Reagan’s “Tear Down This Wall” Myth
Written by Robert Parry
As the United States celebrates Ronald Reagan’s centennial birthday, the defining proof of his greatness as president will be represented by two sequential film clips – Reagan in Berlin ordering Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev to “tear down this wall,” followed by scenes of the Berlin Wall coming down.
The intended impression of this editing technique is to suggest a causal relationship: tough-guy Reagan tells the Soviet leader to do something and, poof, it’s done. Ronald Reagan “wins the Cold War.”
While this video sophistry has worked wonders with the American public – and has been used frequently by U.S. networks, including in a 2007 PBS documentary by neoconservative Richard Perle – the reality is that the two events, Reagan’s speech and the Wall’s destruction, had little to do with one another.
Reagan made his speech on June 12, 1987, and the dismantling of the Berlin Wall did not begin until November 1989, more than two years later. Even then, President Gorbachev didn’t “tear down this wall”; the German people did, starting with sledgehammers and later using industrial equipment, as East and West Germany were reunified.
Nevertheless, the deceptive “tear down this wall” editing has become a hallmark of the Reagan mythology – and given the right-wing media’s power in the United States and the timidity of the mainstream press, few talking heads are likely to object when the clips are shown again as Reagan’s birthday rolls around on Feb. 6. Nor will any politician, Republican or Democrat, complain.
Careerists in Washington know that the better part of valor is to play along with the Reagan myths. After all, for the past two decades, the conventional wisdom has been to give Reagan credit for “winning the Cold War.” So why rock the boat now?
But the truth is far more complex and much less favorable to Reagan’s historical legacy. It would be more accurate to say that Reagan extended or even re-ignited the Cold War at the cost of well over $1 trillion in additional U.S. military spending, while he also implicated the United States in human rights atrocities that badly damaged America’s reputation around the world.
Clearly, the course of history might have been very different – and possibly far more peaceful – if Reagan had not emerged as an attractive political figure on the national stage in the 1970s and 1980s. He provided an amiable face to cover years of human horror and budgetary madness.
The Dream of Détente
In the early-to-mid-1970s, the mainstream political consensus was that the Cold War was winding down as President Richard Nixon promoted an era of détente. Washington and Moscow – both weary from their long competition – were looking for ways to ease tensions, especially on nuclear arms.
At that point, Reagan began his rise to national power, fueled by a right-wing contention that supporters of détente were wrong about the Soviet interest in accommodations with the West. The Right’s view was that Moscow was only lulling Washington to sleep before a final push for global conquest.
It also became an article faith on the Right – and among a new group, called the neoconservatives – that CIA analysts were willfully underestimating Soviet strength and overstating Moscow’s vulnerabilities.
So, in 1976, as Reagan was scaring President Gerald Ford by making a strong bid for the Republican nomination, Ford banished the word “détente” from his administration’s lexicon and allowed a group of Cold War hardliners (and some early neocons, such as Paul Wolfowitz) to conduct an unprecedented challenge to the assessment of the CIA’s famed Kremlinologists.
The idea of this right-wing counter-analysis, known as “Team B,” had been opposed by the previous CIA director, William Colby, as in inappropriate intrusion into the integrity of the CIA’s analytical product. But Ford’s new CIA director, a politically ambitious George H.W. Bush, was ready to acquiesce to the right-wing pressure.
“Although his top analysts argued against such an undertaking, Bush checked with the White House, obtained an O.K., and by May 26  signed off on the experiment with the notation, ‘Let her fly!!,” wrote Anne Hessing Cahn after reviewing declassified documents on the “Team B” experiment. [See “Team B: The Trillion Dollar Experiment,” The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.]
Although the CIA’s raw data did not support the right-wing alarmist suspicions anymore than the polished analysis did, Team B still went with a worst-case scenario of Soviet power and intentions. Team B simply concluded that the absence of evidence about suspected Soviet super-weapons simply meant the Soviets were well-skilled at hiding the weapons from U.S. detection.
