Pursuing Freedom and Democracy: Lessons from the Fall of the Berlin Wall

Report Global Politics

Pursuing Freedom and Democracy: Lessons from the Fall of the Berlin Wall

August 12, 2016 28 min read Download Report

Authors: Lee Edwards, Ph.D., George Weigel and Alan Kors


The Cold War was the most protracted and unconventional conflict of the 20th century. World War I and World War II were great sweeping wars that shaped our history and our world, but they didn’t match the length or the complexity of the ideological and strategic struggle that occupied superpowers and lesser powers on every continent for more than four decades. At stake was whether the post-World War II world would be dominated by the forces of totalitarianism, led by the Soviet Union, or inspired by the principles of economic and political freedom embodied in the United States.

If the expansionist ambitions of the Soviet Union had not been contained, much of Western Europe might have become Communist—or at least pro-Communist. That would have isolated the U.S. strategically and economically. Considering that China was also under Communist rule, the U.S. would’ve faced powerful unfriendly regimes to the east and to the west.

How, then, did America and the West come to win the Cold War? What were the forces—military, economic, religious, and cultural—that lifted up the free world and brought down the evil empire? And what are the lessons to be learned and applied to today’s no less conflicted world?

Before introducing our distinguished panel, I want to remind everybody that this coming Tuesday is Veterans Day. We wouldn’t be marking the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall if not for the bravery and sacrifice of our veterans over the decades.

You may have noticed coming into the auditorium copies of a book, Architects of Victory: Six Heroes of the Cold War by the late Joseph Shattan. Joe was a brilliant writer, a witty colleague, and an insightful student of world affairs. He often remarked that “leadership is crucial in the conduct of human affairs,” and it is the leadership of Ronald Reagan, Winston Churchill, John Paul II, Harry Truman, Konrad Adenauer, and Alexander Solzhenitsyn that is the subject of his book. We miss him and his love of life every day. I would also like to mention that tomorrow the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation will post on its Web site victimsofcommunism.org an original mini-documentary film commemorating the fall of the Berlin Wall, and we encourage you to view it.

Edwin Meese III was the 75th attorney general of the United States and Counselor to President Reagan from 1981 to 1985, when the President made several of his most important foreign policy decisions and instituted what came to be called “the Reagan Doctrine.” A key component of the doctrine was the Strategic Defense Initiative. We know from Soviet archives and memoirs that SDI was the weapon the Soviets admitted they could not duplicate and that persuaded them to abandon the arms race, ending the Cold War at the bargaining table and not on the battlefield. General Meese is the Ronald Reagan Distinguished Fellow Emeritus here at The Heritage Foundation.

George Weigel, the Distinguished Senior Fellow and Chairman of Catholic Studies at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, is the author of the definitive biography of John Paul II, Witness to Hope, and a companion volume, The End and the Beginning: Pope John Paul II—The Victory of Freedom, the Last Years, the Legacy. Recipient of many awards here and abroad, including the Papal Cross, Mr. Weigel has published widely on U.S. foreign policy and religious liberty, including the work The Final Revolution: The Resistance Church and the Collapse of Communism.

Alan Kors is the Henry Charles Lee Professor of History at the University of Pennsylvania and a leading expert on the intellectual history of the 17th and 18th centuries, as well as the most deadly “ism” of the 20th century—Communism. Professor Kors was awarded the National Humanities Medal by President George W. Bush and is a Bradley Prize recipient. He co-founded and served as chairman of the Foundation for Individual Rights and Education (FIRE), which defends the free speech rights of all students—Left, Right, and Center—but especially Right. He is a member of the National Advisory Board of the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation.

Following their remarks, I’ll have a few things to say about the lessons to be learned from the Cold War.

—Lee Edwards, PhD

Reagan’s Role in the Fall of the Berlin Wall

It’s a pleasure for me to be here and join my colleagues in commemorating the fall of the Berlin Wall. My role is talking about what Ronald Reagan did to contribute to that great event. The Cold War was one of what I would call the four most significant phenomena of the 21st century. Dr. Edwards mentioned a couple of the others—World War I and World War II—and I would add to that the Great Depression. But World War II was particularly significant because it led to the subject of our discussion, the Cold War.

