Dunsmore: The fall of the Wall

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(HOST) Monday, November 9th, marks the 20th Anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the effective end of the Cold War. As ABC’s top foreign correspondent, commentator Barrie Dunsmore was in Berlin that night. This morning he reflects on some of the people who made that historic event possible.

(DUNSMORE) We now know that it was because of a blunder by an East German spokesman that the Berlin Wall was breached on November 9th, 1989. But even if he hadn’t mistakenly said passports and exit visits for East Germans would be available "immediately" – by then the Wall’s days were numbered.

As I look back on 1989, I think of the brave reformers I had the privilege to get to know in Warsaw, Budapest and East Berlin. Even as they worked for the freedom of their countries, they had historical reasons to fear they might set off another Soviet crackdown. There was also the real possibility they themselves would become victims of their own repressive regimes. These acts of great personal courage are too often missing in big picture histories.

I’ll always remember my first conversation with Professor Jens Reich, a microbiologist and co-founder of the New Forum, a then new opposition political movement that would be anathema to the East German police state. I called him from London and, assuming his phone would be tapped, I was circumspect in trying to set up an appointment. He sensed this, and to my surprise he said, "I have made my decision, Mr. Dunsmore, and I am not afraid. Call me when you get to East Berlin, and I will be happy to see you."

When I arrived at his modest apartment a few days later, there were two secret police cars outside. But over the next six weeks, I talked with Dr. Reich in person or by phone nearly every day, which greatly helped my reporting. Much more important, the New Forum movement became the vehicle for massive anti-government protests that ultimately doomed the East German regime.

However the Cold War would not have ended without Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. Over several years I got to watch Gorbachev profoundly change the politics of his country – and occasionally even to ask him a question. It was a challenge to persuade American officials I knew, and even some of my bosses, that this was a very different Soviet communist who was not seeking world domination and certainly not nuclear war – but who truly wanted to improve the lot of the Russian people.

President Ronald Reagan also certainly deserves credit for helping to end the Cold War – but not through his early policies of confrontation, which is the myth America’s hard liners would have us believe. Actually, in his second term Reagan pursued diplomatic engagement with Gorbachev – and he encouraged and supported Soviet reforms.

As proof of that, I offer the memorable moment as we watched Reagan strolling with Gorbachev in Moscow’s Red Square. "Do you still think you’re in an evil empire, Mr. President?" asked my colleague Sam Donaldson. "No," Reagan said without hesitation. "I was talking about another time and another era." With that, 18 months before the fall of the Berlin Wall, we got a major clue that the end of the Cold War might well be at hand.

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