When Reagan Went to the Wall: A Berlin-Singapore Nexus?
The unlikely meeting between President Donald J. Trump and North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un has ended amid handshakes, expressions of goodwill, and hopes -- but no proof -- that something good has begun.
Thirty-one years ago today, a momentous speech in another part of the world lit another flame of possibility. The setting was Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate, the very symbol of Europe’s Cold War division between the West and the Soviet-controlled “satellite” states.
As is true regarding Trump’s Korean gambit, those in the U.S. foreign policy establishment were skeptical of President Reagan’s intentions on his 1987 trip to Germany. At a delicate point in the long dance between the two superpowers, they didn’t want Reagan antagonizing Soviet leaders with bellicose language. Infighting broke out among White House aides. But the boss wasn’t dissuaded by the experts. “The boys at State are going to kill me for this,” Reagan told deputy White House chief of staff Kenneth Duberstein, “but it’s the right thing to do.”
* * *
When Ronald Reagan arrived in Berlin on June 12, 1987, relations between Washington and Moscow had progressed far past the “evil empire” rhetoric of Reagan’s first term. Although he received little credit for it either in the U.S. or abroad, Reagan had long been fixated on reducing the world’s nuclear arsenals. Kremlin leaders were receptive to this idea, but the sticking point had always been their aversion to allowing inspectors inside the Soviet Union to verify implementation of arms reduction agreements.
This reluctance convinced many Americans, Reagan included, that the Russians’ stated intentions were not to be taken at face value. Then, in 1986, Soviet premier Mikhail Gorbachev abruptly altered the calculation. After the foreign ministers of NATO allies called for elimination of intermediate and short-range nuclear missiles on a “global and effectively verifiable basis,” Gorbachev forced the hand of the Western alliance by publicly embracing the concept. He announced that his government would destroy all such missiles -- if the U.S. would do the same.
The Soviet leader had skillfully thrown the trust issue back onto the Americans’ laps. Although U.S. intelligence services warned that mutual verification might work to the Soviets’ advantage, this was the opening Reagan was looking for, and he instructed Secretary of State George Shultz to try and negotiate a deal.
For Reagan, though, the arms race and the insane accompanying doctrine of “mutually assured destruction” was only half the equation. The other half was the Soviet Union’s virtual enslavement of its own people and those of Eastern Europe.
So on his visit to Germany 31 years ago today, it was Reagan’s turn to see if Gorbachev was bluffing. At the Brandenburg Gate speech, before a huge crowd, an American president praised the sounds of “reform and openness” emanating from Moscow, but said that the real question was whether they signaled “profound changes” or “token gestures.”
“There is one sign the Soviets can make that would be unmistakable, that would advance dramatically the cause of freedom and peace,” Reagan added. “Secretary General Gorbachev, if you seek peace -- if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe -- if you seek liberalization: come here, to this gate. Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate. Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”
It was a dramatic gesture, which the aging thespian well knew. “[At] the Brandenburg Gate …tens of thousands of people -- stretching as far as the eye could see,” Reagan wrote in his diary. “I got a tremendous reception -- interrupted 28 times by cheers.”
How much did this speech change things? Scholars are still arguing about that, as many of the players in this great drama did for years. “We were really not impressed,” Gorbachev said later. “We knew that Mr. Reagan’s original profession was actor.”
Fine, but in this case, “Mr. Reagan” was apparently a Method actor. He would tell his best biographer that he could hear the anger in his own voice as he spoke the famous lines in his speech. The president was enraged because he learned just before delivering his words that East German police had forced thousands of people on the other side of the wall away from loudspeakers so they couldn’t hear his remarks.
Anyway, acting -- or, at least, public communication -- is part of the job description of being president, and not only for purposes of showmanship. What the Great Communicator was doing was setting the stage for something he’d talked about evocatively since the 1976 Republican National Convention: nuclear arms reductions.
Before becoming president, Ronald Reagan articulated his vision for the end of the Cold War with startling clarity to an aide: “We win, they lose,” he told Richard Allen. Reagan never envisioned this happening in a direct military confrontation with the Russians, however, and as president he told his aides that believed he could “do business” with Gorbachev. First, though, the Soviets needed to be reminded they were dealing with a strong negotiating partner. They, in turn, required some political cover. Both requirements were nudged along by Reagan’s address at the Berlin Wall.
“It was an anti-Communist speech that helped preserve support for a conservative president seeking to upgrade American relations with the Soviet Union,” New York Times correspondent James Mann observed in a piece on the 20th anniversary of the event. “In political terms, it was the prerequisite for the president’s subsequent negotiations. These efforts, in turn, created the vastly more relaxed climate in which the Soviets sat on their hands when the wall came down.”
The more immediate upshot would be an invitation from Reagan to visit Washington, D.C. There, in America’s capital city, Reagan’s Russian counterpart would receive a reaction so unexpected it resulted in the incongruous phrase “Gorby Fever.”
Is it hard to imagine something similar happening today with a leader from a small but troublesome Asian country? The answer, for now, is that “Kim Fever” seems highly unlikely. Yet, sometimes we must dare to hope for the best. Ronald Wilson Reagan always did. This was a man who, upon learning he had Alzheimer’s disease, responded by penning a love letter to the American people.
“I now begin the journey that will lead me into the sunset of my life,” he wrote. “I know that for America there will always be a bright dawn ahead.”