Today marks the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. The images of the people of Berlin taking sledgehammers to the hated barrier and standing atop the wall celebrating are enduring symbols of freedom’s march. The event marked the beginning of the end of the Soviet Union, which disintegrated two years later, and the victory of liberalism over communism in the Cold War.
The wall’s destruction was the culmination of a long-term national strategy of containment, which had withered before being re-energized by President Reagan. The fall of the wall was hard to conceive when Mr. Reagan took office and the Soviet Union was at the height of its imperial power. The term Cold War already had been retired and replaced with “detente,” and Mr. Reagan’s critics charged that his anti-communist rhetoric was a dangerous throwback to the 1950s. But Mr. Reagan understood that the ideological cleavage at the root of the U.S.-Soviet rivalry had not changed. The Cold War was the original war of ideas. When Mr. Reagan used the term “Evil Empire” in 1983, his detractors laughed at his old-fashioned notions of moral judgment. When he stood at the Brandenburg Gate in 1987 and called on Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev to “tear down this wall,” his critics sighed, “There he goes again.”
Yet Mr. Reagan’s vision of a world without the Soviet empire was soon realized. When the wall came down 10 months after Mr. Reagan left office, his critics were quick to deny that he had had anything to do with it. Credit was given to Mr. Gorbachev or the invention of fax machines or other fanciful notions. The latest theory is that the wall came down because of a muffed press conference by East German Politburo spokesman Gunter Schabowski. It became a liberal conceit to share in the credit, to claim “we were all cold warriors,” even though when the liberals used that term to describe Mr. Reagan, it was a code word for “kook.”
Some have criticized President Obama for not visiting Berlin to commemorate this historic moment, but he made the right choice. When Sen. Barack Obama wanted to speak at the venue during the 2008 presidential campaign, German Chancellor Angela Merkel thought the request “a bit odd.” It still is. Mr. Obama was on the other side of the policy divide during the Reagan years, and if his party had remained in power, we have no doubt the Soviet Union would have lasted longer as a going concern. Mr. Obama should not attempt to associate himself with that historic moment, when a man with vision had the ability to see the future and the courage to realize it.