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Dunsmore: The Wall Falls

The fall of the Berlin Wall 25 years ago signaled the end of the Cold War, although it didn’t end officially for more than another year. But that night, as I stood next to Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate, I told ABC’s Ted Koppel and Nightline viewers that with this massive breach of the once-invulnerable wall, the Cold War was effectively over.

This was a monumental event, given that for most of the previous five decades, the world had been perched on the precipice of nuclear annihilation. Yet it would not be too long before American triumphalists would be claiming full credit for winning the Cold War - usually citing the confrontational policies of President Ronald Reagan. In my view, suggesting that when President Reagan said, “Tear down this Wall, Mr. Gorbachev” that the Berlin Wall began to tremble, is like the rooster thinking that it’s his crowing that makes the sun come up.

The Wall eventually came down for many reasons. Yet American neo-conservatives told us repeatedly that it was Reagan’s hard line toward the Soviet Union - calling it the “Evil Empire” and significantly increasing U.S. defense spending - that forced the collapse of Soviet Communism.

Reagan was a factor. But the Cold War would never have ended peacefully, had it not been for Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev. In fact, by the 1980s the Soviet Union was already on the verge of collapse after seven decades of political repression and economic stagnation. As one who spent much of my time in Russia in the 1980s, I watched Gorbachev struggle mightily to change his country by owning up to its repressive past while trying to create a democratic future. He was a Soviet leader like no other.

But there was another rarely noted force that also may have helped to end the Cold War: that other great power in the Reagan White House.

I have sound reasons to believe that it was Nancy Reagan who brought her husband around to accepting the nuclear deal that made it possible for Gorbachev to expand his domestic political reforms which ultimately ended Soviet Communist rule.

Nancy’s motives were not necessarily altruistic. I was told at the time by two different White House insiders that Nancy was furious that Gorbachev had become the darling of the international news media as the man of peace, while her husband was portrayed as the cold warrior. Nancy was very concerned that should it continue, this negative impression would shape her husband’s place in history.

That much is fact. We can only speculate on what Nancy’s persuasive power may have led to.

What we do know is that Reagan did soften his position on limiting medium range nuclear missiles- and with that treaty, U.S.-Soviet relations became better than they had ever been. Reagan even went to Moscow and declared in Red Square that he no longer saw the Soviet Union, as an Evil Empire. And that was even before the Berlin Wall came down.

Barrie Dunsmore is a veteran diplomatic and foreign correspondent for ABC News, now living in Charlotte.
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