Fall of the Berlin Wall

Collapse of the Berlin Wall plus 20

By Mark Lindberg, Mountain View, CA (revised November 2009)


Shortly after his election in 1980, President Ronald Reagan scarred the stripes off the suits in the State Department by calling the Soviet Union an “evil empire”.  Also by 1980, the Soviet Satellites of Eastern Europe were gradually learning of the West’s much higher living standards.  In 1981, Polish dock workers began striking purportedly for higher wages. But their real dispute was a cry for more personal freedom, and the popular new Pope, John Paul II, a fellow Pole, sympathized deeply with his countrymen. The Catholic leader’s increased contact with Poland made any Soviet intervention as with Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968 politically very difficult for Moscow.


After President Reagan complained that the Soviet leaders (3) kept dying on him, in 1985, Mikhail Gorbachev began a new generation of Soviet leadership. The combination of military spending (many times the US percentage of GDP) and the decades of failure with a government controlled socialist-welfare system had left the Soviet economy in ruins.  While the US fed itself and millions throughout the world with less than 5% of the population engaged in agriculture, the Soviets struggled to just feed themselves with about 20 % of its citizens engaged in agriculture.


Margaret Thatcher, the first Western leader to meet Mikhail Gorbachev, soon realized his inclinations for openness and she pronounced that “…we can do business with this leader…”  Soon, the Soviet Union’s doors began to creak open.  The Soviets stopped jamming the BBC and Voice of America. More travel and contact with the West continued to fuel the desire for trade and improved goods and services.  Fax machines and personal computers were spreading information that contradicted the decades of communist lies. Gorbachev felt increasing pressure to expand glasnost (openness) and perestroika (reforms).  The great “Iron Curtain” named by Winston Churchill after WWII was slowly being lifted.


After an initial meeting in Geneva, Switzerland, Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev convened what would become a series of world summits. The Soviets “spin” was that Ronald Reagan was too old and just a B actor pretending to be President.  While this initial meeting involved few details, like theater, the style and agenda were soon set.  President Reagan arrived second wearing just a suit and after bounding up the steps was greeted by Mikhail Gorbachev bundled up in an overcoat and hat.  Any questions about the President’s vitality were quickly dismissed. Then, during one of their walks together, President Reagan asked General Secretary Gorbachev, “.. if the Soviets would support the US against an alien attack on the Earth..?”  Mikhail Gorbachev said yes, and Ronald Reagan responded similarly about the US.  President Reagan now had established a serious relationship with both leaders beginning on the same side!

In 1986, when they again met in Iceland, the United States was finishing re-equipping the US military from Abrams tanks to a 600 ship US Navy. The US Air Force continued to receive the balance of 100 new B-1B bombers and Gorbachev could not match that level of arms race. Gorbachev threatened to abandon the summit unless the Strategic Defense Initiative was reduced to only the “research labs” with testing.  Reagan refused to budge on his vision of a missile shield with all options for testing. International pressure was building for the Soviets to end their control of Eastern Europe along with their threats on the Western Europe. Feeling internal pressure from citizens of Eastern Europe, Gorbachev needed to buy time. Under Reagan’s and Thatcher’s leadership, NATO negotiated the elimination of the short-range missiles on both sides. These milestones were later followed by further cuts of nuclear warheads and long range inter-continental missiles (ICBM’s).


And then in June of 1987, President Ronald Reagan went to Berlin and made the famous speech imploring:  “…Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall…”


After years of threatening Poland with military intervention, the Soviet Union blinked and advised its Polish ally that Moscow would not intervene. Poland experiencing a groundswell of liberty, held a referendum on reforms.  Soon Hungary and Czechoslovakia also seized the opportunity to finally rid themselves of Soviet domination. Like electricity seeking the path of least resistance, Eastern Europe became a sieve with people working their way out of Communism through a labyrinth of borders.


When President Reagan arrived in Moscow just before leaving office, he declared, “…The “evil empire no longer existed because the Soviets have changed…”  In November of 1989, that final and very symbolic symbol of oppression, the Berlin Wall, came down.  A few years later, the world breathed a sigh of relief when four decades of nuclear weapons on a hair trigger also changed.