Two specific things came out of World War II that are of special note to us today. One was the creation of the United Nations for which, unlike the League of Nations after World War I, there was great hope that people had at last learned the causes that led, at least in part, to war. People felt that the United Nations was the way by which to prevent wars in the future. Well, as we all know from history, that didn’t happen.

The other thing that emerged after the war was the creation, essentially, of two superpowers: the United States and the Soviet Union. Unfortunately, because of what happened at Yalta and with the acquiescence of the United States and the other great powers, there occurred a division of Eastern and Central Europe. The region was divided into two spheres of influence—one led by the United States and the forces of freedom—the other dominated by the Soviet Union and the forces of totalitarianism. That led in turn, in the summer of 1961, to the erection of the Berlin Wall, which stood as the symbol of the division of power between the two superpowers and the forces they represented for nearly three decades.

The Communist Attempt to Take Over Hollywood. Ronald Reagan played a key role in bringing down the Berlin Wall and affecting the collapse of Communism in Eastern and Central Europe. Actually, his interest in Communism began even before the Cold War started in the 1940s. As president of the Screen Actors Guild, he was in the position of seeing domestic Communism attempt to take over the movie industry so that they could utilize it for Communist propaganda. They attempted to do it by taking over the various unions that made up the production side of the movie industry, such as the stage managers, the cameramen, and so on.

Ronald Reagan led his fellow union presidents and in effect expelled the Communists during bitter days of strikes, bitter days of vandalism, bitter days of attacks on individuals. He himself carried a gun to work during that tense period. Out of it came the end of Communist attempts at domination in the movie industry and also a great personal interest of Reagan in Communism. He determined to find out what it was all about—not only domestic Communism, but international Communism as well. It was the beginning of Ronald Reagan’s lifelong and in-depth study of Communism at home and abroad.

A good friend of his was Lawrence Beilenson, the lawyer of the Screen Actors Guild. Beilenson in 1961 started what was initially a hobby but became a primary preoccupation: the study of U.S. diplomacy, especially as it related to the possibility of nuclear conflict in the world. He wrote three books: The Treaty Trap, Power through Subversion, and Survival and Peace in the Nuclear Age. He gave those books to Ronald Reagan, who read them and then expanded his reading. I would suggest they had a significant impact on the Cold War because they got Ronald Reagan to start researching the subject of nuclear weapons and because they helped to form his own ideas.

Years later, at the 1981 commencement exercises at West Point, President Reagan cited The Treaty Trap and said, “It makes plain that no nation that placed its faith in parchment or paper while at the same time it gave up its protective hardware ever lasted long enough to write many pages in history.”[1] He was profoundly moved and inspired by that book.

The Failure of “Détente.” Continuing his reading about domestic and international Communism, he came to the conclusion in the 1970s that the United States and the West were on the wrong track by agreeing to a policy of what they called “détente” with the Soviet Union. He felt détente was wrong for several reasons. For one thing, the Soviets were cheating. Rather than living side by side peaceably, they were continuing their policy of aggression around the world and their oppression of captive peoples behind the Iron Curtain. Secondly, he believed that détente consigned the nations of Eastern and Central Europe to perpetual captivity behind the Iron Curtain.

That’s why, in 1976, he ran against the incumbent President who was a member of his own party, because he felt that we had to change those policies; that if we continued to follow détente, we would in fact not just be losing the Cold War, we would be consigning all peoples to a Soviet-led and a Soviet-inspired world in perpetuity. And so he developed his own strategy, that perhaps was best expressed in 1977, when he was talking to Dick Allen, who would become his principal foreign policy advisor during the 1980 campaign. Dick asked him, “Governor, what is your idea of how to deal with the Soviet Union?” And Ronald Reagan said, “Well, Dick, it’s simple: we win, they lose.”[2]

It may sound facetious or flippant or simplistic, but his meaning was clear: There is a deeper strategy we ought to be pursuing wherein the ideas of freedom would prevail. He believed that there is no way a power that depended upon the suppression and the oppression of its own people, as well as the people of other countries, can endure forever. He believed that the ideas of freedom would ultimately prevail, provided we adopted the right strategies and the right policies for our leadership of the world.

