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“Tear Down This Wall”: Ronald Reagan and the End of the Cold War

Written by: Bill of Rights Institute

By the end of this section, you will:

  • Explain the causes and effects of the end of the Cold War and its legacy

Suggested Sequencing:

Use this decision point after students have read the introductory essay to introduce foreign policy milestones during Reagan’s presidency. This decision point can be used with The Iran-Contra Affair Narrative; the Ronald Reagan, “Tear Down this Wall” Speech, June 12, 1987 Primary Source; and the Cold War DBQ (1947–1989) Lesson.

In the wake of World War II, a Cold War erupted between the world’s two superpowers—the United States and the Soviet Union. During the postwar era, the contest between their respective capitalist and communist systems manifested itself in a nuclear arms race, a space race, and several proxy wars. In the 1960s and 1970s, as the United States fought the Vietnam War and struggled internally with its aftermath and a faltering economy, the Russians seemed ascendant. Increasing oil prices globally led to a revenue windfall for oil-rich Russia, which paid for a massive arms buildup and supported communist insurrections that Russia backed in Asia, Africa, and Latin America.

Eventually, the policy of détente decreased tensions between the two countries and led to their signing the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT) in 1972. SALT I, the first of two SALT agreements, limited the number of nuclear missiles either country could possess and banned the building of antiballistic missile (ABM) systems used to defend against nuclear strikes. The use of ABMs would have upset the stalemate represented by the possibility of mutual assured destruction (MAD)—the obliteration of both parties in a nuclear war—because it would allow one side to strike first and then defend itself against retaliation.

The December 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan to prop up a puppet communist regime led President Jimmy Carter to seek increased military budgets and to withdraw from Senate consideration the recently signed SALT II treaty, which would have reduced both countries’ nuclear missiles, bombers, and other delivery vehicles. When Ronald Reagan was elected president in 1980, he rejected détente and instituted a tough stance with Soviets designed to reverse their advances, topple communism in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, and win the Cold War. His administration supported freedom in Eastern Europe and the Polish resistance movement known as Solidarity; armed fighters resisting communism around the world, including the mujahideen in Afghanistan; and increased military spending to support peace through strength and to bankrupt the Soviet economy if it tried to match the increases. Reagan also launched an ideological crusade against the Soviet regime for violating inalienable rights and liberties.

President Jimmy Carter and Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev sit at a table and sign documents. Officials stand behind them.
(Left) President Jimmy Carter and (right) Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev signing the SALT II treaty in Vienna in June 1979. Carter withdrew the treaty from Senate consideration in December after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and it was not ratified.

For decades before coming into office, Reagan had criticized the spread of Soviet communism and the danger it posed. He compared communism to Nazism and totalitarianism, characterized by a powerful state that limited individual freedoms. In a 1964 televised speech, Reagan told the American people he believed there could be no accommodation with the Soviets.

We cannot buy our security, our freedom from the threat of the bomb by committing an immorality so great as saying to a billion human beings now in slavery behind the Iron Curtain, “Give up your dreams of freedom because to save our own skins, we are willing to make a deal with your slave-masters.”

Shortly before he became president, Reagan told an aide: “My idea of American policy toward the Soviet Union is simple, and some would say simplistic. It is this: We win and they lose.”

Reagan also specifically targeted the Berlin Wall, erected by communist East Germany in 1961 to separate East and West Berlin. In a 1967 televised town hall debate with Robert Kennedy, Reagan argued, “I think it would be very admirable if the Berlin Wall should . . . disappear.” He continued, “We just think that a wall that is put up to confine people, and keep them within their own country . . . has to be somehow wrong.” In 1978, he visited the wall and was disgusted to learn the story of Peter Fechter, one of the first among hundreds who were gunned down by East German police while trying to escape to freedom.

Men work on top of a wide, tall wall. Cranes are on the left side of the wall. Two fences surround the wall on the right side.
East German workers constructing the Berlin wall in 1961.

Americans knew Ronald Reagan was an uncompromising Cold War warrior when they elected him president in 1980. Over the heads of many in the State Department and the National Security Council, he instituted controversial policies that reversed détente because he thought it had strengthened and emboldened the Soviets during the 1970s. He joked that détente was “what a farmer has with his turkey—until Thanksgiving Day.”

