The Myth That Reagan Ended the Cold War With a Single Speech

The Myth That Reagan Ended the Cold War With a Single Speech

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On June 12, 1987, President Ronald Reagan stood just 100 yards away from the concrete barrier dividing East and West Berlin and uttered some of the most unforgettable words of his presidency: “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.”

By the time Reagan traveled to Berlin, Germany, to commemorate the 750th anniversary of the city’s founding, the Berlin Wall had divided the city in half for nearly 26 years. Built, and officially closed on August 12, 1961, to prevent disaffected East Germans from fleeing the relative deprivations of life in their country for greater freedom and opportunity in the West, the wall was more than just a physical barrier. It also stood as a vivid symbol of the battle between communism and democracy that divided Berlin, Germany and the entire European continent during the Cold War.

Why was the Berlin Wall built?
The wall’s origins traced back to the years after World War II, when the Soviet Union and its Western allies carved Germany into two zones of influence that would become two separate countries, respectively: the German Democratic Republic (East Germany) and the Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany). Located deep within Soviet-controlled East Germany, the capital city of Berlin was also split in two. Over the next decade or so, some 2.5 million East Germans—including many skilled workers, intellectuals and professionals—used the capital as the primary route to flee the country, especially after the border between East and West Germany was officially sealed in 1952.

Seeking to stop this mass exodus, the East German government closed off passage between the two Berlins during the night of August 12, 1961. What began as a barbed wire fence, policed by armed guards, was soon fortified with concrete and guard towers, completely encircling West Berlin and separating Berliners on both sides from their families, jobs and the lives they had known before. Over the next 28 years, thousands of people would risk their lives to escape East Germany over the Berlin Wall, and some 140 were killed in the attempt.

No one watched Reagan’s “Tear Down this Wall” speech.
Despite its later fame, Reagan’s speech received relatively little media coverage, and few accolades, at the time. Western pundits viewed it as misguided idealism on Reagan’s part, while the Soviet news agency Tass called it “openly provocative” and “war-mongering.” And Gorbachev himself told an American audience years later: “[W]e really were not impressed. We knew that Mr. Reagan’s original profession was actor.”

According to the former Reagan speechwriter Peter Robinson, who drafted the speech, even Reagan’s advisers in the State Department and National Security Council strongly objected, claiming that such a direct challenge would damage the relationship with the new Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. The two nations had been moving closer to peace and even disarmament, especially after a productive summit between Reagan and Gorbachev in Reykjavik in October 1986.

Despite this, the Berlin Wall—that heavily fortified symbol of Cold War divisions—seemed as solid as ever.

On June 12, 1987, standing on the West German side of the Berlin Wall, with the iconic Brandenburg Gate at his back, Reagan declared: “General Secretary Gorbachev, if you seek peace, if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, if you seek liberalization, come here to this gate. Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate.” Reagan then waited for the applause to die down before continuing. “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”

Reagan’s tactics were a departure from his three immediate predecessors, Presidents Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter, who all focused on a policy of détente with the Soviet Union, playing down Cold War tensions and trying to foster a peaceful coexistence between the two nations. Reagan dismissed détente as a “one-way street that the Soviet Union has used to pursue its own aims.”

When did the Berlin Wall Fall?
On November 9, 1989, the Cold War officially began to thaw when Günter Schabowski, the head of East Germany’s Communist Party, announced that citizens could now cross into West Germany freely. That night, thousands of East and West Germans headed to the Berlin Wall to celebrate, many armed with hammers, chisels and other tools. Over the next few weeks, the wall would be nearly completely dismantled. After talks over the next year, East and West Germany officially reunited on October 3, 1990.

This was a result of many changes over the course of two years. Gorbachev’s reforms within the Soviet Union gave Eastern Bloc nations more freedom to determine their own government and access to the West. Protests within East Germany gained strength, and after Hungary and Czechoslovakia opened their borders, East Germans began defecting en masse.

The lasting legacy of Reagan’s speech.
The “Tear Down This Wall” speech didn’t mark the end of Reagan’s attempts to work with Gorbachev on improving relations between the two rival nations: He would join the Soviet leader in a series of summit meetings through the end of his presidency in early 1989, even signing a major arms control agreement, the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty.

In the aftermath of the Berlin Wall’s fall, many began to reevaluate Reagan’s earlier speech, viewing it as a harbinger of the changes that were then taking place in Eastern Europe. In the United States, Reagan’s challenge to Gorbachev has been celebrated as a triumphant moment in his foreign policy, and as Time magazine later put it, “the four most famous words of Ronald Reagan’s presidency.”

In the end, Gorbachev’s reforms, and the resulting protest movements that put pressure on the East German government to open barriers to the West, ultimately brought the wall down, not Reagan’s words. As Douglas Brinkley, professor of history at Rice University, told CBS News in 2012, Reagan’s speech is “seen as a turning point in the Cold War” because it “bolstered the morale of the pro-democracy movement in East Germany.” Yet the greatest impact of the speech may have been the role it played in the creation of Reagan’s enduring legacy as president, and in solidifying his legendary status among his supporters as the “great communicator.”

Hugh Brady Conrad

In the end, Gorbachev’s reforms, and the resulting protest movements that put pressure on the East German government to open barriers to the West, ultimately brought the wall down, not Reagan’s words.

Many people today who did not live through the 1960s do not understand the background and danger posed by the Berlin Wall in Germany. It was a barrier that separated the eastern part of the German city from the west. It traces its roots to the decision by Allied forces at the end of World War II to allow the military forces of the Soviet Union to enter Germany while the Allied went south.

Berlin was the site of the most famous speech of the era by President John F. Kennedy in 1962, one in which he vowed to never allow Communist forces to take over Berlin and all of Germany, which had also been divided into East Germany (Communistic) and West Germany (democratic).

In 1989, the wall fell, but it was a long and complicated process. explained how this problem started,

The wall’s origins traced back to the years after World War II, when the Soviet Union and its Western allies carved Germany into two zones of influence that would become two separate countries, respectively: the German Democratic Republic (East Germany) and the Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany). Located deep within Soviet-controlled East Germany, the capital city of Berlin was also split in two. Over the next decade or so, some 2.5 million East Germans—including many skilled workers, intellectuals and professionals—used the capital as the primary route to flee the country, especially after the border between East and West Germany was officially sealed in 1952.

Seeking to stop this mass exodus, the East German government closed off passage between the two Berlins during the night of August 12, 1961. What began as a barbed wire fence, policed by armed guards, was soon fortified with concrete and guard towers, completely encircling West Berlin and separating Berliners on both sides from their families, jobs and the lives they had known before. Over the next 28 years, thousands of people would risk their lives to escape East Germany over the Berlin Wall, and some 140 were killed in the attempt.

However, many events led to the cracks being created in the wall, both literal and figurative. Here are some of them.

Soviets wanted a divided Germany and Berlin to promote communism

As the paragraphs above note, the Soviets controlled the east and the U.S. and Europe supported the freedoms given by the Federal Republic of Germany.

In 2009, historian Charles Meier wrote about his efforts to understand what had happened in Germany during those years. He explained what had happened there,

All states have frontiers. East Germany, aka the German Democratic Republic (GDR), became a frontier that had a state. When the frontier dissolved, the state followed less than a year later.

The Berlin Wall, which was breached 20 years ago on Monday, was only the most notorious segment of that frontier.

On August 13, 1961, after consultation with their Soviet patrons, the GDR authorities laid down 97 miles of barbed wire around West Berlin – an island of western Allied sovereignty and West German constitutional liberty 110 miles within East Germany – to sever it from the Communist-controlled territory that surrounded it.

Twenty-seven miles of the new barrier zig-zagged north to south, along the urban boundary that separated West and East Berlin.

Soon, the rolls of barbed wire were augmented with a high concrete barrier with watchtowers, floodlights, and a no man's land.

Dramatic derring-do enabled a few to scale over, tunnel underneath and even crash through, but 136 East Germans would die trying to cross.

Just as daunting as the Berlin Wall proper was the German-German border to the West. It had been incised in the Fifties as an 860-mile scar of barbed wire, concrete obstacles, watchtowers, and self-triggering weapons. But this frontier had not stopped East Germans from travelling to their capital city and then crossing to the Western sectors, from where they could continue to West Germany by rail or air.

About three and a half million people, many with much-needed skills, had departed the GDR by 1961, hence the decision to seal Berlin.

Speech not responsible for the fall of the wall

As the story above notes, the idea that the president of the United States during the 1980s, Ronald Reagan, brought down the wall with a speech that he gave in 1987 is simply not true.

The speech was generally ignored by everybody when it was given. As Sarah Pruitt wrote,

On June 12, 1987, President Ronald Reagan stood just 100 yards away from the concrete barrier dividing East and West Berlin and uttered some of the most unforgettable words of his presidency: “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall” …

No one watched Reagan’s “Tear Down this Wall” speech.

Despite its later fame, Reagan’s speech received relatively little media coverage, and few accolades, at the time. Western pundits viewed it as misguided idealism on Reagan’s part, while the Soviet news agency Tass called it “openly provocative” and “war-mongering.” And Gorbachev himself told an American audience years later: “[W]e really were not impressed. We knew that Mr. Reagan’s original profession was actor.”

