But there was more to it: Reagan made his pitch in response to Gorbachev’s request that the United States open up trade with the Soviet Union. Reagan responded to the general secretary by apparently suggesting a sort of linkage: increased trade might be possible if the Soviets bulldozed the wall. Though desperate for cash, Gorbachev still would not budge on the Berlin Wall. In the words of his interpreter, Igor Korchilov, Gorbachev “said he could not agree with the president’s view.”
Why was Gorbachev, later recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, so opposed to this?
There were several reasons, but most influential was a lingering Soviet distrust of a unified Germany, a residual ambivalence leftover from the smoke of the Nazi guns of World War II. Moreover, as he made clear in his bestselling 1987 book Perestroika, Gorbachev envisioned a 21st century in which a kinder, gentler, non-totalitarian U.S.S.R. and Communist bloc happily worked together, jointly proceeding to the next “crucial stage in world development;” the collapse of 1989 was the farthest thing from his mental universe. Whereas Reagan described the wall in harsh terms, Gorbachev in Perestroika referred to it casually as “an international border passing, in particular, through Berlin.”
Only a month after Reagan’s June 1987 challenge, Gorbachev visited with West German President Richard von Weizsacker. Weizsacker asked Gorbachev “just for the record” about his thoughts on the prospect of German unity. Gorbachev’s response was hardly a ringing endorsement: He said that history would “decide what [will] happen in a hundred years.” In short, Mikhail Gorbachev favored a divided Germany and the wall that separated it.
None of this is to begrudge Gorbachev the credit he richly deserves for introducing the unprecedented expansion of civil liberties in the U.S.S.R., for formally ending the Soviet Communist party’s monopoly on political power, for officially resigning his post and thus the Soviet Union on December 25, 1991, for working with two American presidents to end the Cold War peacefully — and certainly for not stopping the wrecking ball and bulldozers once they did arrive in Berlin.
Yet, it was Ronald Reagan who took the initiative on the Berlin Wall, who prodded Gorbachev, constantly pushing the Soviet leader — even in private — to take down the most visible, stark symbol of the Cold War divide, a gray, cold tombstone to human freedom. The wall was an abomination, one that Reagan recognized as such from the moment it was erected, and that he publicly assailed from the first decade of its existence — a healthy obsession of Reagan. And his call for Mr. Gorbachev to tear down that wall 20 years ago was an important moment that should not only be remembered but that needs to be better understood.
– Paul Kengor is author of The Crusader: Ronald Reagan and the Fall of Communism and professor of political science at Grove City College. His biography of Reagan adviser William P. Clark, The Judge, will be released this fall by Ignatius Press.