Reagan also pressed an unrelenting ideological attack on communism in stark moral terms that pitted it against a free society. In 1981, he asserted at the University of Notre Dame that “The West won’t contain communism, it will transcend communism . . . it will dismiss it as some bizarre chapter in human history whose last pages are even now being written.” In a 1982 speech to the British Parliament, he said communism ran “against the tides of history by denying human freedom and human dignity” and predicted that the Soviet regime would end up “on the ash heap of history.” The Berlin Wall was “the signature of the regime that built it.” During that trip, Reagan visited the wall and said, “It’s as ugly as the idea behind it.” In a 1983 speech that made the supporters of a softer line toward the Soviets cringe, he called the Soviet Union an “evil empire.”

In June 1987, Reagan was in West Berlin to speak during a ceremony commemorating the 750th anniversary of the city and faced an important choice. The Berlin Wall was one of the most important symbols of the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union, and a symbol of communist oppression. He could confront the Soviets about the injustice of the wall, or he could deliver bland remarks that would satisfy the members of the American foreign policy establishment who wanted to avoid conflict. He decided to deliver a provocative speech demanding an end to the oppression of the wall and of communism.

Many officials in Reagan’s administration and in the allied West German government were strongly opposed to his delivering any provocative words or actions during the speech. The West Germans did not want the speech to be given anywhere near the wall and sought to avoid what might be perceived as an aggressive signal. The German Foreign Ministry appealed to the White House, but to no avail. Some members of the administration were even more concerned. At the time, the United States was in the midst of Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) negotiations with the U.S.S.R., and officials did not want to jeopardize the progress they had made by undermining the Soviet leader so close to home. As a result, Secretary of State George Shultz, Chief of Staff Howard Baker, and the U.S. Embassy in Bonn (the West German capital) read the drafts of Reagan’s speech and repeatedly implored the president and his speechwriters to tone down the language. Deputy National Security Advisor Colin Powell and other members of the National Security Council were particularly adamant and offered several revisions of the speech. Reagan listened to all the objections and unalterably decided, “I think we’ll leave it in.” He would not be deterred from challenging the Soviets and communism.

The stark moral difference between the systems on either side of the Berlin Wall was evident on June 12. Reagan and his team arrived in West Berlin and encountered some protesters who freely voiced their dissent at his appearance. He also spoke to reporters and nervous German officials who feared the fallout over an antagonistic speech. As he told them, “This is the only wall that has ever been built to keep people in, not keep people out.” In East Berlin, in contrast, the German secret police and Russian KGB agents cordoned off an area a thousand yards wide on the other side of the wall from where Reagan was to speak. They wanted to ensure that no one could hear his message of freedom.

Reagan stepped up to the podium to speak, with the Brandenburg Gate and the imposing wall in the background. He told the audience, “As long as this gate is closed, as long as this scar of a wall is permitted to stand, it is not the German question alone that remains open, but the question of freedom for all mankind.” In the middle of the speech, Reagan directly challenged Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev, who wanted to reform communism in an attempt to save it. He delivered the line that had caused so much consternation among American and German officials: “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!” Reagan finished the speech by predicting the wall would not endure. “This wall will fall. For it cannot withstand faith; it cannot withstand truth. The wall cannot withstand freedom.” Reagan took responsibility for causing a diplomatic furor because he believed in universal ideals of freedom and self-government. And he understood the power of using a dramatic moment to promote American ideals.

Ronald Reagan delivers a speech in front of the Brandenburg Gate and Berlin Wall.
President Reagan giving his famous “Tear down this wall!” speech in Berlin in 1987.

A year later, Reagan addressed the students at Moscow State University. “The key is freedom,” he told them. It was an ideal that had been at the core of his political philosophy and public statements for 50 years, since the dawn of the Cold War. In a statement that reflected his own sense of responsibility for defeating communism and defending freedom, he told them: “It is the right to put forth an idea, scoffed at by the experts, and watch it catch fire among the people. It is the right to dream—to follow your dream or stick to your conscience, even if you’re the only one in a sea of doubters.”

