Different Contexts for the Berlin Wall, or Where Is Ronald Reagan?

Pieces of the Berlin Wall have been displayed in a variety of settings including a Las Vegas bathroom and the LA strip. These exhibitions, however, don’t seem to mention Ronald Reagan.

| April 2013

In How We Forgot the Cold War: A Historical Journey across America, (University of California Press, 2012), historian Jon Wiener visits Cold War monuments, memorials, and museums across the United States to find out how the era is being remembered. In an engaging travelogue that takes readers to sites such as the life-size recreation of Berlin’s “Checkpoint Charlie” at the Reagan Library and exhibits about “Sgt. Elvis,” America’s most famous Cold War veteran, Wiener discovers that the Cold War isn’t being remembered. It’s been forgotten. Pieces of the Berlin Wall are on display at Microsoft, the Reagan Library, and even a major event on the LA strip. There’s one question, though. Where’s the mention of Ronald Reagan and his role in “tearing down” the Berlin Wall? This excerpt is taken from chapter 1, “Hippie Day at the Reagan Library.” 

When the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum in Simi Valley, California, announced it would hold a “hippie contest” one Saturday, I wondered what it would take to win. Dress in tie-dye and refuse to get a job? Put on bell-bottoms, take LSD, and jump out the window? Grow long hair and give the finger to your country, while decent kids were risking their lives defending freedom thousands of miles away?

The hippie contest was part of a daylong “fun-in” (their term) to celebrate the opening of an exhibit titled “Back to the 60s.” As visitors went through the library gates that morning into the beautiful tree-lined courtyard, we were greeted by a kindly woman giving out free samples of Ding Dongs (a Twinkie-like confection). Frisbees were also being handed out, bearing the motto “Back to the 60s, Ronald Reagan Presidential Library.” Is that really what it was like in the sixties—free frisbees and Ding Dongs for everyone? Handed out by Reagan’s people?

According to conservative ideology, victory in the Cold War was the work of one man above all others: Ronald Reagan. Alone among presidents, he refused to accept the continued existence of the USSR. That is the argument John Gaddis makes in The Cold War, the definitive statement of the conservative interpretation. Reagan famously described the Soviet Union as an “evil empire.” That’s why he sought to “hasten [its] disintegration.”

The story has been told a thousand times. Indeed, if you Google “Reagan won the Cold War,” you get 150,000 results. It was Reagan who stood at the Berlin Wall and proclaimed, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” It was Reagan who funded the mujahadeen to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan, wearing the Red Army down in its own Vietnam-like quagmire. It was Reagan who ordered a massive military buildup, including “Star Wars,” that his supporters claim drove the Soviet Union to bankruptcy. And when the Berlin Wall fell, it was Reagan who got the credit.

Margaret Thatcher put it most bluntly: “Ronald Reagan won the Cold War without firing a shot.” Bob Dole, running for president in 1996, told the Republican National Convention, “Were it not for President Reagan, the Soviet Union would still be standing today.” Dinesh D’Souza summed up the conservative consensus in the National Review when Reagan died: “Reagan won and Gorbachev lost. . . . In the Cold War, Reagan turned out to be our Churchill: it was his vision and leadership that led us to victory.”