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20th Anniversary of the Fall of the Berlin Wall

As Delivered by Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates, Washington, D.C., Tuesday, November 10, 2009

     Now first, let me take a moment to say that I have just returned from Fort Hood, Texas, where I joined the president in a memorial service for those we lost in a horrific attack last week. I also had a chance to spend time with many of those who were wounded and with the families of the fallen. The president and I are committed to a thorough accounting of what happened, and to seeing that the shooting victims and their families have everything they need to recover from this ordeal.
     So as we gather tonight to celebrate the life- and freedom-affirming events of decades past, we should not forget that America’s military family remains in mourning. And, as we sit here, thousands of troops at Fort Hood, and at military bases across this country, are preparing to say goodbye to their loved ones and deploy to a distant and dangerous battlefield.
     Tomorrow is Veteran’s Day, when we pause to remember the contributions and the sacrifices of all who have worn America’s uniform. And so at this point, I would ask everyone here to pause for a moment of silence – for those so ruthlessly attacked at Fort Hood last week and their families, and out of gratitude to veterans who have served in the defense of their country.
     It is an honor to be in such distinguished company to commemorate the fall of the Berlin Wall, and to reflect on the role of President Ronald Reagan in bringing about the end of the Cold War. There are a number of old friends and colleagues here tonight – faithful public servants all, who – at least for the most part – have shown themselves to be much better at retirement than I have been.
     Those of us fortunate enough to have worked for Ronald Reagan carry with us many fond personal memories – of his kindness, his common decency, and perhaps above all, of his sense of humor. I recall one meeting in the Oval Office in early November 1985. As the Deputy Director for Intelligence at CIA, I was one of the briefers. I was seated next to President Reagan, just a few feet away, in the Oval Office, and I began my presentation on the stresses on the Soviet system and the corresponding opportunities it presented for the upcoming summit. It was a historic inflection point: the first time, I believe, since the Cold War started, that an American president was told by his intelligence service that the survival of our superpower adversary was in doubt in a foreseeable future.
     Well, a minute or two into my briefing, a high-pitched screech came out of the president’s ear – a high-pitched noise – and if I could hear it, I knew how painful it must be for him. His eyes got wide. He reached up and adjusted his hearing aid in his left ear. I resumed talking. A couple of minutes later, the screeching noise started again. The president, with some disgust, reached up, plucked the hearing aid out of his left ear, pounded it in his palm, and as he was putting it back in his ear, leaned over to me and whispered, “It’s my KGB handler trying to reach me.”
     This was a briefing President Reagan received before his first meeting with Mikhail Gorbachev at the 1985 Geneva Summit. At the time, a number of people – in and out of the administration – were advising that the president’s goal for the summit should be to just get by – to do what was necessary to survive the encounter with the younger and allegedly craftier Soviet leader. 
     Well, we all remember how things turned out. After Geneva, Reagan and Gorbachev surely did not become best friends, but they at least became the best of adversaries and, between them, set in motion developments that would ultimately lead to the events we commemorate this evening.
     And at this point, let me thank the Reagan Library for bringing this exhibit to the Library of Congress. It is a window into a subject I want to discuss with you tonight: how President Reagan, through his sound instincts, his firm decisions, and his inspiring words, made and seized opportunities and in so doing helped bring the epic struggle between two nuclear-armed superpowers to a peaceful and – at least from our point of view and history’s – successful end.
     Ronald Reagan was, of course, the ultimate Cold Warrior. As president, his first priority was to restore America’s military strength, given that nearly 15 years of Soviet modernization and cuts in our defense spending had narrowed, and in some areas erased, America’s strategic edge over the USSR. A broad U.S. defense build-up began early in the Reagan administration, with more advanced planes, and ships, and submarines, and combat vehicles, and nuclear weapons added to the American military arsenal. Including a bold initiative to begin developing a missile-defense system designed to render those destructive weapons obsolete. With the strong and courageous support of our NATO allies, intermediate-range missiles were put in Europe to counter the earlier deployment of Soviet SS-20 missiles.
