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Eisenhower and Reagan

09/16/04 12:00AM By Peter Gilbert
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(Host) Long before Ronald Reagan called for the dismantling of the Berlin Wall, President Eisenhower predicted the demise of the Soviet Union. Commentator Peter Gilbert says he even got the timing about right.


(Gilbert) "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall," President Reagan declared. The wall came down. Now historians and Americans generally debate whether it was cause and effect. Some say that the dramatic fall of the Berlin Wall was Reagan's greatest achievement; others say his greatest legacy was the dramatic rise of America's national debt.

And that's interesting, because President Dwight D. Eisenhower predicted the internal collapse of the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Eisenhower was under enormous pressure to increase military spending - to increase our forces in Europe, build new weapons, and spend billions on civilian air raid shelters. He resisted that pressure - as perhaps only he could have done. After all, it's hard for political opponents to call the former Supreme Allied Commander weak on defense.

In his biography of President Eisenhower, historian Stephen Ambrose describes how time and again, Eisenhower stressed the importance of not over-reacting to the Soviet Union. The President expressed to the Joint Chiefs of Staff "his view that we must address this problem in terms, not of six months, but of forty years." Eisenhower said that in early 1959. Thirty-three years later, in late 1991, the Soviet Union collapsed. Forty years was a pretty good estimate.

Ambrose relates how Eisenhower saw the Soviets' goal to be "to keep America off balance. First, Berlin. Then Iraq. Next Iran. Wherever they could stir up trouble, they would, and (Eisenhower argued) 'they would like us to go frantic every time they stir up difficulties in these areas.' The reason, as Eisenhower explained to the Republican and Democratic leaders, was that - as he claimed anyone who had ever read Lenin knew - 'the Communist objective is to make us spend ourselves into bankruptcy.'"

Eisenhower said that America's long-term policy needed to be "holding the line until the Soviets manage to educate their people. By doing so," he said, "they will sow the seeds of destruction of Communism as a virulent power."

It is now a matter of debate whether the internal collapse of the Soviet Union was a consequence of an educated population, an economic system that couldn't compete with capitalism, the Reagan military buildup that may have left America deeply in debt but actually bankrupted the Soviets, or some combination of these or other factors. What is clear, however, is that under tremendous pressure, Eisenhower was resolute in his faith that freedom would prevail, and that the United States would come out on top - without war.

It's still too early to know, of course, how Reagan's presidency will be viewed by history. But with the passage of time, President Eisenhower's reputation has grown.

This is Peter Gilbert in Montpelier.

Peter Gilbert is executive director of the Vermont Humanities Council. He spoke from our studio in Montpelier.
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