In 1961, when I was ten, the Berlin Wall was built. I remember watching the coverage on TV and seeing this picture of an East German border guard leaping to freedom. I also remember seeing photos of those who died attempting to cross. A wall, not to keep something out, but a wall to keep people in. It was the ultimate vision of people as property of The State. Growing up in the 50s and 60s it was hard to imagine a future that didn't involve the Cold War resolving itself other than by some kind of horrible confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union where a final, irreversible miscalculation was made.
By the time President Reagan gave his great speech as the Brandenburg Gate, 25 years ago today, there was a sense that something had changed and that a non-catastrophic end to the Cold War could happen. (For more, and there's a lot including a book and movie discussion, read on)
By 1987 Gorbachev had been the Soviet Premier for two years and a dialogue had started between them. Reagan believed Gorbachev was a different type of Soviet leader. It is often forgotten today, but in Reagan's second term when he engaged with Gorbachev there was a lot of discomfort with what was seen as the President's overly conciliatory approach in some conservative circles from folks such as George Will, Frank Gaffney, Pat Buchanan, Richard Perle and (as he quietly made known) George H.W. Bush.
During this period, Reagan, along with Secretary of State George Schultz, followed a dual path, working with Gorbachev and encouraging him while continuing to keep the pressure on the USSR leadership. It was the latter path that led to the inclusion in the Berlin speech of these words:
"Mr Gorbachev, open this gate. Mr Gorbachev, tear down this wall."
These words were very controversial within the Administration. They were opposed by many in the State Department and in the National Security Council as well as by the top American diplomat in Berlin as too provocative. This opposition was no secret to the President. Peter Robinson, the speechwriter responsible for writing those words in the original draft of the President's speech recounts Reagan telling his deputy chief of staff, Ken Duberstein, that he was going to keep in the words in saying "The boys at State are going to kill me for this but it's the right thing to do". Making that statement was Ronald Reagan's essence. After the end of the Cold War, dissidents in East Germany, Russia and across Eastern Europe, including Lech Walesa in Poland and Vaclav Havel in Czechoslovakia spoke about how important Reagan's words were to their struggles during that decade.
UPDATED: Below is a memo from National Security Council staffer Peter Rodman to Colin Powell (then Deputy National Security Advisor) calling it a "mediocre speech" and a "missed opportunity" and transmitting a memo with a "few suggested changes" including deleting the "tear down this wall" portion of the speech. Rodman later concluded he was wrong, writing that “the whole affair is a vivid example of a president’s possessing a strategic and moral insight that escaped his experts. Reagan’s intuition about Gorbachev was undoubtedly right.”
As Seth Mandel wrote this morning at the Contentions blog:
"And that is what was both impressive and misunderstood about Reagan’s speech. He wasn’t there primarily to rile up a crowd, or be some kind of folk hero. Reagan was having a public conversation with Gorbachev. He appealed to the Soviet leader’s better angels–to Gorbachev the revolutionary, the reformer."
Here's an excerpt from the speech which gives some context to "tear down this wall".
By 1987, Reagan could see the world starting to change. It had been a long struggle. During the 1970s and into the 1980s there was much controversy in the U.S. over the size and health of the Soviet economy and whether it could compete with us in the long-term. Now that much more of Reagan's own writing both before and during his Presidency has become available (see, for instance, Reagan, In His Own Hand) we know that by 1970 he believed that the Soviets were much more vulnerable than commonly thought because by its nature an economy run by the State on Marxist principles could not be effective in the long-term. He was right. In retrospect in turns out that the CIA and American academic experts significantly overestimated Soviet GDP and underestimated the level of Soviet military spending. During the Ford Administration the CIA increased its estimate of the percentage of Soviet GDP spent on the military from 6% to 11-13% and found itself criticized by the "hawks" who thought it was 15-16%. From the information available since the dissolution of the USSR in 1991, it turns out the Soviets were actually spending more than 30% of their GDP on the military (compared to 3-5% for the U.S.), which made them particularly vulnerable when Reagan accelerated U.S. defense spending upon taking office in 1981.
He also took office with the view that the U.S. goal was not detente with the Soviets but victory. This was mixed with some very interesting views on nuclear weapons which he believed were immoral and which he ultimately wanted to abolish.
Reagan's approach during his first term was best expressed during his speech to the British Parliament on June 8, 1982 in which he predicted that the "march of freedom and democracy" would
“leave Marxism-Leninism on the ash heap of history as it has left other tyrannies which stifle the freedom and muzzle the self-expression of the people.”
The President's rhetoric (he personally added the phrase 'ash heap of history' to the draft speech) was mocked in the New York Times which ran the headline “President Urges Global Crusade for Democracy: Revives Flavor of the 1950s in a Speech to Britons” and by the German paper, Der Spiegel, which wrote “Reagan is synonymous for dangerous atomic helmsmanship, as a cowboy who shoots from the hip, who plays with rockets and bombs, who has the mania to grab the red steer by the horns and drag it to the ground”, but as the Washington Post noted in its recent editorial on the 30th anniversary of the speech:
"Recent events in China, Russia and the Arab world vividly demonstrate that democracy remains a universal aspiration — but also that the forces of repression have powerful means to resist the tide. The National Endowment for Democracy, and like-minded agencies that other democracies subsequently established, have found useful ways to aid and nurture freedom movements. Words, too, are important. Reading the Westminster speech is a good reminder of their power to inspire action, and change history."
