No matter how clear we try to make it, looking back at 1989 is always a bit like peering into a kaleidoscope. Everything happened so quickly that the participants, from policymakers in Washington to Germans in the streets and Soviet apparatchiks, could barely keep up as the world they knew came crashing down. The end of communism in Europe, on some level at least, makes sense: the Soviets had bankrupted themselves, and their client states throughout Eastern Europe predicted a better future with the West. But if Moscow had wanted, it might have been able to thwart that path of history; instead, it simply allowed the march of freedom that everybody rushed to call inexorable. In fact, the West didn't win the Cold War so much as the East lost it.
Without the benefit of hindsight, though, events unfolded so rapidly that it was almost impossible to keep tabs on the blur. Take just one day, June 4. Solidarity, the political opposition movement in Poland that had been gathering steam for years, made a run at nationwide elections. (The communists had foolishly let them do so.) Though Solidarity toppled the old regime's three-legged throne, Washington was simultaneously blindsided with more earth-shattering news. On the very same day, another communist regime flexed its muscle, slaughtering pro-democracy protesters in Tiananmen Square. And as if China's crackdown weren't enough to crowd Washington's bandwidth, news also broke that Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, leader of the Iranian revolution and archenemy of the U.S., had died. In the first half of 1989, Poland became a blip.
A raft of new books on the fall of the Berlin Wall venture back to the most tumultuous year in world politics since the end of the Second World War, trying to reconstruct exactly what happened and why. Reading them together is like twisting that kaleidoscope and doing everything to avoid vertigo. But important patterns emerge: for one thing, American statesmanship had little, if anything, to do with the actual fall of the wall. If any single person deserves the credit, it was Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, not President Reagan. For another, things happened so fast that the United States couldn't have pulled the strings even if it had wanted to. The fall of the Soviet Union was like other great revolutions in history—first a hairline fracture in the glass, and then a deafening break as it shattered.
One thing we know now is that Washington should have paid better attention to Poland. And Romania. And the German Democratic Republic. If they had done so, Americans wouldn't have been caught so badly off guard. In a must-have accounting, Revolution 1989: The Fall of the Soviet Empire (Pantheon Books), the British historian and newspaperman Victor Sebestyen sets the scene, reporting that the CIA, with the help of the Vatican, funneled more than $50 million to Solidarity over the years. Sebestyen's brilliantly written narrative unfolds in brief, gripping episodes and, in a welcome move, reaches back to the election of the Pole Karol Wojtyla as Pope John Paul II. (Somewhat more dubiously, Sebestyen sees the church's role in events as second only to Moscow's.) Populations of the people's democracies hated communism, Sebestyen says. And more, so did their leaders. After all, Moscow planted nukes on Czech soil without even informing the country's elites. In the late 1980s the problem wasn't so much the ideological legacy of Vladimir Lenin as much as it was the impoverished and discredited regime in Moscow.
Even as Langley fed Polish liberals, though, Washington remained largely unaware of the imminent dissipation in Eastern Europe. The CIA's own National Intelligence Estimates continually missed the mark. In The Year That Changed the World: The Untold Story Behind the Fall of the Berlin Wall (Simon & Schuster), Michael Meyer recounts the insight of a national-security aide at the time: "We in Washington often found ourselves in the role of thrilled, if not to say astonished, onlookers." Unlike Sebestyen and his long, historical arc, Meyer—who witnessed events while covering Germany and Eastern Europe for NEWSWEEK—brings the latter months of 1989 to life by living up to the book's subtitle and weaving his firsthand reporting into a high-drama, vividly told, five-act narrative. Reinforcing the point that Americans were happy beneficiaries but not prime movers, Meyer even skewers Ronald Reagan's now famous challenge, "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!" The truth, Meyer argues, was that at the time, the speech was something of a dud, hyped only in retrospect. American flags waving that day had been planted by the U.S. Embassy, and "a large majority [of Germans] actively disliked [Reagan]." Instead, change actually originated within the empire.
For Meyer, the "untold story" revolves around Miklós Neméth, the reform-minded and diplomatically brilliant prime minister of Hungary. By 1989, like most of the Warsaw Pact countries, Hungary faced dismal financial straits, and Neméth looked West for answers. Upon taking power, Neméth took his time making the ceremonial visit to Moscow. When he finally arrived, he privately broached the possibility of Hungarian elections with Gorbachev. The Soviet leader was furious. Neméth pushed him, asking point blank: if communists in Budapest were voted from power, would Russia retaliate? "Nyet," Gorbachev finally said. "At least, not while I am sitting in this chair." It was a startling admission of restraint. For Meyer, what came next was legendary. After ultrasecret negotiations with the West Germans, Neméth opened the country's border with Austria, striking a blow at the heart of Moscow's grip. The empire could no longer control the borders of the Warsaw Pact. Meyer calls the choreography "one of the great subterfuges in the annals of diplomatic history," one that would set in motion the breakaways of other states to the West, culminating in the Nov. 9 opening of the Berlin Wall.
