It happened today - June 12, 2015
On June 12, 1987, Ronald Reagan challenged Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to tear down the Berlin Wall. Two years later, it fell, and Communism crumbled, a marvelous demonstration of the power of stating the obvious.
Reagan had that talent to a truly remarkable degree. To his enemies he was simplistic, indeed a simpleton. To his admirers he was clear. In fairness he did sometimes oscillate between them. But the more the Gipper moves from the heat of partisan confrontation to the light of historical perspective the more we see that the clarity prevailed.
Reagan himself was infuriatingly unconcerned with criticism; Florence King once described him as “contemptuous of contempt” which I think is a useful political attribute for resisting conventional wisdom. But he was not arrogant. He could laugh at himself, a useful quality that enhances one’s common sense. And common sense is something Reagan had in abundance. He didn’t believe in people working themselves into exhaustion (as he once characteristically joked “It's true hard work never killed anybody, but I figure, why take the chance?”) and he was not led by sophistry into overlooking the obvious. Including when it came to communism.
Reagan never forgot that central planning didn’t work. He wasn’t buffaloed by econometrics into believing the Soviet economy was a success. He knew it wasn’t, and he was proved right where others were contemptuously and contemptibly wrong. As George Orwell once said, “To see what is in front of one’s nose requires a constant struggle.” It was a task Reagan managed and his sophisticated critics did not.
In a June 1982 speech to the British Parliament, “sounding a bit delusional” as his Ottawa Citizen obituary would later put it, he said “the march of freedom and democracy” would “leave Marxist-Leninism on the ash heap of history.” Now it is characteristic of Reagan that he was mischievously paraphrasing Trotsky who had memorably consigned his Menshevik opponents (and former colleagues) to the garbage dump of history. Reagan’s critics, who didn’t think he had ever read a book, typically missed this pointed thrust.
Those critics were even more shocked when in 1983 Reagan called the Soviet Union an evil empire. New York Times columnist Anthony Lewis declared the speech ‘simplistic,’ ‘sectarian,’ ‘dangerous,’ ‘outrageous’ and “primitive” while distinguished historian Henry Steele Commager called it “the worst presidential speech in American history.” And yet it was the plain truth. And it worked.
In 1987, again in characteristic Reagan style, he stood before the Brandenberg Gate and challenged the much-admired “reformer” Mikhail Gorbachev, saying “Secretary General Gorbachev, if you seek peace–if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe–if you seek liberalization: come here, to this gate. Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate. Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.”
Again, puckishly, Reagan was invoking Pink Floyd’s wildly successful 1979 album The Wall, subtly mocking critics who considered him out of touch. But he was also articulating a basic truth in a clear and compelling way.
As he knew perfectly well, tearing down the wall would doom communism. The Berlin Wall was built on a lie, a transparent lie, that it was intended to keep spies and infiltrators out, to stop the movement of bad people east. In fact it was intended to keep the enslaved population of Eastern Europe trapped, to stop the movement of good people west. And for years, especially given the wave of self-doubt that engulfed the West from the 1960s on, it became fashionable to see a moral and geopolitical equivalence between East and West, to ignore or downplay this basic truth.
There were always some who saw it including within the Soviet Union. During debates over the “Jackson-Vanik Amendment” in the Nixon years which basically insisted on free emigration from the U.S.S.R. in return for trade liberalization (don’t ask for details unless you want a drink from a fire hydrant as I wrote my PhD on it), there was a Soviet joke about premier Aleksei Kosygin asking Communist Party chairman Leonid Brezhnev why they didn’t allow free emigration. Brezhnev says “Well, I would, Aleksei, but I’m afraid we’d be the only two left.” Kosygin looks at him in puzzlement and says “You and who else?”
Reagan understood that. And he understood the power of simple truths plainly spoken. And once he challenged Gorbachev and the scoffing stopped, everyone including liberalizers within the Soviet empire asked well, why don’t you? And when they did, in 1989, communism collapsed into an ignominious heap of polluted rust.
Now to be sure the Soviet system was far weaker by 1987 than it had been in, say, 1967. Its “internal contradictions,” as Marx liked to call such things, had caught up with it. Reagan was in the right place at the right time. But he knew it because of the clarity of his vision, and he knew what to say and do.
As he told Richard Allen in 1977, “My theory of the Cold War is that we win and they lose.” It was appallingly simplistic and reactionary. And it worked. Maybe it’s worth trying again.