Ronald Reagan

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How did Ronald Reagan's speech at the Brandenburg Gate reflect the end of the Cold War?

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Although Ronald Reagan’s line “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” from his 1987 speech at the Brandenburg Gate is now one of the most famous sound bites of its era, at the time of the speech his words were not covered as widely as might be thought, and the relationship of his famous line to the actual destruction of the Berlin Wall is disputed.

Nevertheless, his speech reflected the complex political landscape of the late Cold War, containing a mixture of optimism and uncertainty: the West’s optimism about thawing relations between the United States and the Soviet Union, but also the continuing uncertainty brought about by tension between the two superpowers over key issues, like denuclearization and proxy conflicts around the world.

The US had reasons to be optimistic: Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev was pursuing a reform policy of perestroika, or “openness,” and significant blocs of the Soviet Union were pursuing independence. In 1986, the year before the Brandenburg speech, the Reykjavik summit between the US and the Soviet Union revealed a surprising willingness for concessions on both sides. In this sense, Reagan’s speech was partly a symbolic gesture of goodwill and an invitation to continue the progress made to thaw out relationships across the Iron Curtain.

However, Reagan’s speech contained many criticisms of the Soviet Union (he repeatedly opined on the cruelties of a “totalitarian” state) as well as warnings about America’s military preparedness if the Soviet Union failed to cooperate. East German and Soviet officials condemned the speech as overly aggressive, especially the “tear down this wall” line, and even officials within the Reagan administration were nervous about the speech's contents.

The Berlin Wall did come down, two years later, in November of 1989, but it was not torn down by Gorbachev; instead, it was slowly demolished by East and West German citizens after East Germany officials opened the border between the two countries. This was more a result of newly porous borders in East Germany’s more independent neighbors, Hungary and Czechoslovakia, than of Reagan’s speech, but the Brandenburg speech can be seen as a symbol of this tumultuous period.

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By the time that President Reagan gave his famous speech at the Brandenburg Gate, Gorbachev had already embarked upon his program of reform in the Soviet Union. Although Gorbachev didn't envisage glasnost and perestroika as potentially leading to the end of the Cold War, it's clear that Reagan did, and that is reflected in his speech.

Reagan isn't suggesting that Gorbachev's reforms might lead to a kinder, gentler, more efficient system of Communism; on the contrary, he's making it perfectly clear that Communism, under whatever form, has no future, not least because of its failure to meet the basic needs of its people, either economically or politically. And the Berlin Wall is presented by Reagan as a symbol of that failure, a symbol of the Soviet tyranny that doesn't just need to be reformed, but completely dismantled. As Gorbachev must tear down this wall, so too must he tear down the discredited system that built it. The general tenor of Reagan's speech indicates that the onus on ending the Cold War lies with the Soviets, not with the Americans.

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President Reagan’s speech, famous for his challenge to Mikhail Gorbachev to “tear down this wall,” reflects the end of the Cold War for two main reasons.

First, the speech reflects on the different economic situations of the East and the West. Reagan points out that there is great prosperity in the West, while, in the communist bloc, there is

failure, technological backwardness, declining standards of health, even want of the most basic kind—too little food.

This reflects one of the major causes of the end of the Cold War. The communist bloc was unable to give its people the material goods they wanted.

Second, the speech points out the importance of Gorbachev’s reforms. Reagan referred to the changes that Gorbachev was making and pushed him to go farther. This was another cause of the end of the Cold War. Once Gorbachev had opened society to some degree, there was tremendous pressure on him to allow more and more freedom.

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