What Reagan showed over the next five years as conditions in the Soviet Union changed was tactical flexibility in his approach while never losing sight of his overall goal and continuing to skillfully deploy his rhetoric.
I remember watching the TV on that night in November 1989 when the wall came down peacefully.
The human cost of living in the Soviet puppet state of East Germany (of the German Democratic Republic (GDR) as it styled itself) is shown in the stunning 2006 German film, The Lives Of Others. It is sobering and moving - a brilliant movie.
After the fall of the GDR, the files of the its Secret Police, the Stasi, were opened and it turned out the scale of surveillance was beyond anyone's worst nightmare. The Stasi employed 1 full time agent for every 166 citizens (the equivalent of nearly 2 million employees in the U.S.) and by some estimates, 1 in every 6.5 East Germans was an informant for them at one time or another. The Lives of Others takes you into this world. While it does not show the extreme level of violence that the Stasi employed at times, it provides a window into the corrosive impact on a society when you know it is possible for spouses, family and friends to spy on one another.
The film's director said he got the idea for the movie when he was listening to music and recalled the Russian writer Maxim Gorky saying that Lenin's favorite piece of music was Beethoven's Appassionata. Gorky wrote:
When watching the DVD of the movie, I looked at the "extras" and found an interview with the lead actor (Ulrich Muhe) who explained that when he auditioned the director asked him why he thought he was suited to play the role of a Stasi agent. Muhe who had been a member of an East German acting troupe before the end of the GDR, gave the director his (Muhe's) Stasi file and said he found out that two of his fellow actors had been Stasi informants."And screwing up his eyes and chuckling, [Lenin] added without mirth: But I can't listen to music often, it affects my nerves, it makes me want to say sweet nothings and pat the heads of people who, living in a filthy hell, can create such beauty. But today we mustn't pat anyone on the head or we'll get our hand bitten off; we've got to hit them on the heads, hit them without mercy, though in the ideal we are against doing any violence to people. Hm-hm - it's a hellishly difficult office!"
The American link with the people of Berlin goes back before 1987 and 1961 to the events of 1948 told in Andrei Cherny's 2008 book, The Candy Bombers, the story of the Berlin airlift. For three years after WWII ended, Berlin remained a demolished, divided and hungry city. The Western Allies had made very little effort to spur reconstruction and American public opinion was clearly in favor of keeping it that way. The Berlin populace was not favorably disposed towards the Allies so the feeling was mutual.
It was Stalin's decision to blockade the Allied access routes to West Berlin in June 1948 that changed this dynamic. Stalin wanted to force the Allies out of West Berlin and was willing to risk a war to do so. Cherny does a terrific job of giving us a full view of the sometimes forgotten political and military pressures facing President Truman in deciding on a course of action.
It turns out that Truman's top military advisers and the CIA believed that the Allied military position in Berlin was untenable, that the civilian population could not be sustained by an airlift and the President should not attempt to do so and that the U.S. would probably be forced to withdraw from the city. 1948 was also a presidential election year. Truman was an underdog for reelection against the Republican, Thomas Dewey, particularly because the Democratic Party was in the process of splitting in three. The Southern segregationist wing would storm out of the Democratic Convention and nominate Strom Thurmond. Meanwhile, the left wing of the party was defecting to the new Progressive Party and its candidate Henry Wallace, who had been FDR's Vice-President during his third term. Wallace was campaigning hard against Truman's foreign policy and emphatically opposed rescuing Berlin. When asked at a news conference about the lack of free elections Eastern Europe he responded "I'd like to have a free election in this country, too" and he blocked any effort at the party convention to have its platform reflect that the Soviet Union, as well as the U.S., had obligations towards creating peace and freedom.
On June 28, 1948, several days after the blockade began, senior State and Defense officials met with Truman. As the Acting Secretary of State, Robert Lovett began to talk about the steps needed to withdraw U.S. forces from Berlin, Cherny writes:
"Truman cut him off. 'We are going to stay. Period.' The three men looked at him and a silence hung over the room."
One of the State officials expressed "some concern" over "whether Truman had fully thought through what he was saying". Truman responded:
"We will have to deal with the situation as it develops. We are in Berlin by terms of an agreement, and the Russians have no right to get us out by either direct or indirect pressure."
The airlift itself started as a temporary measure but through improvisation and creativity it was sustained and grew until it could supply the citizens of Berlin which it did for the next eleven months until Stalin ended the blockade. We can all be thankful to President Truman for his courage in making that decision.
Cherny tells the story of how the airlift worked and developed and of the people of Berlin as effectively as he handles the geopolitical aspects of the story. The title of the book comes from what started as an effort by one airlift pilot, Hal Halvorsen from Utah, to drop candy parachutes to the children he saw gathering at the end of the Templehof Airfield in Berlin. An effort which blossomed into something much bigger and was part of the saga of the airlift which brought the people of the U.S. and West Berlin together. A book well worth reading.