Looming over all of this is Gorbachev. Sebestyen suggests that Gorbachev's ascension to the heights of power in the Soviet Union was a remarkable feat, since "people of intellect and imagination were weeded out by a system that favored toadies and the mediocre." At home, Gorbachev pursued two objectives: perestroika and glasnost. Technically, they mean "restructuring" and "openness," but Sebestyen writes that for the Soviet leader they "meant whatever he chose them to mean." Broadly, though, they meant liberalization. Speaking in New York at the first U.N. General Assembly after he took office (he was greeted in New York by a giant ticker in Times Square saying, "WELCOME COMRADE GENERAL SECRETARY GORBACHEV"), he pledged to give up the Soviet dedication to "class struggle" in favor of "universal human values." The year after the wall fell, Gorbachev won the Nobel Peace Prize. (Article continued below...)
After the country's remarkable tenure as a superpower, why would any leader oversee its disintegration? Simply put, he had little choice: when Gorbachev took power in 1985, he was handed a mess on a platter. Years of low productivity and a lack of innovation had left the budget in shambles. Subsidies for everyday necessities had led only to shortages, while military spending continued. In a telling transaction, in 1985 Moscow had to go to the U.S. for a $200 million line of credit to buy Canadian grain. Meanwhile, the country had lost 7,500 soldiers in a fruitless five-year occupation of Afghanistan (which Gorbachev eventually ended). The next year, a nuclear reactor at Chernobyl melted down, causing an enormous human and ecological crisis. The disaster, the bungled response, and the public-relations crisis encapsulated everything wrong with the government: frugality, deception, bureaucracy, sloth. "It was a devastating blow to the public's trust in him," Sebestyen writes. "And to his trust in those who worked for him." As discontent in the satellite states roiled, Gorbachev could have clamped down with violence. Instead, he took the less painful path of liberalization—though it was one that required more pride-swallowing—which, of course, then led to disintegration.
That, in any case, is the convincing argument of a slim monograph by Princeton historian Stephen Kotkin. In Uncivil Society: 1989 and the Implosion of the Communist Establishment (Modern Library), Kotkin concedes that the Solidarity movement galvanized something like "civil society" in turning back the communists, but he says that it did not liberate Poland on the basis of its strength or savvy: "Most analysts continue to focus disproportionately, even exclusively on the 'opposition,' " but a powerful, organized movement did not exist anywhere in Eastern Europe. Strangely, the CIA money, the church, and resistance groups like Solidarity, which are credited by Meyer and especially Sebestyen as worthy adversaries of the Red Empire, are dismissed by Kotkin as insignificant, even impotent. Though hundreds of thousands of people were protesting on East German streets, he says, "this was mass mobilization without mass organization." For Kotkin, it was a failure of omission by Moscow rather than a victory of commission by Eastern European dissidents.
Take the dismal economies of Eastern Europe. As Kotkin reports, after World War II, those countries grew at nearly 4 percent a year, a respectable pace. But after the first oil shock of 1973, "the Communist tree ceased leafing." By 1989, debt crippled many of the governments. Eighteen billion dollars in the red, Hungary needed $1 billion a year just to pay the interest. (No wonder Neméth had soured on communism.) Poland needed twice that. And Moscow, with its imperial treasury, never came to the rescue. Kotkin summarizes thus: "After all the exertions, violence, and sacrifice, far from outdueling the West, the bloc had fallen into dependence on the West." It would have been more accurate to say, however, that central planning couldn't keep pace with the self-regulations of capitalism. It wasn't dependence as much as the end of a rivalry. When the Eastern European governments tried price hikes (after all, they controlled every aspect of their economies), they caused riots. In the end, ideology didn't even matter—the most basic needs of society were not being met.
So, on Nov. 9, a commander at Checkpoint Charlie, the most iconic locale of the Cold War, caved to the shouting of the throngs amassed around him. In Meyer's account, "Whatever the case, at 11:17 p.m., precisely, [the border guard] shrugged his shoulders…as if to say, why not?" And the wall opened. Tens of thousands flooded the West. On hearing the news, Gorbachev remained calm. President George H.W. Bush offered a muted speech, concerned that anything inflammatory would enrage Moscow to violent action.
The clampdown never came. But, seeing impunity for the East Germans, other revolutions soon followed across all Europe. With the exception of Romania, where just over a thousand died, they were impressively peaceful. And as the 20th anniversary nears, some certainties are emerging. Foremost among them is that the key was Gorbachev's humility, not Washington's perseverance. The former was wise enough to realize the empire's moment had passed, and the latter largely watched events unfold while sitting on its hands. Both players followed strategies of restraint, but it's clear that Washington's weak hand was lucky, while Gorbachev's loosened fist was heroic. And the end of the Cold War meant neither would play the same roles again.