What Did Reagan Have to do With Ending Communism?

Commemorating the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library hosted a panel discussion to delve into one of the most controversial topics in the Cold War: what, if anything, did the 40th president have to do with ending communism? While others have doubted the scale of Reagan’s contribution, even doubting if it existed, there was no doubt where the panelists stood. For those who had witnessed it, Ronald Reagan was the critical factor in winning the Cold War.

The panels were comprised of policy experts and journalists, leaders of Eastern European countries who witnessed events first hand and those who were with Reagan as he made the crucial decisions, which they said led to the collapse of the Soviet Union. In the sunlit hall of the Air Force One Pavilion, they remembered their individual encounters with Reagan and how they shaped his understanding of the world.

Richard Allen, the chief foreign policy advisor to Ronald Reagan, told the story of how he first met Ronald Reagan about 10 days after Jimmy Carter had been inaugurated. He was asking the former governor for help fundraising on his bid to become the next governor of New Jersey, and had flown out to California to meet him for the first time. As Mr. Allen recounts it, Reagan immediately agreed to do fundraisers, and then asked him if he wanted to talk politics. “I felt that I was in the presence of one of the keenest analysts of world affairs of any that I had been with,” he said at the conference, having also worked with Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger as part of the National Security Council. “He didn’t know the details, the minutia, but the basic infrastructure was all in place.” As he was leaving, Reagan stopped him and said, “Some people say that I’m simplistic, but there’s a difference between being simplistic and having simple answers to complex questions,” the governor said. “So, with that in mind, I think the Cold War ends when we win and they lose, what do you think of that?”

Mr. Allen said he abandoned his campaign to become the next governor of New Jersey shortly afterwards, and decided to come and work for Ronald Reagan.  

John Lehman, the secretary of the Navy under Ronald Reagan, recalled the incredible difficulty he had to endure to build up the U.S. military, over the objections of peace advocates, NATO and members of the foreign policy establishment. “NATO had been convinced that he could no longer defend the alliance. For 20 years, there had not been a single air craft carrier deployed about the UK-Iceland gap, because it was thought that would be too provocative.” Even before the transition, Reagan had been planning an exercise in the area that would demonstrate a strong American presence to the Soviets. In September 1981, five air craft carriers and 300 ships were deployed into the Norwegian Sea, the first time those forces had been in the area since World War II. “We started running mock attacks, to demonstrate to the Soviets that we could do this,” he said, and that this was sending a clear message to the Soviets. “If you try to use your superiority to intimidate us, we are going to kick your ass,” he said, to the great delight of the audience.

Peter Robinson, a speechwriter for the president, remembers the experience of flying out to Berlin ahead of the president for a major foreign policy speech, and reflected on the striking difference between what Berlin was like under communist rule and how it is today. “I think to myself, how do we communicate to (our children) what it was like, to stand there, and look over a wall and see guards and barbed wire and dogs? At the historic center of East Berlin, still damaged by war but with many beautiful buildings, almost no foot traffic. A dead city. What was once one of the great cities of Europe, (was) dead.”

After meeting members of the West German government, Mr. Robinson was treated to a dinner hosted by a random group of Germans. Contrary to what he had been told earlier in the day, the presence of the Berlin Wall was something that still affected them deeply, Mr. Robinson said. When he asked one man what he thought about the wall, he responded, “My sister lives just a few kilometers in that direction, but I had not seen her in two decades. How do you think we feel about the wall?” When asked about the reforms of Mikhail Gorbachev, his host said in disgust, “This man Gorbachev can prove that this glasnost and perestroika stuff is serious, he can come here and take down this wall.”

The phrase went into his notebook, and became part of the speech. There was a three week battle over the phrase, with the State Department and the National Security Council arguing that it would be inappropriate to mention it. Mr. Robinson said that in the end, the president sat down with his deputy chief of staff as went through all of the objections. At the end of the meeting, Reagan asked him with a grin, “Now, I’m the president, aren’t I?” His deputy chief of staff assured him that he was. “So, I get to decide if that part stays in?” His deputy chief of staff assured him that he did. “Well then,” Reagan answered, “it stays in.”

The highlight of the conference was a photo-op with all 23 panelists and Nancy Reagan, who made a special appearance for the event as she posed with Secretary of State George Schultz in front of a piece of the Berlin Wall.