The Problems of 1980. That is why, beginning with the 1980 campaign, he began to talk about how we should deal with the Soviet Union. When he took office in January of 1981, he faced a wide array of difficult problems. First of all, we had tremendous economic problems. Some of you will remember them and others of you probably heard about them. They were serious and they were widespread.

Perhaps less so have the younger members of our audience heard of the problems in our foreign policy and national security policy. First, we had a military that had deteriorated in the aftermath of the Vietnam War. We were at a low point in military funding as well as in morale and in capability.

Second, it seemed that Soviet aggression was taking place almost everywhere. In 1979, they had marched with impunity into Afghanistan and they were, through their forces around the world, trying to make inroads in Latin America: in El Salvador, for example, and through the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, and in Angola in Africa. They had already captured so many of the Eastern and Central European nations they were now called “the captive nations” behind the Iron Curtain.

Third, there was a crisis of confidence in the world in freedom and in liberty. Many pundits looked at what was happening in Africa, in Europe, in Asia, even in South America, and were predicting that socialism was the wave of the future. Capitalism had peaked. They also talked about a moral equivalency between totalitarianism and freedom, that they were just two different systems of government that could exist side by side.

All of these concepts were rejected by Ronald Reagan, who saw that the things that caused the crisis of confidence had to be overcome as well. And so he implemented a three-prong strategy to deal with the Soviet Union and the three problems I mentioned. First, we had to engage in a military buildup and to gain the support of Congress for vastly improving our military capabilities. This meant dealing with the manpower problems by raising pay and living conditions and raising respect for our military, which had waned during the previous. All of these reforms were necessary and served to build the finest military force in the history of the country and in fact, in the history of the world.

Second, we had to change our policies and follow what became known as the Reagan Doctrine. This essentially embraced three ideas: first, to engage the Soviet Union on a moral basis. In other words, to talk about what was morally wrong with the path they had been following. Second, to stop the aggression taking place. Reagan let it be known through the Soviet ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin that the Western powers would not countenance any further aggression such as had taken place in Afghanistan. Third, to do everything possible to roll back the aggression that had already taken place by supporting freedom fighters in Nicaragua, Angola, Poland, and in other countries where the Soviet Union had made inroads.

The March of Freedom and Democracy. Reagan moved aggressively to restore confidence in the United States and the Western countries in the idea that freedom was ultimately the right of people around the world. He laid out his blueprint for a fundamental change in strategy and policies in a masterful address to the British Parliament in June of 1982. He talked about the “elements of Western policy [that deal] with the Soviet Union as well as to safeguard our interests and protect the peace.”[3] He went on to say, “What I am describing now is a plan and a hope for the long term, the march of freedom and democracy which will leave Marxism Leninism in the ash heap of history.”[4]

That language shocked the striped pants set at the State Department, who protested, “We just don’t say those things.” That might have been true under other Administrations, but we later learned that the President’s words and the new emphasis on freedom restored the hopes of people in the Gulag and in those oppressed behind the Iron Curtain. The Westminster address was the start of the Reagan’s new strategy. Once I happened to be in the British Parliament and they pointed out the room in which Ronald Reagan had given that historic talk some 30 years ago.

Strategic Defense Initiative. What are the milestones that of the Reagan strategy—a strategy shared by Margaret Thatcher and others—and how it was carried out? Well, in October of 1983, he announced a plan to develop the Strategic Defense Initiative, to create a ballistic missile defense that would make nuclear weapons obsolete. Ronald Reagan hated nuclear war. He believed that a nuclear war could never be won and should never be fought. His idea was to build a defense so effective that neither nation could ever prevail through the use of nuclear weapons.

This was particularly significant in dealing with the Soviets because for several years they had been cheating on the anti-ballistic missile treaty. Suddenly they realized that if we went forward with development of SDI, we would be in a position to abandon the treaty legitimately and therefore counter what they were doing illegitimately. The idea that we would now compete with them proved to be significant in making the leaders of the Soviet Union realize by the end of that decade that they could not prevail.

