The abrupt fall of the Berlin Wall caught the West by surprise. At the White House, President George H.W. Bush was wary of inflaming a potentially unstable situation and issued a statement so low-key it made people wonder if he was on valium. "You don't seem elated," Leslie Stahl said to Bush. "I'm not an emotional kind of guy," Bush replied. With the time difference between Europe and the U.S., the American news media scrambled to catch up to the story. Naturally the TV news shows began looping Reagan's call to "tear down this wall!" ABC News reached Ronald Reagan at home in Los Angeles, and he agreed to go on ABC's PrimeTime Live, where he appeared to be as astonished as everyone else. Sam Donaldson asked Reagan, "Did you think it would come this soon?" Reagan, subdued throughout the interview, replied, "I didn't know when it would come, but I'm an eternal optimist, and I believed with all my heart that it was in the future." Like Bush, Reagan didn't wish to embarrass or humiliate Gorbachev, so Reagan denied to Donaldson that he'd ever directly spoken to Gorbachev about the Wall, though we know from subsequent transcripts that he had.
Mostly Reagan repeated some of his better known public themes from his Cold War diplomacy ("trust, but verify"), but he did take a mild shot at his critics: "Contrary to what some critics have said, I never believed that we should just assume that everything was going to be all right." Asked to revisit his "evil empire" comment, Reagan said," I have to tell you--I said that on purpose. . . I believe the Soviet Union needed to see and hear what we felt about them. They needed to be aware that we were realists." A nice turn, suggesting that it was the anti-Communist "ideologues" who were the true realists all along. Prompted to revisit his 1982 prediction that Communism was headed to the "ash heap of history," Reagan ended the interview with the short observation: "People have had time in some 70-odd years since the Communist revolution to see that Communism has had its chance, and it doesn't work."
But it was the end of more than a 20th century story. Some of the East German protestors in the streets of Leipzig in early November carried banners that read, "1789-1989." The storming of the Bastille in 1789 could be said to have marked the beginning of utopian revolutionary politics; now the storming of the Berlin Wall in 1989 marked its end. As Timothy Garton Ash observed, "Nineteen eighty-nine also caused, throughout the world, a profound crisis of identity on what had been known since the French revolution of 1789 as 'the left.'" The deep unpopularity of the Communist regimes revealed by the peoples of Eastern Europe in 1989 was an embarrassment to moderate liberals and value-free social scientists who regarded these nations as stable and legitimate forms of governance, and it was a source of faith-shaking crisis for the far left that openly sympathized with these regimes. On the intellectual level the death of revolutionary socialism has found a successor in "post-modern" philosophy that preserves some aspects of decayed Marxism. But its obscurity limits its power to convince, and as such is unlikely to advance beyond the barricades of academic English departments. Those artificial intellectual walls will take longer to come down.