On June 12, 1987, as the liberal media elite were toasting the leader of the Soviet Union as a great champion of progress, President Ronald Reagan stood at the Berlin Wall and challenged Mikhail Gorbachev to put his money where his mouth was: “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!” (Video.)
Gorbachev did not open the gate or tear down the Berlin Wall, but two years later the people of East Germany did. News broke in the U.S. late in the afternoon (Eastern Time) on November 9, 1989 that the communist government would no longer restrict travel to West Berlin. Just a few hours later, ABC’s PrimeTime Live hosted former President Ronald Reagan to celebrate what would turn out to be the death blow against communism in Eastern Europe. We found the tape in our archives, and a video excerpt is posted below. (Audio excerpt here.)
Co-anchor Sam Donaldson, who as White House correspondent had been a liberal antagonist during Reagan’s presidency, told the former President he would “get a lot of credit for helping bring this moment about.” Reagan told Donaldson that although he did not know when the Wall would finally fall, “I’m an eternal optimist. I believed with all my heart that it was in the future.”
He also reminded Donaldson that on his visit to Berlin two years earlier, he witnessed the East German police forcing people away from the gate so they could not hear Reagan’s speech over a loudspeaker. “So there was another sign of their system and how it worked with their own people. They just manhandled them and turned them around and would not let them, even though they were staying in East Germany, not let them come near the Wall.”
Here’s a transcript of that interview, conducted just a few hours after the Berlin Wall opened up on November 9, 1989:
CO-ANCHOR SAM DONALDSON: A lot of political leaders over the years, since 1961, in the West, have urged that that Wall be torn down, but the one, I think, that people remember the most at this moment — and who's going to get a lot of credit for helping bring this moment about — is former President Ronald Reagan, who joins us live tonight from his office in Los Angeles. Mr. President, glad to see you. Thank you for joining us.
PRESIDENT RONALD REAGAN: Well, thank you, Sam. It's a great pleasure to be, well, in a way, talking with you again.
DONALDSON: Well, two years ago, when you stood in front of the Wall — and we've shown those pictures tonight — and you challenged, "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall," did you think it would come this soon?
PRESIDENT REAGAN: Well, I didn't know when it would come, but I have to tell you, I'm an eternal optimist. I believed with all my heart that it was in the future, because that's a single country. This isn't a thing of a division with two groups of people, or two different types of people brought together within boundaries. These are Germans on each side of the Wall, and the only reason that Wall is there, and there was a difference, was because East Germany was under the domination of the Soviet military when the war ended. And they didn't have any say about what they could do, or what kind of government they would have.
DONALDSON: Well, I know you made this point publicly many times. In your conversations with Gorbachev, and at the end you got to be quite intimate, from the standpoint of being able to talk to him one-on-one, did you discuss the Wall, and what did he say?
PRESIDENT REAGAN: No, not really. We- I got into the kind of generalities with him about human rights, mainly. And then, of course, the things that we were talking specifically about, arms reduction and so forth, and I remember telling him — it wasn't original with me, but I told him — that we didn't mistrust each other because we were armed. We were armed because we mistrust each other. And if we were going to talk about reducing arms, why don't we try to get together on reducing the things that make for the mistrust between us. And he didn't disagree with that. And at the same time, contrary to what some critics have said, I never believed that we should just assume that everything was going to be all right. And that's why I learned a Russian proverb which I used on him a great deal, doveryai, no proveryai. He got to the place that he would clap his hands over his ears when I said it. It means, "Trust, but verify."
DONALDSON: Well, are you of the opinion, with Gorbachev beset by all of the problems and troubles that he has at the moment, that he is going to survive, that perestroika is going to prosper?
PRESIDENT REAGAN: Well, I have to believe that, but I do know that the great threat to what he is trying to do does not come from outside his borders. It comes from that hard-core political Communist bureaucracy that has a vested interest in keeping that kind of totalitarian government. So maybe if he doesn't move as fast as we would like to see him move, it's because he knows that that threat is there behind him. Now, by the same token, I think that those people who threaten him, those hard-core Communists, must by now have seen the changing attitude on the part of the people and they must be a little disturbed about doing something that would bring them toe to toe against their own people in the streets.