Gorbachev wanted to reform communism, leading to changes for Germany

Glasnost and Perestroika were the programs that Gorbachev started four years prior to the fall of the wall that led to the eventual merger of East and West German and eventually the fall of the Soviet Union,

[T]he Berlin Wall's fall was a moment when Gorbachev's actions, not Reagan's, played a particularly prominent role. The revolts Eastern Europe began in large part because of the Soviet leader's 1985 decision to launch the reforms of glasnost (openness) and perestroika (restructuring). Gorbachev also reneged on the Brezhnev Doctrine, which had asserted that problems within any Warsaw Pact nation were considered "a common problem and concern of all socialist countries" -- in other words, Moscow would intervene in Soviet bloc countries to keep them in line.

In eliminating this mandate, Gorbachev created a climate in places like East Germany much friendlier to revolution. "What we have now is the Sinatra Doctrine," his chief spokesman, Gennady Gerasimov, told the world on Good Morning America. "He has a song: 'I Did it My Way.'" Gorbachev also made clear repeatedly that he wished to see the reform of socialism in Eastern Europe and warned of the consequences of stagnation. Even as hundreds gathered outside East Berlin's Palast der Republik shouting "Gorbi, hilf uns" -- "Gorbi, help us" -- on the 40th anniversary of East Germany in August 1989, East German leader Erich Honecker proclaimed, "Den Sozialismus in seinem Lauf hält weder Ochs noch Esel auf," -- "Neither an ox nor a donkey is able to stop the progress of socialism". But, as Gorbachev put it around the same time, "Life punishes those who come too late."

Believing they had Gorbachev's tacit acquiescence, reform movements that sprung up in Eastern Europe increased pressure on the East German government to open the wall. In May 1989, Hungarian Prime Minister Miklós Németh led an effort to remove the border fence between his country and Austria, which encouraged East Germans to flee through Czechslovakia to Hungary. By September, 60,000 East Germans were camped out by the border crossing, at which time Németh allowed for the total opening of the frontier for these refugees.

Reagan boosters revived the speech

Those who adored Reagan tried to make it sound like he was a major factor in bringing down the Berlin Wall and the Soviet Union. Nothing could be further from the truth.

For example, this is what really is fake news, or fake history,

But Reagan's sometimes-overeager boosters are making some bold claims about the role that both this speech and its deliverer played in the course of world history, another example of the ways that the politics of today are distorting our memory of one of the most complicated conflicts of the 20th century.

It's not surprising that Reagan-boosters are getting a little carried away with his legacy, but the extent of their adoration is getting a little extreme. John Heubusch, Executive Director of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and Library, wrote for Fox News that the states of Eastern Europe "fell to freedom like dominoes" after Reagan's words "pushed the first one over. One cannot ignore how his powerful conviction ended the Cold War by firing a verbal salvo, an oratorical demand to let freedom prevail."

The speech in Berlin was one that attracted only about ten percent of the crowd that had seen JFK’s oratorical masterpiece in 1962.

The truth is that the Truman Doctrine, NATO, and the actions of John F. Kennedy in the Cuban Missile had more to do with the fall of the wall than any theatrics by Reagan.

Vox Popoli

The myth is widespread that President Reagan won the cold war by breaking the Soviet Union financially with an arms race. As one who was involved in Reagan’s effort to end the cold war, I find myself yet again correcting the record.

Reagan never spoke of winning the cold war. He spoke of ending it. Other officials in his government have said the same thing, and Pat Buchanan can verify it.

Reagan wanted to end the Cold War, not win it. He spoke of those “godawful” nuclear weapons. He thought the Soviet economy was in too much difficulty to compete in an arms race. He thought that if he could first cure the stagflation that afflicted the US economy, he could force the Soviets to the negotiating table by going through the motion of launching an arms race. “Star wars” was mainly hype. (Whether or nor the Soviets believed the arms race threat, the American leftwing clearly did and has never got over it.)

Reagan had no intention of dominating the Soviet Union or collapsing it. Unlike Clinton, George W. Bush, and Obama, he was not controlled by neoconservatives. Reagan fired and prosecuted the neoconservatives in his administration when they operated behind his back and broke the law.

The Soviet Union did not collapse because of Reagan’s determination to end the Cold War. The Soviet collapse was the work of hardline communists, who believed that Gorbachev was loosening the Communist Party’s hold so quickly that Gorbachev was a threat to the existence of the Soviet Union and placed him under house arrest. It was the hardline communist coup against Gorbachev that led to the rise of Yeltsin. No one expected the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The US military/security complex did not want Reagan to end the Cold War, as the Cold War was the foundation of profit and power for the complex. The CIA told Reagan that if he renewed the arms race, the Soviets would win, because the Soviets controlled investment and could allocate a larger share of the economy to the military than Reagan could.

Reagan did not believe the CIA’s claim that the Soviet Union could prevail in an arms race. He formed a secret committee and gave the committee the power to investigate the CIA’s claim that the US would lose an arms race with the Soviet Union. The committee concluded that the CIA was protecting its prerogatives. I know this because I was a member of the committee.

Tear Down That Myth

DURING the spring of 1987, American conservatives were becoming disenchanted with Ronald Reagan’s increasingly conciliatory approach to Mikhail Gorbachev. Inside the White House, Mr. Reagan’s aides began to bicker over a speech the president was planning to give on a trip overseas. That June, the president would travel to Venice for the annual summit meeting of the seven largest industrialized nations. From there, plans called for him to stop briefly in Berlin, which was still divided between East and West. The question was what he should say while there.

The speech Mr. Reagan delivered 20 years ago this week is now remembered as one of the highlights of his presidency. The video images of that speech have been played and replayed. On June 12, 1987, Mr. Reagan, standing in front of the Brandenburg Gate and the Berlin Wall, issued his famous exhortation to Mikhail Gorbachev: “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.”

In the historical disputes over Ronald Reagan and his presidency, the Berlin Wall speech lies at the center. In the ensuing years, two fundamentally different perspectives have emerged. In one, the speech was the event that led to the end of the cold war. In the other, the speech was mere showmanship, without substance.

Both perspectives are wrong. Neither deals adequately with the underlying significance of the speech, which encapsulated Mr. Reagan’s successful but complex approach to dealing with the Soviet Union.

For many American conservatives, the Berlin Wall speech has taken on iconic status. This was Mr. Reagan’s ultimate challenge to the Soviet Union — and, so they believe, Mikhail Gorbachev simply capitulated when, in November 1989, he failed to respond with force as Germans suddenly began tearing down the wall.

Among Mr. Reagan’s most devoted followers, an entire mythology has developed. Theirs is what might be called the triumphal school of interpretation: the president spoke, the Soviets quaked, the wall came down.

Representative Dana Rohrabacher, a California Republican and former Reagan speechwriter, told me that American intelligence had reported that the day after the Berlin Wall speech, Mr. Gorbachev confided in his aides that Mr. Reagan wasn’t going to give up. “If he’s talking about this wall, he’s never going to let go unless we do something,” Mr. Rohrabacher quoted Mr. Gorbachev as saying. “So what we have to do is find a way to bring down the wall and save face at the same time.”

Though no evidence has turned up to corroborate the Rohrabacher account, the triumphal storyline has endured. What’s more, it has done so even though it runs counter to Mr. Reagan’s actual policies toward the Soviet Union at the time. From the autumn of 1986 through the end of his presidency in January 1989, Mr. Reagan was in fact moving steadily closer to a working accommodation with Mr. Gorbachev, conducting a series of summit meetings and signing a major arms control agreement — steps that were strongly opposed by the American right.

The opposing perspective on the Reagan speech is that it was nothing but a stunt. The adherents of this interpretation include not just Democrats or liberals but many veterans of the George H. W. Bush administration.

In a 1995 book about the end of the cold war, “Germany United and Europe Transformed,” two former officials of the first Bush administration, Condoleezza Rice and Philip Zelikow, minimized the significance of the Berlin Wall address and its role in the events leading up to the end of the cold war. They argued that after the speech was given there was no serious, practical follow-up. No one pursued any policy initiative with respect to the Berlin Wall. “American diplomats did not consider the matter part of the real policy agenda,” they wrote.

Others agreed. “I thought it was corny in the extreme,” Brent Scowcroft, national security adviser to George H. W. Bush, told me. “It was irrelevant, that statement at that time.”

Even some of Mr. Reagan’s own senior foreign-policy officials seem to think the speech was not particularly noteworthy. In his 1,184-page memoir, former Secretary of State George P. Shultz does not mention the speech at all. Similarly, Jack C. Matlock, who served as Mr. Reagan’s Soviet adviser and then as United States ambassador to Moscow, does not discuss the speech in his own book about Mr. Reagan’s relations with the Soviets.

But those who dismiss the speech as insignificant miss the point, too. They fail to see its role in helping the president line up public support for his foreign policy.

In the months leading up to his speech, Mr. Reagan had been under attack in the United States for having been beguiled by Mr. Gorbachev. Conservatives were particularly outraged. In September 1986, after the K.G.B. had seized Nicholas Daniloff, a journalist for U.S. News & World Report, in retaliation for the arrest of a Soviet agent in the United States, Mr. Reagan hadn’t taken a hard line, but had instead negotiated an exchange.

Later that fall, hawks in the national-security establishment were upset that at the Reykjavik summit meeting, Mr. Reagan had talked about the possibility of abolishing nuclear weapons.

