Study Guide

Tear Down This Wall Analysis

By Ronald Reagan

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  • Rhetoric


    We're watching a movie, and the main character is going through a seriously difficult life event of some kind. The background music is slow and sad, the main character and all of his or her friends are crying, and then it happens: we feel our own chin begin to wobble.

    What the what? We don't know these people, and it's just a movie. We can't be crying about it, right? Is someone cutting onions in here?

    Nope, no onions. We've just been had by the producers of this fantabulous rom-com. They played to our emotions and it worked: they wanted us sad and now we're hunting down the tissues.

    We've been pathosed.

    In wartime political speeches, the pathos approach is pretty typical. Maybe the phrase "winning hearts and minds" rings a bell? That's what we're talking about here. This speech was designed to persuade the hearts and minds of its audience that the West is the best and freedom is the answer to all of the problems facing the East.

    How do we know this? Well, we just have to take a look at the words Reagan uses to describe the West and contrast them with the words he uses to describe the East. He uses a three-pronged strategy: he talks about how awesome the West is, he expresses solidarity with West Berlin and West Germany, and he talks about how awful the Eastern world is. All of these are accomplished with emotional appeals, and we can see them throughout the speech.

    Let's take a gander at a few examples.

    The West is Where it's at

    Reagan tells us that "in the West today, we see a free world that has achieved a level of prosperity and well-being unprecedented in all human history" (46). What does this tell us? According to the Gipper, it tells us that:

    […] there stands before the entire world one great and inescapable truth: Freedom leads to prosperity. Freedom replaces the ancient hatreds among the nations with comity and peace. Freedom is the victor. (49-51)

    So Reagan's words of the West are things like prosperity, well-being, freedom, comity, peace, and victory. Those all sound like a pretty good deal, right?

    Now let's contrast this with how he talks about the Soviet Union and the rest of the Eastern world.

    Look to the East? No, Don't.

    We can get a really good sense of Reagan's feelings about the East with this sentence:

    In the Communist world, we see failure, technological backwardness, declining standards of health, even want of the most basic kind—too little food. (47)

    Whoa, that sounds way less awesome than prosperity, well-being, freedom, and all that other stuff.

    And not only that, the Eastern totalitarian regimes do "such violence to the spirit, thwarting the human impulse to create, to enjoy, to worship" (119).

    Hmm, "violence to the spirit" doesn't sound good.

    See what he's done here? He's created a vision of two societies in stark contrast to one another. In the West: freedom, riches, health, and peace. In the East: sickness, starvation, poverty, and violence to the spirit.

    Well, when he puts it that way, it's a no-brainer which one people would want to live in, right?

    Westies Besties

    So now that he's given us this picture of two opposing worlds, he makes no bones about the fact that West Germany and West Berlin are, as their names indicate, part of the West.

    He says several things that symbolize the West's support of and unity with West Berlin. West German leaders understand the importance of liberty, Reagan tells us, and this is apparent in the economic policies of Wirtschaftswunder. He talks about the Marshall Plan and specifically mentions how it's helping rebuild the Reichstag, a Berlin landmark.

    And, maybe most importantly, he says "we" when he talks about West Germany and West Berlin, and "you" or "they" when he's directing comments toward the East.

    Just like certain songs evoke certain emotions, certain words can do the same. President Reagan and his speechwriters capitalized on this throughout his administration, advancing a philosophy and ideology that really did change the world.

  • Structure

    Writing wartime political speeches is a delicate business. Speechwriters are like bomb techs, combining and splicing words like so many wires: which words (wires) will get the point across without causing anything to explode?

    During the Cold War, what with all of the weapons-building and spy planes and general mistrust of anything the other side said or did, these wordy wires were especially important.

    So how does a person make like John Mayer and say what he needs to say without (a) backing down from his position or (b) starting a nuclear war? Well, in this instance, Reagan and his speech team use what we call the ping-pong approach: say something positive and inspiring, then bag on the enemy. Then say some other positive and inspiring stuff, and then bag on the enemy a little more.

    Ever been in a situation where your parents just keep droning on and on about cleaning your room, doing your homework, or finishing your chores…and eventually you just stop listening? If Reagan's entire speech had consisted of nothing but Soviet-bashing, his audience might have done just that.

    Similarly, if he'd spent 133 sentences talking about how incredibly super-sweet it is to be a Westerner, his speech might have been dismissed as nothing but capitalist propaganda.

