“Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” – Ronald Reagan
After World War II, a Cold War erupted between the world’s two superpowers – the United States and the Soviet Union. Germany was occupied and then divided after the war as was its capital, Berlin. The Soviet Union erected the Berlin Wall in 1961 as a symbol of the divide between East and West in the Cold War and between freedom and tyranny.
During the 1960s and 1970s, the superpowers entered into a period of détente or decreasing tensions. However, the Soviet Union took advantage of détente to use revenue from rising oil prices and arms sales to engage in a massive arms build-up, supported communist insurrections in developing nations around the globe, and invaded Afghanistan.
Ronald Reagan was elected president in 1980 during a time of foreign-policy reversals including the Vietnam War and the Iranian Hostage Crisis. He blamed détente for strengthening and emboldening the Soviets and sought to improve American strength abroad.
As president, Reagan instituted a tough stance towards the Soviets that was designed to reverse their advances and win the Cold War. His administration supported the Polish resistance movement known as Solidarity, increased military spending, started the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), and armed resistance fighters around the world, including the mujahideen battling a Soviet invasion in Afghanistan.
Reagan had a long history of attacking communist states and the idea of communism itself that shaped his strategic outlook. In the decades after World War II, like many Americans, he was concerned about Soviet dominance in Eastern Europe spreading elsewhere. In 1952, Reagan compared communism to Nazism and other forms of totalitarianism characterized by a powerful state that limited individual freedoms.
“We have met [the threat] back through the ages in the name of every conqueror that has ever set upon a course of establishing his rule over mankind,” he said. “It is simply the idea, the basis of this country and of our religion, the idea of the dignity of man, the idea that deep within the heart of each one of us is something so godlike and precious that no individual or group has a right to impose his or its will upon the people.”
In a seminal televised speech in 1964 called “A Time for Choosing,” Reagan stated that he believed there could be no accommodation with the Soviets. “We cannot buy our security, our freedom from the threat of the bomb by committing an immorality so great as saying to a billion human beings now in slavery behind the Iron Curtain, ‘Give up your dreams of freedom because to save our own skins, we are willing to make a deal with your slave-masters.’”
Reagan targeted the Berlin Wall as a symbol of communism in a 1967 televised town hall debate with Robert Kennedy. “I think it would be very admirable if the Berlin Wall should…disappear,” Reagan said, “We just think that a wall that is put up to confine people, and keep them within their own country…has to be somehow wrong.”
In 1978, Reagan visited the wall and heard the story of Peter Fechter, one of hundreds who were shot by East German police while trying to escape to freedom over the Berlin Wall. As a result, Reagan told an aide, “My idea of American policy toward the Soviet Union is simple, and some would say simplistic. It is this: We win and they lose.”
As president, he continued his unrelenting attack on the idea of communism according to his moral vision of the system. In a 1982 speech to the British Parliament, he predicted that communism would end up “on the ash heap of history,” and that the wall was “the signature of the regime that built it.” When he visited the wall during the same trip, he stated that “It’s as ugly as the idea behind it.” In a 1983 speech, he referred to the Soviet Union an “evil empire.”
Reagan went to West Berlin to speak during a ceremony commemorating the 750th anniversary of the city and faced a choice. He could confront the Soviets about the wall, or he could deliver a speech without controversy.
In June 1987, many officials in his administration and West Germany were opposed to any provocative words or actions during the anniversary speech. Many Germans also did not want Reagan to deliver his speech anywhere near the wall and feared anything that might be perceived as an aggressive signal. Secretary of State George Schultz and Chief of Staff Howard Baker questioned the speech and asked the president and his speechwriters to tone down the language. Deputy National Security Advisor Colin Powell and other members of the National Security Council wanted to alter the speech and offered several revisions. Reagan demanded to speak next to the Berlin Wall and determined that he would use the occasion to confront the threat the wall posed to human freedom.
Reagan and his team arrived in West Berlin on June 12. He spoke to reporters and nervous German officials, telling them, “This is the only wall that has ever been built to keep people in, not keep people out.” Meanwhile, in East Berlin, the German secret police and Russian KGB agents cordoned off an area a thousand yards wide opposite the spot where Reagan was to speak on the other side of the wall. They wanted to ensure that no one could hear the message of freedom.
Reagan spoke at the Brandenburg Gate with the huge, imposing wall in the background. “As long as this gate is closed, as long as this scar of a wall is permitted to stand, it is not the German question alone that remains open, but the question of freedom for all mankind.”
Reagan challenged Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev directly, stating, “If you seek peace, if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, if you seek liberalization: Come here to this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”
He finished by predicting the wall would not endure because it stood for oppression and tyranny. “This wall will fall. For it cannot withstand faith; it cannot withstand truth. The wall cannot withstand freedom.” No one imagined that the Berlin Wall would fall only two years later on November 9, 1989, as communism collapsed across Eastern Europe.
A year later, Reagan was at a summit with Gorbachev in Moscow and addressed the students at Moscow State University. “The key is freedom,” Reagan boldly and candidly told them. “It is the right to put forth an idea, scoffed at by the experts, and watch it catch fire among the people. It is the right to dream – to follow your dream or stick to your conscience, even if you’re the only one in a sea of doubters.” Ronald Reagan believed that he had a responsibility to bring an end to the Cold War and destroy all nuclear weapons to benefit both the United States as well as the world for an era of peace. He dedicated himself to achieving this goal. Partly due to these efforts, the Berlin Wall fell by 1989, and communism collapsed in the Soviet Union by 1991.
Tony Williams is a Senior Fellow at the Bill of Rights Institute and is the author of six books including Washington and Hamilton: The Alliance that Forged America with Stephen Knott. Williams is currently writing a book on the Declaration of Independence.
Click Here to have the NEWEST essay in this study emailed to your inbox every day!
Click Here to view the schedule of topics in our 90-Day Study on American History.