On the morning of August 13, 1961, Berliners from both the western and Soviet sectors awoke to find their city divided by a barbed wire barrier – soon to become a concrete wall 16 feet high and 96 miles long, For the next 28 years, the Berlin Wall would turn Eastern Germany into a prison – a symbol of communist and Soviet aggression and oppression.
On June 12, 1987, President Ronald Reagan stood at the Brandenburg Gate near the Berlin Wall and spoke the words which will forever be identified with his legacy. “Mr. Gorbachev,” he demanded, “Tear down this wall!”
Reagan challenged Gorbachev – General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union – to tear it down as an emblem of Gorbachev’s desire to increase freedom in the Eastern Bloc through glasnost (“transparency”) and perestroika (“restructuring”).
Some twenty-nine months later, on November 9, 1989, East Germany finally opened the Berlin Wall after increasing public unrest. By the end of the year, official operations to dismantle the wall began. With the collapse of the Communist governments of Eastern Europe and, eventually, the Soviet Union itself, the tearing down of the wall epitomized this collapse for history.
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.”
And while there is considerable disagreement over how much influence Reagan’s words had on the destruction of the wall, the speech is remembered as an important moment in Cold War history. Here you can read a personal account by the speechwriter who crafted the memorable speech. And for a visual and emotional complement, click here to see a rare autographed photo by the president who delivered those memorable words.