30 Years Later: Lessons from the Fall of the Berlin Wall

30 Years Later: Lessons from the Fall of the Berlin Wall

Washington, DC — On Wednesday, November 6th, the George & Barbara Bush Foundation and the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation & Institute co-hosted, together with the Atlantic Council and Georgetown University, a program marking the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. The two-hour event, held in Georgetown’s Gaston Hall, was moderated by former ABC News anchor Sam Donaldson and Dean Joel Hellman of Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service, and featured welcoming remarks from former Secretary of State James A. Baker, III.

“What happened three decades ago this week fundamentally changed the world,” Secretary Baker said. “The lessons that Presidents Reagan and Bush provided during that critical window of history remain as pertinent today as they were back then.”

The audience was then treated to a genuine surprise when NBC News’ Tom Brokaw joined the program live via satellite from the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin and asked Secretary Baker to elaborate further on the significance of the events of 1989.

“I think history will clearly mark the correctness of George Bush’s moderated response to what was a cataclysmic event because he knew we still had a lot of business to do with (Soviet President Mikhail) Gorbachev and (Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard) Shevardnadze,” Mr. Baker said. “We weren’t going to stick it in their eye.”

Following a spirited discussion between scholars Jeffrey Engel of SMU and Peter Robinson of the Hoover Institute, former White House press secretary Marlin Fitzwater reunited with Peter Maer and Gene Gibbons — former members of the White House press corps — to reflect on November 9, 1989, the actual day the Wall fell. All three men were in the West Wing when President Bush met with the media reacting to development in Berlin.

“When the pool came into the Oval at 3:22 p.m., the President gave a very measured statement saying he was pleased, and this was a good development,” Fitzwater recalled. “Eventually, Leslie Stahl (of CBS News) asked, ‘This is a sort of great victory for our side in the big East-West battle — but you don’t seem elated.’ To which the President replied, ‘I am not an emotional kind of guy.’ That made all the news.” 

Fitzwater added: “In this case, the answer served to emphasize that President Bush was not going to dance on the wall, or appear to be celebrating in any way. And just one month later, after Mr. Gorbachev had said the German people should be allowed to determine their own future, he thanked the President for not dancing on the wall.”

Dean Hellman moderated the final panel examining the legacy of the Berlin Wall and its implications for U.S. relations in Germany and Europe today and tomorrow. Joining him were distinguished scholars and policy practitioners Ambassador Paula Dobriansky, a Senior Fellow at the Future of Diplomacy Project at Harvard; Ambassador Eric Edelman of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies; and Dr. Charles Kupchan, Professor of International Affairs in the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown.

“The Soviet Union fell apart because Gorbachev tried to reform it and lost control,” Dr. Kupchan observed. “And what we ended up with was the kind of flowering of the human spirit, the overthrow of the structures of the Soviet Union, and then Gorbachev, and Reagan and George H. W. Bush and others stepped in and did a remarkable job of controlling the aftermath. It’s stunning that the Cold War came to an end without war. Most transitions of that sort are usually very bloody.”
Roger Zakheim, the Washington Director of the Reagan Institute, concluded the program.