Ronald Reagan challenged Mikhail Gorbachev to tear down…the Berlin Wall and seemingly cemented his Cold War legacy. Historical debate erupted in recent years as partisan politicians look to the Reagan legacy for inspiration. Competing interpretations of the speech, delivered at the Brandenburg Gate in 1987, show that Reagan’s foreign policy is still pertinent to this day. Liberals decry the speech as a “stunt” with no impact on US-Soviet relations; Reagan supporters hail the speech as the event that led to the end of the Cold War. Neither perspective is correct, both fail to acknowledge the complexity of Reagan’s Soviet policy.
“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. 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!“
Critics fail to acknowledge the effects the speech… had upon Soviet leadership. Declassified documents clearly show that Gorbachev was listening- “If he’s talking about this wall, he’s never going to let go unless we do something.” The Soviets needed Glasnost and Reagan showed them the way. Reagan admirers make the mistake of placing mythical proportions on the moment; Reagan spoke, the world trembled, the Cold War was over- It just didn’t happen that way. Reagan’s handling of the Soviet Union was a complex series of give and take- summits, speeches, deals, and treaties. American Conservatives (Bill Buckley in particular) were frustrated with the foreign policy of Reagan’s second term. The tough rhetoric and military build-up of the first term had given way to nuclear talks and peaceful overtures. “Tear down this wall” was not an ending, but a prelude to more negotiations. Reagan was responding to Glasnost, but on our terms….