OTD in History… June 12, 1987, President Reagan calls on Gorbachev to tear down the Berlin Wall

By Bonnie K. Goodman, BA, MLIS

On this day in history June 12, 1987, President Ronald Reagan delivered a speech at the Brandenburg Gate and called upon the Soviet Union leader Mikhail Gorbachev to “Tear down this wall!” in what became known as Berlin Wall Speech. The speech challenged Gorbachev but was controversial in Berlin and among his speechwriting team. Reagan had made two previous references to the Berlin Wall in 1982 and 1986, but this was the boldest of his references. The speech is one of Reagan’s most famous anti-Communist speeches and a symbol of the start of ending the Cold War.

Berliner’s protested Reagan’s arrival in West Germany, with 50,000 opposing his visit to the country. Earlier most of his speechwriters opposed the controversial line, concerned that it might heighten tensions with the Soviet Union, however, junior speechwriter Peter Robinson researched the mood in Germany and believed they wanted the wall down. Soviets erected the Berlin Wall in 1961 to prevent East Berliners in the Soviet bloc escaping to the Western-controlled half of the city.

In a May 18, meeting with his speechwriters, the line had fierce opposition from White House Chief of Staff Howard Baker and National Security Advisor Colin Powell, while Reagan was noted as saying, the speech was a “good solid draft” and said about the line, “I think we’ll leave it in.” Robinson claims to have gotten his inspiration from Ingeborg Elz of West Berlin at a dinner, who had said, “If this man Gorbachev is serious with his talk of Glasnost and perestroika he can prove it by getting rid of this wall.” Chief speechwriter Anthony Dolan counters Robinson’s recollection and insists Reagan thought of the line, not Robinson.

Reagan and First Lady Nancy Reagan arrived in West Berlin on June 12, to protests. They first visited the Reichstag, where they stood on the gallery observing the wall, before heading to the Brandenburg Gate for the speech at 2 p.m. Reagan chose the gate because both President John F. Kennedy and Jimmy Carter delivered speeches in the same spot. Kennedy’s “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech in 1963 was the better-known coming just months after the wall was erected and is considered “one of Kennedy’s best.”

Reagan’s speech “emphasiz[ed] freedom and reunification,” and challenged Gorbachev to show good faith in negotiations and challenged him to get rid of the wall, calling on him to do so twice in the speech.

The first time with the famous line:

“We welcome change and openness; for we believe that freedom and security go together, that the advance of human liberty can only strengthen the cause of world peace. There is one sign the Soviets can make that would be unmistakable, that would advance dramatically the cause of freedom and peace. General Secretary Gorbachev, 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!”

The second, Reagan stated he foresees the inevitability of the wall falling:

“As I looked out a moment ago from the Reichstag, that embodiment of German unity, I noticed words crudely spray-painted upon the wall, perhaps by a young Berliner, ‘This wall will fall. Beliefs become reality.’ Yes, across Europe, this wall will fall. For it cannot withstand faith; it cannot withstand truth. The wall cannot withstand freedom.”

The speech’s focus, however, was to get Gorbachev at the negotiating table to reduce nuclear arms, particularly SS-20 weapons. As Reagan brought up, saying, “Not merely of limiting the growth of arms, but of eliminating, for the first time, an entire class of nuclear weapons from the face of the Earth.”

The speech was not given the weight at the time as it does in historical context. When the wall fell on November 9, 1989, and Berlin reunified on October 3, 1990, Reagan’s call and foreshadowing had greater significance. Some journalists have been critical of the speech’s impact, however, New York Times best-selling author James Mann, believes it did have an impact on ending the Cold War. Mann argued in his 2007 New York Times article “Tear Down That Myth,” Reagan “wasn’t trying to land a knockout blow on the Soviet regime, nor was he engaging in mere political theater. He was instead doing something else on that damp day in Berlin… — he was helping to set the terms for the end of the cold war.”

READ MORE

Matlock, Jack F. Reagan and Gorbachev: How the Cold War Ended. New York: Random House, 2004.

Ratnesar, Romesh. Tear Down This Wall: A City, a President, and the Speech That Ended the Cold War. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2009.

Bonnie K. Goodman BA, MLIS (McGill University), is a journalist, librarian, historian & editor. She is a former Features Editor at the History News Network & reporter at Examiner.com where she covered politics, universities, religion and news. She has a dozen years experience in education & political journalism.