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U.S./East: Tenth Anniversary Of Reagan's Speech At Berlin Wall

  • Julie Moffett

Washington, 12 June 1997 (RFE/RL) -- Ten years ago today, then U.S. President Ronald Reagan stood near the Berlin Wall and made an impassioned plea for Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to "tear down this wall" if he was serious about seeking peace with the West.

Although it took two more years before the Wall did indeed come tumbling down, the speech marked a dramatic turning point in the Cold War.

For many years the Berlin Wall was a highly visible symbol of the Cold War. Many prominent political figures, including several U.S. presidents made speeches at the Wall.

In June 1963, U.S. President John F. Kennedy, the first U.S. president to speak at the Wall, delivered the most famous phrase when he exclaimed: "All free men, wherever they may live, are citizens of Berlin, and therefore, as a free man, I take pride in the words, Ich bin ein Berliner (I am a Berliner)."

The Berlin Wall was built in 1961, partially as a way to stem the flight of East Germans to the West. Between 1949 -- the year East Germany was established -- and the middle of 1961, at least 2.7 million people fled East Germany to the West. More than half of those went through West Berlin.

Although East Berlin was considered a successful economic showcase for the communist bloc, residents had some access to the western media and realized their standard of living was much lower than that of their countrymen in the West. Many came West, looking for more lucrative economic opportunities.

In August 1961, the East German government decided to put an end to the flight of its citizens to the West.

In the early morning hours of August 13, 1961, East German workers began to seal off East Berlin with barbed wire and anti-tank obstacles. Streets were torn up and barricades erected. Buildings near the border were forcibly evacuated and bricked up.

Eventually the barbed wire was replaced by a concrete wall four meters high and 166 kilometers long. An illuminated control area, which later became known as the "death area" was also constructed. A trench was dug designed to prevent vehicles from breaking through. Foot patrols, watchdogs, armed bunkers and a second wall were also added.

Overall, the wall cut through 192 Berlin streets.

The East German government called the wall an "anti-fascist protection wall" and said it was needed to prevent military aggression and political interference from West Germany.

But the fact that the tank traps and ditches were constructed on the east side of the wall suggested that it was intended more to keep East German citizens in than Westerners out.

Between 1961 and 1989 at least 80 people died trying to cross the border, with the last known person dying as late as February of 1989.

In his speech on June 12, 1987, Reagan expressed hope that the Berlin Wall could at last be eliminated. He said he believed the Soviet policy of perestroika was helping them "in a limited way, come to understand the importance of freedom."

Reagan said he was heartened by the release of several political prisoners, the cessation of jamming of certain foreign news broadcasts, and the fact that some economic enterprises were being able to operate with greater freedom from state control.

But he also questioned the motives of the Soviet government.

Reagan asked: "Are these the beginnings of profound changes 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 said that there was one sign the Soviet Union could make that would "advance dramatically the cause of freedom of peace."

He said: "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 years later, on November 9, 1989, private citizens from both sides of Berlin began to demolish whole sections of the wall without interference from either government.

In 1990, East and West Germany were reunited as one nation. The Berlin Wall now consists of only a few remaining sections, preserved as memorials, and a museum and shop near the site of the most famous crossing point called "Checkpoint Charlie".