Case Studies

Reagan at the Brandenburg Gate

In June 1987, President Reagan delivered an important speech in front of the Brandenburg Gate in West Berlin. This case study looks at how to use the speech as a means to examine US foreign policy and the end of the Cold War.

This case study utilizes both the text and video footage of President Ronald Reagan’s June 1987 speech at the Brandenburg Gate in West Berlin to illustrate the rhetoric of freedom during the Cold War, highlight the role of a divided Berlin for American Cold War policy, and to discuss the roles of the Soviet Union and the United States in bringing about the fall of Communist regimes and the end of the Cold War. I primarily use this source in a college-level modern American history survey class.

My approach to the U.S. history survey is thematic within a broad chronological context. I organize the course around: (1) how definitions of freedom or liberty changed throughout American history and how different groups or individuals attempted to attain greater levels of freedom; (2) how American participation in foreign conflicts accelerated social changes within the United States; and (3) how America’s status as a world power developed after 1877 and what explains growing American involvement in world affairs in the 20th century. Reagan’s speech at the Brandenburg Gate fits particularly well with the first and third themes.

This speech also makes a good case study because it highlights the intensity of the Cold War and the resurgence of American anti-Communism during the 1980s. It also brings home the noted Reagan charisma. For students born in the late 1980s or after, watching video footage of the speech in addition to reading the text can be particularly effective. They have no living memory of either the Cold War or the “Great Communicator,” so the “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” segment is especially powerful.

I approach this source in my class in two ways; first, in terms of content, and second, methodologically, to discuss analyzing video as a primary source. At the beginning of the class, I give the students a one-page excerpt of the speech to read. I begin almost every class with a similar brief exercise, so that students can hone their historical interpretation skills and become familiar with using primary sources. In some cases, as in this one, I spend extra time fleshing out the source. This particular exercise took about half an hour.

With the excerpt, I give the students a few discussion questions and ask them to jot down their thoughts as they read the text of the speech. The questions are:

  • How does Reagan use the language of freedom? How does he define freedom, and for whom?
  • What message do you think Reagan intended Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to receive from this speech? Is this a challenge or an invitation?
  • How effective do you think this speech is?
  • What can you learn about Reagan’s approach to the Cold War from this speech?

I then show a segment of the speech that is approximately three minutes in length and includes the portion where Reagan says, “Come here to this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”. I ask the students to consider the same questions after viewing the speech, and jot down additional notes.

We begin our discussion by tackling the concept of “freedom.” In my U.S. history survey I assign Eric Foner’s textbook Give Me Liberty! An American History, which takes as its organizing theme changing ideas about freedom, struggles over defining freedom, and the struggles of different groups of Americans to achieve freedom as they understood it.1 Because freedom is a major theme in my survey course, it fits in quite well with the Brandenburg Gate speech. This part of the discussion allows me to link this particular source with the broader themes of the course and of American history, something particularly important in a survey, where students can become confused amid the seemingly disparate elements of the broad sweep of American history. I point out to the students that Reagan used the word “freedom” in his public statements more than any other American president and we discuss how he contrasts the free West with the unfree East. Students note the linkage Reagan makes between freedom and prosperity and how he emphasizes economic freedom in terms of consumption. They often interpret this as a Cold War strategy, an attempt to persuade East Europeans to throw off the shackles of Communism in favor of Western prosperity. This discussion helps them to better understand problems such as the shortages of consumer goods faced by Eastern Europeans on a daily basis, that helped to drive the collapse of communism.

This source is also a good way to generate a discussion of the relationship between Reagan and Gorbachev, and the respective roles of the United States and the Soviet Union in the end of the Cold War. In previous classes, through both lectures and assigned reading, the students have hopefully acquired a good understanding of the origins of the Cold War, the course of the Cold War through the Vietnam era, and détente under Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger. They should also have a broad understanding of Reagan’s foreign policy approach and the resurgence of anti-Communism in the early 1980s. I discuss Mikhail Gorbachev’s rise to power in the Soviet Union in 1985 and his initiation of glasnost and perestroika. I show students a photo of Reagan and Gorbachev chatting amiably in front of the fireplace in Geneva in 1985 and contrast it with a photo of the two leaders at the end of the failed summit in Reykjavik in 1986, where they display noticeably less friendly body language. After reading and viewing the speech, we discuss the whether it helped bring about the end of the Cold War, or whether its forceful rhetoric was merely a stunt. I point out that this particular speech took on greater significance in hindsight, when the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 came to symbolize the collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe and the eventual dissolution of the Soviet Union.

Because this speech is famous for the “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” line, students are often surprised to learn that Reagan’s foreign policy advisers tried to convince him up until the very last minute to delete that part of the speech, with the State Department fearing that it was needlessly provocative. We discuss what message Reagan hoped to send to Gorbachev and whether he intended it more as a challenge or an invitation to accommodation. We note in particular that he refers to Gorbachev by name at several points throughout the speech and discuss how Gorbachev, listening in Moscow, might have responded. I ask the students to consider the question of who deserves more credit for the end of the Cold War–Reagan or Gorbachev. We return to this idea later when we talk about who “won” the Cold War.

We then discuss video footage as a historical source. For students constantly bombarded with video messages on television and online, I think it is useful to discuss and develop critical listening skills. I ask the students to consider a few questions that they should ask about any speech or sound bite.

  • Who is the intended audience? Obviously those people in attendance in West Berlin were one audience, but I point out that the speech was also broadcast throughout East Germany and certainly at home in the United States.
  • What is the message for each of these audiences?
  • What is the speaker trying to accomplish with this speech?

As an historian who was trained to research only with written documents I find it interesting myself to discover what historical judgments my students can make with a video source. I ask them if they notice any differences between reading the text of the speech and actually watching and listening to it. Students almost unanimously note the force of Reagan’s rhetoric and his charisma. Again, for students born in the late 1980s and beyond, this reaction is a surprise to me. They often find their preconceived notion of Reagan–if they had any to begin with–challenged. They often begin with a conception of Reagan as an elderly grandfather type, but after viewing the footage they focus instead on the image of strength and force that he projected. Thinking critically about Reagan the politician and leader helps them to understand the resurgence of the Cold War in the early 1980s, instead of imagining it as a purely 1950s-era phenomenon.

Although I have primarily used this source in a U.S. history survey, it would also be useful in any modern European history course or a course on the Cold War. More advanced students, such as those taking an American diplomatic history course, would benefit from additional time with the source. I would require them to read the entire text of the speech before class and devote a lesson specifically to the significance of Berlin in Cold War foreign policy. Working in groups to compare and contrast Reagan’s speech with President Kennedy’s “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech, delivered twenty-four years earlier at the same location at the Berlin Wall, would drive home the crucial symbolism of a divided Berlin during the Cold War. Students would get a sense of how issues concerning Berlin helped drive American Cold War policy, and how West Europeans, particularly West Germans, factored into the conception of that policy. They would be better able to understand the symbolic and strategic importance of the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and comprehend how the world was swept up in the headiness of that moment.


Document 1: Text of President Reagan's Speech
Document 2: Video
Document 3: Video Excerpt

Jennifer Walton
Granite State College
Concord, New Hampshire


1 Eric Foner, Give Me Liberty! An American History. Volume I. (New York: W.W. Norton, 2005): pp. 1061-1064.