Sunday, February 6, 2011

Tear Down This Wall

Speech By: President Ronald Reagan
Date: June 12, 1987
Location: Brandenburg Gate
Occasion: Speech to West Berlin
This marks the 100th anniversary of Ronald Reagan’s birth. In honor of that occasion, we look to one of his greatest speeches – to the people of West Berlin, in front of the Berlin Wall.

It is likely a difficult thing to imagine, for those of us who truly remember what the Berlin Wall represented – but there are people old enough to walk into a bar and buy a drink today, who had not yet been born while that wall still stood. Today, there is no such thing as an East or West Berlin. It is one city.

President Reagan’s policies largely brought that about, and this speech is emblematic of those policies.

The wall was a stark gulf between the ideals of freedom, and the forces which sought to impose “the will of a totalitarian state.

He begins by recognizing that President Kennedy and two other Presidents since, have come to this divided city to speak, and that this is his second trip. It is repeating to Berlin, and the world, the old American adage – partisanship ends at the water’s edge.

There is also some danger in this – President Kennedy’s speech, featuring the famous line “Ich bin ein Berliner,” was one of the most famous foreign policy speeches in American history. The danger for Reagan was that his own speech, at a moment of great import, would pale by comparison. He proves equal to the task.

We come to Berlin, we American presidents, because it's our duty to speak, in this place, of freedom.” More than just the states are united in the U.S.! He ends this paragraph with a phrase in German: “You see, like so many presidents before me, I come here today because wherever I go, whatever I do: Ich hab noch einen Koffer in Berlin. [I still have a suitcase in Berlin.]

It may be a take off on Kennedy’s Berlin speech, using a German phrase, but it is also a perfect way to establish that all important audience identification. We stand in common, it says to the crowd. He uses the same technique in the very next paragraph: “I join you, as I join your fellow countrymen in the West, in this firm, this unalterable belief: Es gibt nur ein Berlin. [There is only one Berlin.]” He will do it once again a little later.

Next he talks about the wall itself, and the network of barriers that divide Germany: “those barriers cut across Germany in a gash of barbed wire, concrete, dog runs, and guard towers.” What wonderfully stark imagery this is! A “gash,” an open wound, composed not of torn flesh, but of “barbed wire, concrete, dog runs, and guard towers.” We can not help but consider that blood has flowed across these barriers just the same.

Then he brings that image to the place where he stands at that very moment: “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.

After this stark reminder, he turns to hope for the future: “Yet I do not come here to lament. For I find in Berlin a message of hope, even in the shadow of this wall, a message of triumph.

He refers to the reforms that have been taking place, in a Soviet Union which is beginning to realize it can no longer sustain this conflict with the West: “And now the Soviets themselves may, in a limited way, be coming to understand the importance of freedom.

Then, just about half way into the speech, he comes to the galvanizing line that etches it into the mind: “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!

Tear down this wall!” It is a challenge to action like few others that have ever been issued. It is the most powerful man in the world, telling the man who wields power almost its equal, “This is what you must do!” If your policy of Glasnost really means anything, you must close this gash in the earth, heal this wound. It is the way a President says: “Put up, or shut up.” Show us you mean it.

Much is said after this line, but it really doesn’t matter. The call to action has been hurled, the challenge issued.

He sums up with this assurance: “Yes, across Europe, this wall will fall. For it cannot withstand faith; it cannot withstand truth. The wall cannot withstand freedom.

Then he closes – not with a challenge, or call to action, that’s already been done – but with a wonderful little zinger, aimed at those who protested his appearance in Berlin: “And I would like, before I close, to say one word. I have read, and I have been questioned since I've been here about certain demonstrations against my coming. And I would like to say just one thing, and to those who demonstrate so. I wonder if they have ever asked themselves that if they should have the kind of government they apparently seek, no one would ever be able to do what they're doing again.

I wonder if this last paragraph was not added at the last moment, perhaps even the morning of the speech, because the rest of the speech was almost certainly finished before the President climbed aboard Air Force One for the trip to Europe. It is well done, if that is the case. I remember laughing out loud when I heard this the first time, because it rang so true.

With the judgment of history now rendered, that truth is now obvious.

Length (words): 2651
Text Posted: The History Place

From The Bully Pulpit – Tom