Gorbachev and Reagan. Another key event was Reagan’s first meeting with Gorbachev. There’d been a lot of criticism during the first half of his first term that he had not met with the Soviet leader. Initially he wanted to wait until he could deal with them from a position of strength. That meant building up our military or being on the way to building up our military, so the first year or so he put off any meeting. By the end of 1982, he was prepared to meet with the Soviet General Secretary Brezhnev, but Brezhnev died. Then he was ready to meet with Andropov but he died. Then he was ready to meet with Chernenko but he died. When the reporters asked him in a press conference why he hadn’t met yet with a Soviet leader, he said, “I’m ready to meet, but they keep dying off on me.”[5]

Finally in 1985, he got a live one and met with Mikhail Gorbachev in Geneva. Their meeting took a very different tack than many people anticipated. Reagan was not hostile or in-your-face, but he stood firm on our positions. He said that if Gorbachev, as a more modern leader of the Soviet Union, changed policies, there was a way in which the two nations could live in peace and harmony. It would require the Soviets to change their ways, particularly with regard to the captive peoples.

The next year, 1986, they met at Reykjavik. By that time, Gorbachev had his strategy, to offer giving up their offensive weapons if the United States did the same. The two leaders had almost reached an agreement until the last day, when Gorbachev pulled out the card that he really wanted to play, to persuade Reagan to give up the Strategic Defense Initiative.

The President realized that the Soviets recognized how important SDI was for the West—to be able to prevail in the long run. And he refused to give in. That was one of the deciding points on who would ultimately win the Cold War. By holding firm, President Reagan countered the Soviet attempt to rob us of a critically important strategic weapon.

Another milestone was in 1983, when we installed our intermediate nuclear forces to counter the Soviet weapons that had already been installed in Central Europe. That counter-move led the way in 1987 for Ronald Reagan and Gorbachev to sign a treaty that essentially did away with the intermediate-range nuclear weapons on both sides—the first time that a whole class of nuclear weapons were removed. It was a critical step toward ending the Cold War, even though it was not billed as such at the time.

“Tear Down This Wall.” All through the 1980s, Ronald Reagan, along with such leaders of the free world as Margaret Thatcher and Pope John Paul II, combined their military, cultural, political, diplomatic, and economic forces to counter the Soviet Union and seek the restoration of freedom throughout the world.

I would suggest to you that the efforts of Ronald Reagan and the other leaders of the free world were best symbolized by the President’s speech at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin on the 12th of June, 1987. He gave his prescription to end the Cold War, saying, “There is one sign the Soviets can make that would be unmistakably something that would advance dramatically the cause of freedom and peace. General Secretary Gorbachev”—and many of you will remember these words—“if you seek peace, if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and for Eastern Europe, if you seek liberalization, come here to this gate.”[6] And that’s when he added these famous words: “Mr. Gorbachev, open the gate. Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.”[7] These words became a catchphrase for the world. On the 9th of November, 1989, the wall came down, and the rest is history.

—Edwin Meese III is Ronald Reagan Distinguished Fellow Emeritus in the Edwin Meese III Center for Legal and Judicial Studies of The Heritage Foundation.

The Catastrophe of Communism: History’s Unlearned Lesson

It was 25 years ago, but it feels like yesterday. When seeing the images of the fall of the Berlin Wall, I cried with joy, took out my best bottle of French wine, left the television on, and listened to Beethoven’s Ninth over and over and over. If you didn’t live through it, know that there was nothing like it. What we need to be reminded of, however, are the stakes and what didn’t happen in the wake of the fall.

Communism’s Victims. In addition to the tyranny, the torture, and the assault upon the human spirit, the slaughtered victims of Communism were not the thousands of the Inquisition, not the thousands of Americans lynched, not even the six million dead from Nazi extermination. The best scholarship yields numbers that the soul must try to comprehend: scores and scores and scores of millions of individual human bodies, which is what makes the work of Lee Edwards in keeping alive in our minds the victims of Communism so morally essential, so morally vital.

Alexander Yakovlev, Gorbachev’s right hand man, who examined the archives for the last Soviet leader and who came away a deeply changed and heroic man, let us know that 60 million were slain in the Soviet Union alone. The Chinese author Jung Chang, who had access to scores of Mao Zedong’s collaborators and to the detailed Russian and local archives, reached the figure of 70 million Chinese lives snuffed out by Mao’s deliberate choices. If we count those dead of starvation from the Communist ability and desire to experiment with human interaction in agriculture—20 million to 40 million in three years—we may add scores of millions more.

