Tear Down This Quote

Friday, November 06, 2009


This week marks the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. While President Ronald Reagan famously told Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to "tear down this wall," another more mysterious quote attributed to Gorbachev would dominate the communist narrative of the fall of the Berlin Wall. WNYC reporter Brian Zumhagen tells the story and impact of both.

Comments [8]

Chris Gray from New Haven

O.K., let us go through it, again.

The Wall fell for lack of its Soviet sponsor. The Soviet Union, in my humble opinion, fell due to the fallout from the Chernobyl nuclear power plant containment meltdown and anything Mr. Reagan did or said and, in fact, the United States itself were irrelevant to that.

A similar scenario, in microcosm, played out in the final episodes of West Wing when Alan Alda's Senator character's Presidential campaign implodes when a nuclear plant, on which the character has been bullish, melts down in his home state. A similar scenario, in macrocosm, played out when the parents of the world discovered that Chinese manufacturers had poisoned their children with lead which quickly led to a near meltdown of the entire world financial order.

Forget sub-prime, remember the real breach of trust. When you poison everyone and their children, no one can stop the tsunami.

Nov. 13 2009 04:13 PM
Karen from Palo Alto

In response to the second comment posted above by Jessica Hejtmanek, I would like to suggest that the term "Velvet Revolution," which does indeed refer to the peaceful demonstrations which brought down communism in Prague in 1989, was most likely used in this piece for lack of a better term that would be understandable to an English-speaking audience unfamiliar with the word "Wende," a term to describe the fall of the wall as well as the the political protests leading up to it and the reunified Germany that followed. The author and the parties he interviews are no doubt familiar with "Wende" as the most accurate term but perhaps doubted that their audience members in the U.S. would be. As far as I know, other than "fall of the wall," there's no good way to describe the event. Perhaps we should all be more familiar with the Wende than we are.

Nov. 12 2009 07:03 PM
Mark Richard from Columbus, Ohio

Reagan shouldn't be over-credited, but not under-credited, either. The conventional wisdom during the 1980s, as expressed in the big urban newpapers, in universities and think-tanks, and by leftish groups in Europe, was that (a) his arms buildup would only bring a like response from the USSR, when in fact the status-quo Soviets were thoroughly spooked by it, and (b) there would in the long run eventually have be some sort of 'convergence' and acceptance of the division of Europe by the West.

Events were more kind to Reagan's attitudes than to those of his opponents on the Left (as well as some on the Right). And the achievement of ending the Cold War wasn't just a function of the Reagan-Gorbachev nexus; people forget all the nuclear weapons destroyed under Bush and Yeltsin, a stupendous achievement given Soviet sensitivities about losing Great-Power status. If these things had been accomplished by Democratic administrations, liberal intellectuals would surely be claiming vindication for their approach to the Cold War. Those who cannot accept this remarkable and heartening lifting of the nuclear threat to the world can construct alternate narratives if they wish. Reagan deserves his share of grudging credit from conventional liberal intellectuals. If the Marxist Hobsbawn and The Guardian's Martin Walker, to cite two cases, can overcome their dislike of Reagan and bring themselves as honest historians to acknowledge that Reagan's strategy had a beneficial effect on the outcome of the Cold War, why can't most other 'progressives' do so?

Nov. 11 2009 04:49 PM
Margaret Wagner from northern NJ

My husband is a Berliner born there during World War II. For the record, nobody we know in Germany credits former President Reagan with bringing down the Berlin Wall. Sometimes even the very intelligent among us believe what they want to, but Americans can be blinded by their pride and this is one of those instances.

Nov. 10 2009 06:13 PM
Christopher from New York City

The segment gave the impression that West Germans (including West Berliners) could not visit East Germany. This is false. The two Germanys were not like the two Koreas. It was possible to visit the East, and anyone I know who had relatives in the East did visit them. It was also possible to place direct phone calls and to send letters and parcels (though communication was presumed monitored, and certain items could not be sent, such as books or newspapers). Eastern Germans in retirement age could visit the West or move to the West, and many did. And of course most of East Germany could watch West German TV. I think a major part in bringing down the regime was precisely this fairly high level of contact (which was encouraged by the policies of d├ętente of the West German government): the East Germans knew about alternatives.

Nov. 08 2009 11:21 AM
Robert from NYC

I never believed that Reagan's statement was *the* one reason the Communism fell, I mean one has to be really naive, no, stupid, to think that that one statement could allow such a dramatically historic occurrence. Anyone with the slightest intelligence and historic knowledge could figure out that much more movement was going on in European governments as well as the social and cultural institutions in those countries under the communist regimes. Quite possibly or rather likely Reagan got at least a whiff of what was going on and used the opportunity to make his statement.

Nov. 08 2009 11:04 AM
Jessica Hejtmanek

"...would dominate the narrative of the Velvet Revolution?" This story is about Reagan, Gorbachev and Berlin/Germany. The Velvet Revolution refers to the peaceful demonstrations which brought down communism in Prague, Czechoslovakia in November-December of 1989. The reference to it here in the introduction to this story is misplaced and inaccurate.

Nov. 07 2009 02:53 PM
Beverly Howard from Austin, TX USA

The "Ich Bin Ein Berliner" comments are interesting from the other end of the wall's life.

FWIW, the clip you played is not what was heard by the audience in Schoneberg Plaza that day... it is not only edited, the phrase itself is a replacement.

I was there... when Kennedy spoke the line, the entire plaza was silent as no one, Berliners and others understood what he uttered... there was a buzz as everyone asked those around what he had said until the English to German speech interpreter repeated the phrase.

The following was received from the Kennedy library following exchanges and two responses strongly defending the authenticity of the clip;

"After discussion without audiovisual archivists, our information manager and I discovered that there are 4 other versions of the speech that have been donated to us. These were recordings from sources other than the White House Signal Corps. We also learned that the suggestion I made but treated as unlikely - that the Signal Corps edited the tape - is actually a strong likelihood in this particular case."

However, it's unlikely that that the perfection of this clip will ever be replaced with the original in light of the assumed perfection of the speaker.

Beverly Howard

Nov. 07 2009 10:23 AM

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