of arms and technology thus forcing them to negotiate arms limitations.”  This unshakeable belief underpinned Reagan’s unorthodox and often criticised decisions. 

For example, in 1984, the Soviets walked out of the Geneva arms negotiations.  In a 1997 Presidential Studies Quarterly, Douglas Hoekstra argued “rather than Reagan shifting bargaining positions to elicit Soviet response, as might be expected, Reagan blithely continued to insist that the Soviets would return to negotiations.”

Reagan was right.  The Russians did return and, incredibly, within five years were on the brink of a (relatively) peaceful collapse.  Soviet attempts to match the West had caused the system to collapse from within.  While some (including Hoekstra) are reluctant to give Reagan much credit for his strategy, one of the foremost Cold War scholars, John Lewis Gaddis, has changed his tune.  Once a scathing critic, he is now praising Reagan for his foreign policy.  In a 1989 piece called “Hanging tough paid off”, Gaddis wrote “it would be uncharitable – and historically irresponsible – to begrudge the strategic vision of an administration once thought by many of us to have had none at all.”  

Paul Kengor, in “Reagan Among the Professors – His Surprising Reputation”, categorises the emerging academic view is that Ronald Reagan will be widely accepted by historians as a “near-great chief executive” who “revived a sick economy, established a policy course that won the Cold War” and “uplifted a depressed national spirit with his rhetoric.”  The rehabilitation of Reagan’s reputation is reflected in several surveys of academics and commentators which have Reagan consistently placed in the ‘near great’ President category.  In less than a decade, Reagan moved in one major poll of academics from being the 25th ranked President to the 8th.

The final point relates to Russell’s last comment that Reagan “merely read a catchy line.”  Again, that accurately reflects the initial academic and media animus towards Reagan.  It has always been a paradox that Reagan was considered by many to be simultaneously a dangerous ideologue and an empty suit.

An analysis of the files at the Reagan Library reveals a quite different story.  Jones and Rowland, writing in the Communication Studies journal, reviewed the Handwriting Files there and concluded they showed that “Reagan was an involved principal in the creation of the radio speeches and skilful speechwriter himself…  Reagan was an active participant in the creation and revision of his discourse rather than simply a performer who repeated the words and ideas of others.”  Their analysis demonstrates that Reagan was concerned with both the style and ideological substance of his speeches.  In fact, at the 1984 Geneva conference mentioned earlier Reagan extensively revised the State Department draft speech which signalled concessions to the Russians which the President did not agree with.

Russell is right to say on this day we need to remember the everyday people who stood up to tyranny as well as the political and religious leaders on the world stage.  However, it seems unfair to belittle the contribution of the 40th President of the United States to these historic events.

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20 Responses to “Peter Gibbons reflects on the fall of the Berlin Wall”

  1. Swiftman the infidel (329 comments) says:

    I ignore everything that media-wanka Russel Brown says. He’s so unoriginal and predictable.

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  2. Willie_Escaped (29 comments) says:

    Every leader gains popularity after their retirement.

    They gain huge popularity after their death.

    In 20 years, the academic class that has until now slaughtered Bush II, will refer to him in a positive light.

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  3. stephen (4,063 comments) says:

    While I’m not particularly knowledeable about such matters, in turn one often hears that Gorbachev, too is sometimes overlooked (usually within the context of ‘Wow wasn’t Reagan great’ etc). With another ‘typical’ ‘strong man’ type ruler in the Politburo, it sounds like the West would still have won, but the turmoil that would’ve resulted in Russian and-the-rest could have been reeeal messy.

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  4. stephen (4,063 comments) says:

    In 20 years, the academic class that has until now slaughtered Bush II, will refer to him in a positive light.

    Why is Bush 2 the only one of the two castigated for accumulating collosal debt levels, whereas Reagan (without reading the desciptions of these rankings) isn’t?

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  5. virtualmark (1,523 comments) says:

    Reagan certainly had a major role in the revolutions of 1989 that really brought about the end of the Cold War. But I can’t help thinking this post puts too much of the credit at Reagans door, presumably because he was the President when much of this was finally playing out.

    It’s correct that “Soviet attempts to match the West had caused the system to collapse from within”. Fundamentally the Russian economy couldn’t keep up with the West, particularly with the costs of the arms race and the costs of enforcing the Iron Curtain. The Warsaw Pact economies just drove themselves into the ground trying to maintain the geopolitical status quo.

    I couldn’t put it better than this:

    It was the KGB that realized first that the Soviet Union was failing, which made sense because only the KGB had a comprehensive sense of the state of the Soviet Union. Andropov’s strategy was to shift from technology transfer through espionage — apparently Putin’s mission as a junior intelligence officer in Dresden in the former East Germany — to a more formal process of technology transfer. To induce the West to transfer technology and to invest in the Soviet Union, Moscow had to make substantial concessions in the area in which the West cared the most: geopolitics. To get what it needed, the Soviets had to dial back on the Cold War.

    Glasnost, or openness, had as its price reducing the threat to the West. But the greater part of the puzzle was perestroika, or the restructuring of the Soviet economy. This was where the greatest risk came, since the entire social and political structure of the Soviet Union was built around a command economy. But that economy was no longer functioning, and without perestroika, all of the investment and technology transfer would be meaningless. The Soviet Union could not metabolize it.