In applying military, economic, moral, and ideological pressure against the system to facilitate its collapse, Reagan was joined by British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, Pope John Paul II, Soviet dissident Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Solidarity leader Lech Walesa, and others who fought for democracy and freedom. No one imagined the Berlin Wall would fall only two years later on November 9, 1989, as communism collapsed across Eastern Europe, or that the Soviet Union would formerly dissolve by the end of 1991.

Review Questions

1. The Cold War manifested itself through all the following except

  1. proxy wars
  2. a nuclear arms race
  3. the space race
  4. direct military conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union

2. The massive Soviet arms buildup during the 1960s and 1970s was financed by

  1. increased oil prices globally
  2. mineral wealth gained from Afghanistan
  3. increased Soviet industrial productivity
  4. surplus tariffs from the trade war with the United States

3. Tensions between the United States and the U.S.S.R. increased in the 1970s with the

  1. signing of the SALT Treaty in 1972
  2. banning of the antiballistic missile system
  3. Soviet invasion of Afghanistan
  4. policy of détente

4. The president most often credited with advocating policies leading to the collapse of the Soviet Union was

  1. Richard Nixon
  2. Jimmy Carter
  3. Ronald Reagan
  4. George H. W. Bush

5. The Reagan administration challenged Soviet influence by

  1. supporting the Solidarity movement in Poland
  2. refusing to get involved in the Afghanistan conflict
  3. embracing unilateral nuclear disarmament
  4. continuing the policy of détente

6. For President Ronald Reagan, the “evil empire” confronting the world was

  1. Afghanistan
  2. Iran
  3. Communist China
  4. the Soviet Union

7. Events marking the end of the Cold War included all the following except

  1. Eastern European uprisings against communism
  2. the tearing down of the Berlin War
  3. the disintegration of the U.S.S.R.
  4. the end of communist rule in China

Free Response Questions

  1. Explain how détente led to a lessening of nuclear tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union in the 1970s.
  2. Compare President Reagan’s attitudes and policies toward the Soviet Union with those of his predecessors.

AP Practice Questions

“But in the West today, we see a free world that has achieved a level of prosperity and well-being unprecedented in all human history. In the Communist world, we see failure, technological backwardness, declining standards of health, even want of the most basic kind —too little food. Even today, the Soviet Union still cannot feed itself. After these four decades, then, there stands before the entire world one great and inescapable conclusion: Freedom leads to prosperity. Freedom replaces the ancient hatreds among nations with comity and peace. Freedom is the victor. And now—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. . . . 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—Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”

Ronald Reagan, Remarks at the Brandenburg Gate, June 12, 1987

Refer to the excerpt provided.

1. The sentiments expressed in the excerpt contributed to which of the following?

  1. An end to the war on terrorism
  2. Conflicts in the Middle East
  3. The fall of the Soviet Union
  4. The attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon on September 11, 2001

2. The Soviet conditions referred to in this excerpt most directly resulted from

  1. the end of World War II
  2. détente
  3. collective security agreements
  4. the creation of the United Nations

3. This excerpt was written in response to

  1. Cold War competition extending into Latin America
  2. postwar decolonization
  3. efforts to seek allies among nonaligned nations
  4. political changes and economic problems in Eastern Europe

Primary Sources

Reagan, Ronald. “Remarks on East-West Relations at the Brandenburg Gate in West Berlin.” June 12, 1987.

Reagan, Ronald. “Remarks on East-West Relations at the Brandenburg Gate in West Berlin.” June 12, 1987. Reagan Foundation Video.

Suggested Resources

Brands, H. W. Reagan: The Life. New York: Doubleday, 2015.

Busch, Andrew E. Ronald Reagan and the Politics of Freedom. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2001.

Gaddis, John Lewis. The Cold War: A New History. New York: Penguin, 2005.

Hayward, Steven F. The Age of Reagan: The Conservative Counterrevolution, 1980–1989. New York: Three Rivers Press, 2009.

Lettow, Paul. Ronald Reagan and His Quest to Abolish Nuclear Weapons. New York: Random House, 2005.

Ratnesar, Romesh. Tear Down This Wall: A City, A President, and the Speech that Ended the Cold War. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2009.

Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum website.

Schweizer, Peter. Reagan’s War: The Epic Story of His Forty-Year Struggle and Final Triumph Over Communism. New York: Doubleday, 2002.

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