“As long as this scar of a wall is permitted to stand,” said President Ronald Reagan, standing at Berlin’s historic Brandenburg Gate on June 12, 1987 (above), “it is not the German question alone that remains open, but the question of freedom for all mankind.”
Berlin’s majestic Brandenburg Gate, a centuries-old symbol of the capital city’s leading role in European culture and commerce, had been rendered inaccessible by the Berlin Wall, a concrete and barbed wire symbol of the Cold War — the sustained political tension between the United States and the Soviet Union following World War II.
The Soviet-backed East German regime erected the wall in 1961 to staunch the flow of East Germans to the West through Berlin, dividing the city in two and separating friends and families for decades to come.
By the 1980s, the Cold War military buildup weighed heavily on the Soviet economy, Poland’s Solidarnosc movement demanded greater freedom in that communist-ruled nation, and the new Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev appeared open to reform.
“There is one sign the Soviets can make that would be unmistakable, that would advance dramatically the cause of freedom and peace,” Reagan told the roaring crowd. “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!”
Reagan’s challenge helped set in motion events that would lead to the collapse, two years later, of the Soviet Union and the demolition — begun by German citizens with pickaxes and sledge hammers — of the Berlin Wall.
Watch a video of President Reagan’s speech at the Brandenburg Gate.