The Communist Khmer Rouge under Pol Pot, who was educated in France and taught his politics by French Communist intellectuals, butchered one-fifth to one-fourth of the entire Cambodian population. That would be as if an American regime had murdered some 50 to 70 million of its people. In each and every Communist regime, countless people were shot and died by deliberate exposure, starved and murdered in work camps and prisons meant to extract every last fiber of labor before they die. No cause ever in the history of all mankind has produced more slaughtered innocents and more orphans than Communism. It was a system of production that surpassed all others in turning out the dead.

The Breathtaking Lack of an Historical Accounting. What should one have expected after the fall of the Berlin wall? What didn’t occur? Where were the celebrations and the accountings? Where was the recognition of the ineffable value of a truly limited government? Our schools, universities and media do not teach our children any differently now about the human consequences of liberty, of voluntary economic societies, and of limited government in the real world. Our children do not know in any domain what happened under Communism. Those who depend on our media and our films do not know. We live without self-belief and without in any moral understanding of the extraordinary place of America, of its values, of its liberty, and of those leaders who won the Cold War for the dignity and the benefit of humankind.

What might a sane and moral individual have expected? An anti-Communist epiphany, a festival of celebration, a flowering of comparative scholarship, a full accounting of the Communist reality—political, economic, moral, ecological, social and cultural—a revision of curriculum, a recognition of the ineffable value of those ideals for which we paid the fullest price? Where did any of this occur? Imagine if World War II had ended in a stalemate with a European Nazi empire from the Urals to the English Channel soon to be armed with nuclear weapons and in mortal contest with the United States in a peace kept only by deterrence. Would progressive children have sung, “All we are saying is give peace a chance” beneath symbols of unilateral disarmament? Would our intellectuals have mocked the phrase “evil empire”? What were the differences? Deaths? Camps? The desolation of the flesh and of the spirit?

Solzhenitsyn had it exactly right about the Soviets, “No other regime on earth could compare with it either in the number of those it had done to death, in heartiness, in the range of its ambitions, in its thoroughgoing and unmitigated totalitarianism—no, not even the regime of its pupil, Hitler.”[8] What would the celebration have been like if after two generations the swastika at last had fallen in place of the hammer and the sickle? After all that we know, do our historians today teach their students any differently about the human consequences of free markets and the rule of law in a world of comparative phenomena? How breathtaking that we do not have an intellectual, moral and, above all, historical accounting of who was right and who was wrong, and why, in their analyses of Communism.

We live in an era of appalling bad faith. “You put private property ahead of people” remains a powerful anathema, as if in the light of all those lessons, private property were not absolutely essential to the well-being, dignity, liberty, and lives of human beings in society, and as if profits were not the measure of the satisfaction of other people’s wants and desires. Indeed, it is precisely to avoid the revitalization of the principles of a voluntary society, limited government, individual responsibility, and liberty that our teachers, professors, information media, and filmmakers ignore the comparative inquiry that our time so urgently demands.

The Scandal of Ignorance. The Communist holocaust, like that of the Nazis, should have brought forth a flowering of Western art, witness, sympathy, and an ocean of tears, and then a celebration at its downfall. Instead, it has called forth a glacier of indifference. Kids who in the 1960s hung portraits of Lenin, Mao, and Che Guevara on their college walls—the moral equivalent of having hung portraits of Hitler, Goebbels, or Horst Wessel in one’s dorm—came to teach our children about the moral superiority of their generation. Every historical textbook lingers on the crimes of Nazism—rightly so—seeks their root causes, draws a lesson from them, and everybody knows the number six million.

By contrast, the same textbooks remain silent about the catastrophe of Communism, everywhere it held or holds power. Ask any college freshman—try it if you don’t believe me—how many died under Stalin’s regime and they will answer even now, “Thousands? Tens of thousands?” It is the equivalent of believing that Hitler killed hundreds of Jews.

The scandal of such ignorance derives from an intellectual culture’s willful blindness to the catastrophe of its relative sympathies. Most of Europe has outlawed the neo-Nazis, but the French Communist Party from 1999 to 2002 was part of a ruling government. One may not fly the swastika, but one may hoist the hammer and sickle at official events. The denial of Hitler’s dead or the minimization of the Jewish Holocaust is literally a crime in most of Europe. The denial or minimization of Communist crimes is an intellectual and political art form, and the fast track to a successful academic career. “Anti-fascist” is a term of honor; “anti-Communist” is a term of ridicule and abuse.

