Saturday, November 22, 2014
How Reagan Failed To Win The Cold War Or Tear Down That Wall
What really caused the fall of the Soviet Union and the opening of the Berlin Wall? Not Ronald Reagan.
So, my right wing friends, I am confident that you want to know what really did cause the collapses. Here is a brief, but accurate, answer:
According to Mary Sarot, History and International Relations Professor at the University of Southern California :
The Revolution was aging. The Soviets were crippled by instability; in only 2 1/2 years, the USSR had four leaders, because three of them had dropped dead. (No, Ronald Reagan did not sneak over the Soviet Union, have a gunfight with each one of those men at high noon at the OK corral, then ride off into the sunset, back to America, after each gunfight. They died because they were very, very old.)
Because of this embarrassing series of deaths, the Politburo decided the next General Secretary had best be a young man who was more likely to survive. Primarily for this purpose, they chose Mikael Gorbachev. (No, that is not Russian for Ronald Reagan.)
Gorbachev, the only General Secretary of the Soviet Union to have been born after the October Revolution, opened up the Iron Curtain and eased repression through Perestroika and Glasnost, both of which began to erode Soviet power and control. Rather than brutally crushing all opposition, the kinder, gentler route was chosen, and this ultimately lead to the people rebelling. (No, Ronald Reagan did not order him to do any of these things.)
Meanwhile, back at the ranch, aka America, Ronald Reagan left office, his successor, George Bush Senior, fired almost all of the previous administration members. This was one of the most extreme changes of administration in American history. The policies of Ronald Reagan were canceled. (No, policies which have been abandoned no longer have the power to change the world.)
This easing of pressure by the Russian government caused the Hungarian Communist dictatorship, which had previously respected the East German government's refusal to allow their citizens to exit the country, to suddenly change its mind. Bribed by the West German government to do so in September, 1989, they began allowing East Germans to come to Hungary and from there take trains to escape to West Germany. So many took this route that the government in East Germany was in danger of collapsing. (No, Ronald Reagan was not the engineer, nor conductor on any of these trains. Neither did he work for the Hungarian government.)
East German officials became so desperate they declared they were going to close the borders even more decisively. This led to mass protests. (No, Ronald Reagan did not lead or participate in any of the protests.)
Now threatened with the demonstrations, the panicked government planned to have their own Tiananmen Square, imitating their Chinese allies. When protests erupted in in Leipsig on October 9, 1989, the government issued orders to shoot to kill. To accomplish this definitive crushing of protest, machine guns were issued to the massive number of troops sent to the city. The 100,000 plus demonstrators turned out to be far more than expected and were so peaceful that the troops refused to fire on them, and instead began to join the demonstrators. (No, Ronald Reagan was not in command of the East German army at that time. He did not issue an order to join the protesters, or refuse to fire on them.)
The spectacular failure lead to the leader of East Germany being kicked out of power. (No, Ronald Reagan was not involved in the decision to fire Eric Honecker or to replace him with Egon Krenz.)
Krenz proved to be incompetent. He decided to talk a nice game while maintaining all existing brutality and oppression. In pursuit of this policy, he made an announcement that there would be minor changes to travel restrictions. He intended this to sound as if changes had been made, while in fact changing nothing. The announcement was botched, leading reporters from the West to think the Wall was opening. The East German people, assuming that the reports were accurate and that this meant the Wall was now open, stormed it en mass. (No, the Great Communicator, aka, the Great Deceiver, did not write or make the announcement. Neither did he storm the Wall.)
With a successful Solidarity movement in Poland on their minds, with the efforts of the Polish Pope inspiring them, with the recent fall of the leader of the repressive government, with the success of the protests which turned the army onto their side, the people of East Germany decided that this was the time to act. Tens of thousands of them went to the Wall and demanded to be allowed to pass. The Stasi tried to hold the line, but began to fear for their own lives. They were outnumbered literally thousands to one. Finally, Harold Yeager, a junior officer on duty that night decided to let people through. Once this was done, the damn had broken and stations all over the city followed his lead. (No, Harold Jager is not the German spelling of Ronald Reagan.)