DONALDSON: Do you think the United States can do something — it's a question often asked, and I know you've wrestled with it — can do something, or should we do something, to help Gorbachev?
PRESIDENT REAGAN: Well, yes, I think we can, and I think we have been doing these things, by continuing these meetings with him and to deal with him, negotiating with him. I used to bring him handwritten lists of dissenters that had been brought to my attention in the Soviet Union. And every time we met, I would present him with one of these lists and ask him if it was possible that these people could be allowed to emigrate. And very shortly I would get word that these people were on their way, many times to the United States. So I believe that, as long as he's performing the way that he's performing, we should do whatever we could that might be of help, and yet, at the same time, short of interfering or rousing the enemy within his own borders.
DONALDSON: A moment ago, you said that it was unnatural for the two Germanys to be apart, that they were all Germans. Do you believe that we're going to move rapidly toward a reunification of Germany? Do you think our European allies want that?
PRESIDENT REAGAN: I think they do. Now, I don't know how soon this can come. But again, as I say, these people are Germans, living on each side of that Wall. They didn't have much to do with the building of that Wall, or the form of government in the eastern half that was forced upon them. And I think it just makes sense that instead of wondering what we're going to do with millions of refugees intent now upon getting out from under that system in East Germany, to once again say, "You who are Germans can stay in your homes and stay where you are, and it will be the Germany you once knew."
DONALDSON: I know you've often said that you don't believe your views have changed about the Soviet Union, but you recognize that the Soviet Union may, in some sense, particularly under Gorbachev, be changing. So I want to ask you about your famous phrase, "the evil empire," that you in 1983 spoke in Orlando, Florida, if memory serves. What do you think about it now?
PRESIDENT REAGAN: Well, I have to tell you, I said that on purpose. There were some things that I believed very deeply, from before the time that I came into office. I believed that the best peace is peace through strength. And I believed also that the Soviet Union needed to know and to hear what we felt about them, so that, oh, maybe in some of the previous meetings that had been held in which they had — people tried to negotiate on a basis of just developing a friendship or something, that we were aware of what the Communist totalitarianism was like, and that we were realists.
DONALDSON: Well, aware, and in your case, certainly very confident that it would fall. I remember in London once, you talked about Communism eventually being consigned to the dustheap of history. Do you feel vindicated?
PRESIDENT REAGAN: Well, I have always believed that, and I think it will, and I think there's evidence in the world today. We see all over the Communist part of the world these great changes taking place, Hungary and in Poland, in the eastern bloc and so forth, and other countries that way, and we see a great wave of democracy sweeping the world. And I think what it is, is people have had time in some 70-odd years of — since the Communist revolution, I think the people have seen that Communism has had its chance and it doesn't work.
DONALDSON: President Reagan, you're looking well, we're glad to see it, and we thank you for joining us tonight.
PRESIDENT REAGAN: Well, thank you, Sam. It's a great pleasure to talk to you, and to talk to you under these circumstances, with this announcement that's just been made. If the Wall isn't torn down immediately, at least they could keep the gates open. Could I just finish with one thing? When I made that statement, with the Brandenburg Gate behind me, and I was talking to a great audience of West Germans, in that statement about the Wall, I had had an opportunity to look across the Wall. Now, the people in West Berlin had arranged the sound system so that my voice was carrying on both sides of the Wall. But I could see East German police keeping the East German people in the streets from getting anywhere near the Wall, to keep them from hearing, overhearing anything that we might be saying on the other side, on the west side of that Wall. So there was another sign of their system and how it worked with their own people. They just manhandled them and turned them around and would not let them, even though they were staying in East Germany, not let them come near the Wall.
DONALDSON: Thank you, President Reagan. Thank you very much, and give our best to your wife.
PRESIDENT REAGAN: I certainly will, and thank you, Sam.