It was 20 years ago, on June 12, 1987, that Ronald Reagan issued a challenge to Mikhail Gorbachev: “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 crowd outside the Brandenburg Gate roared in approval because it understood: Reagan’s words placed the onus squarely on Mikhail Gorbachev, who indeed was the one person who held the power to tear down the wall. And if Gorbachev was truly the near-saintly figure depicted by liberals, then he ought to do one simple, right thing: Order the dismantling of the Berlin Wall.
While much has been written on this moment, there is much more that needs to be known, including Reagan’s lengthy track record on the matter: Ronald Reagan’s call for the removal of the wall that June day — expressed ever-so-pointedly by speechwriter Peter Robinson — was far from his first. He had done so 20 years earlier, during a nationally televised debate with Robert F. Kennedy on May 15, 1967; the California governor then did so again in a May 21, 1968 speech in Miami; and also a third time as he actually stood in front of the structure as a visitor in November 1978. On that third occasion, witnessed by those who traveled there with him, including Peter Hannaford and Richard V. Allen, Reagan went further, gazing at the wall and stating determinedly, “We have got to find a way to knock this thing down.”
Equally notable, and contrary to historical wisdom, is the fact that Reagan, as president, requested the dismantling of the wall several times both in the year before and the year after his June 1987 speech.
Before the speech, he did so three times in August 1986 alone — on August 7, 12, and 13. Then, he reiterated his call ten days before the Brandenburg Gate address, in a June 2, 1987 interview with a West German newspaper, saying: “In a word, we want the Berlin Wall to come down.”
There were more occasions that followed the speech: In February 1988, during his “Address to the Citizens of Western Europe,” Reagan told the Soviet leadership that he had meant business, and was still waiting: “To the Soviets today I say: I made my Berlin proposals almost nine months ago. The people of Berlin and all of Europe deserve an answer.” Reagan called for the start of a process: “Make a start. Set a date, a specific date, when you will tear down the wall.” He pressed: “And on that date, bring it down.” This would, he affirmed, “be an impressive demonstration of a true commitment to openness.”
Openness here was a direct reference to Gorbachev’s glasnost: If glasnost was truly glasnost, if the Soviet leader was really a reformer, he should prove it by dismantling the wall.
Reagan kept up the pressure on Gorbachev: I found an additional nine affirmations on the wall made publicly by Reagan between July 24, 1987 and August 12, 1988. These included appeals from inside Europe and even one in Moscow, made by Reagan in May 1988 under a bust of Lenin.
This does not include perhaps the most dramatic wall call of all, which was done privately, with no TV cameras, when Reagan and Gorbachev met in their first one-on-one negotiating session at the Moscow summit on Sunday, May 29, 1988, the details of which were recorded in the official memorandum of conversion from the summit, which has only recently been declassified and today resides at the Reagan Library. Here, Reagan told Gorbachev that Americans were encouraged by his reforms in the Soviet Union. With all those changes, he added, “wouldn’t it be a good idea to tear down the Berlin Wall?” The president noted that “nothing in the West symbolized the differences between it and the Soviet Union more than the wall.” He observed to Gorbachev that the wall’s removal “would be seen as a gesture symbolizing that the Soviet Union wanted to join the broader community of nations.”