Communism’s Apologists. As we meet, the Social Democratic Party and the anti-Euro party in Germany are negotiating to enter into a government in Thuringia that will be ruled by Die Linke, the heirs of the East German Communist Party, because no one remembers and, above all, no one teaches the lessons. For at least a generation, intellectual contempt for liberal society has been at the core of the humanities and the soft social sciences. This has accelerated, not changed, since the fall of the Berlin Wall, and as for the mea culpas, we await them in vain.

When Eisenhower heard that the German residents of a nearby town didn’t know about a death camp whose stench would have reached their nostrils, he marched them, well-dressed—it’s dramatic footage—through the rotting corpses and made them look at and help dispose of the dead. The mayor of Saxe-Gotha and his wife hanged themselves on their return.

We lack Eisenhower’s authority. Milan Kundera stated the moral reality with clarity: “What about those with good intentions?” he asked. “When Oedipus realized that he himself was the cause of their suffering,” he answered, “he put out his eyes and wandered blind away from Thebes—unable to stand the sight of the misfortunes he had wrought by not knowing.”[9] Let the apologists for Communism acknowledge the dead, bury the dead, and atone for the dead; otherwise, let them be forgiven only when they have put out their eyes and wandered blind away from Thebes. And let Western intellectuals learn the words of the poem Requiem, written during the Stalinist terror by Anna Akhmatova, the greatest Russian poet of the 20th century, “I will remember them always and everywhere. I will never forget them no matter what comes.” The bodies demand accounting, apology, and repentance. Without such things, the age of Communism lives. Without such things, there remains a Berlin Wall, of the mind and spirit, that has not fallen.

—Alan Charles Kors is Henry Charles Lea Professor of History in European Intellectual History at the University of Pennsylvania.

John Paul II, Nine Days in June, and the End of the Cold War

European Communism came to a halt on the morning of June 2, 1979, when Pope John Paul II stepped off his plane at Warsaw Airport. That’s an interesting statement from a historian who’s not a Catholic, who has no particular denominational dog in the fight.

Now Professor Gaddis is a sophisticated student of the Cold War, who knows that the end game was a very complicated story. It made a great difference, for example, that Ronald Reagan—not Jimmy Carter or Walter Mondale—was President of the United States in the 1980s, just as it made a great deal of difference that Margaret Thatcher was the prime minister of Great Britain and that Helmut Kohl, not Helmut Schmidt, was the chancellor of West Germany. But if we ask, why did 1989 happen when it did, rather than in 1999 or 2009 or 2019, we admit the inevitability of the collapse of Communism, and why it did (without, in the main, mass violence), then I think Professor Gaddis’s attribution of a key role to Pope John Paul II ought to be taken quite seriously.

The Nine Days. But it’s important to underscore what was unique about the Pope’s unique role. And for that we have to go back to the Nine Days of June 2–10, 1979, days on which the history of the world really pivoted in a more humane direction.

It is instructive to note that during the Nine Days, his first pilgrimage back to his Polish homeland, John Paul II did not speak once—in over fifty sermons, lectures, offhand remarks, meetings with various groups—about politics or economics. Rather, in a virtual infinity of variations on one great theme, he said to the people he knew so well, in a language he spoke so beautifully, “You are not who they say you are. Let me remind you who you really are. And if you own the truth about yourselves, in your identity and the culture that has formed it, you will find new forms of resistance that your current rulers cannot match.”

Resisting the Tyranny of the Possible. This was moral revolution, a revolution of conscience rooted in cultural reclamation, and it resonated through the region because it was entirely congruent with what the human rights resistance in Central and Eastern Europe had been saying since the 1976 Helsinki Final Act, when “Helsinki Watch” groups had sprung up all over Central and Eastern Europe and inside the Soviet Union itself. Those Helsinki groups developed the strategy that Vaclav Havel called “living in the truth,” in forms of cultural resistance whose moral strength could not be bested by merely material power. As Havel put it in that extraordinary essay, “The Power of the Powerless,” the idea was to live as if you were free, to live as if this whole wretched system around you was not compelling you to acquiesce in its falsification of the nature of the human person, of human origins, human destiny, human community.

