The credit for that collapse goes to multiple players: Lech Walesa and his Solidarity movement in Poland, Vaclav Havel and his Charter 77 movement in Czechoslovakia, dissidents like Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Pope John Paul II, Margaret Thatcher … Ronald Reagan–yes, especially Ronald Reagan.
What about Mikhail Gorbachev? Well, unlike a lot of Reagan conservatives, I give Gorbachev tremendous credit for communism's collapse. His role was historic, undeniable, irreplaceable. I cannot imagine the end of the Cold War happening when it did, or at all, without Gorbachev.
That said, the credit for the fall of the wall–or at least the prodding that started the collapse–goes entirely to Ronald Reagan, and very little to Gorbachev. Let me explain:
It was in June 1987 that Ronald Reagan issued a challenge to Mikhail Gorbachev outside the Brandenburg Gate. Said Reagan: "There is one sign the Soviets can make that would be unmistakable, that would advance dramatically the cause of freedom and peace. General Secretary Gorbachev, …. Come here to this gate. Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate. Mr.
Gorbachev, tear down this wall!"
The crowd outside the Brandenburg Gate roared in approval because it
understood: Reagan's words placed the onus squarely on Mikhail Gorbachev, who indeed was the one person who held the power to tear down the wall. And if Gorbachev was truly the near-saintly figure depicted by liberals, then he ought to order the dismantling of the Berlin Wall.
While much has been written on this moment, there is much more that needs to be known, including Reagan's lengthy track record on the
matter: Ronald Reagan's call for the removal of the wall that June day was far from his first. He had done so 20 years earlier, during a nationally televised debate with Robert F. Kennedy in May 1967. Eleven years later, in November 1978, he actually stood in front of the structure as a visitor. On that occasion, witnessed by those who traveled there with him, including Richard V. Allen, Reagan went further, gazing at the wall and stating determinedly, "We have got to find a way to knock this thing down."
Equally notable, and contrary to historical wisdom, is the fact that Reagan, as president, requested the dismantling of the wall several times before and after his June 1987 speech. I've chronicled each of these in one of my books, and won't revisit them here.
Most telling, however, and crucial to my point here, is that Mikhail Gorbachev refused Ronald Reagan's request to tear down the wall. He did so to Reagan's face.
For instance, when Reagan and Gorbachev met at the Moscow summit in May 1988, the details of have only recently been declassified, Reagan said to Gorbachev: "wouldn't it be a good idea to tear down the Berlin Wall?"
Gorbachev said no. And it wasn't the only time the two men had that conversation.
So, why was Gorbachev, later recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, so opposed to this?
There were several reasons, but most influential was a lingering Soviet distrust of a unified Germany, a residual ambivalence leftover from the smoke of the Nazi guns of World War II.
Mikhail Gorbachev favored a divided Germany and the wall that separated it.
He distrusted and didn't want a unified Germany.
None of this is to begrudge Gorbachev the credit he richly deserves for helping to end the Cold War – and for not stopping the wrecking ball and bulldozers once they did arrive in Berlin.
Yet, it was Ronald Reagan who took the initiative on the Berlin Wall, who pushed Gorbachev– even in private – to take down the most visible, stark symbol of the Cold War divide, a gray, cold tombstone to human freedom. And it was that collapse 20 years ago this week that is worth celebrating.