by: Nile Gardiner
June 12th marked the 25th anniversary of Ronald Reagan’s famous “tear down this wall” speech delivered before the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin in 1987. It is a reminder not only of President Reagan’s oratorical brilliance but also of his steadfast leadership on the world stage. For the Gipper was a president who, together with Margaret Thatcher, brought down the might of the Soviet Empire, liberated hundreds of millions from Communist tyranny and restored US leadership after the decline of the Carter years and the Vietnam era. Reagan was uncompromising in his opposition to the Soviet Union and his defense of freedom, driven by his belief in American exceptionalism and the unique role the United States must play in standing up to tyranny and advancing the cause of liberty.
For Ronald Reagan in 1987, West Berlin was the frontline in the war against Communism, a city the Russians had tried to strangle in 1948. He was determined to see the wall that divided Berlin’s three million inhabitants brought down, and the biggest symbol of Communist tyranny smashed to the ground. In his speech in Berlin, Reagan memorably declared:
“In the 1950’s, Khrushchev predicted: “We will bury you.” 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 the nations with comity and peace. Freedom is the victor.”
…. “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, tear down this wall!”
Two decades later, for Barack Obama in 2008, Berlin was little more than a hubristic campaign stop where he could bask in the worship of adoring German youth en route to the White House, introducing himself as “a fellow citizen of the world.” A year into his presidency, he could not even be bothered to attend the city’s celebrations commemorating the 20th anniversary of the downfall of the Berlin Wall in 2009, which National Review Editor Rich Lowry appropriately described at the time as “the most telling nonevent of his presidency.”
In so many respects Reagan’s firm leadership in the 1980s towers over that of Barack Obama today. It would be hard to imagine President Obama delivering an address with the power and moral conviction of President Reagan’s Berlin Wall speech. While Obama has apologized for his nation, Reagan stood tall for American greatness. While Obama has sought accommodation with some of America’s key adversaries, Reagan vowed to defeat them. While Obama is cutting US defense spending, closing several US bases in Europe, and scaling back American global power, Reagan believed in peace through strength, and rebuilding America’s military might.
The people of Berlin and millions will always remember Ronald Reagan more across eastern and central Europe, as the steadfast leader who fought for their freedom and refused to back down in the face of a brutal enemy that had oppressed a continent for nearly half a century. It is thanks to his vision and determination that the Soviet Empire was brought to its knees. As his closest friend and ally Margaret Thatcher put it in her eulogy to Reagan at the Washington National Cathedral in 2004:
“Others prophesied the decline of the West. He inspired America and its allies with renewed faith in their mission of freedom… With the lever of American patriotism, he lifted up the world. And so today, the world – in Prague, in Budapest, in Warsaw and Sofia, in Bucharest, in Kiev, and in Moscow itself, the world mourns the passing of the great liberator and echoes his prayer: God bless America.”