East Texas state rep. recalls watching Ronald Reagan deliver ‘Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall’ speech in Berlin

The then-Army officer received a special ticket to watch President Reagan's 1987 speech at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin.
Published: Sep. 22, 2021 at 12:44 AM CDT
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BERLIN, Germany (KLTV/KTRE) - Six decades have now passed since the Berlin Wall first went up, not only dividing a nation, but also becoming a globally-recognized symbol of government oppression.

On August 13, 1961, the government of East Germany began construction on a barrier surrounding the Allied-controlled West Berlin to stem mass migration from the Soviet-controlled East.

In 1987, now-Texas State Representative James White (R- Hillister) was fresh out of the U.S. Army Basic Training at Ft. Benning and requested an assignment in Germany.

On Easter Sunday, White arrived at Berlin’s Tegel Airport to begin his three years abroad as a company-grade officer.

In June of that year, at the height of the Cold War, U.S. President Ronald Reagan visited Berlin, delivering his now famous “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall” speech in the shadow of the Brandenburg Gate.”

White received a ticket to watch the address in-person.

“When he gave that, ‘Mr. Gorbachev, if you really believe in freedom, tear down this wall!’ and everybody started screaming. And I just thought that this is just a guy, he’s a great president. I love him, but he’s just going to have to say this type of stuff. That’s what politicians do.”

He says he knew the implications of this speech would be far-reaching.

“We trained and were always under the mentality that, not just really if, but when that moment came, we would have to face the Russians and at that time the Warsaw Pact. Because that was all the eastern communist countries. It was going to be a fight to the finish.”

Two years later, the first sections of the wall would topple in November 1989, signaling the start of the collapse of East Germany and later the Soviet Union.

“What President Reagan was trying to exhibit was strength, was resolve with our allies. Contrast that what we’re doing today in Afghanistan. I think that if Ronald Reagan would have stood at Kabul Airport at a speech or somewhere in the middle of Afghanistan, he would have said, ‘Look, we’re going to leave one day, but we’re going to leave when freedom rings, American interests prevail, and we have peace and security for our country, in regard to Afghanistan.’”

White said this speech has served as a life-long lesson as a combat arms officer and a member of the Texas legislature.

“What I always remember is, nine times out of ten your gut is right. If it’s morally right, but it may not be the expert thing to do, you do it anyway. And you stand on principle and you stand on morality.”

In his time with the Berlin Brigade, White said it was apparent how nearly three decades of division changed people living in the East and the West.

“There were times when I would travel through Checkpoint Charlie and get my opportunity observe the East Germans. Outstanding artisans, great artists, great engineers.”

KLTV’s Lane Luckie reports on lingering divisions in Germany due to a lagging economy in some parts of the former East.

He said he saw a lot of potential in East Germany, but they didn’t have freedom.

“You can have people that are very talented, but if they don’t have the freedom to use those those God-given talents to the best of their ability, in God’s fashion, then you won’t see the full fruition of those talents.”

The United States standing with West Germany during the Cold War is something White says leaders should consider when handling world affairs today.

“The lesson is, to the extent that we don’t stand with our allies, we do not think through how we disengage with countries, can have serious ramifications to our national prestige, our national interests, and going into the future, how we are perceived by other countries.”


+ Understanding the Wall: How the Berlin Wall divided a nation

+ Fmr. U.S. ambassador reflects on fall of Berlin Wall, role in reunification of Germany

KLTV & KTRE anchor Lane Luckie is covering the federal election in Germany, which will determine who replaces long-time chancellor Angela Merkel. Click here for more coverage of the impact this will have on the relationship with one of America’s closest allies.

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