Picture this: It's 1987, and the two biggest superpowers in the world, the United States and the Soviet Union, are at war.
But they're not engaged in a "hot" war with gun battles and bombs and stuff. This is a "cold" war: each country is building up its war arsenal, spying on each other, infiltrating each other's government agencies, supporting "hot" conflicts in other countries, and publishing all kinds of stuff about the evilness of the other. People are paranoid, and many feel like nuclear annihilation is right around the corner.
Then along comes Ronald Reagan, President of the United States, and Mikhail Gorbachev, General Secretary and leader of the Soviet Union. In maybe one of the biggest we-did-not-see-that-comings ever, Ronnie and Gorby join forces and peel humanity's fingers back from the edge of the nuclear extinction cliff…and oversee the dismantling of a real-life "evil empire."
But before the finger-peeling and empire-dismantling happened, there was a speech given by a guy in front of a gate.
Did this speech cause the Berlin Wall to come down? No. Did it end the Cold War? No. In fact, this speech is a lot more popular now than it was when it was given. The Soviet Union had already started its implosion by the time 1987 rolled around, and Gorbachev had begun implementing the democratically-minded perestroika and glasnost policies, which threw crazy new concepts like free press and governmental transparency into the mix.
But this speech still has its place in history. Reagan delivered this speech in June of 1987 in front of the Brandenburg Gate, a historical and culturally significant landmark in West Berlin: it not only represents a piece of Berlin's history, but it also served as the gateway between East and West Berlin before the Berlin Wall came in and said, essentially, "No gateway for you!"
After the wall was built, pretty much no one could get from one side of Germany to the other. They couldn't walk across; they couldn't drive across; they couldn't fly across. Not even floo powder could get them across. That didn't stop people from trying…but sometimes bullets did. (Official estimates are that more than 130 people were killed trying to get into Western Germany.)
See, East and West Germany had been one country (Germany) until World War II. And Berlin had been one city. But after the war ended, the rest of the world was a little terrified of Germany and its genocidal ways, so the U.S., U.S.S.R., Great Britain, and France divided the country into pieces. The thinking was that this would keep any world war craziness from happening again. They did the same with the city of Berlin, and so the Soviet pieces became East Germany and East Berlin, while the Allied pieces became West Germany and West Berlin.
But really, the problem wasn't solved. Because dividing up the country may have stopped it from turning into a big, giant, evil bully again, but it led to other problems…like the big, giant, evil Berlin Wall.
Which brings us back to our speech. Reagan delivered this puppy to an audience of about 45,000. That's a pretty small crowd for a speech by a United States president, but this speech wasn't only written for those folks. It was also written for the folks on the other side of the fence, both physically and metaphorically.
If this all sounds like a complicated situation, it was.
So what's a POTUS to do when situations get complicated and nuclear war isn't far enough out of the question? He puts on a snazzy POTUS suit, stands up in front of a bunch of people, and says, "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!" (63).
And then he exits stage left and watches his words become a mantra for the frostiest war in history.
At some point in our lives, many of us get to experience the joys of learning a foreign language. We take a few classes, we watch a few French New Wave movies/seasons of Cowboy Bebop/Almodovar films, and read a few comic books. And after a year we feel like we're pretty much fluent—like we could totally hold our own in a conversation and maybe even crack a few jokes.
And then we listen to people who are really fluent, and realize that we've been kidding ourselves. We may know how to order a sandwich and find the bathroom, but we're a long way from really understanding the language. We mix up the grammar. We botch the accent.
We say weird things like "How old is the time?" and "How much do you age?" and "Do these please butter pants?" (Don't ask—that one was humiliating.)
Communism was like a foreign language to the West: some of the words sounded familiar, but they were all mashed up in ways Westerners couldn't understand. What the East called freedom, the West translated as property rights violations. What the East called inequality, the West translated as freedom of religion. What the East called subversion, the West translated as freedom of the press and freedom of association. And what the East called capitalist greed, the West translated as economic prosperity.
And so on it went.
Whenever one side tried to talk about why it was so great, the other just stared on in confusion. It was like asking someone about pants made out of butter. It just did. not. compute.
So what does Reagan's speech at the Berlin Wall have to do with butter pants? Not much, since pants made out of butter (hopefully) don't exist. But his speech did put into words what the West was feeling, which was this: communism makes no sense.
