"Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!" President Ronald Reagan's famous exhortation when visiting Berlin in 1987 has long been widely cited as the clarion call that brought the Cold War to an end. The United States won, so this version of history goes, because Ronald Reagan stood firm against the USSR; American resoluteness brought the evil empire to its knees. Michael Meyer, who was there at the time as a Newsweek bureau chief, begs to differ. In this extraordinarily compelling account of the revolutions that roiled Eastern Europe in 1989, Meyer shows that American intransigence was only one of many factors that provoked world-shaking change. He draws together breathtakingly vivid, on-the-ground accounts of the rise of the Solidarity movement in Poland, the stealth opening of the Hungarian border, the Velvet Revolution in Prague, and the collapse of the infamous wall in Berlin. But the most important events, Meyer contends, occurred secretly, in the heroic stands taken by individuals in the thick of the struggle-leaders such as poet and playwright Vaclav Havel in Prague; the Baltic shipwright Lech Walesa; the quietly determined reform prime minister in Budapest, Miklos Nemeth; and the man who privately realized that his empire was already lost and decided, with courage and intelligence, to let it go in peace, Mikhail Gorbachev, the Soviet general secretary of the Communist party. Reporting for Newsweek from the frontlines in Eastern Europe, Meyer spoke to these players and countless others. Alongside their deliberate interventions were also the happenstance and human error of history that are always present when events accelerate to breakneck speed. Meyer captures these heady days in all of their rich drama and unpredictability. In doing so he provides not just a thrilling chronicle of the most important year of the twentieth century but also a crucial refutation of American political mythology and a triumphal misunderstanding of history that seduced the United States into many of the intractable conflicts it faces today. The Year That Changed the World will change not only how we see the past, but also our understanding of America's future.
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Michael Meyer worked for Newsweek for two decades, including as bureau chief for Germany, Central Europe, and the Balkans, and is the author of The Alexander Complex.
Ed Sala, an actor and a writer, has won numerous AudioFile Earphones Awards for his audiobook narrations, including one for Finn by Jon Clinch, and his performance of White Doves at Morning by James Lee Burke was selected by AudioFile as one of the fifteen best audiobooks of the year.
Every great nation has its founding myths. Every true leader has a defining vision. Every person has his or her story, the narrative that gives shape and meaning to one?s life. The problem begins when life and the narrative fall out of joint. The greater the disjuncture, the more fatal the problem.
George W. Bush idolized Ronald Reagan. From the outset he modeled his presidency upon him. His first inaugural deliberately echoed Reagan?s patented blend of stirring rhetoric, moral clarity and iron conviction in basic principles. Advisers drew the comparison at every opportunity. ?Reagan?s son,? they called him, and spoke reverently of how their man was impregnated with ?Reagan?s DNA.?
Bush put the former president ahead of even Winston Churchill and Theodore Roosevelt?the ?gold standard??in his personal pantheon of heroes. Eulogizing him in 2004, he evoked a legacy he clearly saw as his own. ?He acted to defend liberty wherever it was threatened. He called evil by its name.? The famous Berlin Wall was the concrete symbol of communism and its hated masters. Among those who swung their hammers to bring it down, said Bush, there was no doubt: ?The hardest blow had been struck by President Ronald Reagan.?
As Bush saw it, Reagan?s world was one of moral absolutes?right and wrong, black and white. As Reagan stood up to confront communist tyranny, so would he stand up to a more modern challenge. The ?evil empire? became the new president?s ?war on terror,? the ?axis of evil.? Yet the essential narrative of a grand struggle against an implacable enemy of freedom remained unchanged.
Standing aboard the USS Lincoln on May 1, 2003, Bush declared ?mission accomplished? in Iraq, a triumph for liberty in the tradition of Roosevelt?s Four Freedoms, the Truman Doctrine and ?Ronald Reagan?s challenge to an evil empire.? In a 2005 speech to the National Endowment for Democracy (delivered in the Reagan Amphitheater), he spoke of how the fight against Islamic radicalism ?resembles the struggle against communism in the last century.? He drew a staccato series of comparisons. ?Like the ideology of communism, our new enemy teaches that innocent individuals can be sacrificed?. Like the ideology of communism, our new enemy pursues totalitarian aims? Like the ideology of communism, our new enemy is dismissive of free peoples.?
On he went, evocations of the threat faced by Ronald Reagan coupled with invocations to answer ?history?s call? in shouldering today?s ?global campaign of freedom.? To critics who considered the war in Iraq to be a mistake, Bush offered a retort grounded in a Reagan antecedent. In 1982, when the fortieth president told an audience at Westminster Palace in London that communism?s days were numbered, opponents on both sides of the Atlantic ridiculed him as ?simplistic and naive, even dangerous.?
Again and again, as his political troubles deepened, Bush returned to precedent in answering those who attacked him and his policies. Less than a year before he left office, on a day in early February 2008, when his approval ratings were around 30 percent, he drew cheers at the American Conservative Union. When the Twin Towers fell, ?we stood our ground,? he declared. ?We stood our ground? in Afghanistan and Iraq. ?We stood our ground? for America as a ?leading light, a guiding star, the greatest nation on the face of the Earth??language inspired directly by Reagan. Then he concluded with the ultimate exculpation, as if he were a latter-day Saint Sebastian: ?Ronald Reagan, too, was called a ?warmonger,? an ?amiable dunce,? an actor detached from reality. Yet within a few years after President Reagan left office, the Berlin Wall came down, the Evil Empire collapsed, the Cold War was won.?
