Building bridges, tearing down walls

In a recent editorial we reflected on the life and career of John Wayne. The editorial noted both Wayne’s importance in film and as an advocate for conservative political causes. Today also marks a significant anniversary for another conservative icon. On this day in 1987, President Ronald Reagan delivered an address to the people of Germany in which he admonished Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev to “tear down” the infamous Berlin Wall.

This occasion is arguably one of if not the most important speech of the Reagan presidency. Regardless of how one views the Reagan legacy or the conservative movement it sparked, the potency and eloquence in evidence that day in front of the storied Brandenburg Gate cannot be dismissed.

Reagan began this rhetorical journey by referencing his predecessor, President John F. Kennedy’s, equally famous remarks to the German nation.

While acknowledging solidarity with Germany, Reagan provides a novel twist on Kennedy’s “Ich bin ein Berliner” line. As Reagan recast it, “You see, like so many presidents before me, I come here today because wherever I go, whatever I do: Ich hab noch einen Koffer in Berlin. [I still have a suitcase in Berlin.]”

Reagan then follows with a foreshadowing remark, also deliverd in German, “Es gibt nur ein Berlin. [There is only one Berlin.]”

Reagan then performs a masterful switch by recasting the division of Berlin in humanitarian, rather than political terms: “And in 1947 Secretary of State — as you’ve been told — George Marshall announced the creation of what would become known as the Marshall Plan. Speaking precisely 40 years ago this month, he said: ‘Our policy is directed not against any country or doctrine, but against hunger, poverty, desperation, and chaos.’”

This then provides a segue to a passage on freedom of the press and free trade: “From devastation, from utter ruin, you Berliners have, in freedom, rebuilt a city that once again ranks as one of the greatest on earth. The Soviets may have had other plans.”

He positions the modern era in contrast to former Soviet Premier Khrushchev’s prediction that the Soviet realm would “bury” the Western world.

At this point Reagan has led the audience to the perfect place for the most famous passage: “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!”

Ironically, the penultimate line, “Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate!” garners such an enthusiastic response form the assembled crowd that Reagan is forced to withhold the more memorable “punch line” for several seconds.

If there is any structural deficit in this speech, it is that the predicate very nearly overshadowed the more rhetorically hefty, “tear down this wall” finish. In this, the “Great Communicator” almost bested himself.

Lou Cannon, the former Washington Post White House correspondent, wrote about the Berlin Wall speech on the occasion of Reagan’s death in 2004. As Cannon put it: “If you listen to that speech, you feel his anger. He’s not angry at Russian leader Mikhail Gorbachev. He’s angry that those on the eastern side of the Berlin Wall are trying to drown him out with loudspeakers… You know, when you cover the same guy all of the time, you’re not moved by his speeches most of the time. But that speech at the Brandenburg Gate was really something.”

Indeed it was.