    But with the ping-pong approach, we get a little from column A and a little from column B. And it worked—no one got nuked, and no one was confused about where the United States stood on issues of capitalism, freedom, West Germany, or the Berlin Wall.

    How it Breaks Down

    Section 1: Setting the Scene

    Sentences 1-12

    Political speeches, especially those made in foreign lands to a potentially partially hostile audience, typically begin with feel-good, we're-all-friends-here, let's-hold-hands-and-knit-booties-together stuff, and this speech is no different.

    The purpose: create an "us." In this case, the "us" is the West, and Reagan wastes no time aligning West Germany with the U.S. and the rest of the Western world.

    Section 2: Scars, Gashes, and Brutal Divisions

    Sentences 13-23

    Now that we have an "us," Reagan uses the next ten sentences to talk about what "they" (the Soviets) did to the beautiful, historic city of Berlin…and it was all bad.

    Section 3: Props for Berlin

    Sentences 24-44

    Back on the positive, inspiring side of the table, the next twenty sentences credit West Berliners (and their Western BFFs, of course) with rebuilding the city and helping restore it to its former glory, minus the Nazis and Hitler and all that other nasty business.

    Section 4: The West Side is the Best Side

    Sentences 45-71

    And while we're patting West Berlin on the back, Reagan takes the opportunity to bash communism a little bit more. He also issues a challenge to Gorbachev: if you're serious about being one of the cool kids, brotato chip, you need to tear down this ridiculous wall.

    Section 5: Weapons and Global Transformation

    Sentences 65-90

    Talking about weapons in the middle of a nuclear arms race is a risky endeavor, but in this section, Reagan pings and pongs like a pro. He paints the West as the picture of disarmament cooperation while the Soviets are depicted as irresponsible and irrational. (Neither of those statements are completely true or untrue, BTW. So maybe he's painting his picture in the Impressionist style: some of the deets are left out, but the overall effect is appealing and we'd totally hang it on our wall at home.)

    Section 6: We Can All Just Get Along

    Sentences 91-128

    Reagan uses this section to play couples counselor: even though the communist East is totally messed up, we're still willing to hang out and do stuff together. Reagan lays out specific ideas, all while throwing words like "love" and "freedom" in there all over the place.

    Section 7: And in Closing…

    Sentences 129-33

    With ping-pong, as with other competitive activities, the trick is to finish strong. Reagan finishes his speech with an awesome volley, reminding protestors that their precious East wouldn't let them protest so freely, and then he caps it all off with a little "God bless you all."

    Game, set, match.

  • Tone


    Eric Cartman thrilled South Park audiences everywhere when he donned his mirrored shades and told the world to respect his authoritah.

    What he actually wanted was for people to respect his authoritarianism; he kind of got a little power-hungry there and went on a little bit of a tyrannical rampage.

    Anyway, there's a difference between being an authoritarian tyrant like Officer Cartman and being authoritative. Reagan is definitely the latter in this speech. His words are sure and his conviction is complete. There's no wishy-washiness and no one listening to or reading this speech could be unclear on how Reagan feels about communism, capitalism, democracy, freedom, the Berlin Wall…or even the benefits of team sports.

    We gotta hand it to Reagan and his speechwriter: this is a powerful little speech.

    Like, check this out: Right from the get-go, he says:

    We come to Berlin, we American Presidents, because it's our duty to speak, in this place, of freedom. (4)

    You can't get much more authoritative than identifying yourself as the leader of the richest and most powerful country in the world, right? And it's his duty to come here and talk about freedom. Leaders don't shirk their duties.

    They also state their convictions plainly and clearly, which Reagan does time and again.

    For example, he tells us that, unequivocally, that "[e]s gibt nur ein Berlin" (12). There is only one Berlin. Just one, folks, not two like those wacky Soviets want everyone to think. One. That silly scar of a Berlin Wall can't keep Berliners from being Berliners.

    Or how about when he says this:

    Today I say: As long as this gate is closed, as long as this scar of a wall is permitted to stand, it is not the German question alone that remains open, but the question of freedom for all mankind. (21)

    He's just putting it out there, almost like he's daring someone to disagree with him.

    There are a lot of lengthy sentences in this speech, and Reagan mentions a lot of specific events, like the Olympics and the Marshall Plan. But he always comes back and ties his thoughts together with one short, sweet, universal word-bow like this one: "Freedom is the victor" (51).

    This really wasn't a new thing for Reagan; he was kind of known for his one-liners, comedic and otherwise.

