Does Ronald Reagan really deserve credit for taking down the Berlin Wall?

While I agree that conservatives tend to be rather negative about unions, let’s not forget that Ronald Reagan himself was a union leader before he went into politics full-time, serving as president of the Screen Actors Guild in 1947-1952 and 1959.

No, it was only moved to GD after my post. In fact, I think I can say, “Sal Ammoniac really deserves credit for taking this post to GD.”

In any event, I’m objecting to the notion that Ronald Reagan really had much to do with the demise of the Soviet Empire – the thing that is touted by his followers as the one great achievement of his presidency. In their folklore, Reagan’s military buildup somehow caused the Soviet Union to crumble. I ask, where’s the proof? The Soviets, with their vast arsenal of thermonuclear weapons, could afford to be basically indifferent to small shifts in advantage as far as conventional arms were concerned. Whether the Americans had a few divisions more or less hardly made a difference.

The real reason I don’t like the line of argument that gives Reagan the credit is that it reduces Gorbachev to a bit player – when in reality, he was, almost alone, responsible for the transformation of the Soviet Union. He didn’t have to do it; the Soviets could have held onto the status quo for decades. And he certainly didn’t do it because Reagan somehow made him.

You’re wrong.

The effort to support Walesa and Solidarity was a multifaceted one, and had support from lots of people who ordinarily wouldn’t dream of working together. The Reagan Administration and the CIA were involved, as well as the Thatcher government. The role of the Pope is also well documented.

Less well known is the part labor unions played in this effort. Scandinavian ones were particularly helpful. But the AFL-CIO was particularly heroic, providing resources and organizational support whenever asked to by the government, as well as keeping up a sustained campaign in support of Solidarity here.

While the AFL-CIO had no love for Reagan’s domestic policies, they continued to support American foreign policy in general throughout the 1980s, and to this day participate in official programs sponsored by the National Endowment for Democracy.

After his death, Lane Kirkland was awarded the Order of the White Eagle by the Polish government.

So it is clear that unions were willing to work with the administration to help Solidarity, and the administration was glad for the help.

I’m not sure whether Mikhail Gorbachev knew where he was taking the Soviet Union, but he certainly was responsible for the relatively painless way in which it collapsed. Given the strength of the Soviet military, there could have been a lot of violent repression of those rebelling against the Soviet Union, but there wasn’t.

In addition, it is clear that the leaders of China have learned (in a negative way) from his example, and have not allowed political liberalisation alongside some ecomonic liberalisation. And arguably theirs is a better model, in spite of its authoritarianism. Russia is relatively free, but remains economically backwards, while semi-authoritarian China is rapidly catching up with the west (in economic terms, at least).

In his 1991 book The Next Century David Halberstam is pretty clearly contends that RR’s influence on the Societ breakup was negligible. I found it an interesting and convincing read - but it is argument, not fact.

Actually, I meant I posted as it was already in GD, not that you posted while it was in GD. Rico had already moved it before I saw the thread.

My answer to your post and Stranger’s is as follows.

  1. By the time Reagan took office, the USSR did have the largest conventional Armed Forces in the World, they must of thought this was of some importance.
  2. Despite 20/20 hindsight, the US was at a very low moral level that help propel Reagan into office.
  3. The overall military morale was low and they were just starting to clean up a serious drug problem within the ranks.
  4. Reagan ensured we could fight a 2 or 3 front war and still have a superior defense.
  5. The Soviets already were overspending to maintain their military, something along the lines of 20-25% of their GNP.
  6. They could not afford the raised stakes.
  7. Lech Wałęsa. & Solidarity was heavily support by Reagan and Thatcher and the Pope for that matter.
  8. Do you have any cites that SDI did not worry the Soviets? Our technology edge in these areas was major from my memory.

I acknowledge that none of this would have mattered if the Soviet system was not already broken, but we did not give them a chance to fix it. We hit them when they were already staggering with the Afghanistan debacle. Are you both unwilling to concede that Reagan at very least sped up the end of the Soviet Union by a decade or more?


Does anyone think that Gorbachev would have been the choice of the Politburo had there not been serious pressure on all levels, any of which were made worse by Reagan era policies? Keep in mind that the previous choices between him and Brezhnev were old-school hardliners.

I’ll give Gorbachev what credit is due him, but let’s remember that the fact that he was there was an admission of desperation.

Do you have any cites that it DID? I’ve raised this issue on the Board before. It seems to me that the onus is on those who claim SDI worried the Soviets and forced them to spend more money. I’ve seen this claim many times, and I’ve never seen an iota of support for it.

I HAVE seen plenty of contemporary work dismissing SDI as unworkably complex from both sides of the Iron Curtain. The people in a position to know didn’t think it was a realistic threat at all. I’ve always suspectyed that they did think that Reagan might do something stupid or “adventurous” in space, though. That may have been deliberate on his part. I don’t think it was wise, and i’ve yet to see any evidence that it spooked the Russians into spending more money that they could ill afford to.

Here is a little proof, I will try to dig up more: Reykjavík Summit where Gorbachev insisted we end SDI. Why would he do so if the Soviets had no worries?

BTW: SDI was only one part of the effort to bring down the Soviet Union.


This is absolutely true. There was a Billy Bragg song going round in the UK at the time about the right-wing press, that went:

“Fearlessly our daily tune is
Down with trendy lefty loonies,
Down with scoungers on the dole, and
Down with strikes except in Poland.”

