Today in 1987, Ronald Reagan delivered one of the most famous speeches of his career. Reagan’s speech addressed Soviet Leader Mikhail Gorbachev, entreating him to “tear down this wall,” in reference to the Berlin Wall.
Following the Axis defeat in WWII, Berlin was quartered into four sections. The Allied powers controlled the western sections and the Soviets controlling the east. The three western sections unified into the Federal Republic of Germany, colloquially called West Germany, in May of 1949. The German Democratic Republic, East Germany, was established in October.
Before 1952, traffic was permitted across the border. But in 1952, the border was closed. The Berlin Wall was erected in August of 1961. The GDR intended it to staunch the flow of citizens fleeing to West Germany. Between 1949 and 1961, an estimated 2.5 million citizens of East Germany escaped to the West.
By 1987, the Wall had become an icon of the ideological divide between the Soviet Union and Western democracies. Ronald Reagan, addressing a crowd in front of the Wall in 1987, said, “There is one sign the Soviets can make that would be unmistakable, that would advance dramatically the cause of freedom and peace.”
“Secretary General 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.”
At the time, Reagan’s speech was read as an attempt to pressure Gorbachev to renew nuclear arms reduction negotiations. Gorbachev had also made gestures of reconciliation towards the West.
Two years after Reagan’s speech, on November 9, 1989, the Wall was destroyed. Eastern and Western Germans climbed over it with sledge hammers, destroying it with joy. Western and Eastern Germany were formally reunited as a single country on October 3, 1990.
Gorbachev stepped down as president of the Soviet Union on December 25, 1991. Later that day, the Soviet hammer and sickle flag was replaced with the modern Russian flag at the Kremlin. The USSR was officially dissolved, leaving Boris Yeltsin as president as the new Russian state.
Reagan served two terms as president, and died in 2004 at age 93. Gorbachev is still alive, and has released a few folk music recordings.
The fall of the Berlin Wall, and Reagan’s speech which preceded it, is now remembered as the turning point of the Cold War. It signaled the wane of Soviet power. Despite the USSR’s history of brutal repression, many Russians still lament the failure of the Communist project and entrance of Russia into the Capitalist-Democratic world economy.