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COMMENTARY: HISTORY FROM ANCIENT TO MODERN

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Credit for the Fall of Communism

We have heard the words of Ronald Reagan: "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall." However justified this statement, the wall came down not on the order of Gorbachev and not during Reagan's presidency. When the wall became nothing as a barrier it was a surprise to Gorbachev, and this happened during the presidency of George Bush the Elder. And to believe that this happened as a result of inspiration from Reagan or Bush is to fail to understand those people in the Communist-rule countries who made the wall insignificant and contributed to the wall coming down.

In his autobiography Ronald Reagan touches on communism's slide in Poland. He is writing around 1981 – his first year as president:

As seen from the Oval Office, the events in Poland were thrilling. One of man's most fundamental and implacable yearnings, the desire for freedom, was stirring to life behind the Iron Curtain, the first break in the totalitarian dike of Communism.

I wanted to be sure we did nothing to impede this process and everything we could to spur it along. This was what we had been waiting for since World War II. What was happening in Poland might spread like a contagion throughout Eastern Europe.

But our options were limited and presented us with several dilemmas:

Although we wanted to let the Polish people who were struggling for liberty know that we were behind them, we couldn't send out a false signal (as some say the United States did before the doomed 1956 uprisings in Hungary), leading them to expect us to intervene militarily on their side during a revolution. (p. 301)

In short, the Poles were making their own future, with Ronald Reagan applauding. Credit for the fall of Communism in Poland should go to the Poles. And credit for the fall of communism in the Czech Republic should go to those who went into the streets and faced the police and those who went out on strike.

Gorbachev can be given credit for an assist. The Soviet economy was not functioning well. Gorbachev was trying to lift the public's morale, and he wanted to reduce military spending. He believed that the military was absorbing too much wealth and scarce resources, and he believed that one way to reduce military spending was to make an arms agreement with the United States.

Gorbachev and Reagan became friends, Gorbachev recognizing that Reagan sincerely wanted to avoid a nuclear holocaust. He recognized that Reagan was a man of decency and sincerity, a former actor who was not faking it. And Gorbachev convinced Reagan that he was sincere in wanting to end the arms race and wanting to restructure relations with the West – while hardliners in Reagan's political party were calling him "a useful idiot for Soviet propaganda" and "an apologist for Gorbachev." Hardliners opposed to negotiating with Soviet leaders had done little more than annoy or scare people. We can be thankful that Reagan was more open and flexible than some of those around him.   

In December, 1988, Gorbachev announced in a speech to the United Nations General Assembly that by 1991 he intended to pull Soviet tanks and troops out of East Germany, Czechoslovakia and Hungary, and he pledged that the Poles and Hungarians were free to determine their own future. He was a communist, but it was a part of his Marxist ideology that masses of people should be free to determine their own fate. Gorbachev remained a communist, but his actions had unintended consequences. His declaration added to the events that produced the fall of communism in those East European countries that had been under Soviet domination.

What kind of power did the United States have to influence events abroad in 1989, the year that the wall came down? That was the year of demonstrations in Tiananmen Square and the year that generals crushed democracy in Burma. The US had a powerful military. It could go to war. The US could threaten and it could talk, negotiate, vote in the UN and offer economic assistance. Regarding Tiananmen Square, President Bush urged demonstrators to stand up for what they believed but do so without violence. For democracy in Burma the Bush administration did nothing more than complain.

In July, five months before the wall came down, President Bush told the Polish people that the climb to democracy was "exhilarating but not always easy" and that it will require "sacrifices." In Hungary he promised to open US markets to Hungarian goods and to send Peace Corps volunteers to teach English, useful he said for making international business deals. The US had influenced events in Europe by contributing to the Berlin Airlift. It had influenced events in Asia by leading the UN effort in the Korean War and by aiding the French in Vietnam. Some claim that Ronald Reagan influenced Europe by scaring the communists in the Kremlin with his tough talk, but it was Gorbachev's trust in Reagan that pushed events along.

Communism falling in Europe because of moralistic declarations or threats from President Reagan standing tall became a myth. Reagan's ambassador to the Soviet Union, Jack Matlock, describes Reagan as having said, "Let there be no talk of winners and losers." Reagan and Matlock were trying to influence the Soviet Union with a carrot, not the stick. (Matlock, Superpower Illusions, p 41.)

Matlock's Superpowers Illusions, published in 2010, is endorsed by Reagan's Secretary of State, George P. Shultz. Matlock writes:

President Bush facilitated Gorbachev's policies in Easter Europe by avoiding public challenges and allowing Gorbachev the political wiggle room to argue at home that he was acting in the interests of the Soviet Union (which he was) and not in response to American demands. (p. 61.)

United States influence in Europe when communism fell (months after Reagan left office) was perhaps the influence of example.

In his book The Icarus Syndrome, Peter Beinart describes Reagan as deserving some credit. Beinart quotes the former Soviet ambassador to the US, Anatoly Dobrynin:

If Reagan had stuck to his hard-line policies in 1985 and 1986, Gorbachev would have been accused by the rest of the Poltiburo of giving everything away to a fellow who does not want to negotiate. We would have been forced to tighten our belts and spend even more on defense. (Beinart, p. 237)

Beinart gives credit to Reagan's optimistic nature and his having less fear of the Soviet Union and more trust in Gorbachev than did leading US neo-conservatives and other hardliners.

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Comments at a gathering in Berlin celebrating the 20th anniversary of the fall of the wall (Oct 31).

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