    Former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev was a communist, as we seem to forget, and a follower of Andropov. He was not a liberalizer because he saw liberalization as a virtue; rather, he saw it as a means to an end. And that end was saving the Communist Party, and with it the Soviet state. Gorbachev also understood that the twin challenge of concessions to the West geopolitically and a top-down revolution in Russia economically — simultaneously–risked massive destabilization. This is what Reagan was counting on, and what Gorbachev was trying to prevent. Gorbachev lost Andropov’s gamble. The Soviet Union collapsed, and with it the Communist Party.

    This is still the case today, and the American strategy remains the same … hence Joe Biden’s comments earlier this year that “[Russia has] a shrinking population base, they have a withering economy, they have a banking sector and structure that is not likely to be able to withstand the next 15 years, they’re in a situation where the world is changing before them and they’re clinging to something in the past that is not sustainable.” American strategy is still to use the relative strengths of the American and Russian economies to enforce political outcomes on Russia.

    The interesting thing though is that To my mind the really interesting bit is that this is just reflects the Russian reality. Russia’s economy has always been a basket case compared to other European economies. In the days of the Tsars, in the days of Stalin, in the days of Gorbachev … Russia’s economy is a basket case. But Russian economic might is only loosely connected with Russia’s military might. Stalin drove the Russian economy into the ground, but could still win a war against Germany and capture most of Eastern Europe.

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  6. JC (955 comments) says:

    “The rehabilitation of Reagan’s reputation is reflected in several surveys of academics and commentators which have Reagan consistently placed in the ‘near great’ President category.”

    For Eastern Europe and the majority of the free world Reagan didn’t need rehabilitation. Leftist academics simply couldn’t accept that conservatives like the Pope, Reagan and Thatcher could bring about such a peaceful change.. it didn’t fit the narrative.

    JC

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  7. unaha-closp (1,164 comments) says:

    Russell Brown is half right:

    “Trade unionists, dissidents, intellectuals and ordinary people [of the Warsaw Pact countries] drove the events that led to the wall opening.”

    Reagan spoke in solidarity with these people, calling their oppressors oppressive.

    Russell Brown is half wrong:

    A great many “trade unionists, dissidents and intellectuals” of the NATO Alliance called Reagan an idiot, an imperialist.

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  8. francis (712 comments) says:

    I was a left-wing Democrat when Reagan was elected and loathed him. It took some time – a LOT of time – before I was forced by the evidence all around me to acknowlege the wrongness of my disregard.

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  9. Simon J Taylor (32 comments) says:

    Reagan and Thatcher certainly were largely responsible for “leading the horse to the water”. (So military adventurism , for example would not be allowed as an option for Russia)

    But the horse still had to drink, and Gorbachev takes a good deal of the credit for pushing the required changes through.

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  10. stephen (4,063 comments) says:

    Oh yeah…

    Two months before the fall of the Berlin Wall, Margaret Thatcher told President Gorbachev that neither Britain nor Western Europe wanted the reunification of Germany and made clear that she wanted the Soviet leader to do what he could to stop it.

    http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/politics/article6829735.ece

    yech

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  11. TripeWryter (716 comments) says:

    It has long been fashionable (30 years) to dismiss Ronald Reagan as a joke, and you had those various planted stories such as in Time magazine that he frequently nodded off at Cabinet meetings.

    A good deal of the credit for the end of the Cold War does reside with him.

    He also stood up to some of his people such as Alexander Haig and Jeane Fitzpatrick, who wanted sell out Britain during the Falklands war. The maligned Caspar Weinberger was a help, too.

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  12. GPT1 (2,121 comments) says:

    Good post.

    A paraphrased line from a book from that era that remains with me: “Parents would come home, check their wills were in order, kiss their children and head out to continue the protests. These were not organised anarchists but ordinary people who simply wanted to be free”

    I doubt I have done the line justice but it still gives me goosebumps.

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  13. Put it away (2,878 comments) says:

    stephen – you seem not to be aware that the previous time Germany reunited, it didn’t turn out so well for Europe. Twice. A little caution on Thatcher’s part is understandable…

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  14. stephen (4,063 comments) says:

    A little caution is understandable, but when the freedom of millions of people is at stake, and you state that ‘well we’d rather keep the status quo’, it sheds some light on that particular person.

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  15. Danyl Mclauchlan (1,069 comments) says:

    the previous time Germany reunited, it didn’t turn out so well for Europe. Twice. A little caution on Thatcher’s part is understandable…

    That’s fine – you can argue that Thatcher was being prudent in trying to prevent the reunification of Germany, but you can’t simultaneously praise her for bringing about the reunification of Germany.

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  16. Put it away (2,878 comments) says:

    Danyl – and where did I say that ?

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  17. stephen (4,063 comments) says:

    Maybe he meant ‘one can’t simultaneously…’

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  18. Put it away (2,878 comments) says:

    Stephen – the last time Germany was united, they started one war that killed about 10 million, and another that killed about 60 million. If that’s not a good reason for caution, I don’t know what is…

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  19. llew (1,533 comments) says:

    It has long been fashionable (30 years) to dismiss Ronald Reagan as a joke,

    A hell of a lot longer than that, did you never see one of his films?

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  20. stephen (4,063 comments) says:

    Put it away, no one can possibly think that ze Germans are inherently a bunch of warmongerers so prone to war that uniting them would just make them more powerful and-this-is-a-bad-thing – hardly a reason not to unite them.

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