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“Mr. Gorbachev, Tear Down This Wall” President Ronald Reagan


President Ronald Reagan’s 1987 exhortation to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to tear down the Berlin Wall was a visceral response to a monstrosity. In the mid-1980s, through glasnost—openness and freedom— and perestroika—economic restructuring—Gorbachev had demonstrated willingness to loosen government strangleholds in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, including East Germany. While his openness was praised in the West, he met resistance from East German leader Erich Honecker and his regime. The incipient freedoms Gorbachev encouraged in Eastern Europe and Germany led to an unforeseen outcome on November 9, 1989 when the Wall fell.

The new is knocking on every door and window…” Mikhail Gorbachev"

By the 1980s the Quadripartite Agreement of 1971 enabled more legal border crossings, including thousands of East Germans working in the West. Gorbachev, in expressing hope, said, “It is not easy to change the approaches on which East-West relations have been built for fifty years. But the new is knocking on every door and window.” U.S. political officer G. Jonathan Greenwald took a clue from Gorbachev, reporting that in East Germany he was looking to changes “from the top, the kinds of changes Gorbachev was trying to institute in the Soviet Union.”

There is in the East air beginning to rise…” G. Jonathan Greenwald

In September 1989, communist Hungary opened its border to Austria and some 50,000 East Germans who were permitted to travel to their communist neighbors crossed to freedom. Later thousands seeking asylum in Prague and Warsaw rode trains to the West. The 40 year celebration of the East German regime brought Gorbachev to Berlin. Urging Honecker to accept reforms, Gorbachev warned, “Life punishes those who come too late.” Meanwhile, after Honecker resigned, the world became aware of East Germany’s fragile and overextended economic state.

Agents of Change: “…speaking out ever more publicly…” G. Jonathan Greenwald

For decades the Protestant church movement had been the political conscience of East Germany, but by September 1989 diplomat G. Jonathan Greenwald observed it coalescing into a political movement. Monday night services in Leipzig grew into Monday demonstrations, expanding to more than 100,000 protesters, pressuring a sickly Honecker to resign. Before the Wall’s demise on November 9, Leipzig protesters numbered 500,000. On November 4, an estimated 1 million demonstrated in East Berlin, unaware of the momentous change to come just five days later.

November 9, 1989

When East Berlin police withdrew at the Wall that night, diplomacy helped secure people’s safety. Berlin’s mayor, fearing a stampede, contacted U.S. diplomat, Minister Harry Gilmore, who was in charge of West Berlin, his monthly rotation with Allies Britain and France having begun that November. Making a command decision, Gilmore mobilized West Berlin police immediately instead of following a lengthy command chain with potentially fatal consequences, sensibly enabling West Berlin police to direct the throngs.

Despite the Wall’s brutal history of death and repression, that night no one fired shots or turned loose the dogs. Berliners flocked to the Wall in the dark, and in days ahead amazed and awed that this dreadful symbol of repression was crumbling. Peacefully gathered celebrants danced and played music, chipped at the hated concrete or scaled to the top, raising their arms in victory.