As the United States celebrates Ronald Reagan's centennial birthday, the defining proof of his greatness as president will be represented by two sequential film clips -- Reagan in Berlin ordering Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev to "tear down this wall," followed by scenes of the Berlin Wall coming down.
The intended impression of this editing technique is to suggest a causal relationship: tough-guy Reagan tells the Soviet leader to do something and, poof, it's done. Ronald Reagan "wins the Cold War."
While this video sophistry has worked wonders with the American public -- and has been used frequently by U.S. networks, including in a 2007 PBS documentary by neoconservative Richard Perle -- the reality is that the two events, Reagan's speech and the Wall's destruction, had little to do with one another.
Reagan made his speech on June 12, 1987, and the dismantling of the Berlin Wall did not begin until November 1989, more than two years later. Even then, President Gorbachev didn't "tear down this wall"; the German people did, starting with sledgehammers and later using industrial equipment, as East and West Germany were reunified.
Nevertheless, the deceptive "tear down this wall" editing has become a hallmark of the Reagan mythology -- and given the right-wing media's power in the United States and the timidity of the mainstream press, few talking heads are likely to object when the clips are shown again as Reagan's birthday rolls around on Feb. 6. Nor will any politician, Republican or Democrat, complain.
Careerists in Washington know that the better part of valor is to play along with the Reagan myths. After all, for the past two decades, the conventional wisdom has been to give Reagan credit for "winning the Cold War." So why rock the boat now?
But the truth is far more complex and much less favorable to Reagan's historical legacy. It would be more accurate to say that Reagan extended or even re-ignited the Cold War at the cost of well over $1 trillion in additional U.S. military spending, while he also implicated the United States in human rights atrocities that badly damaged America's reputation around the world.
Clearly, the course of history might have been very different -- and possibly far more peaceful -- if Reagan had not emerged as an attractive political figure on the national stage in the 1970s and 1980s. He provided an amiable face to cover years of human horror and budgetary madness.
The Dream of Detente
In the early-to-mid-1970s, the mainstream political consensus was that the Cold War was winding down as President Richard Nixon promoted an era of detente. Washington and Moscow -- both weary from their long competition -- were looking for ways to ease tensions, especially on nuclear arms.
At that point, Reagan began his rise to national power, fueled by a right-wing contention that supporters of detente were wrong about the Soviet interest in accommodations with the West. The Right's view was that Moscow was only lulling Washington to sleep before a final push for global conquest.
It also became an article faith on the Right -- and among a new group, called the neoconservatives -- that CIA analysts were willfully underestimating Soviet strength and overstating Moscow's vulnerabilities.
So, in 1976, as Reagan was scaring President Gerald Ford by making a strong bid for the Republican nomination, Ford banished the word "detente" from his administration's lexicon and allowed a group of Cold War hardliners (and some early neocons, such as Paul Wolfowitz) to conduct an unprecedented challenge to the assessment of the CIA's famed Kremlinologists.
The idea of this right-wing counter-analysis, known as "Team B," had been opposed by the previous CIA director, William Colby, as in inappropriate intrusion into the integrity of the CIA's analytical product. But Ford's new CIA director, a politically ambitious George H.W. Bush, was ready to acquiesce to the right-wing pressure.
"Although his top analysts argued against such an undertaking, Bush checked with the White House, obtained an O.K., and by May 26  signed off on the experiment with the notation, "Let her fly!!," wrote Anne Hessing Cahn after reviewing declassified documents on the "Team B" experiment. [See "Team B: The Trillion Dollar Experiment," The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.]
Although the CIA's raw data did not support the right-wing alarmist suspicions anymore than the polished analysis did, Team B still went with a worst-case scenario of Soviet power and intentions. Team B simply concluded that the absence of evidence about suspected Soviet super-weapons simply meant the Soviets were well-skilled at hiding the weapons from U.S. detection.