In other words, the absence of evidence became not only evidence that the Soviet weapons existed but that U.S. intelligence was too incompetent to find them. (Years later, it would become clear that the exotic weapons never existed, though the same tactic would be used by Wolfowitz and other hardliners in 2002-03 to sell the public on Iraq’s non-existent WMD caches.)
Looking back, Team B’s analysis of the Soviet Union as a rising power on the verge of overwhelming the United States is recognized by intelligence professionals and many historians as a ludicrous fantasy. Still, it distorted the national security debate in the late 1970s and drove Reagan’s ascension to the top of the U.S. political system.
American right-wingers and neocons wielded the analysis like a club to bludgeon more moderate Republicans and Democrats who saw a declining Soviet threat. Team B also set the stage for a full-scale assault on the CIA’s analytical division after Reagan won the presidency in 1980.
Purging the Analysts
As Reagan and his vice presidential running mate, George H.W. Bush, prepared to take office, right-wing hardliners wrote Reagan’s transition team report on the intelligence community, suggesting that the CIA analytical division was not simply obtuse in its supposed failure to perceive the worsening Soviet threat, but treasonous.
“These failures are of such enormity,” the transition team report said, “that they cannot help but suggest to any objective observer that the agency itself is compromised to an unprecedented extent and that its paralysis is attributable to causes more sinister than incompetence.” [See Mark Perry’s Eclipse.]
Even CIA official Robert Gates, an anti-Soviet hardliner himself, recognized the impact that the incoming administration’s hostility had on the CIA analysts.
“That the Reaganites saw their arrival as a hostile takeover was apparent in the most extraordinary transition period of my career,” Gates wrote in his memoirs, From the Shadows. “The reaction inside the Agency to this litany of failure and incompetence” from the transition team “was a mix of resentment and anger, dread and personal insecurity.”
Amid rumors that the transition team wanted to purge several hundred top analysts, career officials feared for their jobs, especially those considered responsible for assessing the Soviet Union.
With Reagan in the White House, Team B’s analysis became the basis for a massive U.S. military buildup. Hundreds of billions of dollars poured in to build weapons to close the supposed U.S. “window of vulnerability.” The imminent danger of Soviet victory also justified U.S. support for brutal right-wing regimes in Central America and elsewhere.
Since Soviets were believed to be rapidly eclipsing the United States, it followed that even peasant uprisings against “death squad” regimes in El Salvador or Guatemala must be part of a larger Soviet strategy of world conquest, an assault on the “soft underbelly” of the U.S. southern border.
Any analysis of these civil wars as primarily local conflicts arising from long-standing social grievances was dismissed as fuzzy thinking or worse.
Nevertheless, early in the Reagan administration, CIA analysts mustered up the courage to challenge poorly supported charges against the Soviet Union, such as blaming Moscow for virtually all acts of international terrorism, including the attempted assassination of Pope John Paul II in 1981.
The CIA Putsch
With William Casey, a fierce Cold Warrior installed as CIA director, the assault on the analytical division began in earnest. Casey put the analytical division under the control of his protégé, Gates, who installed a new bureaucracy within the DI, or Directorate of Intelligence, with his loyalists in key positions.
“The CIA’s objectivity on the Soviet Union ended abruptly in 1981, when Casey became the DCI [director of central intelligence] – and the first one to be a member of the president’s Cabinet,” wrote former CIA senior analyst Melvin A. Goodman. “Gates became Casey’s deputy director for intelligence in 1982 and chaired the National Intelligence Council.” [See Foreign Policy magazine, summer 1997.]
Under Gates, CIA intelligence analysts increasingly found themselves the victims of a bureaucratic pummeling. According to several former CIA analysts whom I interviewed, analysts faced job threats; some were subjected to allegations of psychiatric unfitness; one described having his analytical paper literally thrown in his face.
The Gates leadership team made sure that respectful attention was given to right-wing propaganda from around the world.
For instance, Reagan and his hierarchy wanted the CIA to back media claims pinning European terrorism on the Soviets, but the CIA analysts knew the charges were bogus because they were based on “black” or false propaganda that the CIA’s operations division had been planting in Europe.
