It was hard to be a supporter of U.S. President Ronald Reagan in Western Europe. As a student living in West Germany at the time, I remember well the commonly held view of him: B-rate actor who read cue cards, a nuclear-weapons-obsessed warmonger, and not very bright to boot. Never mind that he had also been a popular two-term governor of the most populous state in the U.S. (California), because that did not fit with the bumbling cowboy narrative. When he called the Soviet Union “the evil empire” the chattering classes saw it as simplistic, unsophisticated and cringe-worthy. Not so the people caught behind the Iron Curtain who silently cheered someone who stood up for them and spoke the truth about the oppression under which they were living.
Not all conservatives were happy with Reagan either. Their worldview encompassed an acceptance of détente and the US-Soviet arms race as the way things were and forever would be. To rock that boat was to venture into the unknown. Any alternative would jeopardize stability and security — as precarious as that was at the time. Reagan had another worldview: he thought the US-Soviet arms race was mutable, he believed we could do better than just a thawing of the Cold War that left in place the “evil empire”, and he believed people’s desire for freedom was universal and that we needed to support those who sought it.
In 2007 Time magazine recounted the background to Reagan’s Berlin Wall speech on its twentieth anniversary as “the four most famous words that were almost never uttered.” Reagan’s own National Security Council was against it as was the State Department. They worried that it was too provocative, they were afraid of the consequences and they were afraid that hard-liners in the Kremlin would use it to undermine Gorbachev. Still unresolved as they arrived in Berlin with final, final drafts still being produced, Reagan told his deputy chief of staff on the way to the Wall that he was going to use those tough words because, “it was the right thing to do.” As Time magazine describes it:
“Earlier in the day Reagan had looked across the wall into East Berlin from a balcony of the Reichstag. He later said that his forceful tone had been influenced by his learning that East German police had forced people away from the wall to prevent them from hearing his speech over the loudspeakers.”
Here is what Reagan said on June 12, 1987 at the Brandenberg Gate that divided West Berlin from East Berlin:
"There is one sign the Soviets can make that would be unmistakable, 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 liberalisation: Come here to this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!"
Surprisingly, the speech got little media attention — most of it focused on the protest demonstrations against him.
Fast-forward to 2011, the centennial of Reagan’s birth and we find crowds gathering to celebrate, not denigrate, Reagan’s stand for freedom. Zsolt Németh, co-founder of the Hungarian opposition movement, FIDESZ, and now Hungary’s deputy Foreign Minister, credits Ronald Reagan with inspiring the Alliance of Young Democrats party that saw off the Soviets in 1989. Last Tuesday, a special session of parliament convened in Budapest to honour Ronald Reagan and on Wednesday a statue of Reagan was unveiled on Freedom Square in front of the U.S. Embassy. Poland and the Czech Republic also stood up to celebrate Reagan’s life and commitment to their democracy. On Monday, celebrations and a Mass of thanksgiving were held in Krakow, and Thursday’s fête in Prague included renaming a street in Reagan’s honour.
On the 4th of July, as America celebrates her independence, I am joining over 2,000 people gathering in London’s Grosvenor Square to witness the unveiling of a statue of Ronald Reagan. As a student in Heidelberg, West Germany I never thought I would see the day the Berlin Wall would come down, I never imagined that East and West Germany would be united again and I never dreamed that a crowd might gather in Europe to cheer not jeer Ronald Reagan. The lesson I take away is that if you stand up for freedom, eventually, freedom will stand up for you.