    But whether he was cracking jokes or cracking down on communism, President Reagan always delivered those lines with confidence, assurance, and his own unique Reagan schnauze.

  • What's Up With the Title?

    The official title of this speech is "Remarks on East-West Relations at the Brandenburg Gate." Sure, that tells us where it happened and gives us a rough idea of what it's about, but that's pretty much the driest, most boring name ever for a speech chock-full of so much awesome.

    For the slightly more daring, like those who skip the umbrella when it's drizzling and just bring a light jacket, the speech is better known as "The Speech at the Berlin Wall."

    And for those who like to get right to the heart of the matter, it's called the "Tear Down This Wall" speech for its most infamous and memorable line: "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!" (63).

  • What's Up With the Opening Lines?

    Thank you very much. Chancellor Kohl, Governing Mayor Diepgen, ladies and gentlemen: Twenty four years ago, President John F. Kennedy visited Berlin, speaking to the people of this city and the world at the city hall. Well, since then two other presidents have come, each in his turn, to Berlin. And today I, myself, make my second visit to your city.

    We come to Berlin, we American Presidents, because it's our duty to speak, in this place, of freedom. But I must confess, we're drawn here by other things as well: by the feeling of history in this city, more than 500 years older than our own nation; by the beauty of the Grunewald and the Tiergarten; most of all, by your courage and determination. Perhaps the composer, Paul Lincke, understood something about American Presidents. You see, like so many Presidents before me, I come here today because wherever I go, whatever I do: "Ich hab noch einen koffer in Berlin." [I still have a suitcase in Berlin.]

    Our gathering today is being broadcast throughout Western Europe and North America. I understand that it is being seen and heard as well in the East. To those listening throughout Eastern Europe, I extend my warmest greetings and the good will of the American people. To those listening in East Berlin, a special word: Although I cannot be with you, I address my remarks to you just as surely as to those standing here before me. For I join you, as I join your fellow countrymen in the West, in this firm, this unalterable belief: Es gibt nur ein Berlin. [There is only one Berlin.] (1-12)

    In the very first sentence, Reagan brings up JFK's visit to Berlin twenty-four years earlier. Why? Why bring up that visit instead of, say, Nixon's trip to the city in 1969?

    Well, because President Nixon didn't call himself a jelly doughnut in front of hundreds of thousands of people.

    Neither did JFK, actually. But his Beantown-accented "Ich bin ein Berliner" ("Berliner" is slang for "jelly donut" in some parts of Deutschland, but it's called Pfannkuchen in Berlin) had been super well-received back in the day, and Reagan was about to bring it back and turn it into a thing once more. Mentioning it now was just priming the pump for when Reagan would really make it rain with his "Es gibt nur ein Berlin" later on (12).

    In fact, it doesn't take long for Reagan to start talking about the city of Berlin like he grew up there. He gets all poetic about the history, the pretty forests, and the "courage and determination" of the Berlin people (5). Everyone knows this dude hasn't spent any serious time in Berlin; this was only his second presidential visit to the city and his third visit ever. But his audience ate it up like bacon when he quoted one of Berlin's unofficial anthems: "Ich hab' noch einen Koffer in Berlin" (7).

    So what's the point of all this? The point is solidarity. Reagan uses the first seven or so lines of this speech to reaffirm the bond between the United States (and the West) and West Germany. Brotherhood. Unity. Or, in this case, re-unity.

  • What's Up With the Closing Lines?

    And I would like, before I close, to say one word. I have read, and I have been questioned since I've been here about certain demonstrations against my coming. And I would like to say just one thing, and to those who demonstrate so. I wonder if they have ever asked themselves that if they should have the kind of government they apparently seek, no one would ever be able to do what they're doing again.

    Thank you and God bless you all.

    Reagan puts on his dad face starting with sentence 129. So far, he's been pretty calm, pretty mellow, just walking us through the awesomeness of the West and conversatin' about freedom in general.

    But with this sentence, we see a little change in tone. Is someone about to get grounded?

    This Prez is no stranger to demonstrations and protests. He's seen a lot of it, at home and abroad, and he has a little special somethin' somethin' to say to these protestors. But in true Reagan fashion, he gives it to them eloquently:

    I wonder if they have ever asked themselves that if they should have the kind of government they apparently seek, no one would ever be able to do what they're doing again. (132)

    In normal-speak, that's: "You guys: the type of government you want definitely wouldn't allow you to, say, organize and protest."

    He doesn't yell or tell anyone they're stupid. He just points out very simply that freedom of speech, assembly, association, and all that other good stuff typically isn't seen a lot in repressive regimes (like East Germany, cough cough).

