On June 12, 1987, then U.S. President Ronald Reagan gave one of his most famous speeches in office, in which he called for Soviet Russian leader Mikhail Gorbachev to bring down the wall that once divided the German city of Berlin into East and West halves.
With the Berlin Wall serving as a backdrop, Reagan gave his speech 33 years ago today, calling his counterpart Gorbachev to order its removal.
“Behind me stands a wall that encircles the free sectors of this city, part of a vast system of barriers that divides the entire continent of Europe,” Reagan began his speech. “From the Baltic, south, those barriers cut across Germany in a gash of barbed wire, concrete, dog runs, and guard towers. Farther south, there may be no visible, no obvious wall. But there remain armed guards and checkpoints all the same–still a restriction on the right to travel, still an instrument to impose upon ordinary men and women the will of a totalitarian state. Yet it is here in Berlin where the wall emerges most clearly; here, cutting across your city, where the news photo and the television screen have imprinted this brutal division of a continent upon the mind of the world. Standing before the Brandenburg Gate, every man is a German, separated from his fellow men. Every man is a Berliner, forced to look upon a scar.”
Through his 26 minute speech, Reagan addressed the history of the Berlin Wall and the political divides between the East and West that characterized the Cold War era.
“Now the Soviets themselves may, in a limited way, be coming to understand the importance of freedom. We hear much from Moscow about a new policy of reform and openness,” Reagan said. “Some political prisoners have been released. Certain foreign news broadcasts are no longer being jammed. Some economic enterprises have been permitted to operate with greater freedom from state control. Are these the beginnings of profound changes in the Soviet state? Or are they token gestures, intended to raise false hopes in the West, or to strengthen the Soviet system without changing it?”
“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,” he continued. “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 Berlin Wall served as a key backdrop of the Cold War which stretched through the later half of the 20th century and divided the German city between an Eastern half under Russian control, and a Western half aligned with the then Federal Republic of Germany, also known as West Germany. West Berlin sat as a political enclave within the German Democratic Republic, also known as East Germany, which existed under the supervision of Russia under the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR).
Following the conclusion of World War II, Berlin was divided into four sectors of allied control, between the U.S., Britain, France and Soviet Russia. By 1949, the U.S., British and French sectors had consolidated into West Berlin, which attached its political structure to West Germany. At the same time, the Soviet Russian holdings in Berlin transferred into East German control.
In August 1961, the East German government put up the Berlin Wall to maintain the division between East Germany and the West German political enclave, and to prevent defectors from leaving to the West. Estimates indicate more than 2.5 million East Germans fled to the West between 1949 and the wall’s establishment in 1961. The wall stood for a majority of the Cold War between the democratic West and the communist and socialist East.
Reagan’s speech did not immediately result in the toppling of the Berlin Wall nor did it end the Cold War. The wall continued to stand for more than two years before East and West Berliners began to break down the barrier on November 9, 1989.
According to a U.S. State Department history, Gorbachev resigned from office in August of 1991. His resignation brought accelerated the end of the USSR. On December 25, 1991, the Soviet hammer and sickle flag was lowered from the Russian Kremlin and thereafter replaced by the Russian tricolor, signifying the modern Russian government.