03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

1989 And the Fall of the Wall: Did Reagan Do It?

I was 26 years old in 1989, and I remember very vividly the excitement, the joy, the sense of a once-in-a-lifetime world transformation that came in that year when tyrannies were toppled all over Europe.

Those who didn't grow up with the Cold War will have a hard time imagining how much it shaped the reality of those who did. Cold War consciousness was a part of every major political front in foreign and in domestic policy. There was a constant, ambient awareness of the nuclear standoff. It was part of the reality of our lives: the Wall, the grim sad grayness of life behind it, whole countries that one could not visit without an official "minder" in tow.

We all knew what happened when people tried to change it: The German workers crushed in 1953, the Hungarians put back in their cage in 1956, the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. I remember the headline in the Toronto Globe and Mail that winter morning in 1981: "Martial Law in Poland," below it there was a picture of a tank in what I would later know as the Old Town of Warsaw. It's worth noting that what we translate into English as "Martial Law" is actually, in Polish, "State of War." General Wojciech Jaruzelski read the announcement on Polish TV, the Polish national eagle hanging behind him, mysteriously crooked.

A world divided by a wall seemed like just the way things were and would always be. I remember a conversation with a professor of mine when I was an undergraduate in 1988. This professor was then 65 years old, and a careful scholar of history with a particular focus on German history. He said, "I expect that there will one day be a reunited Germany. But I don't think it will happen in my lifetime, and probably not in yours." This was a completely reasonable statement; any other would have been odd.

Official German reunification came a little more than two years later, on October 3, 1990. My professor has so far had 19 years of life in a world in which Germany is no longer divided.

The changes seemed so sudden, but actually they weren't sudden at all. We only saw the big events on the surface, which were the results of a long process going back to 1945, to Yalta. The last part of the process started in the late 1970s, in Poland. After reforms in the Soviet Union, a changed international environment, and dogged negotiations between the Solidarity union and the government of Jaruzelski, Poland held free elections in 1989. The free parties were allowed to contest all the seats in a newly-created Upper House, the Senate and one-third of the seats in what had been the rubber-stamp parliament, the Sejm. The Communists believed that they would win free elections, if barely; that in the end the people would opt for bread and stability over the unknown, over self-government and dignity.

It just goes to show how little they understood about the people they ruled. Solidarity and its allied parties won every single seat they were allowed to contest. That was the end of communism in the Soviet sphere, although we couldn't have known it then. The Poles had a free election and the Soviet tanks didn't roll. What was to keep the Czechs, the Hungarians, the Bulgarians, the Germans from asserting their rights? Only in Romania, where a violent coup disguised as revolution took place, was the triumph less than satisfying. But even there, the coup government—in the new environment of a free Europe—was to prove evolutionary in a way that the tyranny of the old dictator, Nicolae Ceausescu, never could have been. Twenty years on, Romania, too, is a democracy.

The Berlin Wall, two years older than me, fell on November 9, 1989. Which also happened to be the anniversary of Kaiser Wilhelm's 1918 abdication, Hitler's 1923 attempted putsch and Kristallnacht. Which in a way is beautiful: The end of the Wall was the end of an order created in the aftermath of World War II, which was, if you look at it in a certain way, ACT II of World War I. World War I created Weimar, and shaped Hitler, who brought Kristallnacht. It was all a big circle that was finally closed in 1989.

I started taking Polish classes at the Kosciuszko Institute in San Francisco. I wanted to see this for myself. I came through Berlin on my way to Poland in January 1990. The Wall still stood, the DDR still existed, but people were moving freely through the checkpoints, and there was an air of celebration—but with some darker overtones—in the city. One night I had a conversation with an East German border guard, who was friendly and approachable as people streamed unmolested past his post. My German friend told the guard about how he'd been hassled every time he visited relatives in the East, been prevented from bringing them even slippers, and noted the pettiness of the decrees. "Pantoffeln? Pantoffeln sind VERBOTEN!"

"HA HA!" laughed the guard. How absurd it all was! But two months before this conversation they were shooting people who tried to escape the DDR, which was not funny.

I expressed the hope that the fall of the Wall would be the end of ideology in politics, that people would now be free to assess their relations on the merits, rather than having to adhere to any pre-determined framework. The guard was puzzled. "But how can people live without ideology?"

Which leads me, in a rather roundabout way, to a matter that has surfaced with the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Wall: Why isn't Reagan given enough credit? Everyone from The Wall Street Journal to Newt Gingrich to Charles Krauthammer has been recalling Ronald Reagan's "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!" speech and demanding that we recognize his contributions—along with those of Pope John Paul II, no friend of free speech and free thought—to the joyous event.

I must say that this "Reagan did it" attitude bothers me. And it's not because I want to deny him credit. Indeed, I think he deserves much credit for the end of the Cold War, more than I would have given him at the time.

There were certainly things that Reagan did that hastened the liberation of Europe, some of which had unexpected and undesirable consequences, such as the way he conducted the confrontation with the Soviet Union in Afghanistan: By backing the Mujahiddeen, Reagan helped to support a stream of militant Islam that had been struggling to assert itself in the world, and that would prove beyond our control. And it was not necessary to do so: There were other actors in Afghan society that we could have armed against the Soviets. Reagan's sentimentality about religion, however, led him to a bad mistake. It's a myth, however, that Osama bin Laden was ever on the CIA's payroll.