    Someone didn't do their homework before organizing the rally today. He's not mad, he's just disappointed.

    But he's not so disappointed that he can't throw in one last little dig with the final sentence of his speech. Here in the United States, when a politician or other public figure finishes a speech with a thanks and a "God bless you all," we don't think anything of it. In fact, we probably don't even notice.

    But throwing a "God bless" into a speech about relations with the adamantly secular Soviet Union is…well, it's a little bold. A little brazen. Not that Ronnie wasn't sincere in his well-wishes, but don't let's think it was accidental that that little "God bless" got dropped in there right at the end like that.

    Did he say it to make the Soviet Union's secular teeth gnash? Did he say it as a demonstration of how the West does religious freedom? Or was it just an afterthought, just a standard ending to a passionate speech?

  • Tough-o-Meter

    (4) Base Camp

    President Reagan was known as the "Great Communicator," so it's no surprise that his speeches are somewhat easy to read and have a nice flow. (He also had an excellent speechwriter.)

    There are lots of references to specific events and people in this speech that may or may not be easily recognizable, but don't worry. We're here to break it all down. (Even totally weird terms like "Berliner Schnauze.")

  • Shout-Outs

    In-Text References

    Historical and Political References

    Berlin's 750th B-Day (5, 95)
    World War II (24)
    Marshall Plan (26, 28, 31)
    European Community (34, indirectly in 89)
    Wirtschaftswunder (35)
    Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (it hadn't been signed yet, but Reagan talks about it indirectly in sentences 68-77)
    NATO (75)
    Geneva talks (76)
    Strategic Defense Initiative (79)
    Four Power Agreement of 1971 (94, 96)
    1988 Seoul Olympics (105)

    Name Drops

    Helmut Kohl, Chancellor of West Germany (1)
    Eberhard Diepgen, Governing Mayor of West Berlin (1)
    John F. Kennedy, President of the United States (1, 83)
    Carl von Weizsacker, President of West Germany (20)
    George Marshall, U.S. Secretary of State (26, 27)
    Konrad Adenauer, Chancellor of (West) Germany (36)
    Ludwig Erhard, Chancellor of (West) Germany (36)
    Ernst Reuter, Mayor of West Berlin (36)
    Nikita Khrushchev, Premier of the Soviet Union (45)
    Mikhail Gorbachev, General Secretary of the Communist Party and leader of the Soviet Union (61, 62, 63, 97)

    Pop Culture References

    "Berliner Luft" by Paul Lincke (6)
    "Ich hab' noch ein Koffer in Berlin" by Marlene Dietrich (6)
    Berliner Schnauze (44)

    Geographical References

    Berlin City Hall (1, 83)
    Grunewald (5)
    Tiergarten (5)
    Brandenburg Gate (18, 20, 21)
    Alexanderplatz TV tower (121, 122, 123)
    Reichstag (28, 125)
    Berlin Wall (13-23, 61-63, 110, 125-28)

    References to this Text

    Historical, Political, Literary, and Philosophical References

    This speech is uber-famous and has been widely referenced by politicos, journalists, academics, entertainers, and businessfolk. It's been dissected, analyzed, loved, hated, and remixed to techno. The phrase "tear down this wall" has become part of America's (and the world's) collective memory, and it's everywhere.

    Everywhere. Give it a Google.

    Pop Culture References

    We mention most of them here…but here are a couple of others.

    "Tear Down This Wall *REMIX*" (Source)
    South Park (Source)

  • Trivia

    Speechwriter Peter Robinson got the phrase "tear down this wall" from his dinner party hostess on a trip to West Berlin. Wonder if she got any royalties…? (Source)

    Reagan and Gorbachev were huggers. (Source)

    Critics of Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative were the first ones to call it "Star Wars." They thought the name would make the whole weapons program look like ridiculous fiction, but that backfired when the Star Wars movies became famous and people started thinking "Star Wars" was an awesome name. (Source)

    President Reagan was a huge fan of Jelly Belly jellybeans. He always kept them on hand at the White House and often gave visitors Jelly Belly gift boxes. We can't help but ponder: did he ever send any to his buddy Mikhail over in Moscow? (Source)

    Ever wonder what Soviet peeps ate during the Cold War's prolonged food and supply shortages? Wonder no more. Learn all about Soviet creative cooking—and try out some new recipes—with CCCP Cook Book: True Stories of Soviet Cuisine. (Source)

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