Today in History

Reagan challenges Gorbachev to tear down Berlin Wall

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Today in History: Thursday, June  12, 2014

Reagan challenges Gorbachev to tear down Berlin Wall

AP Highlight in History:
On June 12, 1987, during a visit to the divided German city of Berlin, President Ronald Reagan publicly challenged Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev to “tear down this wall.”

reaganA spectator jumps up as President Ronald Reagan concludes a speech in front of the Brandenburg Gate in West Berlin on June 12, 1987. To Reagan’s left is West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

Reagan challenges Gorbachev to tear down Berlin Wall

AP White House Correspondent

BERLIN (AP) – President Reagan stood before the concrete and barbed wire of the Berlin Wall today and issued a personal and dramatic challenge to Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev: “If you seek peace … come here to this gate … tear down this wall.”

The president, like John F. Kennedy two decades before, spoke briefly and poignantly in German as he embraced “this firm, this unalterable belief: ‘Es gibt nur ein Berlin’ – There is only one Berlin.’

Reagan wondered aloud about the openness and reform advanced by Gorbachev and spoke harshly about a Soviet system that cannot can’t produce enough food to feed its people. He stood before the wall and looked across to East Germany, the Soviet ally which erected the barrier 26 years ago to keep East Germans from fleeing to the West.

His speech, met with occasional cheers, was delivered near the Brandenburg Gate, which towers over the wall from East Berlin, and broadcast throughout Europe. Reagan was heading back to Washington after nine days in Venice, Italy, site of the annual economic summit.

As he stood at a balcony overlooking the Wall, two guards in an East German tower grabbed cameras to take pictures of the American president, and on top of Brandenburg Gate, two others looked down at the huge crowd and the stage where Reagan spoke.

On the eve of Reagan’s arrival here, hundreds of anti-American protesters smashed windows, looted stores and battled with riot-equipped police. Some 60 demonstrators were arrested and nearly 70 policemen injured but Reagan dismissed the protest, saying, “Nothing new about that.”

When a reporter noted polls show many Europeans think Gorbachev is more of a man for peace than he is, Reagan said, “They just have to learn don’t they.”

In remarks read from behind a bullet-proof glass shield at the wall under overcast skies, Reagan directed his most dramatic statements toward Gorbachev, the Kremlin leader with whom he is trying to settle an arms pact and whom Europeans responding to a recent poll said was more of a peacemaker than Reagan.

“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,” Reagan said.

“Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate.

“Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.”

Asked later whether he thought Gorbachev would accept his challenge, Reagan paused momentarily, and then replied, “I don’t know.”

Specifically, Reagan urged increased free air access to West Berlin and suggested the city be the site of United Nations meetings or world conferences on human rights, arms control and other issues.

Among other things, Reagan suggested that Berlin – East and West – be the site of a future Olympic Games.

It was just after midnight on Aug. 13, 1961 when thousands of East German soldiers and militiamen began unrolling barbed wire and installing concrete blocks around the perimeter of the western sectors of Berlin to prevent people from fleeing from the East.

Twenty-six years later, the wall now stretches 103 miles around Berlin which is landlocked by East Germany, its barriers reinforced by electric fences, trenches, dog runs and watchtowers.

On June 26, 1963, then-President John F. Kennedy had come here to proclaim, “Ich bin ein Berliner (I am a Berliner).”

The anti-American demonstrations were about three miles from the gate where Reagan spoke. A large area around the gate was barricaded to prevent any of the demonstrators from getting within a mile of the president.

In an impromptu remark directed at the protesters, Reagan concluded his speech by saying, “I wonder if they have ever asked themselves, that if they should have the kind of government they apparently seek, no one would be ever be able to do what they’re doing again.”

Reagan’s remark was heavily applauded by the cheering and flag-waving audience, which appeared to be composed primarily of the U.S. military and diplomatic contingent posted in West Berlin.

West Berlin television, using cameras peering into East Berlin, showed a several hundred East Berliners standing on street corners on the other side of the Brandenburg Gate, listening to the speeches – as East Berlin police quietly observed them.

The speeches were being put over loudspeakers, which sounded loud enough to carry across the Wall.

In a speech later to an American audience at Tempelhof, just before taking off for Bonn, Reagan, noting the 750th anniversary party for the city, said, “By its very existence and character, Berlin remains the most compelling argument for an open world.”

“Let me make one thing clear, our troops will remain here as long as they’re wanted and needed … to show the other side that force and coercion cannot succeed,” he said, drawing cheers.

Some 250,000 U.S. troops are stationed in West Germany and Berlin.

He met privately with three veterans of the Berlin Airlift, including Allen Chealander, whose son, Air Force Maj. Steve Chealander, is one of Reagan’s military aides.

West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl had joined Reagan in the call to tear down the Berlin Wall.

“No one in Europe has more interest in the reduction of East-West conflict than we Germans, and among us, the Berliners,” Kohl said. “A wall, a barbed wire and orders to shoot are not the answer of history to the German question.”

Reagan stopped in Berlin on the way home from Venice and the seven-nation economic summit. After a brief visit to Bonn later in the day, he was to fly home to Washington, ending a 10-day, 10,135-mile journey.

“After four decades, then, there stands before the entire world one great and inescapable conclusion,” he declared in the Berlin Wall speech. “Freedom leads to prosperity. Freedom replaces the ancient hatreds among the nations with comity and peace.

“Freedom is the victor,” said Reagan.

“We hear much from Moscow about a new policy of reform and openness,” the president said, noting the release of some political prisoners, a halt to the jamming of foreign news broadcasts and tolerance of economic enterprises.

“Are these the beginnings of profound change 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?” Reagan asked.

“There is one sign the Soviets can make that would be unmistakable, that would advance dramatically the cause of freedom and peace” – the dismantling of the wall, he said.

“And surely there is no better place than Berlin, the meeting place of East and West, to make a start.”

Reagan said it was the unity of the allies that has brought the superpowers near completion of an arms agreement to dismantle hundreds of nuclear missiles in Europe and Asia.

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