This op-ed piece by a very conservative historian appeared on the eve of the 15th anniversary of the opening of the Berlin Wall. Its over-the-top distortion prompted several people (including me) to send letters to the editor, three of which were published (a fourth praised Reagan)(below). I've also included an e-mail exchange I had with a self-proclaimed "Reagan admirer" who wrote to tell me he thinks I'm dumb and my letter inane (bottom).

I'm adding this to my "Germany after 1945" course website as an example of how differently people can view causality. So: what did bring the Berlin wall down??
- see lecture 23 with chronological handout;
- for Reagan's June 12, 1987 speech in Berlin, see #12 in the course reader.

note April 14, 2005: this editorial cartoon appeared in the LA Times on 4/11/05
(The new Polish pope's visit to his homeland in 1979 helped spark the Solidarity movement;
the pope's continuing support of Solidarity and its dedication to non-violence helped Gorbachev
to keep the transformations in eastern Europe non-violent. In 1992 Gorby praised JP II for his role.)

Rall cartoon on Fall of Berlin wall

LA Times, Nov. 7, 2004

It Was Reagan Who Tore Down That Wall
He was the prime mover behind the Soviet collapse.

By Dinesh D'Souza
Dinesh D'Souza, a Hoover Institution fellow, is author of "Ronald Reagan: How an Ordinary Man Became an Extraordinary Leader" (The Free Press, 1997). Website:

As we celebrate the 15th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall on Tuesday, it's worth asking how and why did the wall come tumbling down? I argue that it was Ronald Reagan's statesmanship that brought it down and hastened the collapse of the Soviet empire. Reagan didn't do it alone, but without him it probably wouldn't have happened.

As early as 1981, when almost everyone considered the Soviet empire a permanent fixture of the international landscape, Reagan spoke at the University of Notre Dame, predicting that "the West won't contain communism; it will transcend communism." The next year, he told the British Parliament that freedom and democracy would "leave Marxism-Leninism on the ash heap of history." The wise men in the media and academia scoffed. Today these same pundits maintain that the Soviet Union collapsed because of economic failure, or that Mikhail Gorbachev was responsible.

This analysis makes no sense. Sure, the Soviet Union had economic problems, but it had been ailing for most of the century. Never has a great empire imploded because of poor economic performance alone.

Like many empires suffering from domestic strains, the Soviets during the 1970s compensated by pursuing an aggressive foreign policy. Between 1974 and 1980, 10 countries fell into the Soviet orbit: South Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, South Yemen, Angola, Mozambique, Ethiopia, Nicaragua, Grenada and Afghanistan. The Soviet nuclear arsenal surpassed that of the U.S., and the Soviets targeted a new generation of missiles at Western Europe. The Soviet Union in 1980 seemed to be in the vanguard of history.

It is no less problematic to attribute the Soviet collapse to Gorbachev. He was undoubtedly a reformer, but the communist bosses did not put him in power in 1985 to lead the party, and the regime, over the precipice.

Nor did Gorbachev see this as his role. He insisted throughout the second half of the 1980s that he sought to invigorate the economy in order to strengthen the military. The Politburo supported his reforms because he promised "regained confidence in the party." No one was more surprised than Gorbachev when the Soviet regime disintegrated.

The only man who foresaw the Soviet collapse and implemented policies to bring it about was Reagan. During his first term Reagan pursued tough policies aimed at curtailing the Soviet nuclear threat and stopping Soviet advances around the world. Calling the Soviets an "evil empire," Reagan initiated a massive defense buildup. He deployed Pershing and cruise missiles in Europe. He sent weapons and other assistance to anti-communist guerrillas in Soviet satellites like Afghanistan, Angola and Nicaragua. He announced a new program of missile defenses that would eventually "make nuclear weapons obsolete."

These measures were fiercely resisted by liberal Democrats, who decried Reagan's policies as confrontational and likely to make nuclear war more likely. But Reagan's military buildup and his missile defense program threatened the Soviets with an arms race they could ill afford. His doctrine of aid to anti-communist guerrillas halted Soviet advances in the Third World: Between 1980 and 1985, not an inch of real estate fell into Moscow's hands.

It was Reagan who was responsible for thwarting Soviet gains and spurring a loss of nerve that contributed to the elevation of Gorbachev to power. Gorbachev's policies were responses to circumstances created not by him but by Reagan. Ilya Zaslavsky, who served in the Congress of People's Deputies, said later that the true originator of glasnost and perestroika was not Gorbachev but Reagan.

Reagan immediately recognized Gorbachev as a new breed of Soviet leader. He supported Gorbachev's reforms and arms control initiatives, and this time it was the conservatives who criticized him as being naive and credulous. William F. Buckley Jr. warned that Reagan's new stance was "on the order of changing our entire position toward Adolf Hitler." The criticism missed the larger current of events that Reagan alone appeared to have understood. In attempting to reform communism, Gorbachev was destroying the system. Reagan encouraged him every step of the way.

Today we face new challenges, such as Islamic radicalism and fundamentalism, and these require a different type of leadership and strategy of combat. Even so, 15 years after the wall came down, we should pause to reflect on the prescient leadership of the man who, in Margaret Thatcher's words, "won the Cold War without firing a shot."

Thursday, November 11, 2004 (back to top)

What About Poland?