And these events were merely prologue: there was considerably more business Mr. Reagan was seeking to conduct with the Soviets — business that he knew would be deeply unpopular with many conservatives. By the spring of 1987, he was well into quiet negotiations for two more summit meetings with the Soviet leader in Washington and Moscow. His administration was moving toward a landmark arms-control agreement with the Soviet Union — a treaty on intermediate-range nuclear forces, which would have to be ratified by the Senate. The idea of such a treaty was beginning to attract considerable opposition in Washington.

The Berlin Wall speech, then, offered cover for Mr. Reagan’s diplomacy. It was an anti-Communist speech that helped preserve support for a conservative president seeking to upgrade American relations with the Soviet Union. In political terms, it was the prerequisite for the president’s subsequent negotiations. These efforts, in turn, created the vastly more relaxed climate in which the Soviets sat on their hands when the wall came down.

Those who minimize the speech also ignore the message it sent the Soviets. It served notice that the United States was willing to reach accommodations with Mr. Gorbachev, but not at the expense of accepting the permanent division of Berlin (or of Europe).

Yes, on the surface the address seemed like a follow-on to earlier Reagan speeches — the one at Westminster in 1982, where he predicted that the spread of freedom would “leave Marxism-Leninism on the ash heap of history,” and the speech the following year in which the president had called the Soviet Union “the evil empire.”

Yet the speech reflected an important shift in Mr. Reagan’s thinking, one that put him at odds with the Washington establishment: it acknowledged that Mr. Gorbachev represented something significant and fundamentally different in Moscow that he was not merely a new face for the same old Soviet policies.

So while the speech reasserted the anti-communism on which Mr. Reagan had based his entire political career, it also gave recognition to the idea that the Soviet system might be changing. “We hear much from Moscow about a new policy of reform and openness,” Mr. Reagan said. “Are these the beginnings of profound changes in the Soviet state?”

While the speech did not attempt to answer that question, it did go on to establish a new test for evaluating Mr. Gorbachev’s policies:

“There is one sign the Soviets can make that would be unmistakable, that would advance dramatically the cause of freedom and peace. General Secretary Gorbachev, if you seek peace, if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, if you seek liberalization: Come here to this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”

When viewed strictly as foreign policy doctrine, Mr. Reagan’s speech didn’t say anything overtly new. After all, it was a longstanding tenet of American policy that the wall should come down. Mr. Reagan himself had already said so before, on a visit to West Berlin in 1982 (“Why is that wall there?”) and on the 25th anniversary of the wall in 1986 (“I would like to see the wall come down today, and I call upon those responsible to dismantle it”). The new element in 1987 was not the idea that the wall should be torn down, but the direct appeal to Mr. Gorbachev to do it.

When Mr. Reagan’s speech was first drafted, senior officials at the State Department and National Security Council tried repeatedly to get the words out. They believed the statement might jeopardize Mr. Reagan’s developing relationship with the Soviet leader.

Like his latter-day interpreters, those officials misunderstood Mr. Reagan’s balancing act. He wasn’t trying to land a knockout blow on the Soviet regime, nor was he engaging in mere political theater. He was instead doing something else on that damp day in Berlin 20 years ago — he was helping to set the terms for the end of the cold war.

A Defining Statement of Modern Conservatism

President Ronald Reagan in 1982 (National Archives)

T he greatest documents in American history never lose their ability to astonish. They deserve, and repay, careful study, and inevitably have contemporary resonances no matter how long ago they were written or uttered.

There’s no doubt that Ronald Reagan’s “A Time for Choosing” belongs in the top ranks of American speeches. It is among the most significant political speeches ever given by a non- officeholder and non-presidential candidate. It heralded the beginning of the political career of a man who would go on to be a successful two-term president, and it remains an extraordinarily powerful and cogent expression of a deeply held worldview.

The speech is a defining statement of modern conservatism. Reagan’s core arguments in the speech about the deleterious effects of taxes, deficit spending, and debt defined the Republican agenda for two generations.

He gave us phrases still quoted fondly by conservatives, including “the trouble with our liberal friends is not that they are ignorant, but that they know so much that isn’t so,” and “a government bureau is the nearest thing to eternal life we’ll ever see on this earth.”

It is amazing how well much of it stands up, despite some anachronisms (for instance, the time devoted to agricultural policy), and it still expresses top conservative concerns. On the other hand, the weaknesses of the speech in retrospect point to areas where conservatives should reexamine their assumptions or freshen up their agenda and appeal.

First, let’s consider what holds up, indeed what could be — and is — routinely said by conservative politicians and opinion-makers now.

Reagan spelled out the pressure that our constitutional system was under at the time, for exactly the same reasons it’s under pressure today. He cited voices that maintained that “our traditional system of individual freedom is incapable of solving the complex problems of the 20th century.” Speaking of Senator William Fulbright (D., Ark,),. Reagan said:

Senator Fulbright has said at Stanford University that the Constitution is outmoded. He referred to the president as “our moral teacher and our leader,” and he says he is “hobbled in his task by the restrictions of power imposed on him by this antiquated document.” He must “be freed,” so that he “can do for us” what he knows “is best.”

The thoroughly technocratic progressive “explainer” website Vox wouldn’t begin publication for another 50 years. But Reagan would have been familiar with all of its arguments about our constitutional scheme supposedly being shamefully inefficient and resistant to large-scale change. These are arguments that define the progressive sensibility. Conservatives have to constantly make the case that the Constitution, as our foundational law, is the only source of government legitimacy that its dispersal of power is central to the preservation of liberty and that rather than being archaic, it guarantees rights that are of enduring relevance and importance.

Reagan also decried impending socialism. He cited Norman Thomas, the frequent socialist candidate for president, who attacked Barry Goldwater on grounds that if the Arizona senator were elected president, “he would stop the advance of socialism in the United States.”

Reagan, of course, agreed, saying of Goldwater: “I think that’s exactly what he will do.” He continued, “As a former Democrat, I can tell you Norman Thomas isn’t the only man who has drawn this parallel to socialism with the present administration.” He explained, “It doesn’t require expropriation or confiscation of private property or business to impose socialism on a people. What does it mean whether you hold the deed or the title to your business or property if the government holds the power of life and death over that business or property?”

Today, Republicans have more occasion than ever before to warn of socialism. The label used to be rejected by everyone except fringe figures like Thomas. No more. Avowed socialist Bernie Sanders, the Vermont senator, seriously challenged for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2016 and has an intense following among young people. Members of the so-called Squad, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, and Rashida Tlaib — the most attention-getting members of the freshman class of House Democrats — are all self-described socialists. Elizabeth Warren rejects the label but embraces the agenda. Medicare for All, the Green New Deal, and free college for all are far more sweeping proposals for government aggrandizement than anything enacted in the Great Society era that had Reagan worried about the prospect of socialism.

It’s still true, as Reagan noted in his speech, that government failures inevitably become the occasion for more government activism. In Reagan’s words, “For three decades, we have sought to solve the problems of unemployment through government planning, and the more the plans fail, the more the planners plan.” Today, government mis-incentives drive up costs in the areas of health care, housing, and higher education. Nonetheless, the Left argues that the answer is more regulation or a complete government takeover.

Reagan hit on the Left’s obsession with inequality, which has become even more pronounced today: “We have so many people who can’t see a fat man standing beside a thin one without coming to the conclusion that the fat man got that way by taking advantage of the thin one.”

He cultivated a populist, yet optimistic voice. He says the issue in the 1964 election is whether “we believe in our capacity for self-government or whether we abandon the American Revolution and confess that a little intellectual elite in a far-distant capital can plan our lives for us better than we can plan them ourselves.” This remains a core sentiment across the Right, encompassing conventional Reagan conservatives such as Texas senator Ted Cruz and more Trump-oriented populists such as Missouri senator Josh Hawley. It will remain a central priority as long as government centralization proceeds apace, and as the bureaucracy continually absorbs the progressive attitudes of the elite.

Reagan demonstrated in his speech that, even if you reject populist policies, which typically involve more government activism, populism is still the argot of American politics. This is what newly minted Republicans like Abraham Lincoln realized back in the mid-19th century. Lincoln had been a Whig all his life, and Jacksonian populists had beaten him up by for supposedly being on the side of bankers and other well-heeled interests (Whigs were, indeed, in favor of financial capitalism). With the rise of slavery as the dominant issue in American life, Republicans flipped the script and made populist arguments against the plantation owners and the “slavocracy” of the South, to great political effect.

Even as Reagan made an appeal to populist emotions, he kept his own rhetorical sights elevated. “A Time for Choosing” is a deeply ideological speech, yet Reagan doesn’t frame our choice as fundamentally between conservatism and liberalism, but between the past and the future, and between decline and progress. In a memorable riff, he said:

You and I are told increasingly that we have to choose between a left or right, but I would like to suggest that there is no such thing as a left or right. There is only an up or down — up to a man’s age-old dream, the ultimate in individual freedom consistent with law and order — or down to the ant heap of totalitarianism. And regardless of their sincerity, their humanitarian motives, those who would trade our freedom for security have embarked on this downward course.

This raises an important point. Reagan conservatives over the past 25 years have tended to couch their politics in explicitly Reaganite terms. They tout themselves as the heirs to Reagan or quote his lines as if from a catechism. They have often sounded as if they believe there’s little need to make the argument for conservatism in new, contemporary terms and that associating themselves with Reagan and his beliefs is enough to win the argument, certainly in Republican politics.

