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Gates Discusses Reagan’s Role in Fall of Berlin Wall

By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Nov. 11, 2009 – A flexible American strategy based on Ronald Reagan’s inflexible belief in liberty was key to the fall of the Berlin Wall, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said here yesterday.

The secretary spoke at the Library of Congress at a ceremony commemorating the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Wall. The Reagan Library sponsored the event.

And Gates was in a position to know: he served as the deputy director of intelligence at the CIA, and as deputy National Security Advisor under President George H.W. Bush.

When Ronald Reagan took office in 1981, American influence was low: Iran had humiliated the United States in taking hostages at the embassy in Tehran, the country was in what President Jimmy Carter called a malaise and the Soviet Union looked to match or surpass American military might.

Gates called Reagan “the ultimate Cold Warrior.” The new president’s first job was to restore America’s military strength. “A broad U.S. defense build-up began early in the Reagan administration, with more advanced planes, ships, submarines, combat vehicles and nuclear weapons added to America’s arsenal,” Gates said during his speech.

And Reagan wasn’t afraid to use this new American power. Libya challenged American naval might in the Mediterranean Sea with the “Line of Death” at the Gulf of Sidra. In 1981, Reagan sent two aircraft carriers across the line, and Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi sent two fighters to challenge the American ships. \

“Big mistake,” Gates said. Under Ronald Reagan’s new, aggressive rules of engagement, two F-14 Tomcats splashed the two Libyan fighters.”

Reagan extended the strategy of containment of the Soviet Union far beyond the primary theater of Europe. The Soviets found themselves being confronted in Africa, Asia and Central and South America, Gates said.

“While countering the Soviets … had been a common feature of every administration since the end of World War II, under President Reagan this struggle gained new moral energy, purpose and sense of urgency,” Gates said.

Reagan believed that the West would triumph over communism in his lifetime, and through his two terms in office he never lost sight of that, the secretary said. On Jun 12, 1987, Reagan stood at the Brandenburg Gate on the western side of the Berlin Wall and issued a challenge to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.

“Mr. Gobachev, tear down this wall,” Reagan said.

Gates said there were some in Reagan’s own State Department who didn’t want him to say those words, but the president stuck to his guns.

But Reagan was not simply an ideologue. “President Reagan also had the insight, the sense of historical moment, to know when it was time to sheathe the sword, soften the tone and re-engage – even with our most implacable enemy,” Gates said.

Reagan’s meeting with Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko in 1984, was “a turning point,” the secretary said. The president followed this with meeting with new Soviet Leader Gorbachev in 1985. And there were items the two sides could negotiate, Gates said.

“He made it clear that we did not value the ICBMs, tanks, or warships in and of themselves. They were negotiable,” the secretary said. “No, the West’s differences with the East – the democracies’ dispute with communism – was, he said, ‘not about weapons, but about liberty.’”

Reagan never lost sight of the fact that the Cold War was a struggle of ideas and economic systems at it root. There were treaties with the nation Reagan called “the Evil Empire.” Gorbachev and Reagan signed the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty in 1987, banning the use of these missile systems.

When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, Gates was President George H.W. Bush’s deputy national security advisor. He spoke of his wonder at seeing hundreds of thousands of Berliners dancing on the Wall, hacking away pieces of it and knocking down whole sections with bulldozers.

“There were hundreds of thousands of people in the streets and virtually no violence,” Gates said. “Within two years, the other Soviet satellites had broken free as well, and again, largely without violence. The effort to reform communism, as suspected, actually ended up sweeping it away. For its foundation was force and terror and without them, communism could not survive.”

The world changed when the wall fell 20 years ago, and people are still trying to devise strategies that work in a different, but still dangerous world, the secretary said. “In many ways geopolitics are much more complex than when two nuclear-armed superpowers tested each other,” he said.

Still there are lessons to be learned, and first among them is the appeal of freedom – political, economic and spiritual. “And the idea that free men and women of different cultures and countries can, for all the squabbling inherent in democracy, come together to get the big things right, and make the tough decisions to deter aggression and preserve their liberty,” Gates said.

Each generation must make this choice, he said. “It is a sad reality that in our time and in the future … there will be those who seek through violence and crimes to dominate and intimidate others,” Gates said. “We saw this on (/11, and we see it today in Afghanistan, where more perseverance, more sacrifice and more patience is required to prevent the terrorists who attacked us from doing so again.

“We see it anywhere nations, movements or strongmen are tempted to believe the United States does not have the will or the means to stand by our friends, to meet our commitments and to defend our way of life,” he continued.

President Reagan knew this inherently, Gates said. “Ronald Reagan was a great president who acted and planned, but most importantly, who dreamed and believed,” the secretary said. “And he truly accomplished great things.”

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