And Reagan busted the budget in a quixotic pursuit of ballistic missile defense, a delusion that could not have worked and that would have obliterated the very stabilizing logic of nuclear deterrence if it had worked, making the world much less safe. It's another myth that in doing so, he spent the Soviet Union into decline. The Soviets in fact concluded early on that Star Wars was a chimera that hurt the US more than it did them, and never tried to match spending. According to the CIA, Soviet defense spending was flat throughout the 80s, except for a small bump in the early part of the decade that had been budgeted long before Reagan. The Soviets' vociferous objections to Star Wars can be read as a Br'rer Fox strategy to encourage Reagan's destructive spending: "Oh please, Mr. Reagan, don't spend all those billions on missile defense! We really, really, really don't want you to do that!"

But other policies were more unambiguously helpful. By taking on the Soviet Union and its proxies in Latin America and around the world, Reagan let it be known that we would no longer be satisfied with mere "containment," that the desired outcome was, as he put it, "We win, they lose." Covert programs to smuggle printing and communications equipment into the Soviet-dominated societies made a big difference, both in terms of practical effect and as a morale-booster for beleaguered dissidents. And the West's cutoff of desperately needed loans to Poland after 1981, a policy led by Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, was most effective in stating the consequences of oppression. Reagan did not have a subtle mind, and he had little concept of what freedom required at home; but he was right about what it required abroad.

He didn't single-handedly end the Cold War and bring down the USSR, however. The USSR was going to fall with or without Reagan, brought down by a fifty-year bipartisan policy of resolve on the part of the US and its European allies, begun under a Democratic president; by the increasing practical impossibility, in the modern world, of attaining material prosperity without intellectual freedom, without an open society; by its material incompetence (what the Polish dissident Adam Michnik called "the revolt of the radiators"), powerfully exemplified by Chernobyl; and, most of all, by the sheer weight of its own irrationality and cruelty. Reagan indeed probably hastened the fall by a few years—and that's a good thing that gave the world millions of man-years of freedom, for which we should be grateful—but he didn't cause it.

And here's why the idea that "Reagan did it" (or the variant, "Gorbachev let it happen") really bugs me. These models arrogantly presume that the peoples of East Central Europe, of the German Democratic Republic, of the Baltics, of the Union itself, did nothing to liberate themselves. As if they were just waiting around, passive objects of history, for Reagan to free them or Gorbachev to let them go. This is absurd, and insulting.

The Wall would have fallen without Reagan, but it wouldn't have fallen without the sacrifices of several generations of Germans, Poles, Czechs, Hungarians, Latvians, Estonians. It wouldn't have fallen without the East German construction workers who went on strike in June 1953, setting off a major revolt against the "workers' state" and exposing the absurdity of the DDR's claim to represent them. It wouldn't have fallen without Jacek Kuron and the KOR, the Committee in Defense of Workers, founded clandestinely in Poland in 1976. It wouldn't have fallen without Václav Havel, Jan Patočka, Zdeněk Mlynář, Jiří Hájek, Pavel Kohout and the other brave signatories of Charter 77 (You can see their original signatures here. Not without the Committee for the Defense of the Unjustly Persecuted, which supported the dissidents of Charter 77, and which had many overlapping members. Not without György Konrad, and not without brilliant exiles like Czesław Miłosz and Leszek Kołakówski and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. Not without visionaries like Andrei Sakharov and Yelena Bonner. It wouldn't have fallen without the Moscow Helsinki Group, without Yurij Orlov, Larisa Bogarov, Kronid Lyubarsky. Not without János Kis and György Krassó. The sacrifice of Jerzy Popiełuszko was part of the fall of the Wall. So was the work and struggle of Adam Michnik and Bronisław Geremak and Anna Walentynowicz and Lech Wałęsa, and the peoples' achievement of Solidarność. The Wall would not have fallen without Neculai Munteanu and Gheorghe Alexandrescu. And, yes, not without Imre Nagy and Aleksandr Dubček, men who went as far as they could in difficult circumstances.

And the Wall wouldn't have fallen without cultural resistance from the Plastic People of the Universe and Orange Alternative. Not without all those millions of Russians and Poles and Hungarians who tuned in to Voice of America, not necessarily to hear the news—the BBC was more reliable for that—but to hear John Coltrane and The Beatles. Yes, 'Trane helped bring down the Wall! Or rather, not 'Trane, but what he did inside peoples' heads. It wouldn't have fallen without the devastating whimsy of Stanisław Mróżek, nor without the understanding, on the part of people like Osip and Nadezhda Mandelstam, Anna Akhmatova and Vladimir Voinovich, that art could only be made by free people—free in their own minds.

The point is that while many of us in the West had an image of a frozen cultural and political landscape under Communism, helpless and immobile in the face of oppression, nothing could be further from the truth. This delusion made it easy for us to think of Communism crumbling through the acts of a romantic hero, whether we chose to see that hero as Reagan or Gorbachev. But there was a lot happening under Communism, a lot of resistance, and the picture was different in every country.

The west, with its governmental and private links to and support for dissidents, helped a lot. And, yes, so did Reagan and Thatcher. President Obama's absence from the 20-year commemoration of the fall of the Wall is bizarre, inexplicable, and shameful. It dishonors these western efforts, our long commitment to a Europe united and free.

But the peoples who lived under Soviet Communism freed themselves in the end, at a very high cost. This is important, and inspiring, and worth remembering as we think about the Cold War and its conclusion.