All around the world, communist countries were like economic sinkholes. Their people were broke and hungry. Their leaders were violent and scary, and lots of them used really terrifying tactics to keep their people in line. Their industries lagged far behind those of the West, and the things they did produce were of questionable quality.
To your average American, living large in the 1980s with an IROC and cable TV, the choice between communism and capitalist democracy was a no-brainer. Like, a big no-brainer.
But communism wasn't just senseless. It was also dangerous. World War II had introduced some freaky new weapons technology to the world. East and West already didn't understand each other; adding nukes to the mix didn't really put either side at ease.
Long story short, there are tons of books, movies, and websites out there that can tell a person all they'd ever want to know about the Cold War. But if you're looking for one speech, one ten-minute interval of time that can perfectly describe America's Cold War position, have we got good news for you: this is it.
Butter pants not required.
A Museum So Cold (War), It's Ice
Everything you've ever wanted to know about the Cold War, including stuff you didn't even know you wanted to know until right now.
So Much Information…and Guided Tours Every Sunday
Super-comprehensive site detailing the construction, existence, and demolition of the Berlin Wall, complete with pictures, diagrams, videos, and oodles of other fascinating stuff.
The Whole Cold War Enchilada
Shmoop's summary and analysis of the Cold War will bring you to the edge of your seat.
One for the Gipper
Want to know more about our nation's 40th POTUS? Shmoop has you totally covered. Check it out.
All Reagan, All the Time!
Every document from the Reagan Administration—including speeches, memos, and all kinds of other fun stuff—is available for your viewing pleasure at this website. There are also a ton of cool pics and articles to get lost in.
As one might expect from the title, this 24-part miniseries from CNN is all about…the Cold War. Put on your comfy pants and order some pizza, because this is a binge-watch you don't want to skip.
The Spy Who Came in from the Cold
Released in 1965, this B&W oldie-but-goodie is all about a British intelligence dude making things happen in Berlin, even when he's maybe not supposed to. According to some, it's the best movie about the Berlin Wall ever made…we'll let you decide.
It's 1989 and the Berlin Wall is coming down. A mother suffers a heart attack and goes into a coma after seeing her son in a protest; the son's task is to keep her from learning when she awakens that her beloved communist East Germany doesn't exist anymore. Hijinks ensue.
Berlin Tunnel 21
It's 1961 and an American and a German band together to build a tunnel under the newly-erected Berlin Wall so they can reunite a few East and West Germans. What could go wrong?
Meet Peter Robinson
Listen to Peter Robinson reminisce about the Berlin Wall speech and his former boss.
Philip Kostka Goes the Distance
Looking for some light reading for a sunny afternoon at the beach? This probably isn't a good choice. But if you're looking for a really great in-depth analysis of Reagan, the Berlin Wall speech, and everything related to it, this article is your Huckleberry.
Peter Jennings Gets Giddy
Watch ABC news icon Peter Jennings' news report from the Berlin Wall the day after all travel restrictions were lifted.
Three Minutes of Awesome
Spend roughly 180 seconds of your day with the folks at history.com and get the entire Berlin Wall history, complete with video footage, rousing music, and a fairly cool computer-generated depiction of the building of the wall.
Audio and Video of the "Speech at the Berlin Wall"
Read along with video footage of Reagan's historic speech in front of the Brandenburg Gate.
Freak Out Your Neighbors
The folks at SoundCloud have put together a strange little "acoustic reconstruction" of the Berlin Wall. But we don't want to spoil it for you; check it out for yourself.
To really get a good picture of what was going on during the Cold War, just Google every word of Billy Joel's "We Didn't Start the Fire."
Speech! Speech! Speech!
Reagan delivering his now-famous 1987 "Speech at the Berlin Wall."
Good Balance Required
East German guards chillin' atop the Berlin Wall.
Breaking Off a Piece of That
Reagan smiles as he takes a hammer to his old nemesis, the Berlin Wall.
The Berlin Wall as Sculpture
A piece of the Berlin Wall sitting pretty at its home at the Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California.
Party Time! Excellent!
East and West Germans come together to celebrate the upcoming demolition of the Berlin Wall.