The 2016 presidential primary showed the limits of this approach, as Donald Trump, circumventing all the old clichés and themes, found a new way (for better or worse) to talk to Republican voters. But anyone familiar with the actual Reagan would realize that a calcified, overly ideological version of his politics ran counter to the appeal of Reagan himself, who, in the most important speech of his life to that point, spoke of our fundamental choice as up or down.

Reagan’s words about the Cold War are truly inspired and don’t so much foreshadow his rhetoric as president as make it clear that he had exactly the same beliefs set out in exactly the same terms for decades:

We are at war with the most dangerous enemy that has ever faced mankind in his long climb from the swamp to the stars, and it has been said if we lose that war, and in doing so lose this way of freedom of ours, history will record with the greatest astonishment that those who had the most to lose did the least to prevent its happening.

It’s hard to improve on that sentiment. Of course, the Cold War is now history. But the broad approach to national security set out by Reagan is unimpeachable and should characterize any conservative foreign policy worthy of the name. He defends the phrase, “peace through strength,” which readers and listeners might be surprised to learn came from Barry Goldwater first, given how closely it’s now associated with Reagan. The basic idea wasn’t new, stretching back to George Washington. Reagan’s opposition to the U.N., his willingness to stick up for flawed allies arrayed against adversaries that are worse, and his skepticism of foreign aid are still relevant and will continue to endure.

So, where does the “Time for Choosing” fall down?

The tax, spending, and debt issues so important to Reagan and to conservatives for decades have taken a back seat today — or at least deficit spending and debt have. President Trump has brought other issues to the fore and pursued a broadly expansionary fiscal policy. It turns out that fiscal conservatives didn’t have nearly the clout of social conservatives in the GOP coalition. But the traditional trio of fiscal issues will come back with a vengeance should, say, Elizabeth Warren get elected president. Shock at the ambition of her program of government centralization would bring a swift return of the GOP’s small-government predilections, out of sheer partisanship if nothing else.

More problematic in “The Time for Choosing” is the argument — and dire tone — borrowed from Friedrich Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom, asserting that the growth of the state, as such, leads to tyranny, and the tipping point is imminent. “Our natural, inalienable rights,” Reagan said, “are now considered to be a dispensation of government, and freedom has never been so fragile, so close to slipping from our grasp as it is at this moment.” This, too, has been standard Republican rhetoric for two generations. The question is whether it is true or warranted.

The growth in the administrative state has led to a diminishment in self-government. The rise of jurisprudence untethered to the Constitution has done the same. Various regulations crimp individual choices in a way that once was unimaginable — say, if the wrong sort of tortoise shows up on your property — and government rules pile costs atop enterprise and industry that never existed before. The state can and does weigh in heavily against certain sectors of the economy, whether logging in the Northwest or coal mining in West Virginia.

It is a symptom of our time, though, that even as the government has grown, so has personal liberty, sometimes in deeply unhealthy ways. We have more choices in family structure (or lack thereof), sexual expression, and consumption of entertainment, from the exalted to the low, including a vast amount and variety of pornography. There is less prescription against aberrant behavior, as can be seen in the streets of our major cities such as San Francisco and New York City. There’s greater leeway to sell and smoke pot. We now enjoy the freedom even — in theory at least — to pick our own gender and have institutions of government afford every consideration to our choice.

One of the chief conservative victories over the past 30 years is excavating the true meaning of the Second Amendment, and vindicating the individual right to bear arms, another victory for individual liberty. Indeed, the size of the federal government has grown at the same time that conservatives have strengthened their hold on the Supreme Court, raising the prospect of an era of heightened government activism coinciding with a relatively rigorous originalism on the Court, a combination that Reagan wouldn’t have foreseen.

The deeper current issue is that the chief suppressant of human flourishing may be not our overweening government but our tendency toward toxic individualism — we are now a people largely disconnected from marriage, church, and workplace, and too many American sink into self-destructive behavior and despair.

Obviously, this doesn’t enter into Reagan’s speech because there was no way he could anticipate social trends 50 years in the future. But there’s a swath of American society that doesn’t figure at all in the worldview espoused in “A Time for Choosing.” That view is centered on the relationship between state and individual. It is the balance between them that, for Reagan, will determine whether we are rich or free, and the course of human history. Left out is the stratum between state and individual, namely, civil society, that does so much to determine not necessarily whether we are rich or free, but whether we are happy.

The state of our civil society — family, church, neighborhood, volunteer organizations — was still in robust shape in the mid-1960s, and it remained so when Reagan was president in the 1980s. Now it has degraded significantly, and how and whether it can be revitalized needs to be a leading question for conservatives.

In his recent book on Reagan, The Working Class Republican: Ronald Reagan and the Return of Blue-Collar Conservatism, the acute political analyst Henry Olsen attempts to draw a distinction between Reagan and Goldwater on the basis of “A Time for Choosing.” Olsen maintains that Reagan still bears the stamp of his erstwhile support of FDR and the New Deal, whereas Goldwater is an old-school, anti-government purist. There’s a little something to this. Reagan underscores how he’s a former Democrat and says he accepts Social Security, although he wants to add “voluntary features” to the program.

There’s still no getting around that “A Time for Choosing” is essentially a libertarian speech. And yet, Reagan sounds themes that resonate beyond individual liberty and self-interest. Reagan’s deep and abiding patriotism is unmistakable. In a stirring expression of American exceptionalism, he declared:

If we lose freedom here, there is no place to escape to. This is the last stand on earth. And this idea that government is beholden to the people, that it has no other source of power except to sovereign people, is still the newest and most unique idea in all the long history of man’s relation to man.

This truth entails obligation on the part of men, who, in Reagan’s view, are more than a mere collection of economic numbers or even what is visible to us in this world. At the end of the speech, Reagan quotes Winston Churchill for the proposition: “The destiny of man is not measured by material computation. When great forces are on the move in the world, we learn we are spirits — not animals.” And more: “There is something going on in time and space, and beyond time and space, which, whether we like it or not, spells duty.”

When Reagan discusses the Cold War especially, his keen sense of national honor and his belief that a great cause deserves sacrifice come through. As Reagan expresses it in his own words:

If nothing in life is worth dying for, when did this begin — just in the face of this enemy? Or should Moses have told the children of Israel to live in slavery under the pharaohs? Should Christ have refused the cross? Should the patriots at Concord Bridge have thrown down their guns and refused to fire the shot heard ’round the world? The martyrs of history were not fools, and our honored dead who gave their lives to stop the advance of the Nazis didn’t die in vain.

In the closing words of the speech, he borrows from both FDR and Lincoln in a finale that soars and heralds his elevated statesmanship to come. “You and I have a rendezvous with destiny. We will preserve for our children this, the last best hope of man on earth, or we will sentence them to take the last step into a thousand years of darkness.”

The fundamental lesson of “A Time for Choosing” is not that we need another Reagan in the sense of someone exactly replicating his policies and tropes. But we do need national politicians who, like Reagan, have a worldview that they have thoroughly absorbed and thought through, and who seek the exalted goals of defending the American nation and liberty.

Editor’s Note: This essay is published in partnership with the Ronald Reagan Institute’s essay series on presidential principles and beliefs.

The Myth That Reagan Ended the Cold War With a Single Speech - HISTORY

As American myths go, there is none greater than that of President Ronald Reagan. Americans treasure Reagan’s image and hold his two terms as President in the highest regard. Republicans worship him as a god, and even the Democrats speak fondly of him. “I think Ronald Reagan changed the trajectory of America,” argued President-Elect Barack Obama in an interview with the Reno Gazette-Journal. “…he just tapped into what people were already feeling, which was we want clarity, we want optimism, we want a return to that sense of dynamism and entrepreneurship that had been missing.”

During his Presidency, Reagan made Americans feel good about their country and themselves. As a result, Americans, when polled, consistently place Reagan among the greatest Presidents in U.S. history. American historians do not share this view, and frequently rank Reagan as a mediocre or below average President.

Historians are highly critical of Reagan’s legacy. The Iran-Contra scandal tarnished his image as a proponent of liberty and democracy and many historians feel that his program of deregulation weakened capitalism in America. Moreover, historians, unlike the average American, do not believe that Reagan single handedly ended the Cold War.

The best examples of the power of the Reagan were visible in 2004, after his death. The media coverage Reagan received was tremendously positive. Commentators, political pundits, and average Americans from across the political spectrum all credited Reagan with ending the Cold War.

The “Reagan Victory” theory goes like this. Reagan and his advisors understood the economic frailty of the Soviet Union, and thus sought to bankrupt the Soviet Union through extensive military spending. The Soviet Union was unable to keep pace with America’s spending and its weakened economy brought its political system to its knees.

This theory has several flaws. First, Reagan and his advisors never believed they could destroy the Soviet political system. In fact, they believed that the Soviet Union would be a permanent fixture of U.S. foreign policy. There was never any plan to bankrupt the Soviet Union. Reagan felt threatened by the Soviet military, as he believed it was stronger than America’s. “The truth of the matter is that the Soviet Union does have a definite margin of superiority,” argued Reagan in 1982, “enough so that there is risk and there is what I have called… ‘a window of vulnerability.’”

Second, the Soviet Union only adjusted its military spending during the Reagan years by 0.4% and this spending increase was planned ahead of time as a response to the military spending of the Carter Administration. If you want to argue that America outspent the Soviet Union, Carter's your man, not Reagan.

Finally, the “Reagan Victory” theory ignores the changes in his policies towards the Soviet Union. Reagan was only a hard-line anti-communist for the first few years of his presidency. The famous “Evil Empire” speech was from 1983. The rest of his Presidency was spent trying to reconcile with the Soviets.

Of all the 20th century Presidents, Reagan had the most summits with the Soviet Leadership. It was during these summits, particularly those on nuclear proliferation, that Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev were able to form a relationship built on trust. Gorbachev believed Reagan when he said that he wanted to reduce nuclear arsenals and he believed that he could pursue Glasnost (political reforms) and Perestroika (economic reforms) in the Soviet Union with Reagan’s support. These reforms are what brought an end to the Cold War and eventually communism in the Soviet Union.

This was perhaps Reagan’s greatest legacy. Although Gorbachev was the principle player, Reagan’s conciliatory actions helped pave the way towards rapprochement. “Mikhail Gorbachev took the ball and ran with it,” argues Beth Fischer in Toeing the Hardline, “but it was Ronald Reagan who had put the ball in play.”

Who won the Cold War?

(USSR) and the United States fought the Cold War -- and some might argue the grass was, in this case, the rest of the world.

While the Cold War was largely a war of threats, there was plenty of real violence, too. The aggression between the U.S. and USSR spilled over into places like Angola and Nicaragua, and the two nations fought proxy wars -- conflicts between warring parties of a third nation, but supported by the U.S. and USSR. The soil of European nations served as nuclear missile sites for both sides. In Soviet satellite states, populations were repressed and subjugated by communist rule. Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet condoned kidnapping and murder of the leftist population under an American-backed regime. And the global psyche was plagued by anxiety over possible nuclear war.

The tense standoff that characterized the Cold War ended when the USSR collapsed in 1991, becoming the Russian Federation. This collapse was preceded by revolutions in Poland and Czechoslovakia, as well as the fall of the Berlin Wall. When the USSR fell, the Soviet states dissolved. The end of the Cold War came so abruptly (and with such finality) that even years later, disbelief gripped the West. A 1998 episode of the American TV show "The Simpsons" depicts a Russian delegate at the United Nations referring to his country as the Soviet Union. "Soviet Union?" asks the American delegate. "I thought you guys broke up." "Nyet! That's what we wanted you to think!" the Soviet delegate replies and laughs ominously [source: IMDB].

This scene underscores a hallmark of the Cold War's conclusion: uncertainty. What exactly led to the downfall of the Soviet Union? Was the collapse of the USSR inevitable, or did America hasten its disintegration? Or, as former CIA director and Soviet expert Robert Gates puts it, "Did we win or did the Soviets just lose?" [source: Powers].

On the next page, we'll examine the theory that the United States brought down the USSR.

Did the U.S. beat the Soviet Union?

Historians who believe that the U.S. won the Cold War largely agree that American victory was guaranteed through finances. The United States bled the Soviets dry through proxy wars and the nuclear arms race. But this financial draining may not have been possible without the unprecedented stockpiling of nuclear weapons.

The world came about as close as it ever has to the brink of nuclear war between Oct. 18 and 29, 1962, during the Cuban missile crisis. The showdown over the presence of Soviet nuclear missiles in Cuba, just 90 miles south of the U.S., culminated in the USSR's humiliating withdrawal. As the world watched, American President John F. Kennedy called the Soviets' hand. While the USSR reluctantly met Kennedy's demand to remove the missiles from Cuba, it was a blow to Soviet national pride.

In response, the USSR resolved to outpace the U.S. in nuclear capabilities. This intense nuclear research and development didn't come cheap as the U.S. matched the Soviets' nuclear strides. In 1963, the United States spent 9 percent of the nation's gross domestic product on defense -- nearly $53.5 billion (that's around $362 billion in 2008 dollars) [source: UPI].

Throughout the 1960s, the U.S. continued to bolster its nuclear arsenal. However, during the '70s, the Ford and Carter administrations favored sharp criticism of Soviet policies over stockpiling nuclear arms. When President Ronald Reagan took office in 1981, he reinvigorated defense spending, matching the dollar amounts of the 1960s.

Many historians credit Reagan with dealing the death blows that ultimately brought down the Soviet Union. Perhaps the one that signaled the end for the USSR was Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI). This uncompleted project, popularly called Star Wars, would have cost hundreds of billions of dollars. It called for the weaponization of outer space -- a shield comprised of a network of nuclear missiles and lasers in space that would intercept a Soviet first strike [source: Time]. This initiative was the pinnacle of both the space race and the arms race between the U.S. and the USSR.

Star Wars was criticized as fantasy by defense observers on both sides of the Iron Curtain (the term coined by Winston Churchill that describes the boundary in Europe between communism and the rest of the world). But Reagan was committed to the project, and the Soviet's flagging, state-owned economy simply couldn't match this escalation in defense spending.

Excerpt: 'Tear Down This Myth'

Tear Down This Myth: How the Reagan Legacy Has Distorted Our Politics and Haunts Our Future

The present was January 30, 2008, when four powerful men walked onto a freshly built debate stage in Simi Valley, California, seeking to control the past — most ironically, the American past that was at its peak in that very "Morning in America" year of 1984. They knew that whoever controlled the past on this night would have a real shot at controlling the future of the United States of America. Lest there be any doubt of that, the large block letters UNITED STATES OF AMERICA hovered for ninety minutes over the heads of these men — the last four Republican candidates for president in 2008 — who had made the pilgrimage to the cavernous main hall inside Simi Valley's Ronald Reagan Presidential Library. This was the final debate of a primary campaign that had basically started in this very room nine months ago and now was about to essentially end here — in what was becoming a kind of National Cathedral to Ronald Reagan, even complete with his burial vault. The block letters were stenciled across the hulking blue and white frame of a modified Boeing 707 jetliner that officially carried the bland bureaucratic title of SAM (Special Air Mission) 27000, but bore the title of Air Force One from 1972 through 1990 — a remarkable era of highs and lows for the American presidency.

To many baby boomers, this jet's place in history was burnished on August 9, 1974, when it carried the disgraced Richard Nixon home to California on his first day as a private citizen. But that was before SAM 27000 was passed down to Ronald Reagan and now to the Ronald Reagan legacy factory, which flew it back here to the Golden State, power-washed it clean, and reassembled it as the visual centerpiece of Reagan's presidential library. It was now part American aviation icon and part political reliquary, suspended all deus ex machine from the roof in its new final resting place, with Reagan's notepads and even his beloved jelly beans as its holy artifacts.

And for much of this winter night, the men seeking to become GOP nominee — and hopefully win the presidency, as the Republican candidate had done in seven out of the ten previous presidential elections — looked and felt like tiny profiles on a sprawling American tarmac under the shadow of the jetliner, and of Reagan himself. Fittingly, each chose his words carefully, as if he were running not to replace the hugely unpopular George W. Bush in the Oval Office — at an inauguration 356 days hence — but to become the spiritual heir to 1980s icon Reagan himself, as if the winner would be whisked up a boarding staircase and into the cabin of SAM 27000 at the end of the night and be flown from here to a conservative eternity.

As was so often the case, news people were equal co-conspirators with the politicians in creating a political allegory around Reagan. The debate producer was CNN's David Bohrman, who'd once staged a TV show atop Mount Everest and now said the Air Force One backdrop was "my crazy idea" and that he had lobbied officials at the library to make it happen. He told the local Ventura County Star that the candidates were "here to get the keys to that plane."

By picking Reagan's Air Force One and the artifacts of his life as props for a Republican presidential debate that would be watched by an estimated 4 million Americans, CNN shunned what would have been a more obvious motif: the news of 2008. If you had been watching CNN or MSNBC or Fox or the other ever-throbbing arteries of America's 24-hour news world, or sat tethered to the ever-bouncing electrons of political cyberspace in the hours leading up to the debate, you'd have seen a vivid snapshot of a world superpower seeking a new leader in the throes of overlapping crises — economic, military, and in overall U.S. confidence.

On this Wednesday in January, the drumbeat of bad news from America's nearly five-year-old war in Iraq — fairly muted for a few weeks — resumed loudly as five American towns learned they had lost young men to a roadside bomb during heavy fighting two days earlier. Most citizens were by now so numb to such grim Iraq reports that the casualties barely made the national news. The same was true of a heated exchange at a Senate hearing involving new attorney general Michael Mukasey. He was trying to defend U.S. tactics for interrogation of terrorism suspects, tactics that most of the world had come to regard as torture — seriously harming America's moral standing in the world. Meanwhile, it was a particularly bad day for the American mortgage industry, which had a major presence in Simi Valley through a large back office for troubled lender Countrywide Financial. That afternoon, the Wall Street rating agency Standard & Poor's threatened to downgrade a whopping $500 billion of investments tied to bad home loans, while the largest bank in Europe, UBS AG, posted a quarterly loss of $14 billion because of its exposure to U.S. subprime mortgages. Such loans had fueled an exurban housing bubble in once-desolate places like the brown hillsides on the fringe of Ventura County around Simi Valley, and had been packaged and sold as high-risk securities.