Remember: Ronald Reagan was no longer president of United States when the Wall finally did fall. Ronald Reagan's policies had been replaced by the sharply different policies of his successor.
So, Republicans, please pay attention. In spite of your fervent belief, your absolute conviction, and your total unwillingness to consider any alternatives, Ronald Reagan did not open the Berlin Wall in 1987. He gave a speech. He gave a rather poor speech. The Wall did not open until his policies have been repudiated and changed by his presidential successor.
So who did tear down the Wall? The answer is: The people of East Germany. Many others contributed and helped to create the atmosphere that led to this final action on their part; but ultimately, they did it. They put their lives at risk and they tore down that Wall. Ronald Reagan's contribution, if he made any, was minor and unimportant.
This is more than just correcting history and eliminating a foolish delusion. As Dr. Sarot points out, the idea that Ronald Reagan gave a speech and magically everything fell before him, has convinced American neocons that all we have to do is rattle our sabers and then wait around until, almost instantly, the world changes into a wonderful happy place. It was exactly for this reason that they included the phrase "from Berlin to Baghdad" in plans that led to the Iraq war and its foolish dreams of easy success and a war that would pay for itself.
Later in the same program, Melvin Leffler of the University of Virginia, a history professor, reported on how the fall of the Berlin Wall looks to various parts of the world, as explained at a meeting with his colleagues from other parts of the world.
He notes that in Western Europe, the fall of the Wall is regarded as evidence of the success of multilateral cooperation and integration among nations and institutions. Russia regards the fall of the Wall as evidence of the results of poor leadership and placing trust in foreign governments. China regards the event as proof of the need to have economic reforms to benefit the peoples' standard of living, while at the same time suppressing political liberalization and strengthening the power of the state.
At the meeting, Prof. Leffer's contribution was to explain the meeting of the fall the Berlin Wall to the United States. He explained to his colleagues that we regarded the fall as a triumph of "freedom over tyranny" and think it showed how effective the United States was in its use of power in the policy of containment and the threat of the use of force against Communism. In other words, we see this as an American victory as a result of American power, which shows the benefits of American supremacy.
It is important to note that no one else in the world looks at it this way. This is an American interpretation. It is deeply flawed. It ignores the people who actually worked so hard in cooperation with America to contain and defeat Communism and it assumes that we, and we alone, should take all the credit. It is a neocon fantasy. It is a neocon mythos.
Bizarrely, Republicans and Democrats, and especially Bill Clinton, actually somehow decided that we had destroyed Communism because of unrestricted free enterprise! This led Clinton and others to believe that deregulation would be a good thing because it would automatically make everything work better. The ultimate result was the second greatest economic disaster in the history of the world.
The professor agrees that memories of the Berlin Wall coming down were a major contributor to the strange belief that we would be welcomed as liberators in Iraq, which would spontaneously turn into a democracy. We know how successful that was.
Somehow the neocons forgot to notice that East Germany joined West Germany. West Germany! ...An established and successful social democratic democracy. That is to say, a highly regulated, free enterprise-based, socialist system. Not unrestricted free enterprise, but free enterprise working within a highly socialist and well-regulated system. He further notes that we were not a largely unregulated, radically free enterprise system when the Berlin Wall fell. That came later. At the time of the fall, we were still very much an FDR nation. Capitalism was well regulated, with socialistic safety nets such as Social Security and Medicare firmly established and welfare in full effect in this country.
He adds that what actually caused the fall of the Berlin Wall includes the reconciliation between France and Germany and the spread of economic cooperation across Europe in the form of the Common Market and in the expectations that the then proposed European Union would bring even greater prosperity.
All acknowledge that US power was an essential contributor through containment, but that it was a contributor, not the cause. Containment is what allowed these other factors to take root, flower, and lead to the harvest of freedom. Reagan did made a contribution, but it was not in blustering speeches and being threatening as Republicans would have it today. It was in working with other leaders who also contributed and in maintaining the decades old policy of containment. It was in negotiating. It was in cooperating even with our enemies, not in taking a bullying, domineering, militaristic stand. He did the former early in his presidency. He evolved to the latter position as he matured as a president.