     President Reagan would use force when necessary. Many remember the 1986 Gulf of Sidra incident with Libya, but actually the world – and Libya – discovered there was a new sheriff in town as early as August 19th, 1981. Libya had extended its claimed territorial waters by 12 miles to what Qaddafi called the “line of death.” And so it would be.  President Reagan sent in the USS Forrestal and the USS Nimitz to assure U.S. freedom of navigation. Two Libyan fighters came out to challenge them. Big mistake. Under Ronald Reagan’s new rules of engagement, two F-14 Tomcats, without hesitation, splashed the two Libyan fighters.
     This willingness to use American power was a lesson that others would learn as well. But President Reagan was circumspect about putting – or keeping – American troops and America’s credibility at risk without a clear mission or strong odds of success. Rather than provoke a direct, and potentially catastrophic, military confrontation with the USSR, President Reagan's approach was to impose ever stiffer costs on the Soviet Union for its Third World adventurism. Reagan expanded the “Containment” playbook far beyond Europe and took the fight to the enemy world-wide. From Afghanistan to Cambodia, Nicaragua, Angola, Ethiopia and elsewhere, Soviet surrogates now faced their own lethal insurgencies.
     And, as we all remember, his stirring words and his administration’s actions, both overt and covert, gave hope to dissidents and millions of others trapped behind the Iron Curtain. While countering the Soviets – with varying degrees of fervor and success – 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 a sense of urgency.
     One small but telling anecdote: Early in the Reagan administration, Jimmy Carter’s National Security Advisor, Zbigniew Brzezinski, continued to stay in touch with CIA director Bill Casey about Poland – a cause and a country dear to Brzezinski’s heart, and to the heart of the new Pope, John Paul the Second. In one conversation at a cocktail party, Zbig complained to Casey that funding for one of his favorite Polish covert actions had been reduced. Casey asked how much it would take to remedy the problem. Zbig said about $18,000. The next day, a man showed up in Brzezinski’s office, unannounced and unidentified, and handed him a briefcase containing $18,000 in cash. Brzezinski, more than a little nonplussed, nevertheless passed it to a Polish visitor on his way home – where it was put to good use.
     The sum total of these measures large and small communicated loud and clear, at home and abroad, that post-Vietnam, post-malaise, America was back – strong and resolute. As for the Soviets, President Reagan – nearly alone – had the bedrock conviction that their rotting system was vulnerable and could be brought down. Not as some vague, sweep-of-history eventuality – but something he could see in his lifetime.
     How best to take advantage of this vulnerability? President Reagan understood that erasing the impression of U.S. political and military weakness would ultimately reap diplomatic rewards and strategic breakthroughs. He embraced the importance of military strength, and speaking blunt truths about the Soviet system and Soviet behavior.  Remember the “Evil Empire” speech in 1983? Drove Moscow nuts. No one spoke these truths with more credibility or more eloquence. But President Reagan also had the insight, the sense of the historical moment, to know when it was time to sheathe the sword, soften the tone, and re-engage, even with our most implacable and dangerous enemy.
     Reagan knew this early on, even during the most tense days of the first term. In August 1984, following what was arguably the most dangerous 18 months of the Cold War since the Cuban Missile Crisis, we witnessed him weighing Secretary of State Shultz’s information that Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko might be interested in a meeting with the president during the UN General Assembly. All such meetings had been suspended after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. President Reagan responded that he wanted to see Gromyko. Secretary Schultz makes clear in his memoirs that this was the president’s choice, and his alone; that Secretary Schultz had not even made a recommendation. We can now see that this small gesture was the beginning of a turning point.
     Reagan was often accused by liberal critics of shunning engagement with the USSR. Reagan only half-jokingly responded that it was kind of tough to engage with the Soviet gerontocracy when its leaders kept dying on him. After all, three of his counterparts expired within three years between 1982 and 1985. But finally, in March 1985, Mikhail Gorbachev came to power and Reagan had somebody to deal with. In Gorbachev’s first months there were a series of offers, proposals, and promises to make reforms at home while reducing the threat of confrontation abroad. It was not that Gorbachev was to be seized upon as some sort of savior. But rather, from the standpoint of presidential leadership, the challenge – and the historic opportunity – was to make the most of what Gorbachev claimed to be offering.
     And even in the midst of glasnost, and START, and reduced superpower tensions, President Reagan again and again would return to words strong and true – making them, as Margaret Thatcher said, “fight like soldiers” – to give the Soviet leader and the system he was trying to save a final push into history’s dustbin.