That same day, nearly three thousand miles to the east, Jim Cramer — the popular, wild-eyed TV stock guru, and hardly a flaming liberal — was giving a speech at Bucknell University in which he traced the roots of the current mortgage crisis all the way back to the pro-business policies initiated nearly three decades earlier by America's still popular — even beloved by some — fortieth president, the late Ronald Wilson Reagan. "Ever since the Reagan era," Cramer told the students, "our nation has been regressing and repealing years and years' worth of safety net and equal economic justice in the name of discrediting and dismantling the federal government's missions to help solve our nation's collective domestic woes." But there would be no questions about economic justice or the shrinking safety net at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, the epicenter of America's political universe, what with California's presidential primary — the crown jewel of the delegate bonanza known as Super Tuesday — less than a week away. The GOP's Final Four evoked the parable about the blind man. Each seemed to represent a different appendage of the Republican elephant — the slicked-back businessman-turned-pol Mitt Romney, the good-humored former Baptist minister Mike Huckabee, the fiery fringe libertarian Ron Paul, and Vietnam War hero and POW John McCain, a self-described "straight talker" on a meandering political odyssey.

Despite their unique and compelling stories and their considerable differences—both in background and in appeal to rival GOP voting blocs — each was apparently determined to stake out the same contrived identity. It was like an old black-and-white rerun of "To Tell the Truth" with four contestants all declaring: "My name is Ronald Reagan."

Excerpted from Tear Down This Myth: How the Reagan Legacy Has Distorted Our Politics and Haunts Our Future by Will Bunch. Reprinted by arrangement with Free Press, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc. Copyright (c) 2009.

The Cold War Never Ended

We don't know the exact hierarchy of motives, but it is certain that Chris Gueffroy was willing to leave his family and friends to avoid conscription into the army. Considering the associated risks, it's likely that the 20-year-old was also strongly motivated to escape the stultifying sameness, the needless poverty, the cultural black hole that was his homeland. In his passport photo, he wore a small hoop earring, an act of nonconformity in a country that prized conformity above all else. But Gueffroy's passport was yet another worthless possession, for he had the great misfortune of being born into a walled nation, a country that brutally enforced a ban on travel to "nonfraternal" states.

On February 6, 1989, Gueffroy and a friend attempted to escape from East Berlin by scaling die Mauer—the wall that separated communist east from capitalist west. They didn't make it far. After tripping an alarm, Gueffroy was shot 10 times by border guards and died instantly. His accomplice was shot in the foot but survived, only to be put on trial and sentenced to three years in prison for "attempted illegal border-crossing in the first degree."

Twenty years ago this month, and nine months after the murder of Gueffroy, the Berlin Wall, that monument to the barbarism of the Soviet experiment, was finally breached. The countries held captive by Moscow began their long road to economic and cultural recovery, and to reunification with liberal Europe. But in the West, where Cold War divisions defined politics and society for 40 years, the moment was not greeted as a welcome opportunity for intellectual reconciliation, for fact-checking decades of exaggerations and misperceptions. Instead, then as now, despite the overwhelming volume of new data and the exhilaration of hundreds of millions finding freedom, the battle to control the Cold War narrative raged on unabated. Reagan haters and Reagan hagiographers, Sovietophiles and anti-communists, isolationists and Atlanticists, digested this massive moment in history, then carried on as if nothing much had changed. A new flurry of books timed to coincide with the 20th anniversary of communism's collapse reinforces the point that the Cold War will never truly be settled by the side that won.

It is bizarre to revisit pre-1989 journalism and punditry on Soviet communism. The suffering of the bit players, those pitiable citizens stranded behind the Iron Curtain, was largely ignored in favor of larger political goals. If Ronald Reagan believed the Kremlin to be the beating heart of an "evil empire," many of his angriest critics believed, then Moscow couldn't be all bad. Writing in The Nation in 1984, historian Stephen F. Cohen hissed that, in a perfect world, "fairness would not allow us to defame a nation that has suffered and achieved so much."

Although uniformly anti-Soviet, some conservatives too were guilty of a Cold War–induced moral blindness, defending authoritarian governments in Africa, Latin America, Asia, and Iberia as bulwarks against communist expansion. Columnist Pat Buchanan celebrated the authoritarian leaders Augusto Pinochet of Chile and Francisco Franco of Spain as "soldier-patriots" and referred quaintly to the racist regime in South Africa as the "Boer Republic." Others accused America's most anti-Soviet president of impuissance. As early as 1983, neoconservative writer Norman Podhoretz proclaimed that Reagan's policies toward the Soviet Union amounted to "appeasement by any other name."

When the whole rotten experiment suddenly failed, eventually bringing to an end not just Moscow's Warsaw Pact client governments but the proxy civil wars it fought in the Third World, instead of engaging in overdue self-criticism many commentators clung to shopworn shibboleths. In 1990 the academic Peter Marcuse, also writing in The Nation, bizarrely claimed that East Germany "had never sent dissidents to gulags and rarely to jail" and expressed outrage that the "goal of the German authorities is the simple integration of East into West without reflection," instead of heeding the pleas of the intellectual class who were at work on a more humane, less Russian brand of socialism.

The weeks and months following the fall of the Wall saw relentless worries, from left and right, about the corrosive influence of Western capitalism, consumerism, and commercial television on the untainted comrades of the Ost. The "prospect of rampant consumerism," CBS News reported in July 1990, "has East Germany's newly elected Christian Democratic Prime Minister, Lother De Mozier, worried." By 1993 Ukrainian National Self Defense, a right-wing populist movement that loathed Russian power, was rallying against the "Americanization of Ukraine through Coca-Cola culture." Even the famously anti-communist Pope John Paul II warned that "the Western countries run the risk of seeing this collapse of Communism as a one-sided victory of their own economic system, and thereby failing to make necessary corrections in that system."

When the "shock" of capitalism didn't jump-start the moribund economies of the East within a calendar year, many in the Western news media declared the entire project dead on arrival. In 1990 ABC Evening News told viewers that East Germany was already a "victim of an overdose of capitalism." In Southeast Poland, CBS reported, "the transition from communism to capitalism is making more people more miserable every day." Every new election, even in firmly Western-oriented countries such as Hungary and Poland, was greeted with scare stories about backsliding into communism, lurching into neo-Nazism, or both. Even some of the early 20th-anniversary retrospectives last summer trotted out the same familiar story lines, exponential gains in freedom and prosperity notwithstanding.

With the proliferation of "Old Hopes Replaced by New Fears" stories, the long-running intellectual battle over the Cold War retreated into the halls of academia, where the newly (and, it turned out, briefly) opened Soviet archives further undermined the accepted narratives about Alger Hiss, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, I.F. Stone, and scores of other causes célèbres of the anti-anti-communists. Western intellectuals were more interested in Francis Fuku-yama's contention that we were witnessing "the end of history" than in who was most responsible for bringing that history to an alleged close.

But when that debate began to revive, it took up right where it left off in the 1980s: at the feet of the decade's most controversial figure, Ronald Reagan. To his legion of critics, Reagan was an unalloyed Cold Warrior, recklessly dragging America toward the precipice of nuclear confrontation and taking the credit that rightfully belonged to reform Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. This school of interpretation was influential enough that the anti-communist commentator Arnold Beichman, writing in Policy Review in 2002, accused liberal academics and pundits of "trying to write President Reagan out of history." But after the Berlin Wall fell, the pendulum swung the other way. Reagan's loyal foot soldiers have persistently argued, with some degree of success, that the inspirational rhetoric of the 40th president, in the words of Margaret Thatcher, "won the Cold War without firing a shot."

No phrase is more associated with Reagan's presidency—and his lifelong crusade against communism—than his 1987 exhortation that Gorbachev, if he really believed in freedom, would come to Berlin and "tear down this wall." Reagan's national security adviser, Colin Powell, thought the line needlessly provocative the State Department cautioned against "condemn[ing] the East too harshly." The day after the speech, which would become Reagan's most famous, Washington Post foreign policy columnist Jim Hoagland derided it as a "meaningless taunt" that history would surely ignore. Reagan's acolytes, on the other hand, would strenuously argue that the speech was, if not directly responsible for the events of November 1989, at the very least helpful and prescient.

Neither of these readings is accurate, argues journalist James Mann in The Rebellion of Ronald Reagan: A History of the End of the Cold War. While the Gipper loathed Soviet totalitarianism—his aide Ken Adelman commented that it was the "only thing he actually hated"—Reagan was, Mann argues, a pragmatist who rejected the more belligerent figures in the Republican foreign policy establishment and helped enable Gorbachev's reforms through engagement, not confrontation.

That Reagan was more dovish than his contemporary critics would allow isn't a particularly radical argument, having been made previously by historians Paul Lettow and John Patrick Diggins and by former Reagan official Jack Matlock. And it is no longer controversial to claim, as Mann does, that Reagan was driven to the bargaining table by a combination of a deeply held revulsion for nuclear weapons and a gut instinct that Gorbachev was a different type of Soviet leader, a man Thatcher believed the West "could do business with."

While Reagan supporters often provide a simple narrative of the Soviet Union's collapse in which resolve alone won the Cold War, Mann's attempt at balancing the historical record leads him to ignore evidence that might muddle his thesis. For instance, he gives short shrift to the financial costs of Reagan's economic warfare—from the arms race to the embargo of the Soviet gas pipeline—that, according to Russian estimates, sucked billions out of the Soviet economy. Instead, he writes, it was "Reagan's willingness to do business with Gorbachev that gave the Soviet leader the time and space he needed to demolish the Soviet system."