The White House saw the attempted assassination of Pope John Paul II in 1981 as another opportunity to make propaganda points against what Reagan called the “Evil Empire.”
Though the attack had been carried out by a neo-fascist extremist from Turkey, right-wing U.S. writers and journalists began to promote allegations of a secret role by the Soviet KGB. In this case, CIA analysts knew the charges were false because of the CIA’s penetration of East Bloc intelligence services.
But responding to persistent White House pressure in 1985, Gates closeted a special team to push through an administration-desired paper linking the KGB to the attack. Though many analysts opposed what they believed to be a dishonest intelligence report, they couldn’t stop the paper from leaving CIA and being circulated around Washington.
Reagan’s politicizing of intelligence had other consequences, such as blinding the U.S. government to emerging national security threats.
For instance, CIA analysts learned that Pakistan was violating nuclear proliferation safeguards with the goal of building an atomic bomb. However, at the time, Pakistan was assisting the Reagan administration’s anti-Soviet insurgency in Afghanistan, so the analysts on Pakistan were pressured to back off their assessment.
Yet, a dire consequence of giving Pakistan a pass on proliferation was that Pakistan did succeed in developing nuclear weapons, which have contributed to an escalating arms race with India in South Asia. It also has created the potential for Islamic extremists to gain control of the Bomb by taking power in Pakistan. [See Robert Parry’s Secrecy & Privilege.]
Missing the Collapse
Under pressure to exaggerate the Soviet threat, analysts had no incentive to point out what was becoming more obvious – that the Soviet Union was a decaying, corrupt and inefficient regime tottering on the brink of collapse. To justify soaring military budgets and interventions in Third World conflicts, the Reagan administration always needed the Soviets to be 10 feet tall.
Ultimately, this systematic distortion of the CIA’s Soviet assessments turned out to be a political win-win for Reagan and his supporters. Not only did Congress appropriate hundreds of billions of dollars for military projects favored by the Right, the U.S. news media largely gave Reagan the credit when the Soviet Union “suddenly” collapsed in 1991.
The neocons also had the satisfaction of seeing their old nemesis, the CIA’s analytical division, take another hit in the news media – for having “missed” the Soviet collapse.
The truth, of course, was that honest CIA analysts had been silenced in their efforts to do their job, which in this case was to tell Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush something they didn’t want to hear, i.e. that the Soviet bogeyman wasn’t the terrifying threat that the White House was selling to the American people.
Yet, with the bravest analysts sidelined, the CIA failed to do its job. But it wasn’t as much a CIA “failure” as a “victory” for politicization. (Some neocons even spun the CIA’s “failure” to detect the Soviet collapse as further proof that the CIA analysts were sympathetic to the Soviet Union and thus were blinded to the weaknesses of the communist system.)
By the early 1990s, one of the Right’s top priorities was to consolidate the idea that Reagan had “won the Cold War,” a recognition that would elevate Reagan and his right-wing policies into an iconic status that would endure for decades.
The campaign hit a bump, however, when Reagan’s “authorized” biographer Roger Morris produced a less-than-flattering portrait of the 40th president in Dutch. Not only did Morris paint a self-absorbed Reagan who lived in a fantasy world of made-up facts, but Morris questioned Reagan’s Cold War role.
Morris gave respectful treatment to the argument that the Russians were driven to perestroika — their restructuring — not by Reagan’s hard-line military strategy but by the technological revolution that was sweeping the rest of the world and by pent-up consumer demands behind the Iron Curtain.
“Since at least the time of Brezhnev, Soviet realists had been aware that the West was computerizing itself at a rate that threatened to advance the millennium, while Russian shopkeepers in central Moscow were still using the abacus,” Morris wrote.
“When one factored in the coefficient that computers improved themselves at a compound rather than a simple rate, the arithmetic grew truly frightening. By the turn of the century, if Soviet sciences continued to lag, Moscow’s world power might prove to have been as transitory as that of Manueline Lisbon.”
