As we mark the 30th anniversary of the falling of the Berlin Wall on Saturday and President Reagan’s now iconic words, “Mr. Gorbachev tear down this wall”- It is important to remember the collapse of the Soviet Union did not happen overnight or just with that powerful speech. Behind the scenes the Reagans were also strategically engaging in “social” or “soft” diplomacy to help end the Cold War. In my upcoming book “Entertaining at the White House: Decades of Presidential Traditions,” available in December, I highlight how President Ronald Reagan and First Lady Nancy Reagan used this social diplomacy to their advantage through the hundreds of social events and dinners at the White House. One of the best examples is the State Dinner in honor of Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev in 1987.
President and Mrs. Reagan entered into the White House as seasoned pros when it came to political entertaining. Before becoming President of the United States, Reagan led the Screen Actors Guild prior to being elected Governor of California so both he and Mrs. Reagan were accustomed to hosting and attending important social events involving celebrities, diplomats, and heads of state. During their years at the White House Mrs. Reagan infused every White House event with a level of strategic sophistication that had not been seen in years because they knew the power of this type of soft diplomacy.
Although all State Dinners are historically important, the 1987 dinner for Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev was one of the most internationally significant of the Reagan administration. President Reagan’s ability to charm and change minds through subtle influence were put to the test. The dinner would symbolize the thawing of the Cold War and solidify a new, positive relationship between the United States and the Soviet Union.
Given the enormous anticipation of the Gorbachev Summit this State Dinner became one of the most coveted White House invitations to receive. Mrs. Reagan recalled in her memoirs, “For me the main event of the Washington Summit was the State Dinner for the Gorbachevs, which was my responsibility. State dinners are always grand occasions, but this one promised to be especially exciting, and everyone was clamoring for an invitation.” The guests were just not selections from the best of America but also believers in the Reagan international philosophy.
On December 8, 1987 at 7:10 p.m., the Gorbachevs arrived in a Russian-made Zil limousine greeted by the Reagans at the South Portico. Protocol and diplomacy play an even greater role when a dinner takes place during a major summit and everything was perfectly executed including the words during the toast https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1QwxOvI72_E, ”We cannot afford to rest. There is a great deal more to be done and time and history are marching on.”
One of the most thoughtful moments of the evening was the entertainment. The White House called on the first American to win the prestigious Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow, renowned pianist Van Cliburn to perform. The pianist hadn’t given a live performance in nine years, but made an exception for this momentous occasion. For the encore, Cliburn played something he knew the Soviet delegation would appreciate: “Moscow Nights,” that he had learned during his 1958 visit to Russia. The Soviets sang along as he played. President Gorbachev even hugged and kissed the pianist at the end he was so moved.
Former Second Lady, Lynne Cheney, then-head of the National Endowment for the Humanities, who attended with her husband, future Vice President Dick Cheney said in The New York Times. “This evening involves two superpowers, and it is a night that is looking very much to the future.”
The Reagan charm offensive had paid off and social diplomacy proved effective. “President Gorbachev and my husband had a certain chemistry that helped improve relations,” Mrs. Reagan wrote. “Their friendship continued even after both had left office.” That chemistry helped end the Cold War — and it lasted a lifetime. 17 years later, at the state funeral of Ronald Reagan, sat his former foe turned friend, Mikhail Gorbachev.
Jennifer Boswell Pickens is a White House East Wing historian with expertise in White House traditions, social events and first ladies. She is a public speaker and author of three books, “Christmas at the White House” and “Pets at the White House,” and “Entertaining at the White House: Decades of Presidential Traditions.” Follow Jennifer on Twitter.