But were it not for the nuclear disaster at Chernobyl, the American-funded anti-Soviet insurgency in Afghanistan, and a withering economy—events not seriously engaged by Mann—would Gorbachev have chosen the path of radical reform? The author of perestroika privately acknowledged that, unless concessions were made to Reagan, the Soviet Union would "lose because right now we are already at the end of our tether." And Mann comments, in passing, that Gorbachev was "eager, if not desperate&hellipto work out agreements that would limit Soviet military spending." As historian Christopher Andrews and former KGB archivist Vasili Mitrokhin wrote in The World Was Going Our Way, their accounting of Soviet operations in the Third World, Gorbachev inherited, and for a time continued, the "ruinously expensive flow of arms and military hardware to Afghanistan, Nicaragua, Vietnam, Syria, South Yemen, Ethiopia, Angola, Algeria, and elsewhere."

The idea that Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI, or "Star Wars," as it was derisively known) single-handedly bankrupted the Soviets, as commonly presented by the president's most partisan defenders, is, as Mann argues, almost certainly wrong. But it wasn't just the conservatives at Human Events who believed the SDI narrative. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the dissident author Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn maintained that "the Cold War was essentially won by Ronald Reagan when he embarked on the Star Wars program and the Soviet Union understood that it could not take this next step." Gen. Nikolay Detinov, a high-ranking Red Army official and member of Soviet arms control delegations, admitted that "the American defense spending increase, SDI, and other defense programs greatly troubled the Soviet leadership." But it didn't necessarily bankrupt them.

Recent disclosures from Russian archives suggest that Soviet defense spending, which the CIA could only roughly estimate at the time (only four members of the Kremlin's inner sanctum reportedly knew the true numbers), did not increase significantly in response to SDI. This was perhaps because the system, so battered by the time Gorbachev took the reins of power, simply didn't have the money.

Mann is surely correct that Reagan's instincts "were much closer to the truth than were those of his conservative critics." And he is also right that, contra those same conservatives, Gorbachev too deserves tremendous credit for opening, and therefore destroying, the Soviet system. But as Henry Kissinger—himself a fierce critic of engagement with Gorbachev at the time—later observed, the Soviet empire may have disintegrated on President George H.W. Bush's watch, but "it was Ronald Reagan's presidency which marked the turning point."

Mann writes that there is "no reason to think" Reagan opposed nuclear weapons upon entering the White House, putting the starting date of his conversion to antinuclearism at "late 1983." But Reagan expressed a deep dislike of nuclear weapons long before his presidency, a fact well-documented by historian Paul Lettow, and there is an obvious continuity between his liberal activism in Hollywood, during which he agitated against atomic warfare, and the 1986 Reykjavik summit with Gorbachev where, to the horror of his advisers, Reagan nearly surrendered America's entire nuclear arsenal. Michael Deaver, who worked for Reagan during his tenure as both California governor and president, later said that "even in those early years&helliphe would say, 'That's our goal. We want to get rid of them altogether.'?"

The details of the Cold War are still disputed enough that a market exists for books claiming to hold the new key that unlocks the truth. Michael Meyer, a former correspondent for Newsweek and current flack for United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, covered Germany and Eastern Europe during the waning years of the Cold War. In The Year That Changed the World: The Untold Story Behind the Fall of the Berlin Wall, Meyer declares that his is the "largely unknown" account of the Cold War's end, finally "shorn of mythology." Meyer offers a combative, journalistic rendering of the events of 1989, bookended with warnings that the triumphalist (read: Reaganite) reading of the Cold War was "tragically costly," because "it was a straight line from the fantasy of Cold War victory to the invasion of Iraq."

This might be a unique, if unconvincing, theory of the Cold War's ultimate costs, but contrary to the book's subtitle there is little, if any, information here that makes for an "untold story." Nor is it easy to take The Year That Changed the World seriously when it is threaded with so many factual mistakes and dubious claims. Meyer asserts that the great post-communist film The Lives of Others, which dramatizes Stasi surveillance, is an example of Ostalgie (nostalgia for the East), when in fact Ostalgie was its target. Yuri Andropov, contrary to Meyer's claim, certainly did not see substantial "flaws in the Soviet system." It is risible to call East German novelist (and, it turned out, former Stasi collaborator) Christa Wolf a "dissident." Gorbachev's book Perestroika is hardly the "ultimate indictment of communism," considering Gorbachev's admonition that the world "must learn from Lenin" and keep on celebrating the October Revolution. The famous Berlin Wall mural of two Communist leaders kissing, skillfully used by the Hungarian opposition party Fidesz, is of East German President Erich Honecker and Leonid Brezhnev, not Honecker and Gorbachev. The opposition movements in Hungary and Czechoslovakia were hardly "nonexistent."

There are larger errors too. Meyer is right that President George H.W. Bush was often disengaged from the world-changing events unfolding in Eastern Europe, but he mangles the truth in making this point. While ignoring Bush's shameful address in Kiev warning Ukrainians against independence (famously dubbed his "Chicken Kiev" speech by New York Times columnist William Safire), Meyer instead oddly mocks Bush's 1990 visit to Poland, when "at a reception in Warsaw, he regaled guests with a list of Polish baseball 'greats'&hellipStan Musial, Tony Kubek, Phil Niekro." Meyer adds that "as they followed the president around Warsaw and Gdansk, many reporters wondered whether he was fully in touch. Baseball greats?" What Meyer neglects to mention, besides any detail of the backroom diplomacy behind the trip, was that Bush's "reception" was a brief stop to visit 30 kids inaugurating Poland's first-ever chapter of Little League Baseball.

Meyer is exercised by the onerous Cold War "myths" that we all cling to, yet he never engages or identifies those who supposedly propagate them. He rightly denounces the America-centric view of Cold War history but barely mentions the pivotal role played by German Chancellor Helmut Kohl in reunification. France's Francois Mitterand, Great Britain's Thatcher, and Pope John Paul II are similarly absent from the narrative. (As Polish dissident writer Adam Michnik later observed, "It will be a long time before anyone fully comprehends the ramifications of [the Pope's] nine-day visit" to occupied Poland in 1979.)

In place of the old myths, Meyer erects new ones: "For all the problems they faced&hellipmost East Germans had no desire to leave their country," he insists, "contrary to the impression fostered in the West. Many if not most were perfectly comfortable with the socialist system that guaranteed them work, low-cost housing and free lifelong health care and schooling." There is no source for this fantastical claim. That a certain measure of nostalgia for the East German dictatorship exists from a distance of 20 years is undeniable, but an opinion poll taken in 1990 showed that 91 percent of East Germans favored unification and, by definition, the dissolution of the "worker's state."

When a free election was finally held in Poland, Meyer writes, "Here and there, a fair-minded minded few appreciated that communists such as General Czeslaw Kiszczak and others had made [elections] possible." In Meyer's view, totalitarians deserve praise because, abandoned by Moscow, they ultimately buckled to mounting pressure from the independent trade union Solidarity. In essence, he is asking the abducted to thank their captors for allowing them to go free. Most Poles likely had feelings closer to those of Adam Michnik, who in 1983 wrote a letter to Kiszczak calling him a "disgrace to the nation and a traitor to the Motherland" and a "dishonorable swine."

In his epilogue, with its digressions on the second Iraq war, Meyer flagellates himself for a post-1989 article he wrote that had a "triumphalist tone," and he urges readers to ponder the wisdom of a Lewis Carroll metaphor: "The world is always partly a mirror of ourselves." As Meyer explains, "We see all things, enemies especially, through the lens of our own hopes and fears and desires, inevitably distorted." One wonders if Meyer believes the Soviet Union—responsible for the forced starvation of Ukrainians in the 1930s and for Stalin's bloody purge trials, to name just two of countless atrocities—deserves that notoriously crude yet ultimately accurate label, "evil empire."

Reagan, of course, had his flaws, as voluminously documented by scholars, enemies, and sympathizers alike. But Gorbachev, Time's "Man of the Decade" for the 1980s (unlike Reagan) and a Nobel Peace Prize winner (unlike Reagan), often escapes similar scrutiny. Meyer is more interested in score settling, pointing out that many hard-liners in the Reagan and Bush administrations, several of whom later joined George W. Bush's administration, misjudged Gorbachev's seriousness.

Gorbachev's economic reforms were vague and ad hoc, and they wound up being tremendous failures. His chief foreign policy aide, Anatoly Chernyaev, grumbled during glasnost that Gorbachev "has no concept of where we are going. His declaration about socialist values, the ideals of October, as he begins to tick them off, sound like irony to the cognoscenti. Behind them—emptiness." As historian Robert Service has observed, Gorbachev intended glasnost as "a renaissance of Leninist ideals," while his books "still equivocated on Stalin." He avoided repeats of 1956 and 1968, when the Soviet military ruthlessly cracked down on its restive satellites, but did send troops to murder residents of Vilnius, Tblisi, and Baku. As Mary Elise Sarotte observes in her new book 1989: The Struggle to Create Post-Cold War Europe, Gorbachev "had not sought to introduce completely democratic politics into the Soviet Union."

Both Mann and Meyer are correct that without Gorbachev, the end of the Cold War wouldn't have arrived so quickly. And Vaclav Havel is surely right when he argues that Gorbachev's "historical achievement is enormous: communism would have collapsed without him anyway, but it might have happened 10 years later, and in God knows how wild and bloody a fashion." But Mann's case is convincing that the man of the decade, the great peace laureate, destroyed the Soviet Union "unintentionally," not as an expression of any democratic desires.