Ultimately, the American president who most contributed to the fall of the Wall was George Bush Senior. He succeeded where Reagan failed, not by being provocative, but rather by encouraging reforms and a sense of peace between the Soviets and the Free World.
But if a single person is to be given credit for the fall of the wall, the professor indicates that the one who most contributed was Gorbachev. It was he who changed the vision of the Soviet Union, turning away from militarism, international bullying, and a threat based, security conscious state. If anyone tore down the Wall it was Gorbachev. (No, he did not do it because Reagan told him too.)
The next speaker, Jeffrey Angle of Southern Methodist University, the Director of the Center for Presidential History had much the same points to make, although his statements can be summed up as, the fall of the Wall was, "an intertwined global affair."
He then says that the ultimate lesson of the fall of the Berlin Wall varies from nation to nation. For America, he says, "Ronald Reagan single handedly spent the Soviets into the ground.… And single handedly, moreover, tore the Berlin Wall down, brick by brick."
And of course most Americans believe that Reagan did this because he believed in freedom and strength and, I add, that for strength you can also say militarism or bullying.
He again makes the point that neocons in America assumed that this meant that all we had to do was run around, make threats, maybe have a very brief pay for itself war, and everybody will automatically want to be American just like the East Berliners had. The problem with this, he points out, is that the East Berliners did not want to be Americans. They wanted to be Europeans.
They had, he says, "A desire to join the collectivist spirit embodied in the nascent European Union." So, to Europeans the lesson was clear, unrestricted socialism as found in Communism is a miserable failure while well regulated capitalism working together with well-regulated socialism make a great team. Collectivism is desirable, if it is balanced with individualism. That's pretty much the exact opposite of what so many Americans take as the lesson of the Berlin Wall. The Director points out that Gorbachev expected us to reward him and his country, now Russia, with aid and support and by keeping NATO right where it was. Because we interpreted bullying, and militarism, and saber rattling as the solutions to all international conflict, we did those things instead. The result is Vladimir Putin.
So let me draw a conclusion: Ronald Reagan helped, a bit, to cause the collapse of the Berlin wall, while George Bush Senior, who did less than many other leaders in the world (and who did it by being thoughtful, careful, and keeping his mouth shut), contributed more.
In other words, if I were channeling Ronald Reagan's ghost I would not declare in his famous drawl, "Well, I won the Cold War. All by myself." Instead I'm quite certain he would say, like that little girl in the Shake and Bake commercial that anyone of my age remembers, "And I helped!"
I repeat: The big contribution America and Reagan made to the fall of the Berlin Wall had nothing to do with spending or threatening. It had everything to do with the policy of containment, a policy practiced by every American president from Harry Truman (who developed it) through George Bush Senior. However, containment alone could do nothing but exactly what it's name indicates, contain Communism. By doing so we kept the rest of Europe free and allowed them to develop the capacities and systems which eventually outcompeted the Soviet Union. But remember, we did not beat the Soviet Union through unrestrained, unregulated capitalism. The defeat of the Soviet Union is correctly attributed to a combination of well-regulated capitalism and well-regulated socialism, combined with the efforts of many world leaders, the aging of the revolutionary, Stalinist leadership of the USSR, and the courageous sacrifices of the oppressed people of the Warsaw Pact.
During the question-and-answer period, Prof. Sarotte indicated that if there was one thing she could change about the historiography of that era, it would be that, both then and now, people talking about this era would not simply talk about Europe, but would also talk about Europeans! She points out that it's not possible to accurately talk about the fall of the Wall without talking about Berliners or about the reunification of Germany without talking about Germans, but many people, including historians, do exactly that. She then recalled a former activist she had interviewed on the subject. This was a woman named Mafianna Buetler (sp?), an activist in East Berlin, "It still amazes me when I read history books about the history I lived...about the history I made. I read these history books, and they say the Wall fell and it gave us our freedom. We fought for our freedom and then the Wall fell." The professor said that's what she would change. She would make it clear that there were people who risked their lives to gain their freedom and that the Wall fell as a result of their struggle and its success.