     Which brings us to Berlin, and its scar upon European civilization: the wall that, as of June 12th, 1987, had divided that city and its people for nearly 26 years. President Reagan stood at the Brandenburg Gate that day and – against the advice of many in his government – uttered those famous six words: “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.” Those six words not only rebuked the dictators of the Warsaw Pact; they voiced a fundamental truth. That freedom was a worthier path. That those who were hemmed in by the Wall, those who thirsted for political, economic, and religious freedom in East Germany and in the other captive nations, would eventually stand up, demand it, and attain it.
     President Reagan also said in that Berlin speech that the United States would pursue arms-reduction treaties with the Soviet Union even as we retained the ability, through force of arms, to deter acts of aggression. He made clear that we did not value ICBMs, tanks, or warships in and of themselves. They were all negotiable. No, the West’s differences with the East – the democracies’ dispute with communism – was, he said, “not about weapons but about liberty.” The Cold War was a struggle of ideas and economic systems, and he insisted that this not be forgotten.
     Nor was the exclamation about the Wall a total surprise. Other U.S. officials at various times and in various ways had called for its removal. One interesting historical footnote, highlighted by the historian James Mann: President Reagan’s Berlin speech outraged Erich Honecker – the East German dictator – in that he, Honecker, was not even mentioned. Like any insecure bureaucrat, he felt slighted and out of the loop. President Reagan had gone over his head to Gorbachev, thus calling attention to the fact that the Honecker government’s power was founded not on the consent of the East German people, but on the writ and the whim – and the guns – of its Soviet overlord.
     All told, President Reagan’s statecraft was a subtle two-step: to push and prod for reform, democratic and economic, while being willing to parlay with his Soviet counterpart, and eventually agree to deep cuts in the U.S. nuclear arsenal. Often he was a number of steps ahead of his critics on both the left and right, some of whom could not make sense of the combination. But I believe Ronald Reagan was far more shrewd and in control of events than either his critics or many of his supporters thought.
     Six months after the Berlin speech, President Reagan sat down with General Secretary Gorbachev and signed the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty, which abolished, for the first time, the use of all intermediate and shorter-range missiles by the two countries. And two years later, the Wall that I never imagined would come down in my lifetime was finally breached.
     On November 9th, 1989, I was working in the White House as deputy national security adviser. No one who watched on television will ever forget the images of East and West Germans that night dancing on top of the Wall, hacking away bits of it for keepsakes, and finally taking down whole sections with construction equipment. The next day, President Bush spoke with West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl by telephone. I was the note-taker on the call. Chancellor Kohl told President Bush that it was like “witnessing an enormous fair” with “the atmosphere of a festival.” There were hundreds of thousands of people in the street, he said – and no violence. 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.
     Today, almost 20 years later, 20 years after the Wall fell, we marvel at the different world we live in. It is still a dangerous place, to be sure. In many ways geopolitics are much more complex than when two nuclear-armed superpowers taunted and tested each other. But communism’s demise holds lessons for us even now. They include the enduring value and the broad appeal of freedom – political, economic, 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.
     And this gives us reassurance, as each new generation always, at some point, is called upon to make that stand. It is a sad reality that in our time and in the future, as through all of recorded history, there will be those who seek through violence and crime to dominate and intimidate others. We saw this on 9/11. We see it today in Afghanistan, where more perseverance, more sacrifice, and more patience will be required to prevent the terrorists who attacked us from doing so again. We see it anywhere nations, movements, or strongmen are tempted to believe that the United States of America does not have the will or the means to stand by our friends, to meet our commitments, and to defend our way of life. As President Reagan said just over a quarter century ago: “It's up to us, in our time, to choose and choose wisely between the hard but necessary task of preserving peace and freedom and the temptation to ignore our duty and blindly hope for the best.”
     I close with a quote from Anatole France, who wrote: “To accomplish great things, we must not only act, but also dream; not only plan, but also believe.” President Reagan was a great president who acted and planned, but most importantly, he dreamed, and he believed. And he truly accomplished great things.
     This evening, as those of us fortunate enough to have known and served Ronald Reagan gather on this historic anniversary, let us be thankful for this great and gentle man, the country he inspired to believe in itself again, and the people and the nations he freed.
     Thank you.

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