- - Monday, May 8, 2017


World history remembers Ronald Reagan’s renowned call 30 years ago next month to tear down the Berlin Wall: On June 12, 1987, he proclaimed, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” Undoubtedly historians and commentators will commemorate that upcoming anniversary. In fact, many historians have written articles and even books about the background history of his famed proclamation and how that speech was written.

But the true story of Reagan’s first public call to tear down the wall has not been told before. In fact, it had occurred exactly two decades earlier, during Reagan’s first run for the presidency in the late 1960s, and thus the true anniversary of Reagan’s first Berlin Wall call is celebrating its 50th anniversary: May 15, 1967.

Ronald Reagan’s forgotten first call occurred near the end of a little-remembered internationally televised debate on Vietnam that Reagan had with his major political nemesis of the 1960s: Robert F. Kennedy. Reagan was in the midst of his first campaign for the presidency. How Reagan absolutely triumphed over ill-prepared RFK in that debate, because of Reagan’s private mentoring on Vietnam by former President Dwight Eisenhower coupled with Reagan’s studious preparation on Vietnam, makes fascinating reading today.

But what turned out to be the most consequential historical point of the debate occurred toward its end. Reagan was a consummate negotiator, having been the president of the Screen Actors Guild during many difficult negotiations with the studios. The Soviet leader in this era was not Mikhail Gorbachev but was Leonid Brezhnev. When asked at the debate about negotiating with communists, Reagan understood that the United States was giving away its great bargaining chips to the Soviets for nothing. He answered that when America recently had signed a consular treaty with the Soviets the United States should have asked for something in return. Reagan suggested that one glaring international sore spot was the Berlin Wall. Reagan said, “It would be very admirable … if the Berlin Wall should disappear.” Then Reagan proclaimed that the Berlin Wall should be knocked down.

Reagan’s May 15, 1967, forceful, public call to knock down the Berlin Wall was but one of many such proclamations during that first quest for the presidency. On May 21, 1968, in Florida, and again the next month in Wyoming, Reagan stated that instead of America unilaterally giving wheat to the Soviets, the Soviets should make a major concession: America should tell the Soviets, “We could deliver it better if the Berlin Wall wasn’t there!”

Clearly Reagan’s famed 1987 call to Mr. Gorbachev to tear down the Berlin Wall was but a culmination of many such Reagan calls over more than two decades.

Long after his presidency was over, the Berlin Wall had fallen, and the Soviet Union had dissolved, the remnants of the wall still reverberated for Reagan. In June 1989, he visited the infamous Checkpoint Charlie and helped knock down a section of the Berlin Wall. The following year at Westminster College in Fulton, Mo., the site of Winston Churchill’s Iron Curtain Speech, Reagan dedicated a sculpture made out of wall remnants. At Reagan’s alma mater, Eureka College, a piece of the wall is in the Reagan Peace Garden, and at the Ronald W. Reagan Presidential Library’s Ruwe Terrace also stands a portion of the wall.

The Berlin Wall and Ronald Reagan have a long and intertwined history. It is only proper for history to recall that it all began during Reagan’s first presidential campaign, on May 15, 1967.

• Gene Kopelson is a historian and author of “Reagan’s 1968 Dress Rehearsal: Ike, RFK, and Reagan’s Emergence as a World Statesman (Figueroa Press, 2016).

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