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Tuesday, June 12, 2007

President Reagan at the Brandenburg Gate, June 12, 1987

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It’s not often that our reviews of history include an actual audio record of the event, but today were are fortunate. 20 years ago today, US President Ronald Reagan gave a speech at the Brandenburg Gate in West Berlin, a speech that is today one of his most remembered.

Communism in Europe and the Soviet Union was on the decline in 1987, but few people outside of government knew it. For more than forty years, Germany had been a divided nation, torn into eastern and western halves as a result of agreements reached at the end of the Second World War. Two generations in, the results of this separation were obvious. In the west, Germany thrived economically. The standard of living was one of the highest in Europe. In the east, stagnation and decay were everywhere. Such was the condition of the other Soviet satellite states as well. Now, because of technology and the few small freedoms being granted by the communist masters, citizens under communist rule in Europe were beginning to get a taste of what democracy held in store. And they liked it.

Such was the state of the nation when Ronald Reagan addressed a crowd of Berliners on June 12, 1987. Not all West German citizens were happy with the United States. After all, American troops had been stationed in the country since 1945 and now short-range nuclear-tipped missiles were housed there, waiting for an all-out war with the Soviets. Reagan knew this, and so he chose to address topics that most of us hold in common belief, among them the idea that totalitarianism cannot stand in the face of democracy. This was not just wishful thinking, for by the end of the decade the wall in near which the President stood would come tumbling down.

Today, Reagan’s contribution to the end of the Cold War is seen as his greatest achievement. The end of that face-off brought new challenges, some for which we were totally unprepared. But the President reminded us that human freedom and love of it are universal and common to all humankind. This remains true today, even though the borders have changed and the rules have been re-written.

President Reagan’s Brandenburg Gate speech is over 25 minutes long, so we will not review it in its entirety. Instead, I choose to bring you the most famous part of the speech, the part that is echoed today whenever and wherever Reagan is remembered:

"And now the Soviets themselves may, in a limited way, be coming to understand the importance of freedom. We hear much from Moscow about a new policy of reform and openness. Some political prisoners have been released. Certain foreign news broadcasts are no longer being jammed. Some economic enterprises have been permitted to operate with greater freedom from state control. Are these the beginnings of profound changes in the Soviet state? Or are they token gestures, intended to raise false hopes in the West, or to strengthen the Soviet system without changing it? We welcome change and openness; for we believe that freedom and security go together, that the advance of human liberty can only strengthen the cause of world peace.

There is one sign the Soviets can make that would be unmistakable, that would advance dramatically the cause of freedom and peace. 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!"

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