Peter Gibbons reflects on the fall of the Berlin Wall

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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