BERLIN — Thirty years ago this week Ronald Reagan stood up on a podium in what was then West Berlin, framed by the Brandenburg Gate behind him. Through a thick sheet of bulletproof glass, he gazed at the ugly concrete symbol of the Cold War, the Berlin Wall, and addressed the most famous words of his presidency to Mikhail Gorbachev, the leader of the Soviet empire: “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.”
This was no mere rhetorical flourish. He was passionately and morally offended by the “evil empire.”
Today the Berlin Wall Museum celebrates the occasion, with a film of the late president delivering his memorable line, and Berliners and tourists stroll past tall poles to imagine where the wall once stood. It’s hard to conjure up the terror that once confronted those who sought freedom on the other side of the 95-mile “death strip” that split the city between 1961 to 1989, where 139 men and women, many of them in the bloom of youth, were killed or died trying to escape to freedom.
Three years ago, first lady Michelle Obama visited the wall with her daughters Sasha and Malia, and placed red and yellow roses on a memorial to those who died in those attempts. But the times, along with the presidents, have changed. A guide speaking to a group of American visitors today jokes that “Donald Trump has also taken an interest in our wall.” It draws a few chuckles.
The Wall Museum is near hip, prosperous Prenzlauer Berg, once a drab neighborhood behind the wall, now animated with cafes, galleries, shops and bakeries with bagels and strudel, though Jewish customers are few. Young men and women, many of them pushing strollers marking a Berlin baby boom. New luxury apartment houses and renovated buildings line the border strip of what was once “no man’s land.”
Shortly before Ronald Reagan’s visit, young people in East Berlin risked arrest, and worse, protesting the Communist regime’s preventing them from listening to a rock concert on the Western side of the wall. The Gipper gave them a voice. Today the children of that protest listen to rock, techno and pop with hedonistic abandon.
Not everyone in Mr. Reagan’s inner circle 30 years ago wanted him to use strong language to rebuke the Soviet intransigence. The U.S. State Department, the National Security Council and the American ambassador in West Germany urged him to speak softly lest he arouse Mr. Gorbachev and a big stick. They feared that tough rhetoric would raise the heat beneath the diplomatic burners, and the Cold War would turn hot.
But the Gipper stood tall, and retained the strong exhortation because “it was the right thing to do.” Over the next two years protesters behind the Iron Curtain turned up the heat in the streets of Leipzig, Warsaw and Prague, marching against Soviet tyranny and ultimately broke through borders that had locked them in. The Wall was soon history.
American school kids don’t hear much history of the Cold War or Mr. Reagan’s famous speech. Peter Robinson, who was 30 when he drafted the speech for the president, is a fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution now, and laments that American high school students lack a context for Ronald Reagan’s remarks.
“They don’t know how Vietnam fits into it, or Korea,” he tells the Los Angeles Times. “They don’t even know who Gorbachev was.” He bristles at comparisons of the Berlin Wall and the wall that Donald Trump wants to build along the U.S.-Mexican border. “There’s a basic distinction between a wall to keep people in,” he says, “and a wall to defend a border that keeps people from entering illegally.”
Four decades of what President George H.W. Bush described as the struggle “for the soul of mankind” is abstract in the telling today, and no longer easily engages the contemporary imagination. In 1989, the day after the Wall came down, West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl told the elder President Bush that “without the United States this day would not have been possible.” It was a moment to indulge a fierce pride for Americans, but it lacked the drama of ranks of Yanks (and Southerners, too) returning home to parades in cities and small towns across America. Ours is a visual age where the medium is the message and the medium doesn’t easily depict the absence of public celebration.
But when Ronald Reagan said goodbye to Washington, he left the world without the fierce hostility between the superpowers that scarred the previous half-century. The “evil empire” belonged to another era. Thanks to the Gipper’s doughty resolve, the world could “score one for the good guys.”
• Suzanne Fields is a columnist for The Washington Times and is nationally syndicated.
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