This business of living in the truth, living as if one were free, produced something that Communism simply couldn’t handle: solidarity, the virtue. Communist social control depended on the fragmentation of society. One great symbol of that was the arrangement of apartment blocks in Nowa Huta, a steel milling town built on the outskirts of Cracow in the late 1940s and early 1950s. In these massive blocks, it was impossible to walk down the long axis of the building, from one apartment to another. If you wanted to visit the neighbor next door, you had to go down five floors, walk outside, go into the next entrance, and come upstairs to see your neighbor. And while this made things easier for the secret police, it also embodied the Communist atomization of society, the systematic destruction of the sinews of civil society.

Living in the truth, living as if one were free rebuilds the sinews of solidarity ands makes possible the reconstruction of civil society. Why? Because it enabled people to live as John Paul II did, in resistance to the tyranny of the possible—the notion that things just are the way they are and there’s nothing you can do about it. President Reagan lived against the tyranny of the possible. John Paul II certainly lived that way, and inspired others to do so.

Idealism without Illusions. By 2016, you’re going to have to be over 40 years old to have any existential sense—of what the Soviet Union was like and what the Cold War was about. And with the international security architecture of the post-Cold War world crumbling, we’re going to have to go back to square one, in the United States, in our thinking about the world. Going back to square one means understanding what my friend Major-Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk, head of the Greek Catholic Church in Ukraine, said to me recently about the drama of his country: “This is not only about us, this is about you.”

America understood that in the Cold War. America hasn’t understood that very well in recent years. The indispensability of American leadership in the world has been demonstrated along a very bloody via negativa of America “leading from behind.” That isolationism, in any of its variant forms, is ultimately dangerous to the United States because it’s dangerous to the world, and that a world without American leadership is a chaotic world has been borne home to us time and again, across the globe.

So in the years ahead, what I hope we take from this anniversary is a sense of purpose embodied in the title of a book I wrote some years ago about U.S. foreign policy after the Cold War: idealism without illusions; idealism in the sense that things don’t have to be the way they are and the tyranny of the possible is always to be resisted; but an idealism tempered by a realistic assessment of human nature and the wickedness of which it is capable, and a realistic calculus of both the possibilities and the limits of American leadership in the world. President Reagan and Pope John Paul II were idealists without illusions. And it’s from their example that we can take encouragement about the future on this 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.

—George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow and William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies at the Ethics & Public Policy Center.

Lessons from the Cold War

How lucky we are in this auditorium to have heard these presentations this morning. They have been extraordinary remarks by extraordinary men, and I am pleased to report that these proceedings are being carried on Voice of America television and being streamed by The Heritage Foundation.

I’m going to presume, and it really is a presumption after these presentations, to say a few words about the lessons to be drawn from the Cold War. The world has changed much since 1945 when the Cold War began and since 1991 when it ended, but as my co-author Elizabeth Spalding and I pointed out in our book, A Brief History of the Cold War, certain things remain true. First of all, ideas matter. Contrary to Machiavelli and his modern-day realpolitik disciples, power is not everything. The philosophical ideas undergirding a regime matter because they guide governments and help us to understand their conduct.

The United States has been shaped by ideas drawn from our founding principles. By contrast, the Soviet regime was shaped by Marxism-Leninism. Russian President Vladimir Putin is not a latter-day Stalin, but his desire for empire and his willingness to use force to achieve political goals reflect his training as a KGB agent during the Soviet era. In Iran, the mullahs who govern are guided by a commitment to Islam that shapes their worldview and influences their conduct on the world stage. In China, the Communist government—and it is a Communist government—struggles to rationalize the contrary demands of economic liberalization and political control. As China’s economy inevitably slows—there are already signs of that–there will be increased pressure for political liberalization.

What else matters? Friends and allies matter. During the Cold War, the United States called upon and led a grand alliance against the Soviet Union, employing economic and strategic instruments such as the Marshall Plan, NATO, the police action in Korea, the Special Relationship with Great Britain, and the Reagan Doctrine. In contrast, the Soviet Union was never able to command allegiance—true allegiance—from the members of the Warsaw Pact or the nationalities and peoples within the Soviet empire. In fact, the Soviet Union was not a true nation, but a conglomeration of captive peoples and nationalities united by the Red Army.

