On June 12, 1987, United States President Ronald Reagan, addressed a modest crowd of West Berliners at the Brandenburg Gate, one of Berlin’s most-visited landmarks. President Reagan was stopping briefly in Berlin to commemorate the city’s 750th anniversary. The gate was part of a 27-mile wall dividing East and West Berlin, providing a physical barrier that prevented Communist East Germans from fleeing to the democratic west. Audio speakers were strategically placed, facing both over the wall to the East, and to the West so that all Berliners could hear his speech. Through the careful application of logic, delivery and tone, President Reagan painted a picture of hope and change by promoting freedom in Berlin.
President Reagan was in his second term as president and had been witnessing positive changes in Soviet Union policy under the leadership of Mikhail Gorbachev. To understand the significance of the changes, we must go further back in history. It is a widely held belief that the post-World War II cold war started in 1946 or 1947 and was largely a result of soviet aggression. Europe and Russia sustained significant infrastructure damage from WWII fighting and bombing which would require millions of dollars to rebuild, with little to no infrastructure left to generate the money to rebuild. The west promised financial support to help rebuild but, where Russia was concerned, help came with more than just and expectation of repayment plus interest. Washington was insisting on political and economic open doors to eastern European markets and trade regulation with Moscow. The offer was rejected and the media had a field day, painting the Soviets as closed, unreasonable and dangerously aggressive. So began the Cold War; 40 years of conflict stopping just short of direct military combat. Instead, the fighting took the form of economic competition, political maneuvers and propaganda.
During these 40 years, both the United States and the Soviet Union rebuilt its military, its intelligence community and its arsenal of nuclear weapons. There, the similarities of each nation cease. The United States industrial base grew so that manufacturing and exporting goods generated income. Technological advances in communications, automation and healthcare supported the manufacturing that continued to move the US forward as leaders in industry. These efforts all supported the Marshall Plan, a massive economic aid program funding the reconstruction of post-World War II Western Europe. Under the Marshall Plan, Western European factories were rebuilt, productivity increased and wages increased. In stark contrast citizens in the Soviet Union were not prospering. Their factories and healthcare were not advancing with technology, and thus the health and welfare of the Soviet people were in decline. Communism was not flourishing, wages were not increasing and infrastructure was not being rebuilt.
Mikhail Gorbachev was the general secretary of the Communist party of the Soviet Union from 1985 to 1991. His initiation of perestroika and glasnost, Russian for restructuring and openness, was focused on decentralizing the economy and democratizing the political system (Encyclopedia Britannica). President Reagan, a convinced anti-communist was encouraged by Gorbachev’s changes but continued to speak out against the Soviet Union, promoting freedom. Reagan came under fire after a failed negotiation of arms reduction, held in Iceland between the US and the Soviet Union. This was a motivating factor for Reagan to ‘Come to Berlin, we American presidents, because it’s our duty to speak, in this place of freedom’ and perhaps push change even further.
Reagan begins to establish trust and credibility with the audience by complimenting their city, and their character and then by stating ‘no matter where he goes or what he does he keeps a suitcase in Berlin’ (spoken in German). This indicates he feels at home in Berlin and is comfortable traveling there. He speaks to continuity and a unified Berlin by acknowledging both eastern and western listeners and stating, again in German, that there is only one Berlin. This also begins an emotional appeal by acknowledging the separation that the immediate wall creates and then extends across Eastern Europe. This would elicit longing both mentally and physically in the audience for families who have been separated for 40 years. ‘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’. Referring to the wall as a scar continues to establish his credibility and emotional appeal, as it is very obviously an ugly, unnatural structure that is obstructive and rigid and was erected with a purpose of hostility and oppression.
Reagan now gets to the heart of the matter, freedom. Through a series of very specific examples he logically demonstrates how freedom and democracy flourish and succeed where communism does not. ‘Countries that are allowed to live free are better off’. ‘The Marshall Plan is helping here to strengthen the free world.’ Japan rose from ruin to become an economic giant. Italy, France, Belgium–virtually every nation in Western Europe saw political and economic rebirth; the European Community was founded. He continued to paint the picture that freedom succeeds while communism flounders. ‘In the Communist world, we see failure, technological backwardness, declining standards of health, even want of the most basic kind–too little food. Even today, the Soviet Union still cannot feed itself. After these four decades, then, there stands before the entire world one great and inescapable conclusion: Freedom leads to prosperity.
President Reagan now goes for the jugular and attacks communism, again logically taking the audience to a place where he knows they want to go. He acknowledges Gorbachev’s policy reforms and wraps his statement in a dare: “And now the Soviets themselves may, in a limited way, be coming to understand the importance of freedom.” He is publicly challenging Gorbachev to give freedom a try and better yet, to put his money where his mouth is, prove his commitment to change and to peace by a public display of affection: ‘Open this gate, Tear down this wall!’. There is no doubt or speculation left for the audience of his purpose. This statement set a tone from one leader to another that the west is determined to abolish communism.
As President of the United States, he was one of the most powerful men at that time yet he came to the wall humbly, visiting attractions and landmarks in West Berlin. From beginning to end he established himself as a one of them but with a stern, resoluteness openly challenged their oppressor demonstrating the determination of a westerner with the heart of a Berliner. Reagan’s rhetoric persuaded even the hardest of audiences, the leader of the communist party. On November 9, 1989, 2 years after this epic speech, Mr. Gorbachev tore down the wall and let freedom ring.
- Reagan, Ronald. ‘Address at Brandenburg Gate.’ Brandenburg Gate. Pariser Platz, Berlin, Germany. 12 June 1987. Speech.
- Pelz, William A. “Europeans in the Cold War: Between Moscow and Washington.” A People’s History of Modern Europe, Pluto Press, London, 2016, pp. 171–182. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt1c2crfj.17.
- Mueller, John. “What Was the Cold War about? Evidence from Its Ending.” Political Science Quarterly, vol. 119, no. 4, 2004, pp. 609–631. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/20202432.
- Robinson, Peter. “Tear Down This Wall. How Top Advisers Opposed Reagan’s Challenge to Gorbachev—But Lost.” Prologue Magazine, Vol. 39, No. 2, Summer 2007
- The Editors of Encyclopedia Britannica, “Glasnost” Encyclopedia Britannica, August 22, 2016 https://www.britannica.com/topic/glasnost. November 28, 2018
- The Editors of Encyclopedia Britannica, “Brandenburg Gate” Encyclopedia Britannica, April 14, 2014, https://www.britannica.com/topic/Brandenburg-Gate November 26, 2018