Since the Presidency of Dwight Eisenhower, the United States had relied on the qualitative superiority of its weapons to deter any aggressive action on the part of the Soviet Union. Over time the gap narrowed in the level of weaponry possessed by the two nations. This concerned President Reagan, who accelerated military spending and built up the nation's military arsenal. The Soviet Union did not similarly accelerate their military spending after President Reagan's military buildup, but regardless, their large military spending, along with collectivized agriculture and inefficient planned manufacturing, were a heavy burden for the Soviet economy. When Saudi Arabia increased its oil production, this resulted in a drop of oil prices in 1985 to one-third of the previous level. Oil had been a main source of Soviet export revenues. These factors contributed to a stagnant Soviet economy.
Reagan recognized the change in the direction of the Soviet leadership with Mikhail Gorbachev, and shifted from military posturing to diplomacy. His plan was to encourage the Soviet leader to pursue substantial arms agreements. He was able to start discussions on nuclear disarmament with General Secretary Gorbachev. The two men held four summit conferences between 1985 and 1988: the first in Geneva, Switzerland, the second in Reykjavík, Iceland, the third in Washington, D.C., and the fourth in Moscow. Reagan believed that if he could persuade the Soviets to allow for more democracy and free speech, this would lead to reform and the end to Cold War tensions.
In a visit to West Berlin in June 1982, Reagan told the media, "I'd like to ask the Soviet leaders one question Why is the wall there?" Four years later in 1986, 25 years after the construction of the wall, Reagan was asked by the West German newspaper Bild-Zeitung when he thought the wall could be "torn down". Reagan said, "I call upon those responsible to dismantle it today".
In June of 1987, Reagan visited Berlin once again. On the day before Reagan's visit, 50,000 people had demonstrated against Reagan's presence in Berlin. During the visit itself, sections of Berlin were closed off to prevent further anti-Reagan protests. The district of Kreuzberg, in particular, was targeted, with movement throughout this portion of the city in effect restrained completely. The subway line to this section of the city was was shut down.
A debate occurred among Reagan's advisers about his call for the wall to come down. Several senior staffers and aides advised against the phrase, saying anything that might cause further East-West tensions or potential embarrassment to Gorbachev should be left out. Reagan had built a good relationship with Gorbachev and some were concerned that this type of confrontation would make further cooperation between the two more difficult. But American officials in West Germany and presidential speechwriters, including Peter Robinson, thought otherwise. Robinson had traveled to West Germany as part of the advance work for the trip. He went to inspect potential speech venues, and formed the opinion that the majority of West Berliners opposed the wall. Robinson decided to keep the phrase in the speech text. On May 18, 1987, President Reagan met with his speechwriters and responded to the speech by saying, "I thought it was a good, solid draft." White House Chief of Staff Howard Baker objected, saying that the speech sounded "extreme" and "unpresidential". Deputy US National Security Advisor Colin Powell agreed. But Reagan liked the passage. He had the last word and said, "I think we'll leave it in."
The President and the First Lady arrived in Berlin on June 12, 1987. They were taken to the Reichstag, where they viewed the Berlin Wall from a balcony. Reagan then made his speech at the Brandenburg Gate at 2:00 pm, in front of two panes of bulletproof glass. Among those present were West German president Richard von Weizsäcker, Chancellor Helmut Kohl, and West Berlin mayor Eberhard Diepgen.
In his speech that day, Reagan said:
"We welcome change and openness; for we believe that freedom and security go together, that the advance of human liberty can only strengthen the cause of world peace. 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!"
Later on in his speech, President Reagan said, "As I looked out a moment ago from the Reichstag, that embodiment of German unity, I noticed words crudely spray-painted upon the wall, perhaps by a young Berliner, 'This wall will fall. Beliefs become reality.' Yes, across Europe, this wall will fall. For it cannot withstand faith; it cannot withstand truth. The wall cannot withstand freedom." In the same speech he called for an end to the arms race. He mentioned the Soviets' SS-20 nuclear weapons, and the possibility "not merely of limiting the growth of arms, but of eliminating, for the first time, an entire class of nuclear weapons from the face of the Earth."
At the time, the speech received relatively little coverage from the media. It wasn't until 1989, after the wall came down, that the speech was referenced as a turning point in history. While little was said about the speech in Western media, this was in contrast with the reaction in Germany and in eastern Europe. East German Politburo member Guenter Schabowski considered the speech to be "absurd", and the Soviet press agency TASS accused Reagan of giving an "openly provocative, war-mongering speech." Former West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl said he would never forget standing near Reagan when he challenged Gorbachev to tear down the Berlin Wall. Kohl recalled: "He was a stroke of luck for the world, especially for Europe."
Reagan later said that the East German police not allowing people to get near the wall, which prevented many of their citizens from experiencing the speech at all. When the speech was put in the context of Reagan's overtures to the Soviet Union at the Reykjavik summit the previous year, the speech was very significant.
In 1989, a series of revolutions in Poland and Hungary in particular led to several weeks of civil unrest in East Germany. On November 9, 1989, the East German government announced that all German citizens could visit West Germany and West Berlin. Crowds of East Germans crossed and climbed onto the Wall, joined by West Germans on the other side in a celebratory atmosphere. Over the next few weeks, euphoric people and souvenir hunters chipped away parts of the Wall. The governments of both Germanys later used industrial equipment to remove most of what was left of the wall. The fall of the Berlin Wall paved the way for German reunification, which was formally concluded on October 3, 1990. Portions of the Berlin Wall can be viewed today at the Presidential Libraries of Ronald Reagan in Simi Valley, California, and of George H. W. Bush at College Station, Texas.
Below is a YouTube video of a portion of President Reagan's speech: