Reagan, Obama and the Legacy of the Berlin Wall

Tracing presidential leadership through Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush and Barack Obama.

By + More
185-play-ken-110609.jpg
Video: The Berlin Wall: After the Fall

Today marks the anniversary of one of the most important moments of the 20th century but an event that most Americans seem to barely remember. It was the day the Berlin Wall came crashing down 20 years ago. It was dramatic evidence that the Soviet Union was unraveling and that international communism was on its last legs. Perhaps most important, the fall of the wall was a conclusive sign that, after a titanic struggle spanning two generations after World War II, the United States and the other Western democracies had finally won the Cold War.

"The significance of the actual wall coming down was immense," says Roman Popadiuk, a former White House spokesman on national security issues under George H. W. Bush who now heads the ex-president's foundation in College Station, Texas. It served as proof that the Soviets had lost control of their far-flung empire, led directly to Germany's reunification, and showed that American values and leadership remained invaluable around the world, Popadiuk says.

In the end, two presidents deserve much of the credit: Bush, who handled the final throes of the Soviet demise with prudence and restraint, and Ronald Reagan, who preceded Bush in the White House. Reagan entered into a strategic partnership with then Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to halt the Cold War and encourage reform of the corrupt and dangerous Soviet system. Reagan's role was all the more amazing because he had taken office in 1981 as an aggressive cold warrior who condemned the Soviet Union as an "evil empire." At first, he placed relentless military, diplomatic, moral, and financial pressure on the Kremlin. But he eventually recognized that a more cooperative approach was needed after the innovative Gorbachev came on the scene during Reagan's second term. Reagan's remarkable speech at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin on June 12, 1987, when he demanded, "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!" presaged the end of an era of confrontation between the superpowers.

Bush continued Reagan's approach and, beyond that, demonstrated sensitivity and good sense by not gloating or pushing too hard for more changes when the U.S.S.R. started to disintegrate. Bush told aides he didn't want to "poke a finger in Gorbachev's eye," which might have undermined his Russian counterpart with hard-liners in Moscow and jeopardized the gains that were being made. Bush's restraint facilitated an orderly transition from the repressive communist system that was a menace to the world.

And there are plenty of lessons for today. "Our policymakers have to learn patience," says Popadiuk, author of the newly published The Leadership of George Bush. 

Adds Frank Donatelli, who was Reagan's White House political director and is now chairman of the GOPAC conservative political action committee: "The lesson I would draw is, presidential leadership is indispensable to achieving an objective in the world, much more important than multilateralism and speechmaking or winning the Nobel Peace Prize."

President Obama and his advisers have drawn their own conclusions about the need for vigorous presidential leadership. "It's only through engagement that you can bring about progress," says senior White House adviser David Axelrod in discussing the Berlin Wall episode. "The one lesson we've learned is that when we're disengaged, the problems of the world fester; the world becomes more dangerous. When we engage and when we build alliances and take an aggressive posture on solving problems, we do exponentially better."

Axelrod also says, "I think temperamentally there's something about Obama and Reagan. First of all, they both had a real appreciation and respect for the presidency. I think the fact is that people want their president to be connected, and they also want the presidency to be an elevated platform. And I think both Reagan and Obama had the ability to contest vigorously around ideas without vilifying their opponents. I know Reagan had a stiletto wit at times, but the truth is that he forged good relationships that transcended politics but also made progress."