Back To the Berlin Wall

Reagan rallies with a strong speech

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"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."

It was a determined challenge, delivered Friday by Ronald Reagan with his back to the Berlin Wall, across from the Brandenburg Gate in Communist East Germany. But the necessity the President felt to remind West Berliners, of all people, that the Soviet leader still commands a totalitarian society underscored a melancholy aspect of Reagan's nine-day journey through Western Europe. For all his eloquence, the aging President was repeatedly upstaged by the youthful and suavely dynamic image of the man who was not there: Mikhail Gorbachev.

When Reagan met with the leaders of the non-Communist world's seven principal industrial powers last week in Venice, almost the entire opening dinner was taken up by an animated -- and inconclusive -- discussion of Gorbachev's arms-control maneuvers and campaign for glasnost (openness) and perestroika (economic restructuring) within the Soviet Union. At a press conference after the summit, a reporter reminded the President of polls showing that West Europeans put more faith in Gorbachev than in Reagan as a leader working for peace. Reagan replied, correctly, that the prospective agreement to rid Europe of intermediate-range nuclear missiles is based on proposals he made four years ago.

Even Reagan's presence in Berlin at the close of his trip was in part a response to Gorbachev. The Soviet leader visited the eastern half of the divided city three weeks ago. Some U.S. planners feared, wrongly, that Gorbachev would make a sensational proposal to reunify Germany. They thought the President would have to deliver a reply.

That proved unnecessary, but the grim Wall nonetheless provided a dramatic backdrop for Reagan's attempt to reassert leadership of the Western alliance. Before an audience estimated at 20,000, the President rose to the occasion. Referring to the city's division and deliberately inviting comparison with John F. Kennedy's famed "Ich bin ein Berliner" speech in 1963, Reagan expressed "this unalterable belief: es gibt nur ein Berlin" (there is only one Berlin). Taking note of the violent demonstrations against U.S. foreign policy that swirled through West Berlin before his arrival, Reagan asserted, "I invite those who protest today to mark this fact: because we remained strong, the Soviets came back to the table" and are on the verge of a treaty "eliminating, for the first time, an entire class of nuclear weapons."

Reagan in effect invited Gorbachev to prove he means his protestations of peace. Said the President: "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 . . . Are these the beginnings of profound change in the Soviet Union? Or are they token gestures, intended to raise false hopes in the West or to strengthen the Soviet Union without changing it?" At that point Reagan issued his challenge to Gorbachev to tear down the Berlin Wall.

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