It is difficult to accept heroic portrayals of those who were complicit in the mass enslavement and murder of their unwilling subjects. The Soviet Union's leaders, out of at least partial desperation, opened the door to democracy a crack, and their restless captives barged right through. On the other side they found VHS players, compact discs, supermarkets overflowing with fresh produce, press freedom, the hurly-burly of markets, multiparty democracy—and an army of fallible historians, journalists, politicians, and pundits, all desperate to prove that they had been right all along.

James Burnham: Reagan's Geopolitical Genius

Afraid for the future of the West in the face of the Soviet threat, this former Trotskyite shaped Ronald Reagan's tough approach.

IN 1983, Ronald Reagan awarded James Burnham the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest U.S. civilian award. Reagan declared, “As a scholar, writer, historian and philosopher, James Burnham has profoundly affected the way America views itself and the world. . . . Freedom, reason and decency have had few greater champions in this century.” With his characteristic smile and tilt of the head, Reagan added, “And I owe him a personal debt, because throughout the years traveling the mash-potato circuit I have quoted you widely.” The award’s recipient, then seventy-seven, was surely flattered. He was in declining health—his eyesight deteriorating, his short-term memory devastated by a stroke. His professional standing, too, was a far cry from the days when he had stirred up intellectual debate with books that assaulted conventional thinking.

It was fitting that Reagan and Burnham should come together to celebrate their mutual fight against global Communism. If the Gipper—who gets credit from many historians and commentators for being, as the Economist put it in a 2004 cover headline, “The Man Who Beat Communism”—was key to winning the Cold War, then Burnham laid the intellectual blueprint for him. He was the father of the Reagan Doctrine. Like Whittaker Chambers, who had made a searing break with Communism, Burnham was, as Reagan put it upon his death in 1987, “one of those principally responsible for the great intellectual odyssey of our century: the journey away from totalitarian statism and toward the uplifting doctrines of freedom.” Nor was Reagan alone in his view. “More than any other single person,” writes historian George H. Nash, “Burnham supplied the conservative intellectual movement with the theoretical formulation for victory in the Cold War.”

Still, the Cold War ended nearly a quarter century ago. Even granting Burnham’s pivotal role in the ideological battles surrounding that long struggle, it seems fair to wonder: What lessons, if any, can we derive from Burnham’s global outlook for the present? There is an understandable but misguided tendency among many intellectuals and policy makers these days to apply Cold War impulses and strategies to post–Cold War realities. Burnham was a fierce Cold War hawk on the intellectual scene, as was Reagan on the political scene, and thus many assume that their hawkish instincts would carry over into the subsequent struggles against Islamic fundamentalism or upstart regional powers. Indeed, Burnham biographer Daniel Kelly and conservative commentator Richard Brookhiser have suggested that Burnham was “the first neoconservative.”

Others, though, have suggested that Burnham was a quintessential foreign-policy realist, who stripped away wispy thoughts about human fulfillment and punctured myths fashioned by elites to justify their societal dominance—a realist rooted in an unadorned understanding of human nature and man’s irrepressible quest for power. But this interpretation also runs into difficulty, as Burnham’s Cold War prescriptions often differed from those of the era’s realists—including Hans J. Morgenthau and Walter Lippmann, among academics and journalists and Henry Kissinger and Brent Scowcroft, among foreign-policy practitioners.

Perhaps it is best to try to understand Burnham as he understood himself. For his oeuvre reveals some intriguing contradictions that may help to elucidate contemporary foreign-policy disputes. Indeed, he personified the post–Cold War foreign-policy debate in his earlier writings about global power and America’s position in the world. The Burnham record cannot be fully understood, however, without exploring his remarkable odyssey from Franklin Roosevelt to Ronald Reagan—or, in his case, from Trotskyism to Reaganism.

BORN ON November 22, 1905, in Chicago, Burnham was the son of a wealthy railroad executive. He studied at Princeton and Balliol College, Oxford, where he received advanced degrees in English literature and medieval philosophy. Then he joined the philosophy department at New York University’s Washington Square College, where for the next thirty-two years he taught aesthetics, ethics and comparative literature. Soon—agitated by the ravages of the Great Depression, the apparent looming collapse of capitalism and the intriguing rise of Communism—he plunged into the turbulent world of left-wing radicalism.

He adopted the anti-Stalinist Bolshevik Leon Trotsky as his ideological lodestar. He joined various Trotsky-leaning organizations, coedited a Trotskyist theoretical journal called the New International, corresponded widely with the great man himself, and became embroiled in the intrigues and maneuverings of the Left. A gifted writer, Burnham emerged in New York literary circles as a thinker of rare dimension, depth and shrewdness.

Burnham was anything but the typical scruffy Trotskyist. Dedicated to the cause by day, the elegantly attired Burnham retreated to his Greenwich Village apartment by night and played bourgeois host at black-tie dinners where the guests seldom included his ideological brethren. Irving Howe considered him “haughty in manner and speech, . . . logical, gifted, terribly dry.” Others viewed him more as standoffish, perhaps a bit shy. But he was not easily ignored. James T. Farrell, who saw him as “prissy and ministerial,” used Burnham as the prototype for a character in his novel Sam Holman.

With the 1939 Soviet invasion of Poland, however, Burnham did a somersault. He repudiated Trotsky’s preposterous admonition that good socialists owed fealty to the Soviet system even in the face of comrade Stalin’s deviations from the true doctrine. Now he concluded the problem wasn’t Stalin but Communism itself. He broke with Trotsky, who promptly labeled him an “educated witch-doctor” and a “strutting petty-bourgeois pedant.” Burnham evinced no agony over this rupture. His commitment was “rational and pragmatic, not spiritual,” he explained. “God had not failed, so far as I was concerned. I had been mistaken, and when I came to realize the extent of my mistakes, it was time to say good-bye.”

Besides, he was developing a new theory of the ideological clash enveloping the industrial world, which he pulled together in his 1941 book The Managerial Revolution. It sold more than one hundred thousand hardcover copies in the United States and Britain during World War II, and far more in paperback. Postwar sales surged further when the book was translated into fourteen languages. The New York Times devoted three days of reviews and analyses to the book. Time displayed Burnham’s photo with a review that called the volume “the most sensational book of political theory since The Revolution of Nihilism.” Peter Drucker, reviewing it for the Saturday Review of Literature, labeled it “one of the best recent books on political and social trends.”

It argued that the great clash of the era was not between capitalism and socialism, but rather between capitalism and an emerging centralized society dominated by a new managerial class—business executives, technicians, soldiers, government bureaucrats and various kinds of experts in various kinds of organizations. This new class would assault the old structures of entrepreneurial capitalism, institute central planning and undercut any true democracy by superimposing themselves upon society as a kind of managerial oligarchy. Governmental intrusion and control would increase, though certain democratic norms would be preserved to provide legitimacy. The managerial era would engender superstates that would compete for global primacy. The outlines of this new epoch could be seen in the Soviet Union, Nazi Germany and, in less developed form, Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal.

The book had its critics, most notably George Orwell, whose penetrating analysis suggested how Burnham had gone astray. And some developments predicted by Burnham proved spectacularly wrong—for example, that Germany would win the war (this was before U.S. entry) that Germany and Japan would remain powerful states in their respective spheres that Germany would not attack the USSR before a British defeat and that the Soviets would be conquered. But Orwell pronounced the fundamental thesis “difficult to resist” and indeed incorporated it into his famous novel 1984. In retrospect, it is clear that Burnham had identified a fundamental shift in power interrelationships in the industrial world. Indeed, the most consequential fault line in American politics since the New Deal has been between the rising managerial class and those resisting its seemingly inexorable ascendancy.

Next came Burnham’s 1943 volume The Machiavellians, a kind of realist manifesto designed to help readers get past the myths of political discourse (or, as Burnham called them, ideologies) and get to the essence of political contention, which is always about power and its distribution. In projecting his thesis, he explored the thinking of four neo-Machiavellians—Robert Michels, Gaetano Mosca, Vilfredo Pareto and Georges Sorel. He made five important points.

First, the concept of representative government is essentially a fiction because of what Michels called the “iron law of oligarchy”—elites always emerge and zealously protect their power, while the masses ultimately depend psychologically upon autocratic leadership. Second, the myths or ideologies of any polity, while often nonrational in origin and substance, are crucial in maintaining societal cohesion and stability (along with the standing of elites), and so it is frivolous to attack them on the basis of verifiable facts or logic. Third, all healthy elites must maintain a kind of slow circulation, admitting new members and expelling obsolete elements, and they must maintain an equilibrium between lions (leaders who are traditionalist in outlook and willing to impose force) and foxes (the innovative ones who live by their wits, employing fraud, deceit and shrewdness). Without this flexibility and balance, an elite will atrophy and ultimately lose power. Fourth, human nature is fixed and flawed, and so government policies dedicated to the ethical fulfillment of man in society, as opposed to the protection of liberty, will fail. Fifth, societal stability and liberty require a balance of competing powers to check leadership abuses as Burnham put it, “Only power restrains power.” This leads to Burnham’s faith in what Mosca called “juridical defense”—essentially, the equilibrium that ensues when competing influences and forces in society, both governmental and nongovernmental, are allowed to counteract each other.

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