I was a little girl when they took down the Berlin Wall. I watched on TV with my mother as young men and women passionately chipped away day and night at a brightly colored graffiti’ed wall, while 80’s pop legends U2 blared in the background. I wasn’t exactly sure what the dismantling of the wall meant but even at age seven I felt tingles of anticipation, understanding that this event was very significant.
Now, as a young conservative, I’ve begun to understand much more about what led to the fall of the Berlin Wall and its great symbolism. For Eastern Europe it meant freedom, and for America it meant the end of the Soviet threat. Now it’s easy to associate those men and women chipping away at that brightly colored wall with one man, and a single phrase: Ronald Reagan, saying, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”
Twenty years ago today Ronald Reagan delivered his iconic speech at the Brandenburg Gate. The speech itself was not the single reason the wall fell, but lives permanently as the simplest statement by one of the men whose determination to end communism brought it about.
Lee Edwards a distinguished fellow at the Heritage Foundation and author of The Essential Ronald Reagan: A Profile in Courage, Justice and Wisdom said it best when he told me “These were not isolated things, it was a whole series of events very carefully planned and plotted, multi faceted and international at scope. Some of it was physiological, some of it was political, some of it was military, some of it was economic and some of it was rhetorical — but that speech was just the tip of the iceberg of the Reagan doctrine.”
Reagan had called for the wall to come down in earlier speeches. First in 1982 and again in 1986 — but something was different about this speech, not just in time and place but in context. It sent a message to not just the Soviet’s but called directly on Gorbachev: “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!”
“You see he knew that bringing down the wall would lead to all kinds of things, a tumbling of dominoes. So he wanted to put the pressure on Gorbachev. It was deliberately directed at Gorbachev” said Edwards.
Reagan’s words resounded in the ears of Americans like no other presidents. Edwards told me that it was because of “his ability to sum up a very complex situation in a few simple words.”
“If you go back to 1977 when Reagan was meeting with Dick Allen — this was after he had lost the nomination but already making plans to run again in 80 — they were having a discussion about the Cold War and he said to Dick ‘I have a very simple idea about the cold war: we win and they lose.’”
Reagan’s speech writers say that he had a “concise eloquence.” Anthony Dolan, chief speechwriter in the Reagan White House, told me that “the most wonderful part about this is that the signature line of the Reagan presidency was his own words.”
“The line was Reagan’s, I remember saying to him ‘Mr. President do you have any thoughts at all about what we should say in the Berlin wall speech’ and the President had not seen any drafts or talked to anyone about it, and the President said yes — ‘tear down the wall.’ So that’s how it initially happened. The speech writer told me before hand that he was thinking of asking him to do it and I was amazed by that because Reagan said without seeing a draft or talking to anyone, tear down the wall.”
But the issue — like any in the modern White House –wasn’t settled that easily. The most memorable words of Reagan’s presidency came close to being taken out of the Brandenburg Gate speech all together. “Up until the day the speech was given people were trying to get it taken out” Dolan told me.
“They thought it was impractical, I think one State Department official said the wall would be there for twenty years more and it would make him impractical…Even after it was said people criticized it.”
It was not twenty years later but merely two that we watched the Berlin Wall crumble. “From his first days in office he did everything that the professional foreign policy community said you shouldn’t do — which was to speak candidly about communism. They thought that would prohibit negotiations. They had this notion in their minds that meant that it was either or and the point was that Reagan felt that telling the truth about communism was the most powerful diplomatic weapon on earth” said Dolan.
Reagan’s speech at the Brandenburg Gate has become the symbol of his presidency. Similar to astronaut Neil Armstrong’s signature statement “One small step for man one giant leap for mankind” as the first man to walk on the moon, those who were part of the Reagan era — old and young — will remember the words of Ronald Reagan, “tear down this wall” as the beginning of the end of the Cold War.
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