“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, Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”
– President Ronald W. Reagan, Berlin, June 12. 1987.
Ronald Reagan, then the 40’th President of the United States spoke these words on today’s date, June 12 in 1987. That was 27 years ago, but the President’s words still ring with clarity and confidence today, not only for the memory of what they meant at the time, or for what then happened. They also ring true today for the lesson they taught us: that when facing evil you have to confront it, loudly call it what it is, and challenge it directly. Not necessarily on the battlefield but in the world of ideas, wherein the victory to be won can be more important and more lasting than any battlefield triumph, or military alliance. In order to demonstrate this truth, let me fill out some of the details.
Europe and the “Soviet Block” in the mid-1980’s
At the time of his Berlin trip the long dark night to which the Cold War had condemned the world seemed to be receding. The Soviet leader, Mikhail Garbachev was an important reason why this was so. He showed a willingness to loosen the Soviet grip on all that it had held onto so tenaciously since the end of World War II. He had indeed demonstrated a wish to negotiate on issues of the size of the nuclear arsenals possessed by both the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. (the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics).
And with his programs of “perestroika” (“restructuring”) and “glasnost” (“openness”), he seemed to be loosening up the Soviet government itself. But the vexing problem of nuclear missiles was still with us. There were heightened East- West tensions as a result of the debate over the stationing of SS 20(above), and Pershing II inter- mediate range missiles in Europe. And despite the reforms that were taking place in the U.S.S.R., Eastern Europe was still under the domination of the Soviet government.
Reagan Challenges Challenges the Soviet Leader
It was into this tense situation that Reagan confidently strode that day. He had been attending the G- 7 Economic Summit in Venice Italy, and was on his way back to America. The Berlin Wall, cutting as it did through the heart of what had once been the capital of a united Germany had, since it’s construction in 1961 in order to keep the citizens of East Berlin from fleeing to the freedom of the west, become the very symbol of Soviet oppression. Picking up on a cue that had been delivered during
the administration of John F. Kennedy Reagan decided to deliver another show of solidarity with the divided city of Berlin as JFK had done almost exactly 24 years before with his statement “Ich bin ein Berliner”. He also wanted to emphasize his belief that only western style democracy and freedom could loosen the hold of the Soviets on Berlin. Did he use this speech to dance around the differences between communism and democracy with diplomatic niceties and apologies for America and her role in the world? No. He welcomed the changes that had been taking place in the Soviet Union: “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” but then he issued his defiant challenge as quoted above.
The Reaction and the Legacy of Reagan’s Challenge
“Later Reagan would tell me that he could hear the anger in his voice as he spoke those lines. He was angry not at Gorbachev, but at the East German police, who just before his speech had herded people away from loudspeakers at the Brandenburg Gate to prevent them from hearing what Reagan had to say. But the old performer need not have worried that he would not be heard, at least on this day. His words resonated throughout Europe and were heard as far away as Moscow.” As Lou Cannon wrote, his speech was indeed heard from far away.
One can question exactly how much play his speech got in the East Block, or exactly what sort of effect that it had on events. But the fact is that in 1989, less than a year after Reagan left office, the Berlin wall did in fact come down. And not long after that came the fall of the Soviet-dominated governments of Eastern Europe. And then came the fall of the Soviet Union itself. I’m not going to say that our one-time adversary is dead and GM still lives. On the contrary, our one-time adversary, Gorbachev, still lives, but the repressive system which he lead is now dead, resting on the ash-heap of history, where he once predicted it would lie.
Above I said that I would demonstrate my belief that evil must be confronted and challenged in the world of ideas, because there could victories be won that were more important than military triumphs. Well I am certain that most of you remember Gorbachev. But do you remember SS 20s, intermediate range missiles, nuclear throw weights, the neutron bomb, or the nuclear freeze movement? What about Yuri Andropov, Konstantin Chenenko, Andrei Gormyko, or even Leonid Brezhnev? Or anything they might have said? Maybe some of you do. But I am certain that nearly all of you remembered Ronald Reagan and what he said on this day before I reminded you of it. And I point out to you that you remember him in a world where Eastern Europe is free and independent, and while Russia still exists, the Soviet Union and the concept of “MAD”: “Mutually Assured Destruction” is a distant and fading memory. I rest my case.
(Pictured above is a section of the old Berlin Wall at Reagan’s Presidential Library in Simi Valley California.)
“President Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime” – by Lou Cannon, Simon & Schuster, New York, 1991.