In the book, Morris also described a conference that pitted Reagan loyalists who argued that Reagan’s “Star Wars” Strategic Defense Initiative had won the Cold War against academics and diplomats who cited the inept Soviet economy and the allure of Western consumer goods.
“A German historian named Ullmann argued that … the USSR collapsed because of its own economic despair, and would have done so anyway, no matter who was President of the United States,” Morris wrote.
“[A] former American envoy, Arnold A. Saltzman, said he ‘didn’t believe that SDI helped the peace process one minute.’ Computers not ‘imaginary lasers’ had won the Cold War: the Soviets had felt themselves increasingly isolated from the Western technological revolution.
“Gorbachev had personally told him that a generation was growing up there who felt starved of the consumer benefits young Westerners took for granted.”
As heretical as these analyses were to Reagan loyalists — and to much of Official Washington — the observations did not stand alone. Even former State Department official George F. Kennan, whose seminal analysis of the Soviet system in 1947 helped launch the Cold War, objected to the Republican claims of “winning” the Cold War.
In his book, At A Century’s Ending, Kennan wrote that “the suggestion that any American administration had the power to influence decisively the course of a tremendous domestic-political upheaval in another great country on another side of the globe is intrinsically silly and childish.”
Kennan noted that by the late 1940s and the early 1950s, “it was visible to some of us then living in Russia that the Soviet regime was becoming dangerously remote from the concerns and hopes of the Russian people. …
“It was quite clear, even at those early dates, that the Soviet regime as we had known it was not there for all time. We could not know when or how it would be changed. We knew only that the change was inevitable and impending.
“By the time Stalin died, in 1953, even many members of the Communist Party had come to see his dictatorship as grotesque, dangerous, and unnecessary.”
Slowing the Inevitable
In Kennan’s view, the escalation of U.S. military pressure delayed, rather than accelerated, the demise of the Soviet dictatorship.
“The extreme militarization of American discussion and policy, as promoted by hard-line circles in this country over the ensuing 25 years, had the consistent effect of strengthening comparable hard-line elements in the Soviet Union.” Kennan argued.
“The more American political leadership was seen in Moscow as committed to an ultimate military, rather than political, resolution of Soviet-American tensions, the greater was the tendency in Moscow to tighten the controls by both party and police, and the greater the braking effect on all liberalizing tendencies within the regime.
“Thus the general effect of Cold War extremism was to delay rather than hasten the great change that overtook that country at the end of the 1980s.
“What did the greatest damage was … the unnecessarily belligerent and threatening tone in which many of [the U.S. military strategies] were publicly carried forward. For this, both of our great political parties deserve a share of the blame.
“Nobody ‘won’ the Cold War. It was a long and costly political rivalry, fueled on both sides by unreal and exaggerated estimates of the intentions and strength of the other side.”
In other words, in Kennan’s view, Reagan – along with “Team B” and other U.S. hardliners – did more to extend the Cold War than to “win” it.
It also was a tragic by-product of the Reagan narrative on “winning the Cold War” that the argument was used to rationalize some of the most barbaric actions ever committed by the United States and its allies, especially in support of right-wing “death squads” that terrorized the countries of Latin America and other parts of the Third World in the Reagan era.
Without the rationale of fighting the “Evil Empire,” these acts of Nazi-like brutality would have been easily judged as indefensible war crimes, with Reagan and other right-wing American apologists viewed as accomplices.
But none of this ugly reality is likely to find its way into the U.S. news media’s adulation over the late Ronald Reagan’s 100th birthday.
Instead, the American people will get a steady dose of Reagan shouting, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall” – and the Wall magically coming down.
[For more on these topics, see Robert Parry’s Lost History and Secrecy & Privilege, which are now available with Neck Deep, in a three-book set for the discount price of only $29. For details, click here.]
About the author
Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq, can be ordered at secrecyandprivilege.com. It’s also available at Amazon.com, as is his 1999 book, Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & ‘Project Truth.’