Everyone hears the echo. Everyone knows the reference. ?Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!?
A generation of speechwriters wish they had crafted that clarion call. A generation of statesmen wish they had uttered it, among them many who belittled it at the time. Rightly, it is included in collections of the century?s great presidential addresses. Video clips of the speech can be watched on YouTube. For a generation of Americans, it has become a defining moment of the twentieth century, a turning point in the long struggle to win the Cold War.
This one line, the epochal phrase in the most memorable speech of a presidency, grew over the years to become the touchstone of the Reagan legacy, the man and his ideas distilled to their essence?his optimism, his faith, his willingness to confront the conventional order, his bedrock belief in American values, most of all freedom and democracy and the power of people to change their lives and the world for the better.
Reagan delivered it on a warm spring afternoon in the divided city of Berlin, June 12, 1987. Behind him rose the famed Brandenburg Gate, its arches and columns still blackened and pockmarked from the smoke and shrapnel of the last European battle of World War II. It was a dramatic proscenium for a bit of geopolitical theater. Snaking through the background, one hundred yards behind the dais where Reagan stood, was the Wall?the crude, blunt twelve-foot barrier of gray cement and barbed wire that divided East from West, the world of democratic freedom from that of totalitarian oppression, the literal embodiment of the Cold War.
A guard tower poked up from the death strip running behind the Wall. Armed East German border guards surveyed the scene through binoculars. Large sheets of bulletproof glass shielded the president from the rear. Unseen from the Western side, crowds of East Germans gathered to hear Reagan, hoping loudspeakers would project his voice across the divide. East German police pushed them back, the president was told. This in itself was a demonstration of all that Reagan hated about communism, and he punched out his words with angry force?a direct exhortation, delivered personally, to the Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.
Reagan began slowly, speaking of other American presidents who had come to Berlin, John F. Kennedy and Jimmy Carter, honoring their duty to speak out against what he called ?the scar? that split the city. He spoke of America?s efforts to save Berlin after the war?aid under the Marshall Plan, the Berlin airlift of food and medicine when the Red Army cut supply lines to the West. Echoing the old Marlene Dietrich song, he joked that he kept a ?suitcase? in Berlin?Ich hab? noch einen Koffer in Berlin?a metaphor of solidarity with this outpost of freedom so isolated behind enemy territory. And he spoke of the winds of change he knew to be blowing, coming from the East as glasnost and perestroika, openness and reform, authored by none other than Gorbachev himself.
Then, a little after 2 p.m., he made his move: ?We hear from Moscow about a new openness.? Could these hints of change be real? Is this talk to be believed or trusted? If so, said Reagan, fixing his jaw and speaking progressively more loudly, bluntly, hammering every word as if it were a nail, give us a sign that you are sincere??the one sign? that would be unmistakable. General Secretary 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!?
The crowds cheered. Some waved American flags, though most of these had been planted by the U.S. embassy. After it was done and the president had gone, along with the ten thousand or so West Berliners who had come to hear him, local TV carried highlights. Not many Germans watched. Few admired Reagan and a large majority actively disliked him, especially in liberal and often anti-American Berlin. Most far preferred Gorbachev, seen as the peacemaker, who would arrive a few weeks later to be mobbed like a rock star. (Gorbimania, they called it.) Major U.S. newspapers with correspondents in Europe, such as the New York Times, carried stories that ran in the back pages. And that was that until two years, four months, twenty-eight days and nine hours later?long after Reagan had left office?when the Berlin Wall actually came down.
Abruptly, it was as if word were deed. Ronald Reagan became not only a prophet, foreseeing what no one else had, but the prime mover in a stunning geopolitical transformation. Overnight, it seemed, the world changed. The Cold War was over. We won!
At least, this is the spin we Americans put on it. In recent years, particularly among U.S. conservatives, the Berlin Wall speech has taken on the talismanic weight of an ideological icon, both the symbol and founding idea of a new post?Cold War weltanschauung. As president, Reagan did what no one else had done before him: he confronted the enemy?and triumphed. He changed America?s way of acting in the world, its sense of sheer possibility. Reagan had no patience with the old order. Gone was time-honored talk of ?d?tente? and ?containment? and ?mutual nuclear deterrence.? All that was for the ash heap of history. With his arms race and tough talk, he pushed the Soviet Union to the point of collapse, creating a new axiom of American foreign policy: stand tall and confront the enemy, as Reagan did that day in Berlin.
From this axiom flowed a contemporary corollary?that all dictatorial regimes are similarly hollow at the core and will crumble with a shove from the outside. All it takes is faith and a little Reagan spunk, backed by U.S. military power, and we can change the world. George W. Bush could thus say, dedicating a memorial in 2007 to an estimated 100 million victims of communism, that ?evil is real and must be confronted.? He could tell a graduating class of West Point cadets in 2006 that, as in the Cold War, America today must ?confront? new dangers. Indeed, the word became one of the most popular verbs in his rhetorical arsenal. ?We will confront threats? confront new adversaries? confront new enemies? and never back d...
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