Reagan Repeatedly Pressed Soviets to Demolish Berlin Wall

By Kevin Mooney | July 7, 2008 | 8:32pm EDT

{Correction: Fixes date of Reagan speech)

( - While Ronald Reagan's "tear down this wall" challenge to the Soviets 20 years ago is now widely heralded, the Berlin speech was but one of many such declarations the former president issued during his political career, according to a political science professor.

The June 1987 Brandenburg Gate speech was neither the first, nor even the most dramatic "wall call" Reagan had issued, Paul Kengor of Grove City College said Wednesday in a lecture hosted by the Family Research Council in Washington, D.C.

Kengor said that State Department and the National Security Council bureaucrats who objected to Reagan's strong language sought to remove the "tear down this wall line" on at least seven different occasions (see earlier story).

By contrast, he observed, the 40,000 or so people who heard Reagan's address erupted in cheers and applause when they heard the remarks.

Reagan is on record as having called for the Berlin Wall to be dismantled as early as May 1967, when as governor of California he appeared in a debate with Sen. Robert F. Kennedy (D-N.Y.).

"Reagan was way ahead of everyone," Kengor told Cybercast News Service in an interview. "Right from outset, he envisioned a world without the Soviet Union, when even his political allies on the right pre-supposed it would be around for a long time."

The 1967 debate focused on the Vietnam War, but during it, Reagan said, "I think it would be very advantageous if the Berlin Wall, which was built in direct contravention to a treaty, should disappear. I think this would be a step toward peace and toward self-determination for all people, if it were."

Reagan repeated the call during a speech in Miami in May 1968, while still governor, Kengor said.

The most dramatic "wall call" of all may have come during the Moscow Summit on May 29, 1988, Kengor argued. Documents from the Reagan Presidential Library show that when Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev called for more open trade between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, Reagan responded by suggesting a possible linkage between liberalized trade and the demolition of the Berlin Wall. Gorbachev once again declined, the documents show.

And even after the now-historic 1987 speech, Reagan continued to keep the pressure on Moscow.

In a February 1988 "Address to the Citizens of Western Europe," the president re-issued the challenge. "I made my Berlin proposals almost nine months ago," Reagan said. "The people of Berlin and all of Europe deserve an answer."

Later in that speech, Reagan even called for a specific timetable for the wall's removal. "Make a start, set a date, a specific date, when you will tear down the wall," Reagan urged the Soviet Union. "And on that date bring it down. This would be an impressive demonstration of a true commitment to openness."

Kengor said the use of the word "openness" was a direct reference to Gorbachev's policy of "glasnost."

Nonetheless, the Soviet leader had opposed the dismantling of the Berlin Wall right up to the very end, he noted.

Gorbachev, who was named Time Magazine's "Man of the Decade" for the 1980s and was awarded the 1990 Nobel peace prize, wanted to preserve the Soviet Union - a point often missed by "revisionist[s]," Kengor said.

Anyone willing to carefully read Gorbachev's book "Perestroika" would be "stunned and blown away" by the "entire tone and theme," he added. The book made it clear Gorbachev believed he could "usher in a golden era for the Soviet Union in the 21st century by simply re-adjusting the communist system."

Still, Kengor believes Gorbachev deserves credit for allowing religious freedom and for ending the communist party's monopoly on the political process.

He said that if Reagan had been elected president in 1976 instead of 1980 the moment may not have been right.

As it was, Reagan had to contend in his first term with Soviet leaders like Leonid Brezhnev and Yuri Andropov, who more closely aligned with hard line communists.

Reagan Presidential Library documents show Reagan had a considerably more antagonistic relationship with Gorbachev's predecessors. A letter in which Brezhnev wrote that the U.S. approach to arms control negotiations created "apprehension and even doubts as to the seriousness of the intentions," bears Reagan's scrawled remark in the margin, "he has to be kidding."


George Allen, a former U.S. senator who is now a presidential scholar with Young America's Foundation, sees Reagan as the "indispensable figure" who "changed all of the dynamics of the Cold War from one of containment to one where it was possible to advance the cause of freedom."

"When Reagan called for the wall to come down it was such an audacious remark and it seemed like such an impossible declaration at the time," said Allen, who visited East Berlin in 1983 and recalls the razor wire, minefields, attack dogs, and sharp shooters.

"Challenging the Soviets in this way was the equivalent of a modern day 'Remember the Alamo' proclamation," he told Cybercast News Service. "And it continues to resonate now."

Allen said he wondered whether Gorbachev "would have seen the light" in the absence of principled U.S. leadership. "If we continued to have presidents like Reagan's predecessor [Jimmy Carter], the Soviet Union would probably still be here," he said.

See Also:
Was Gorbachev a Closet Christian? (June 21, 2007)

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