tear down

Tear down this wall

"Tear down this wall!" was the famous challenge from United States President Ronald Reagan to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to destroy the Berlin Wall.

In a speech at the Brandenburg Gate commemorating the 750th anniversary of Berlin, by the Berlin Wall on June 12, 1987, Reagan challenged Gorbachev, then the General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, to tear it down as a symbol of Reagan's desire for increasing freedom in the Eastern Bloc.

Background

Built in 1961, the Berlin Wall became known as a symbol of communism. In the 1963 "Ich bin ein Berliner" speech, U.S. President John F. Kennedy stated the support of the United States for democratic West Germany shortly after the Soviet-supported Communist state of East Germany erected the Berlin Wall as a barrier to prevent movement from East to West.

President Reagan's 1987 visit was his second within five years. It came at a time of heightened East-West tensions, caused in particular by the debate over the stationing of short range American missiles in Europe and the United States' record peacetime defense buildup. Reagan was scheduled to attend the 1987 G-7 summit meeting in Venice, Italy, and later make brief stop in Berlin. On the eve of Reagan's visit, 25,000 protesters marched through West Berlin, smashing windows and fighting police in a protest against Reagan's international policies.

The Brandenburg Gate site was chosen to highlight the President's conviction that Western democracy offered the best hope to open the Berlin Wall. His speech focused on a series of political initiatives to achieve this end. The famous "tear down this wall" phrase was intended as the logical conclusion of the President's proposals. As the speech was being drafted, inclusion of the words became a source of considerable controversy within the Reagan administration. Several senior staffers and aides advised against the phrase, saying anything which might cause further East-West tensions or potential embarrassment to Gorbachev, with whom President Reagan had built a good relationship, should be omitted. American officials in West Germany and presidential speechwriters, including Peter Robinson, thought otherwise. Robinson traveled to West Germany to inspect potential speech venues, and gained an overall sense that the majority of West Berliners opposed the wall. Despite getting little support for suggesting Reagan demand the wall's removal, Robinson included the phrase in the speech text. On May 18, 1987, President Reagan met with his speechwriters and responded to the speech by saying, "I thought it was a good, solid draft." Chief of Staff Howard Baker objected, saying it sounded "extreme" and "unpresidential," and Deputy National Security Advisor Colin Powell agreed. Nevertheless, Reagan liked the passage, saying, "I think we'll leave it in."

The speech

Arriving in Berlin on June 12, 1987, President and Mrs. Reagan were taken to the Reichstag, where they viewed the wall from a balcony. Reagan then made his speech at the Brandenburg Gate at 2 PM, in front of two panes of bulletproof glass protecting him from potential snipers in East Berlin. About 45,000 people were in attendance; among the spectators were German president Richard von Weizsäcker, Chancellor Helmut Kohl, and Berlin mayor Eberhard Diepgen. That afternoon, Reagan said,

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!

Another highlight of the speech was Reagan's call to end the arms race with his reference to the Soviets' SS-20 nuclear weapons, and possibility of "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."

Response and legacy

At the time, the speech received "relatively little coverage from the media." Communists were also unimpressed by the speech, and the Soviet press agency Tass accused Reagan as giving an "openly provocative, war-mongering speech." However, 29 months later Gorbachev allowed Berliners to destroy the wall, and the Soviet Union collapsed soon afterward, and tearing down the wall was a symbolic factor in the collapse. In September 1990, former President Reagan returned to Berlin, where he personally took a few symbolic hammer swings at a remnant of the Berlin Wall. Former West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl said he would never forget standing near Reagan when he challenged Gorbachev to tear down the Berlin Wall. "He was a stroke of luck for the world, especially for Europe. Although there is some disagreement over how much influence, if any, Reagan's words had on the destruction of the wall, the speech is remembered as an important moment in Cold War history.

Footnotes

Further reading

  • Robinson, Peter. It's My Party: A Republican's Messy Love Affair with the GOP. (2000), hardcover, Warner Books, ISBN 0-446-52665-7
  • { John Kornblum} Ambassador John C. Kornblum, Reagan's Brandenburg Concerto, The American Interest, May-June 2007

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