Reagan’s Epochal Battle Against Communism Offers Lessons

President used radio stations as a public diplomacy tool to defeat Soviets
By Emel Akan
Emel Akan
Emel Akan
Emel Akan is White House economic policy reporter in Washington, D.C. Previously she worked in the financial sector as an investment banker at JPMorgan and as a consultant at PwC. She graduated with a master’s degree in business administration from Georgetown University.
November 20, 2019 Updated: November 21, 2019

WASHINGTON—This year marks the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, and valuable lessons could be learned from former President Ronald Reagan’s policies and vision that contributed mightily to the bloodless collapse of the Wall and the Soviet empire.

Reagan repeatedly said that his strategy for the Soviet Union was simple: “We win, they lose.” But he knew the war against the Soviets wouldn’t be fought on the battlefield with guns and rockets.

As former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher put it, “Reagan won the Cold War without firing a shot.”

He used public diplomacy as an effective tool to connect with nearly 400 million people who lived behind the Iron Curtain. And this strategy was instrumental in hastening the defeat of communism in the Eastern bloc.

It was a war of information, ideas, and conceptions, said John Lenczowski, founder and president of The Institute of World Politics (IWP), an independent graduate school of national security and international affairs in Washington.

Lenczowski, who also served on Reagan’s National Security Council from 1983 to 1987, said the administration’s “strategic purpose was to try to connect with the peoples of the Soviet empire to make them feel as though they were not alone.”

“Because the principal method of the rule of these regimes was to cram their people into a mold, into which they could not fit,” he said at an event hosted by the IWP on Nov. 15.

He noted that about 30 percent of the population in East Germany, for example, were secret informants of the regime, which created an atmosphere of fear and atomization of society.

“And then all of this was enforced by political correctness, by ideological conformity, and the monopoly by the regime of all the instruments of communication, information, and education,” he said.

So Reagan’s objective, Lenczowski said, was to try to break that monopoly.

‘The Great Communicator’

Reagan, who served as the 40th president of the United States, from 1981 to 1989, was known as “The Great Communicator.” He used radio broadcasting as one of the principal ways of connecting with people overseas.

He ordered the strengthening of U.S. international broadcasters, including the Voice of America, Radio Free Europe, and Radio Liberty.

“We got $2.5 billion in order to strengthen the signals and the programming of those radios,” Lenczowski said.

Dissemination of America’s message abroad was a key part of the Reagan administration’s foreign policy, and a new technology back in the day had enabled it.

According to Kenneth Adelman, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and arms control director for Reagan, the technology was “the evolving global communications network which has made public diplomacy a more powerful instrument.”

An article by Adelman published in 1981 in Foreign Affairs magazine explained Reagan’s foreign policy approach.

“The personality is that of Ronald Reagan, a gifted professional communicator who has spent much of his adult life in radio, on the lecture circuit, in syndicated column-writing, or along the campaign trail,” Adelman wrote. “Public diplomacy is the component of international affairs he knows best and does best.”

‘Dankest Corridors of the Gulag’

In 1983, Reagan gave one of his famous speeches in which he branded the Soviet Union as an “evil empire” for the first time, and framed the conflict between the two superpowers as a struggle between “good and evil.”

“This reverberated, as I like to say, in the dankest corridors of the Gulag,” Lenczowski said, referring to forced labor camps.

Reagan’s presidential rhetoric gave sudden hope to many dissidents and human rights activists inside the communist bloc, such as Vladimir Bukovsky and Nathan Sharansky, who were imprisoned in those Soviet gulags, he said.

Reagan, however, was fighting a domestic war as well. Many in Washington—including his own staff—believed that the U.S. government should be soft on communism and accept the Soviet regime as here for good.

“The vastly larger number of scholars and policy experts were convinced that the Soviet system and the Soviet Union itself was a permanent feature of the global political landscape and that really was not going to go away,” Lenczowski said. These people argued that U.S. foreign policy should “accommodate to it or else there was a risk that we would be blowing each other up on the nuclear battlefield.”

The Berlin Wall

Reagan’s ideas were so radical at the time that almost no one believed he was right. But Reagan and some in his administration saw Soviet weakness and believed many things about their system were “contrary to human nature,” Lenczowski said.

In 1987, Reagan called on Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to “tear down this wall,” in his famous speech in Berlin.

According to Peter Robinson, Reagan’s speechwriter, however, “the State Department, the National Security Council, and the ranking American diplomat in Berlin all objected to it.”

“The president insisted on delivering the call anyway,” Robinson wrote in a Wall Street Journal op-ed in 2012.

Almost two and a half years later, on Nov. 9, 1989, the physical wall that divided East and West Berlin for nearly three decades was indeed taken down.

Despite all the domestic resistance, Reagan’s strategy worked. His policies, along with his public diplomacy, were instrumental in leading to the removal of the Wall, followed by the eradication of communism in Eastern Europe, and eventually, the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991.

According to Lenczowski, public diplomacy should be an integral part of today’s foreign policy establishment.

“The State Department has long had a culture that focuses principally on relations with governments, as opposed to relations with people,” he said.

Changing this culture, he said, “requires political leadership.”

Emel Akan
Emel Akan
Emel Akan is White House economic policy reporter in Washington, D.C. Previously she worked in the financial sector as an investment banker at JPMorgan and as a consultant at PwC. She graduated with a master’s degree in business administration from Georgetown University.