Who brought about the fall of the Berlin Wall and then the end of the Cold War? Lots of candi-dates for the credit were being proposed as this city commemorated the 20th anniversary of the Wall’s end.
A dinner held at the posh Adlon Hotel by the Atlantic Council featured a set of awards for the contributions made by the brave people of Eastern Europe, the Western allies, and NATO. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton appeared to show her tough side as she hailed the end of Soviet Communism’s “tyranny and oppression,” words I suspect didn’t drip off her tongue in the 1980s. Several people at my table credited Mikhail Gorbachev with ending the Cold War by not sending in troops to keep the Soviet empire intact.
Curiously, with the exception of one brief reference in a video presentation by NBC’s Tom Brokaw, the name of Ronald Reagan was never mentioned during the three-hour dinner. It was almost as if the man who stood at the Brandenburg Gate in 1987 and declared “tear down this wall” didn’t exist.
Erasing Ronald Reagan’s contribution to the collapse of Communism has almost become a sport in elite foreign policy circles. But a few blocks away the day before, the impact Reagan had was etched in the minds of those who gathered at the Checkpoint Charlie Museum to inaugurate a new exhibit on the Gipper.
Alexandra Hildebrandt is the passionate director of the museum, which attracts some 3,500 people a day to its eclectic collection of Wall photos, escape vehicles, and discussions of human rights struggles around the world. After visiting the Reagan Library in California a couple of years ago, Hildebrandt returned determined to honor the man she said did so much to make her city whole again.
She partnered with Michael Reagan and his Reagan Legacy Foundation to bring together enough exhibits to fill a new room of her museum.
The collection tells a fascinating story of just how focused Reagan was on tearing down the Wall. He first visited Berlin in November 1978, and spent many minutes surveying the wall’s “death strip” from the penthouse offices of the conservative Axel Springer publishing house, which stood right on the border between the two parts of the city. “You could tell from the set of his jaw and his look,” says former aide Peter Hannaford, “that he was very, very determined that this was something that had to go.”
Indeed, after his visit to the Springer offices then private citizen Reagan asked if he could visit East Berlin. Told that all that was required was a one-day visa and the exchange of some Western currency into almost worthless Ostmarks, he said, “Let’s go.” He spent several hours in East Berlin, including some time in its central department store — an establishment that Hannaford described as “a K-Mart but with almost no inventory.” Upon leaving the store, Reagan was confronted with the scene of two East German “Vopo” policemen roughing up a young man. “We’ve got to find a way to knock this thing down,” Reagan said.
In June 1982, Reagan returned to West Berlin as president and spent five minutes staring across the white dividing line at Checkpoint Charlie that separated the American sector of Berlin from the Soviet sector. At one point Reagan impishly stepped across the line to stand in Soviet-controlled territory.
Five years later, Reagan was due back in Berlin to celebrate that city’s 750th anniversary. He wanted to make a clear statement about the artificial division of the city and the inhumanity it represented. After speechwriter Peter Robinson inserted the famous “tear down this wall” part of the speech, it became a topic of bitter dispute inside the administration. The National Security Council and State Department tried over and over to have the section removed as too “provocative” and theatrical. White House chief of staff Howard Baker and others believed the language could embarrass Mikhail Gorbachev. A June 2, 1987, memo from a National Security Council aide called the speech “mediocre” and said it represented a “lost opportunity.” The edited draft that was attached had the entire “tear down this wall” section crossed out.
The speech was still being debated on Air Force One as the president’s jet approached Berlin. But Reagan insisted on leaving his sock-it-to-’em lines in, and they proved a hit with the many thousands of people who heard it — they cheered for a full 20 seconds. Many Reagan aides remained unconvinced. “I thought to myself, ‘It’s a great speech, but it will never happen,’ ” recalled national security adviser Frank Carlucci.
Reagan, however, was confident he had laid down a marker that would build pressure for change behind the Iron Curtain. When two years later the Wall suddenly opened, he was asked by Sam Donaldson of ABC News if he had believed his statement would bear fruit so soon. “I have to tell you, I’m an eternal optimist,” Reagan replied. “I believed with all of my heart, it was in the future.”
Many people played a role in sending the Berlin Wall and Communism into what Reagan once said would be “the ash heap of history.” But the people who gathered to open the Reagan Room at the Checkpoint Charlie Museum were certain Reagan hasn’t gotten his due. “There are Ronald Reagan streets in Budapest, Warsaw, and Cracow,” Hildebrandt told me. “But in Berlin the socialist city government not only won’t name a street after Reagan but they removed the more than 1,000 crosses I put up outside the museum to commemorate those who died trying to cross the Wall.”
Lothar de Maziere, the conservative who served as East Germany’s last president before the country was dissolved, remains hopeful. “The decision to name streets is done at the district level, so maybe something can be done with the local officials,” he told me. De Maziere, who as a lawyer defended people who had failed to escape East Germany, says he has no doubt that average people give Reagan a lot more credit for the Wall’s fall than do elites. “The name of Reagan is in the heart of ordinary Berliners,” he says. “While many people jostle to take credit for what Reagan set in motion, in the end his legacy is secure.”