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.”
But there was more to it: Reagan made his pitch in response to Gorbachev’s request that the United States open up trade with the Soviet Union. Reagan responded to the general secretary by apparently suggesting a sort of linkage: increased trade might be possible if the Soviets bulldozed the wall. Though desperate for cash, Gorbachev still would not budge on the Berlin Wall. In the words of his interpreter, Igor Korchilov, Gorbachev “said he could not agree with the president’s view.”
Why was Gorbachev, later recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, so opposed to this?
There were several reasons, but most influential was a lingering Soviet distrust of a unified Germany, a residual ambivalence leftover from the smoke of the Nazi guns of World War II. Moreover, as he made clear in his bestselling 1987 book Perestroika, Gorbachev envisioned a 21st century in which a kinder, gentler, non-totalitarian U.S.S.R. and Communist bloc happily worked together, jointly proceeding to the next “crucial stage in world development;” the collapse of 1989 was the farthest thing from his mental universe. Whereas Reagan described the wall in harsh terms, Gorbachev in Perestroika referred to it casually as “an international border passing, in particular, through Berlin.”
Only a month after Reagan’s June 1987 challenge, Gorbachev visited with West German President Richard von Weizsacker. Weizsacker asked Gorbachev “just for the record” about his thoughts on the prospect of German unity. Gorbachev’s response was hardly a ringing endorsement: He said that history would “decide what [will] happen in a hundred years.” In short, Mikhail Gorbachev favored a divided Germany and the wall that separated it.
None of this is to begrudge Gorbachev the credit he richly deserves for introducing the unprecedented expansion of civil liberties in the U.S.S.R., for formally ending the Soviet Communist party’s monopoly on political power, for officially resigning his post and thus the Soviet Union on December 25, 1991, for working with two American presidents to end the Cold War peacefully — and certainly for not stopping the wrecking ball and bulldozers once they did arrive in Berlin.
Yet, it was Ronald Reagan who took the initiative on the Berlin Wall, who prodded Gorbachev, constantly pushing the Soviet leader — even in private — to take down the most visible, stark symbol of the Cold War divide, a gray, cold tombstone to human freedom. The wall was an abomination, one that Reagan recognized as such from the moment it was erected, and that he publicly assailed from the first decade of its existence — a healthy obsession of Reagan. And his call for Mr. Gorbachev to tear down that wall 20 years ago was an important moment that should not only be remembered but that needs to be better understood.
– Paul Kengor is author of The Crusader: Ronald Reagan and the Fall of Communism and professor of political science at Grove City College. His biography of Reagan adviser William P. Clark, The Judge, will be released this fall by Ignatius Press.