Once Western governments began to encourage the people within the evil empire to stand up, they did so with increasing confidence and success. The Hungarian Revolution of 1956 was crushed by Soviet tanks, but in 1980 the Communist government of Poland could only ban the solidarity trade union for fear of alienating the West.

What else matters? Leadership matters. The history of the Cold War, one can say, is the biography of leaders on both sides of the Iron Curtain. The conflict began under Truman and Stalin and was ended by leaders that included Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, Pope John Paul II, Czech dissident Vaclav Havel, and, one must give him credit, Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev. How so? Gorbachev helped end the Cold War by reluctantly abandoning the Brezhnev doctrine that had propped up the Communist regimes of Eastern Europe for decades. By the mid-1980s, a cash-strapped Soviet Union could no longer afford such a policy. Now, one must add quickly that Gorbachev abandoned that doctrine not to bring about a more liberal and democratic Soviet Union, but a more socialist and successful Soviet Union. And he failed.

The United States enjoyed successes in the Cold War when led by visionaries such as Truman and Reagan, but when American leaders sought to deal with the Communist threat through detainment and détente, they were far less successful.

What else matters? Statecraft matters. Victory over a determined adversary requires not only strength and resolve, but a strategy relevant to the times and the nations involved. Containment was an appropriate strategy at the beginning of the Cold War when the United States was sorting out its domestic and foreign responsibilities, and the Soviet Union was in place and in power in Eastern Europe. Forty years later, the United States could take the offensive against an economically weakened Soviet Union whose Marxist ideology was disintegrating. A successful U.S. foreign policy depends on the exercise of prudence, the virtue extolled by strategists since Sun Tzu. Cold War policies such as the Marshall Plan were prudent; its economic aid helped our World War II allies to get back on their feet, and at the same time created markets for our goods. Less prudent policies, including President Carter’s human rights fixation that resulted in a Marxist Nicaragua, and President Nixon’s détente that allowed the Soviets to surpass us in strategic weapons, were failures.

A grand strategy for U.S. foreign policy should begin with the thesis that the United States should step in only when its vital interests are at stake and it has the capability to act. Those interests, as set forth by my Heritage colleague Kim Holmes and others, are protecting American territory, sea lanes and airports; preventing a major power from controlling Europe, East Asia, or the Persian Gulf; ensuring U.S. access to world resources; expanding free trade throughout the world; protecting Americans against threats to their lives and well-being.

Whether it is clashes with Islamic terrorists or long-term challenges from autocratic Communist China or Russia’s aggressive attempts to expand its sphere of influence, a prudent foreign policy, guided by our founding principles of liberty and justice, and based on our capabilities, offers the best path for the United States. That is a strategy for the ages.

—Lee Edwards, PhD, is Distinguished Fellow in Conservative Thought in the B. Kenneth Simon Center for Principles and Politics, of the Institute for Family, Community, and Opportunity, at The Heritage Foundation.

[1] Ronald Reagan: “Address at Commencement Exercises at the United States Military Academy,” West Point, New York, May 27, 1981, http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=43865 (accessed November 5, 2015).

[2] See Lee Edwards, The Essential Ronald Reagan (Lanham, MD: Rowan & Littlefield Publishers, 2005), p. 77.

[3] President Ronald Reagan, “Address to Members of the British Parliament,” delivered at Westminster Palace, London, England, June 8, 1982, http://www.reagan.utexas.edu/archives/speeches/1982/60882a.htm (accessed November 5, 2015).

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ronald Reagan, An American Life: The Autobiography (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1990), p. 611.

[6] Ronald Reagan, Ronald Reagan, “Remarks on East-West Relations,” delivered at Bradenburg Gate, West Berlin, June 12, 1987, http://millercenter.org/president/speeches/speech-3415 (accessed November 5, 2015).

[7] Ibid.

[8] Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago, 1918–1956: An Experiment in Literary Investigation (New York: Harper Perennial, 2007), p. 342.

[9] Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, trans. Michael Henry Haim (New York: Harper Perennial, 1991), p. 176–77.


Lee Edwards
Lee Edwards, Ph.D.

Distinguished Fellow in Conservative Thought

George Weigel

Distinguished Senior Fellow and William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies

Alan Kors