Each November since that remarkable one in 1989, most of the free world takes a few moments to remember the demise of the Berlin wall.

As the world watched people scrambling, the wall becoming just so much rubble under foot and all the following celebrations, the wall that never should have been became the wall that was no more.

Great moment! Great history. But historians in this country and abroad are finding the causes for the event are not widely understood.

Pres. Reagan, against the advice of many on his senior staff and other administration officials, wanted to send a message to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. The message was not so much that Gorbachev should take a sledgehammer and beat down the wall. In Reagan’s view, the time had come that the wall served no purpose other than telling the world that the Soviet Union was ignoring fact. Freedom was coming.

In Reagan’s mind, according to researchers, he and Gorbachev had reached such an honest relationship that the president felt Gorbachev was looking for the right stimulus for action. Reagan waited for an opportunity to make his move and decided the 1987 speech at the Wall was it.

He was right. Reagan opened the door and Gorbachev drove through when the time was right for him; nearly two years later. Gorbachev got a Nobel prize and world acclaim; Reagan was “best supporting actor.”

Historians and other researchers pretty much agree on that scenario. While partisans cling to the myth that Reagan’s demand was pure “freedom’s call” and the reason for reuniting Germany, those who’ve studied the occasion with an eye on fact have concluded that Reagan was the match and Gorbachev the fuse. Gorbachev wanted to do it but needed a partner.

All of that is likely the truth behind the line “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” Good theater and Reagan the good actor with good timing.

None of this is to detract from what happened; just an attempt based on some research to put the light where it really should be.

I’ve long believed something else contributed heavily to the success of that moment. Jeans. Jeans and compact disks and music videos and electronic games and funky clothes and long hair and teen footwear and all the other accouterments of Western culture and youth. Blocked by that wall and living in a world without those creature “necessities” in the hands of the average young person, youthful cultural pressure was building to get over, around or through that barrier.

Television, I believe, also played a large part. It was widely available; certainly to those living in Moscow and the major cities. Soviet young people could see what was happening in the lives of their counterparts in the rest of Germany and the world. And, like those counterparts, they wanted some of the “good life” and all the things that came with it. Old Communist doctrine was not their concern.

I believe that’s why, looking at the footage of people climbing over and beating on the wall that November night, you see so many teens and twenty-somethings leading the charge. The door was open just a crack and they were going to go through it. All of them.

I certainly don’t want to detract from Reagan, Gorbachev and all the other principle players who started the ball rolling. Or the hammers pounding. They did their parts.

But so often the people are ahead of the leaders. Many of the Soviet people had already decided what should happen. With the right pressures from below, and with good political instincts like Reagan and Gorbachev above, all the leaders had to know was “when.”

Reagan knew that. And he knew when.

One Response to “Reagan helped but did not tear down the Berlin Wall alone”

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