SDI’s main influence on the issue was the potential destabilization of the nuclear stand-off that existed between the countries. By building SDI, the potential existed in the Soviet Union for someone to gain credence with a message asserting, “We’d best attack now, before we can’t attack OR respond to their attack!”

Whether SDI led in any measurable way to the economic implosion in the Soviet Union that helped hasten the downfall of the Communist Party is both debateable, and hardly provable.

That’s not proof – it’s bargaining. Nothing Gorby said implied that they were worried about US defenses in space, and the published accounts from the Soviets don’t say anything about their being worried by it.

No kidding. But you mentioned it, so I brought up this point that’s been bothering me a long time. Objections to other aspects of the build up have already been addressed by others.

I had a huge amount of articles and contemporary reports on SDI from the eighties, but they were dstroyed in a basement flood. But here’s a choice quote from the Wikipedia article, including Gorbachev’s own statements on Reykjavic:

In other words, he says he was accuseed of trying to draw the US into extravagant expenditures that would bankrupt the US by his insisting upon its elimination. Not sure how seriously to take that.

You might be surprised, despite the chaos of the '90s Russia is still considerably wealthier than China. OTOH Russia also remains pretty authoritarian.

…to be president when communism collapsed. Russia had been in decline for years, and the burden of military spending was killing them. The Gorbachev came along, and realized, that things had to change. SDI may have played a minor role in this, but the main thing was: 60 years of economic mismanagement had made Russia an economic basket case. That was the big thing, and reagan had little to do with it.

You missed my point. I’m not saying that the unions weren’t active in helping otherthrow communism. I’m saying they have never gotten due credit from conservatives for their help in overthrowing communism, much less any payback for services rendered. The same conservatives who loved Lech Walesa for what he was doing in Poland were union-busting in their own countries.

No, George Bush was lucky to be President when communism collapsed. The Soviet Union was still a going concern when Reagan left office.

So what you’re saying is that Reagan took the opportunity for military build-up to improve U.S. morale and stature. On this point we can be in almost total agreement. However, this doesn’t equate to ending the Cold War. The Soviet Union was certainly spending a lot of their GNP (and typically considered more than you cite) on military spending, but it was pretty constant, and they certainly had the material resources to spend more.

It’s a matter of record that Reagan and Thatcher supported Solidarity, but they did so via public consensus and international support. The foundations of Solidarity, however, extended far before Reagan’s tenure, and of course Walesa and the other leaders of Solidarity were the guys on the ground. It’s unfair and unjust to assign Reagan primary responsibility for a movement that fell out at his feet as a way to strike out at the East Bloc when the people who put it out their and died are uncredited.

SDI was a cross between a bad dream and a joke. It was never going to be the protective umbrella that Reagan claimed, and indeed, he seemed very fuzzy on even the high level details. Had it been workable and emplaced it would have had a very destabilizing effect on nuclear deterrence. As it is, the technologies planned for use are still in development today, and most of the major stumbling blocks then have yet to be resolved. In any case, the Soviets were already well prepared to deal with any realistic missile defense system; they had long been at work in designing decoys, chaff systems, fractional orbital bombardment systems, and maneuverable re-entry vehicles that would put a kink in any anti-missile defense architects day. They also designed ICBM delivery systems with sufficient throw weight to carry all of this stuff in addition to MIRVs. I think the Soviets were far more worried about Reagan himself–a self-aggrandizing man who spoke boldly about facing off as if he was still captain of a college football team and cracking jokes about sending in the bombers in five minutes–as a mercurial presence than about the effect of strategic missile defense, which, even if workable, would take a couple of decades to effectively deploy. In comparison to Carter and Ford, or even Nixon and Johnson, Reagan was a real loose cannon, and it was never clear that he really understood the implications and instability of Assured Deterrence.

What stuck the wooden stake in the heart of the Soviet Union was the costly and embarassing involvement in Afghanistan (stimulated under the Carter era and advised by Zbigniew Brzezinski) which was publically criticized even by some East Bloc nations, the failure of the economic impositions (it’s not fair to call them reforms, because they were mandates without methods) of the late Brezhnev, and the succession of semi-dead leaders along with the ageing ideologue contingent of the Poliburo. Gorbechev and his supporters had been positioning themselves for some time to come to power an enact dramatic economic reform. Along with that came social and political reforms. What Gorbechev didn’t count on was the fact that once the mighty fist of Soviet doctrine was loosened around the satellites, they cut and ran like frightened mice.

The Soviet Union was ripe for fall, and it was far more the influence of Gorbechev, internally, and the leaders of Solidarity externally than any influence from North America or the British Isles. It is fortunate that Reagan cultivated a close personal relationship and opened up negotiations with the Soviets in this period, because things could have gone badly wrong had the Soviets been isolated, but the U.S.S.R. was already coming apart like a cheap gold watch before Reagan took office.

Crediting Reagan with having brought down the Berlin Wall, either literally or figuratively, is like according responsibility to Marie Antoinette for the excesses of the Bourbons. Sure, she was there, and she did a bit of partying, but she was late to the game and often as not misattributed.


I think this is absolutely untrue. Gorbachev was an apparatchik, had been one all his life, steadily rising through the ranks. Andropov and Chernenko had both been close to him, and had supported his ascent into the highest circles. He was not a desperation candidate, and he did not behave as those who had promoted him expected him to – not at all.

No bonus points for helping the Afghanistan Rebels? :wink:

Honestly, I was not being snide. Really. (The more I protest my innocence, the more snide I sound!) Truly, I was not being snide.

No plans for demolition and removal. Never happened.