Study Guide

Tear Down This Wall Main Idea

By Ronald Reagan

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  • Main Idea

    The West is the Best, Because Freedom

    Nothing puts a spring in the step and a twinkle in the eye like a good dose of ye olde freedom.

    The Western world knows this, and its steps are springier than ever. In fact, life in the West is just one big economic party, and it's getting bigger every day. And Reagan's come here to Berlin to stand in front of the Brandenburg Gate and the Berlin Wall and talk about it. He gives mad props to West Berlin for all the progress it's made since being all bombed up in World War II, and he brags a bit about how awesome it is to be a Westerner.

    But every party needs a pooper. For Reagan, that pooper is the Soviet Union and its buzzkilling communist ways.

    After badmouthing communism for a few, though, Reagan shares several ideas on how the East and West could bring some romance back into their relationship. The most popular idea he has is for Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to tear down the Berlin Wall (the crowd really gets behind that one).

    Reagan couldn't have known it then, but his call to Gorbachev would be answered. Two years after this speech was delivered, the Berlin Wall came down.

    Party on, Berlin.

    Questions About Main Idea

    1. Watch a video or listen to a recording of the speech. Which sentences does Reagan say as if they had exclamation points at the end? Why do you think he chose to emphasize those parts?
    2. Why did some West Berliners protest President Reagan's visit to their city?
    3. The famous "tear down this wall" line almost didn't make it into the speech. Two of the possible alternatives were "Herr Gorbachev, bring down this wall" and "One day, this ugly wall will disappear." Would the speech have felt different if one of those lines had been used instead? How?
    4. If you were a Soviet, the Berlin Wall was referred to as the Anti-Fascist Protective Rampart. What sort of message were the Soviets trying to convey with that name?
    5. Other than tearing down the Berlin Wall, what specific ideas does Reagan have on how the city of Berlin can bring the East and West together?

    Chew on This

    This speech is clearly an example of Western Cold War propaganda aimed at an Eastern audience.

    This speech is an accurate portrayal of the differences between Eastern and Western nations during the 1980s.

  • Brief Summary

    The Set-Up

    It's 1987, and the Cold War has the world roughly divided into two camps: the Eastern communists and the Western capitalists. U.S. President Ronald Reagan was scheduled to make a brief trip to West Berlin and speak in front of the Berlin Wall; he knew his remarks would be heard by Westerners as well as many Easterners, and his speechwriter, Peter Robinson, worded the speech accordingly.

    The rest is speech-making history.

    The Text

    The "Speech at the Berlin Wall," or "Tear Down This Wall!" as it's known to its friends, mainly addressed four topics.

    First, it underlined the United States' support for West Berlin. Second, and most popularly, it urged Gorbachev to, well, tear down the Berlin Wall. This wasn't just an appeal to remove the physical wall itself, but to also remove the invisible-but-no-less-real divide the wall represented between the West and the East. Third, this speech outlined specific ways in which the Eastern and Western worlds could improve their relationship and make nicey-nice.

    Finally, this speech delivered a message of freedom and prosperity, and it delivered it not only to the West, but also to any Easterners who were listening. (Clever.) Every word of a presidential speech is worried over, reviewed, edited, and subject to approval before it is delivered; this speech, though delivered to an audience of West Berliners and Western supporters, was also carefully crafted for its Eastern audience, those behind the Iron Curtain.


    Reagan gets up in front of a German landmark and basically says, loud enough for the whole wide world to hear, that the Berlin Wall is stupid, communism is a big fat fail, and freedom is the answer to every question ever asked.

  • Questions

    1. What parallels can we draw between the United States' role in the Cold War and the United States' role in the War on Terror? What are the major differences? What does it all mean?
    2. During World War II, the Soviet Union and the United States and its allies worked together to defeat Germany and the Nazis. After World War II, the Cold War started and the Soviet Union and the U.S. were buds no more. Then in 1989, after the Soviet Union collapsed and Russia was Russia again, the U.S. and Russia rekindled their friendship. And recently on the news, we've heard about potentially worrisome "Russian aggression." What is the deal? Is Russia America's friend, foe, or frenemy?
    3. Reagan and Gorbachev got along pretty well, and they were both political reformists (though their guiding ideologies were a little different). How might the events of the late 1980s have played out with different people in charge? Would the Cold War have ended sooner or later than it did, or would it still be going on?
    4. The word "freedom" is used sixteen times in this speech, and words and phrases like "liberty" and "free world" are used quite a bit too. What effect do you think this had on Reagan's Western audience? What about his Eastern audience?
    5. In the 1980s, "communism" was seen as a dirty word by many Americans. Do you think it was the theory of communism that most Americans found distasteful, or the application of the theory in real life? Why? Has this outlook changed since the end of the Cold War? If so, how?
    6. Imagine if a Berlin Wall-type structure were constructed around one part of an American city today, like Hollywood in Los Angeles or Queens in New York City. Just like West Berlin during the Cold War, travel in and out of the walled area would be heavily restricted and supplies like food and clean water would have to be airlifted in by other countries. People who tried to cross the wall would run the risk of being shot by armed guards. How would the world today respond to something like this? How would Americans respond? How would you respond?
    7. Reagan mentions two of Berlin's "unofficial anthems" in his speech: "Berliner Luft" and "Ich hab' nocht einen Koffer in Berlin." If you were writing a speech that would be given in an American city of your choosing, which unofficial anthems would you mention? Why?
    8. Check out this reading on Olympic boycotts during the Cold War. Reagan specifically brings up the upcoming Seoul Olympics in his speech; why were the Olympics such a big deal? Do you think sports can (or should) be used as an effective political tool?

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