Dinesh D'Souza's commentary ("It Was Reagan Who Tore Down That Wall," Opinion, Nov. 7) fails to recognize the pivotal role Poland played in the fall of Soviet communism. It was former Polish President Lech Walesa who founded and led the Solidarity labor union that was instrumental in liberating Poland from a communist regime. The Solidarity movement became the impetus for the eventual collapse of communism in all the Soviet bloc countries.
Edyta Frackiewicz
Los Angeles

Marcuse letter to editor, 11/13/04Saturday, November 13, 2004 (back to top)

Reviews of Reagan's Presidency

Oh please, Dinesh D'Souza's Reagan adulation goes way too far. In reality, it was the peoples of eastern Europe, the Poles, Germans, Czechs, Hungarians, etc. whose persistent pressure on their governments forced them into opening towards the west. To suggest that Reagan was the "true" originator of Gorbachev's glasnost and perestroika is utterly absurd.
As D'Souza himself writes, Reagan turned 180 degrees to support Gorbachev long after glasnost and perestroika had been established. Reagan's star wars-brinkmanship might just as well have pushed the Soviets into a Stalinist-style arms race. Only remotely did Reagan have anything to do with the breaching of the Berlin Wall, in that the need to keep up with this rogue superpower forced the eastern bloc countries to divert even more of their resources into their military sectors, thus feeding the discontent of their peoples. May it happen here.[The Times deleted this last sentence]
Harold Marcuse
Professor of history
UC Santa Barbara

Reagan will go down in history as one of our greatest presidents. His steadfastness in standing up to "the evil empire" freed millions of people from the shackles of communism. He ended the Cold War and made peace with the Soviet Union by saying, "trust, but verify" in regard to the nuclear weapons supplies of both countries. He gave us comfort and hope when we lost seven astronauts in the space shuttle Challenger tragedy in 1986, saying that "sometimes, when we reach for the stars, we fall short. But we must pick ourselves up again and press on despite the pain."
Reagan was a moral, caring and kind man who was respected by friend and foe. His legacy is that he inspired us to become involved and he made this world a safer, better place.
Rick Schreiner

D'Souza may be correct by giving Reagan the credit for winning the war against the Soviets. He would be more believable if he also gave Reagan his share of blame for Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden. It was Reagan who sent Donald Rumsfeld to Hussein to enlist his aid in our struggle against Iran and who then supplied Hussein and likewise Bin Laden to fight against the Soviet Union. This policy was then carried on by George H.W. Bush and Dick Cheney, even after Hussein killed his own people, and their refusal to aid the people of Iraq when they rose up against Hussein is responsible for the problems we face today.
Jack Seidman
Long Beach

Later that day and the next I had the following e-mail exchange with the founder and main man of a Public & Investor Relations Firm in the LA area (for 25 years he's been writing PR newsletters for small businesses; his name suggests he might have Russian ancestry): (back to top)

paul, pr man for small businessesSubject: Read your LA Times Reagan letter and it is....
a darn shame they let you anywhere near impressionable college students.
What a dumb piece of shi* you are.
[full name]
Subject: Re: Read your LA Times Reagan letter and it is....
The feeling's mutual, I guess.
So what's your expertise on the history of the end of the Cold War, or do you just adore Ronnie?
Subject: Again: Read your LA Times Reagan letter and it is....
Don't "adore Ronnie."
Certainly admire him.
And certainly have studied the period (and lived through it).
Detest the liberal elite blindly unwilling to give credit where credit is due.
Your letter was inane.
> And certainly have studied the period (and lived through it).
Ditto here. In fact, I was working in Germany at the time.

> Detest the liberal elite blindly unwilling to give credit where credit is due.
> Your letter was inane.
I detest mindless knee-jerks who try to assign credit according to preconceived notions where none is due.
That's why I wrote the letter.
Now I understand, Sir. Reading Der Spiegel daily could warp anyone's perspective.
Der Spiegel is a weekly and I read it less often than that, but of course that's not the point. I do think that the newsmedia are an important source of information, and I think my perspective is less warped, not more, for my critical engagement with the media.
I am also quite confident that most college students are not nearly so "impressionable" as you may fear, but able to form their own opinions based on a reasoned assessment of the information spun toward them from many sources.
I give you the last word, Herr Spin-meister, should you care to have it.

Fall of Berlin Wall vs. Fall of Baghdad in 2003: bad history continues...

LA Times editorial page letters, April 15, 2005

Fall of Baghdad Doesn't Compare to Berlin Wall

Re "Bush Talk to Troops Recalls Fall of Baghdad," April 13: The idea that President Bush would equate the war in Iraq with the fall of the Berlin Wall just shows how ignorant he really is. The Berlin Wall was brought down by the citizens of those European countries who had lived under communism. The fall of Saddam Hussein was brought about by Bush's illegal initiation of a war.
Jethro Singer, Santa Monica


The president declared, "The toppling of Saddam Hussein's statue in Baghdad will be recorded, alongside the fall of the Berlin Wall, as one of the great moments in the history of liberty." Actually, it will be recorded as one of the great moments of propaganda. How could The Times fail to point out that the toppling of the statue was a staged event, conducted by U.S. personnel, with tight camera angles to falsely suggest large numbers of Iraqis present. The BBC reported that "dozens" of Iraqis were involved. A Reuters wide-angle photograph of Firdos Square clearly shows the area sealed off by the U.S. military.
John Weinell, Dana Point

[note 6/26/07: near the bottom of this page about Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 911 there is a good discussion of the media reporting on the toppling of the statue, with a transcript of the Fox News report, an eyewitness report, and a link to a July 3, 2004 LA Times report noting that the US Army's Psychological Operations (Psyops) stage-managed the event, as well as several images.
The BBC's On This Day, April 9, 2003 page also has a summary discussion.]

page created 11/11/04, last modified 10/14/08
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