Ronald Wilson Reagan was born in 1911, in Tampico,
Illinois. After attending school in Dixon he studied sociology and economics at Eureka College where he was also active in both drama and sport, taking the lead role in plays and playing in the college football team. He was also a lifeguard at Rock River and saved many swimmers who got into difficulties there.
After he graduated, Reagan worked as a sports announcer on the radio but his career really took off when he passed a Hollywood screen test in 1937. He appeared in no fewer than 53 films, becoming a familiar face to cinema audiences throughout the United States.
Reagan’s speaking skills and friendly demeanour stood him in good stead for future public office. He became politically active when, as President of the Screen Actors Guild, he was involved in discussions about Communism in the film industry and his personal views changed from liberal to conservative.
In 1966 Reagan entered politics and was elected by a large majority as Governor of California, winning re-election in 1970.
After two failed bids, in 1980 he won the Republican nomination as presidential candidate. He easily beat incumbent President Jimmy Carter, taking office as the 40th US President in January 1981. He won a second term four years later.
Reagan’s first term in office was dramatically interrupted when he was shot on 30 March 1981, a bullet narrowly missing his heart. He apologized stoically to his wife Nancy afterwards, ‘Honey, I forgot to duck’.
The Reagan years in the White House saw reductions in taxation and government regulations and increased military spending, but critics pointed to a spiralling national debt, and benefits for the wealthy rather than the poor. In foreign policy Reagan focused on the evils of the Soviet Union, which he saw as a threat to freedom across the globe.
Liberal opinion was horrified when he called for a build-up of nuclear arms to match and exceed the Soviet arsenal. Nevertheless his robust foreign policy saw a gradual improvement in relations with the Soviet Union and the negotiation of a treaty eliminating mid-range nuclear missiles.
In June 1987, Reagan called for the removal of the Berlin Wall, appealing directly to Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev to remove the physical and symbolic barrier between the two Germanys and the Eastern and Western blocs of Europe. In the year Reagan left office, the Berlin Wall was demolished, followed by the unravelling of the Soviet Union itself.
The last years of Reagan’s life were overshadowed by Alzheimer’s Disease, a condition he acknowledged publicly, hoping to raise awareness of the illness, and faced with characteristic courage: ‘I now begin the journey that will lead me into the sunset of my life.’
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, 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.
Behind me stands a wall that encircles the free sectors of this city, part of a vast system of barriers that divides the entire continent of Europe. From the Baltic, south, those barriers cut across Germany in a gash of barbed wire, concrete, dog runs, and guard towers. Farther south, there may be no visible, no obvious wall.
But there remain armed guards and checkpoints all the same – still a restriction on the right to travel, still an instrument to impose upon ordinary men and women the will of a totalitarian state. Yet it is here in Berlin where the wall emerges most clearly; here, cutting across your city, where the news photo and the television screen have imprinted this brutal division of a continent upon the mind of the world. Standing before the Brandenburg Gate, every man is a German, separated from his fellow men. Every man is a Berliner, forced to look upon a scar.
President von Weizsacker has said, ‘The German question is open as long as the Brandenburg Gate is closed’. Today I say: As long as the 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. Yet I do not come here to lament. For I find in Berlin a message of hope, even in the shadow of this wall, a message of triumph .
… Where four decades ago there was rubble, today in West Berlin there is the greatest industrial output of any city in Germany – busy office blocks, fine homes and apartments, proud avenues and the spreading lawns of parkland.
Where a city’s culture seemed to have been destroyed, today there are two great universities, orchestras and an opera, countless theatres and museums. Where there was want, today there’s abundance – food, clothing, automobiles – the wonderful goods of the Ku’damin. From devastation, from utter ruin, you Berliners have, in freedom, rebuilt a city that once again ranks as one of the greatest on earth. The Soviets may have had other plans. But my friends, there were a few things the Soviets didn’t count on – Berliner Hetz, Berliner Humor, ia, und Berliner Schnauze, Berliner heart, Berliner humour, yes, and Berliner Schnauze.
‘Wherever I go, whatever I do, I still have a suitcase in Berlin.’
In the 1950s, Khrushchev predicted: ‘We will bury you.’ But in the West today, we see a free world that has achieved a level of prosperity and well-being unprecedented in all human history. In the Communist world, we see failure, technological backwardness, declining standards of health, even want of the most basic kind – too little food. Even today, the Soviet Union still cannot feed itself. After these four decades, then, there stands before the entire world one great and inescapable conclusion: Freedom leads to prosperity. Freedom replaces the ancient hatreds among the nations with comity and Reace. Freedom is the victor. And now the Soviets themselves may, in a limited way, be coming to understand the importance of freedom. We hear much from Moscow about a new policy of reform and openness. Some political prisoners have been released. Certain foreign news broadcasts are no longer being jammed. Some economic enterprises
have been permitted to operate with greater freedom from state control.
‘Freedom leads to prosperity. … Freedom is the victor.’
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? 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 unmistakeable, 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!
‘No one could live long in Berlin without being completely disabused of illusions.’
… In these four decades, as I have said, you Berliners have built a great city.
You’ve done so in spite of threats – the Soviet attempts to impose the East-mark, the blockade. Today the city thrives in spite of the challenges implicit in the very presence of this wall. What keeps you here? Certainly there’s a great deal to be said for your fortitude, for your defiant courage. But I believe there’s something deeper, something that involves Berlin’s whole look and feel and way of life – not mere sentiment. No one could live long in Berlin without being completely disabused of illusions. Something instead, that has seen the difficulties of life in Berlin but chose to accept them, that continues to build this good and proud city in contrast to a surrounding totalitarian presence that refuses to release human energies or aspirations. Something that speaks with a powerful voice of affirmation, that says yes to this city, yes to the future, yes to freedom. In a word, I would submit that what keeps you in Berlin is love -love both profound and abiding.
Perhaps this gets to the root of the matter, to the most fundamental distinction of all between East and West. The totalitarian world produces backwardness because it does such violence to the spirit, thwarting the human impulse to create, to enjoy, to worship. The totalitarian world finds even symbols of love and of worship an affront. Years ago, before the East Germans began rebuilding their churches, they erected a secular structure: the television tower at Alexander Platz. Virtually ever since, the authorities have been working to correct what they view as the tower’s one major flaw, treating the glass sphere at the top with paints and chemicals of every kind. Yet even today when the sun strikes that sphere – that sphere that towers over all Berlin – the light makes the sign of the cross. There in Berlin, like the city itself, symbols of love, symbols of worship, cannot be suppressed.
‘The wall cannot withstand freedom.’
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.
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.
Ronald Wilson Reagan was born in 1911, in Tampico,