On June 12, 1987 President Ronald Reagan, standing before the iconic Brandenburg Gate in Berlin with the Berlin Wall looming behind him, issued his famous challenge to the leader of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev: “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.” President Reagan’s words that day have been credited with placing considerable pressure on the Soviet Union to bring down the Berlin Wall, in addition to galvanizing American public opinion towards US foreign policy aims in Europe (including the unification of Germany). 1987 is also a telling year for the Soviet Union, as Gorbachev had re-branded and initiated both glasnost – openness, greater freedoms and transparency in government – and perestroika – the linchpin of Soviet economic restructuring that removed the governments full and central control over the market. While Gorbachev’s ultimate goal was to keep the Soviet Union together, both glasnost and perestroika played a defining role in bringing at end to the Soviet Union. Reagan’s speech falls within that time of restructuring in the Soviet Union and, metaphorically, put one of many final nails in the coffin of Soviet demise. By November of 1989 the Berlin Wall would fall, ushering in a new era for Eastern Europe, Germany and Eurasia. On Christmas Day 1991, the Soviet Union would formally end.
As with any moment or event in history, controversy remains prevalent. For conservatives Reagan’s speech has taken on iconic status: chest-thumping the merits of American foreign policy and the president’s unique role in bringing down the evil Soviet Union. Others, such as Democrats and liberals, feel Reagan’s speech was nothing but show – a moment of bravado that had minimal effect on a empire that was already rotting away. Perhaps there is a touch of truth in both of these perspectives, but if we look at the role that Reagan’s speech played in fomenting American public opinion, and setting the stage for further relations with the Soviets, then the speech was a success in those terms. It is necessary on one hand to emphasize the importance of a historical snapshot in time like Reagan’s speech to conceptualize the larger Cold War, but true history is looking at how we collectively got to that point, and what effect, short-term or long-term, did that moment have on the course of history. In those terms Reagan’s speech provided for two opposing powers to assess their relationship; to determine just how far one would go to protect their interests; and who would flinch first.
For more information on Ronald Reagan’s speech, please feel free to consult the following sources:
National Archives – Document for June 12th: Remarks at Brandenburg Gate, Berlin, Germany, 06/12/1987
National Archives – “Tear Down This Wall” How Top Advisers Opposed Reagan’s Challenge to Gorbachev—But Lost
Youtube – Ronald Reagan’s Speech at the Brandenburg Gate – Berlin, 1987
This Day in Pictures: Remembering Reagan and His Famous Line, ‘Tear Down This Wall!’
Remembering Reagan and His Famous Line, ‘Tear Down This Wall!’
Text of Ronald Reagan’s Speech in Berlin
20 Years After “Tear Down This Wall”
Note: Cover image courtesy of MIKE SARGENT/AFP/GETTY IMAGES