Twenty-five years after President Ronald Reagan delivered his Brandenburg Gate speech, debate persists over the meaning and true impact of his words that day. Conservatives, including former Secretary of State James Baker, described the June 17, 1987 speech at the Brandenburg Gate as a “historic challenge.” Its historical resonance has escaped Reagan’s detractors then and now.
So long as the Berlin Wall stood, Gorbachev’s molasses drip paced reforms meant nothing. President Reagan, heard on both sides of the wall, challenged Gorbachev to prove his commitment to freedom. This echoed a daring chant made by East Berliners during a rock concert some days before. They demanded “the wall must go” and suffered predictable police beatings as a consequence. Gorbachev never took down the wall. In two years, the German people took it down themselves.
In the days after the speech, America’s paper of record, the New York Times,did not seem to know what to make of its significance. The Times was no friend of Reagan. During his first term, they assigned as White House correspondent the eventually disgraced Howell Raines. He later described his time there as “reporting on President Reagan’s success in making life harder for citizens who were not born rich, white, and healthy.”
Throughout June 1987, the New York Times carefully constructed a narrative on the supposed theme of Reagan’s “weakness” with articles including, “The Potemkin President” and “Playing From Weakness: Reagan’s Odd Tactics With Congress.” President Reagan’s show of rhetorical strength at the Brandenburg Gate contrasted sharply with the plotlines that the Times wished to lay out for its readership.
On June 13, one day after the speech, the Times almost completely ignored it in an editorial about Gorbachev. After barely signaling its existence, the article glowingly described the achievements of the Soviet leader in freeing a few political prisoners and pushing for more openness. Without acknowledging the pressure exerted on the Soviet system that forced these changes, the Times gushed that “the whole world watches Mikhail Gorbachev’s reforms with hope and wonder.” George Church in Time magazine also waxed poetic, saying “for all his eloquence, the aging President was repeatedly upstaged by the youthful and suavely dynamic image of the man who was not there: Mikhail Gorbachev.”
After trying to pretend like the words had no impact, the Times tried a different tactic. Media critic Bob Kohn pointed out in Journalistic Fraud: How the New York Times Distorts the News and Why It Can No Longer Be Trusted that editorializing had a nasty tendency to seep out of the opinion page and into the hard news. Three days after pretending that the Brandenburg Gate speech had little meaning next to the hope and glory of Gorbachev, a writer tried to imply, with zero basis, that Reagan plagiarized the speech from House Speaker Jim Wright. Perhaps the highest compliment paid the address was when it was omitted from a snarky June 17 list of 1987 Reagan speeches that lacked substance.
Some left-wing outlets, including the German paper Tageszeitung grasped the importance of his speech. In reference to anti-American protesters, the paper described his commitment to reducing nuclear arms and mused, “nobody knows why one should demonstrate against Ronald Reagan.”
A June 17 Washington Post op-ed at least discussed the bigger picture, but rejected Reagan’s optimism. Its headline read “Keep Germany Divided; The Dirty Little Secret Is That It Means a Europe at Peace.” The article implied that a restored Germany could bring about World War III. Likewise the Soviet Communist Party organ Pravdaargued that the wall and the separation existed to prevent war.
Over the years, the speech has grown into part of the narrative on how the Cold War ended. Liberals cannot accept the verdict of men, such as Russian writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn, that “the Cold War was essentially won by Ronald Reagan . . . it had nothing to do with Gorbachev’s generosity.”
Writers, including Serge Schmemann of the New York Times, in repeated instances over the past several years have developed a straw man argument about Reagan’s supporters. In their version of conservative ideals, Reagan went to the Berlin Wall, called for Gorbachev to demolish it, and it happened. “Oh you silly conservatives, you just don’t understand!” they seem to say.
Schmemann stated in a 20 year commemorative article that even in 1989, no “expert” believed that the Soviet system itself would fall. No expert, perhaps, except for President Reagan, who believed even before his election that a careful strategy of pressure could bring about victory without war. Prudent policy choices while president pushed the Soviets toward oblivion.
Conservatives understand that the Cold War ended on America’s terms because of difficult deeds. Words are useful as a symbol but pale in comparison to actions. That speech no more won the Cold War than the Gettysburg Address earned Abraham Lincoln victory in his great struggle. But both expressed perfectly the soul of the conflict in both ages. Reagan coordinated with Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, Pope John Paul II the Great, Lech Walesa, and a number of actors around the globe. They forced the Soviets to commit resources they did not have toward efforts in which they could not prevail. In the long run, he promised to spend them into oblivion.
Gorbachev’s liberalizations did not happen because they had domestic political support; Reagan’s pressure in Poland, Afghanistan, and elsewhere left them no choice. Claiming Gorbachev was responsible for the end of the Cold War is like crediting Robert E. Lee for the end of the Civil War. Both men understood that they had lost and decided to greet defeat with grace. And so the speech lives on a quarter century after President Reagan’s delivery. Liberal detractors, who admitted the greatness of oratory while criticizing it as naive, missed the greater point. It was and remains a symbol of hope. President Reagan’s most potent phrase, “tear down this wall,” contributed to the vocabulary of freedom spoken worldwide and symbolized a revolution of liberty.