Monday, November 9, 2009

Ronald Reagan and the Berlin Wall

There was an interesting op-ed piece by James Mann in the LA Times on Friday arguing that President Reagan's behind-the-scenes courting of President Gorbachev was much more important in causing the Berlin Wall to fall, than was Reagan's famous speech in June of 1987, in which Reagan called out, "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!"  Prior to that speech, Reagan had already shifted his emphasis from his "evil empire" rhetoric toward building a constructive relationship with a by-now trusted reformer in the Soviet Union.  And it was Gorbachev's parallel trust in building a different relationship with the United States, Mann argues, that led Gorbachev to decide not to intervene when the East German authorities asked what they should do about the crowds of people streaming across the wall twenty years ago. 

The purpose of the speech, according to Mann, was not so much to intimidate the Soviet Union or the East German government, as it was to satisfy Reagan's supporters in the United States.  And even now, conservatives love to talk about how Reagan's arms build-up and tough talk against the evil empire caused the United States to win the Cold War, but they downplay the quiet diplomacy that was going on behind the scenes.  They sometimes forget that President Reagan often took such a pro-Gorbachev line while he was president that he alarmed hard-liners both inside and outside his administration at the time.  In fact, talking tough while making quiet compromises behind the scenes was entirely characteristic of Reagan, who also made pragmatic compromises on domestic policy, while engaging in tough anti-government rhetoric to placate his supporters.

President Obama has talked about President Reagan's effectiveness in making change.  Obama also displays an ability to use soaring rhetoric to try to keep his supporters happy, while making the compromises necessary to govern.  Getting health care reform through the Congress requires just that kind of balancing act.  Similarly, in dealing with a continuing economic crisis, President Obama needs to placate Americans' anger at Wall Street bailouts, while at the same time reassuring Wall Street that this country's financial system will remain profitable, so that the economy will grow its way out of this recession. The job requires the same kind of finesse that Reagan displayed twenty years ago. 

(photo from Europske Mesto)


  1. Reagan stated that he wanted to leave the USSR in the "dust bin of history." Obama would never say such a thing about another country. Reagan walked out of an arms control summit with Gorby because he refused to surrender SDI. Obama would never do that. Obama is no Reagan.

  2. Harrison, you're helping me prove my point that conservatives only want to talk about the tough guy side of Reagan. Reagan did the things you are talking about, but he also went to another summit with Gorbachev ready to go way beyond what his advisers were comfortable with doing. And Reagan was criticized in later years of his presidency for being too trusting of the Soviets. My point is that Reagan talked tough but he also knew when to compromise. And that's a good thing.

  3. Joe,
    You make some good points about Reagan but I think your forgetting one important element of his Brandenburg Gate speech.

    It wasn't just read meat to us conservatives over here but also a message to the people of East Berlin, East Germany and the rest of the Warsaw Pact nations that this country stood behind them in their quest for freedom.

    For fear of rehashing some old ground we may have exchanged, it was people like Lech Walesa who said that one could not underestimate the power of Reagan's words and the hope that it inspired in the people under Soviet rule.

    Jaomir Jagr, hockey great for the Pittsburgh Penguins used to carry around a folded up picture of Ronald Reagan in his wallet when he was a kid growing up in what was then Czechoslovakia such was Reagan's name synonomous with freedom.

    OK, now I'm just gushing.

  4. Slightly off topic: Do you think the President should've made an appearance at the Berlin Wall festivities a couple of days ago?

    He had not planned on going even before the Ft. Hood massacre.

  5. I find it interesting that no matter how much welfare the West gives to the East the fact is the former Communist part of Germany is still well behind those that were on the other side of the wall 20 years later.