Reagan and the Berlin Wall: Fifteen years later

Fifteen years ago this week, the Berlin Wall fell and the world changed forever. East Germans climbed atop the previously inviolate partition, and took an ax to it. Escaping to the freedom of West Berlin, they were greeted by their fellow Germans with bottles of champagne.

Tonight, I suggest you uncork a bottle yourself to celebrate the anniversary of this watershed event, which has come to symbolize the crumbling of the entire Soviet empire and the end of the communist menace. As you raise your glass of bubbly, include a toast to Ronald Reagan, for his role in vanquishing the Soviet Union.

It’s easy to lose sight of the enormity of that accomplishment. Today’s students can hardly understand how permanent the Berlin Wall seemed, and how evil the Soviet Union was. Quizzical looks come to their faces when I explain that, during my elementary school days in the late 1970s, we practiced emergency drills in case of a nuclear attack: hustling to the below-ground auditorium and hiding our heads between our knees. They don’t know the atrocities of a country that put the interests of the state ahead of any consideration for human life, and they don’t appreciate how the pundit class then rolled their eyes with derision at Ronald Reagan’s 1987 words, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”

Thankfully, a new documentary by Stephen K. Bannon, In the Face of Evil , puts Reagan’s courage in its proper historical perspective. You see the face of evil. You see the face of appeasement. And then you see Ronald Reagan, confronting communism, from his role in the Hollywood labor disputes of the 1940s to his presidential ultimatum at Brandenburg Gate.

The film uses fascinating rare footage, such as Reagan’s townhall debate with Robert Kennedy on CBS in 1967. Reagan discussed how the prospects for peace depended on other nations–not just the U.S.–proving their goodwill. He remarked presciently: “…If the Berlin Wall should disappear, I think that this would be a step toward peace, and towards self-determination for all peoples.”

Today, the wall seems a distant memory, but challenges to freedom remain. This, too, Ronald Reagan understood.

Just read the press accounts of Reagan’s return to Berlin in 1990. Citizens cheered the ex-President as he approached the ruins of the wall, now just an artifact of a vanishing era. He spoke: “I’m glad the wall is gone, but you can’t be happy until the whole world knows the freedom you have here.”

In the Face of Evil shows how Reagan combined an idealistic belief in freedom with a bold, realist strategy for exploiting Soviet weaknesses. The film reminds us how steadfast was Reagan’s resolve to stick to his strategy while facing opposition from every angle.

We need similar strength today. The American people have voted to stay the course in the War on Terror, and today we have soldiers moving into harm’s way to root out the villains of Fallujah. We have to expect that there will be setbacks and surprises in the struggle to destroy our enemies and establish a free Iraq, and that wobbly allies abroad and cynical media at home will attempt to undermine our resolve.

But Reagan’s experience in winning the Cold War provides a model of strength and offers hope. In 1980, no one expected to see the Berlin Wall come down that decade. By bringing the same tenacity to the War on Terror, America may be able to defy expectations again by creating a stable democracy in Iraq that acts a beacon of hope for the Middle East.

Brad Lips is the chief operating officer of the Atlas Economic Research Foundation, and the co-author of The Reagan Vision (published by Goldwater Institute).

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