A few days after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the journalist Lou Cannon met Ronald Reagan at the former President's office in Century City, Calif. Cannon had covered the White House for the Washington Post and had come to interview Reagan for a book on his presidency, The Role of a Lifetime. Their conversation turned to Berlin. "Did you ever expect this to happen?" Cannon asked. Reagan shrugged. "Someday," he said.
The legacies of most Presidents are defined by the historical events that transpire on their watch: Lincoln and the Battle of Gettysburg, John F. Kennedy and the Cuban missile crisis, George W. Bush and Sept. 11. But the accomplishment for which Reagan is most widely credited actually took place nine months after he left office. That Reagan has become so linked to the fall of the Berlin Wall a statue of Reagan recently unveiled in the rotunda of the U.S. Capitol even has chunks of the Wall embedded in its pedestal is due largely to an event that took place nearly 18 months before the Wall came down: Reagan's June 12, 1987, address at the Brandenburg Gate, in which he made his famous challenge to Mikhail Gorbachev. The "Tear Down This Wall" speech is often cited by those who claim that Reagan "won" the Cold War. But the speech's true meaning and legacy are far removed from what many Reagan loyalists would have you believe.
Though Reagan's speech at the Brandenburg Gate is the best remembered of his presidency, it was not considered major news at the time. Neither the Washington Post nor the New York Times ran stories about it on their front pages the next day. Reagan's official biographer, who was in Berlin, called it "an opportunity missed." Frank Carlucci, the President's National Security Adviser, recalls watching Reagan and thinking, "It's a great speech line. But it will never happen." Interviewed by ABC News, Henry Kissinger said the speech might prompt the Soviets to relax restrictions in East Berlin somewhat. "But they won't tear down the Wall."
For the next year and a half, the speech remained obscure. The vast majority of Americans would likely have been unable even to identify the phrase tear down this wall. But once the Wall came down, it was given new life. All three major U.S. networks played clips of the speech during their nightly newscasts on Nov. 9. President George H.W. Bush cited it during his own speech to the nation from the Oval Office. Interviewed on Nov. 9, Reagan recalled looking across the Wall and seeing East German police preventing people from "getting anywhere near the Wall" to hear his speech. For U.S. conservatives, Reagan's challenge acquired an iconic weight. It defined their image of Reagan. It entered American lore.
And yet it also remains misunderstood. There is little evidence that Reagan's call for the Wall to be torn down had a direct impact on East Germans, or that it inspired them to rise up against their communist rulers. The true significance of Reagan's speech and its ultimate role in the end of the Cold War can be found less in the words themselves than in the person to whom they were addressed. Though many of his advisers argued that the central challenge be removed in order not to embarrass Gorbachev, Reagan insisted it stay in for a simple reason: calling on Gorbachev to tear down the Wall might actually inspire him to do it.
Read in that light, the speech is as much an invitation as a challenge. "If he took down that Wall, he'd win the Nobel Prize," Reagan told an aide after the speech. Reagan loathed the Soviet Union and its ideology. But his speech presciently established Berlin as a test of Gorbachev's intentions: if the Soviets truly sought peace and liberalization, Reagan said, they should let the Wall come down. This may be Reagan's greatest legacy: when so many leaders try to intimidate their adversaries by making threats, Reagan defeated his by earning its trust.