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Reagan's role in Soviet Union's demise

06/09/04 12:00AM By Barrie Dunsmore
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(Host) Commentator Barrie Dunsmore joins us today with some thoughts about former President Ronald Reagan.

(Dunsmore) After the outpouring of tributes to President Ronald Reagan one could easily conclude that he was the man responsible for bringing down the Berlin Wall and ending the Cold War. With all due respect for the important contributions made by the 40th president, I think that gives him more credit than he deserves.

To suggest that when Mr. Reagan said, "Tear down this wall, Mr. Gorbachev," that the Berlin Wall began to crumble, is like the rooster thinking it's his crowing that makes the sun come up.

The Wall eventually came down for many reasons. Mr. Reagan's policies were a factor, but the five-decade long Cold War was won by the efforts of all American presidents going back to Harry Truman. And the Wall also came down because of the reform policies of then Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev.

The conventional wisdom now seems to be that it was Reagan's hard line toward the Soviet Union, labeling it the "evil empire" and significantly increasing American defense spending, that ultimately brought about its collapse.

Perhaps it's not so much conventional wisdom as the fulsomeness of eulogies. In any case, I believe there were forces that were more important.

Among these forces was the fact that by the 1980's the Soviet Union was already on the verge of collapse after seven decades of political repression and economic stagnation. Also, Mikhail Gorbachev was a Soviet leader like no other. As one who spent a good deal of time in Moscow in the eighties, I watched Gorbachev struggle to change his country by owning up to its repressive past while trying to create a democratic future.

But there was another, rarely noted force - what might be called the Nancy factor. I was very interested to read in Gorbachev's tribute to Reagan his description of Nancy Reagan as "wife and friend, whose role will, I am sure, be duly appreciated." It isn't yet. But I have long held the view that it was Nancy Reagan who brought her husband around to making the arms control deal that made it possible for Gorbachev's to expand the domestic reforms that ended Soviet Communist rule.

Her motives were not necessarily strategic. I heard from White House insiders at the time that Nancy was furious that Gorbachev was becoming the darling of the international news media as a man of peace while Reagan was portrayed as a cold warrior. Nancy was smart enough to realize that this impression could shape her husband's place in history. That much is fact. We can only speculate on what transpired in private conversations between the Reagans. But we do know that the U.S. eventually eased its conditions for a new treaty limiting mid-range nuclear weapons. With that treaty, U.S.-Soviet relations became better than they had ever been. Mr. Reagan even went to Moscow and declared that he did not see Gorbachev's Soviet Union as an evil empire. And the rest, as they say, is history.

This is Barrie Dunsmore.

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