Tag Archives: President Ronald Reagan

Berlin Wall Goes Up (15 Aug 1961)

In the aftermath of World War II, Berlin was divided into four Allied occupation zones. Although Berlin was deep inside Soviet held territory, this was the situation as the Allie powers decided on the future of Germany. Berlin, of course, had been the capital of Germany prior to and during World War II. Significant differences over that future caused major tensions between the United States, Britain, and France on one side, and the Soviet Union on the other. In 1948 the United States, Britain, and France decided to unite their zones into one entity that became the Federal Republic of Germany This would become West Germany and half of Berlin was in that zone.

The Soviet Union responded by launching a blockage of the city to try and force the Allies to leave. In response, U.S. President Harry Truman along with Britain organized a massive airlift to keep the West German part of Berlin stocked with food and fuel. The Soviets abandoned the blockade in May 1949. Berlin would become the gateway to the West as people would flee East Germany through Berlin. It soon became apparent to the Communists running East Germany they were losing significant portions of their society from intellectuals to skilled laborers. Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev suggested that East Germany close off access to East and West Berlin.

Starting on the night of 12 August 1961, East German soldiers began placing 30 miles of barbed wire through Berlin and reduced the checkpoints where Westerners could cross into East Germany. Western governments protested but did nothing to stop and on 15 August, the barbed wire was replaced by concrete. East Germany declared that by sealing off their country to the west, the influence of decadent capitalist culture would be stopped. As the wall started going up, many made frantic moves to get across before it was completed. As time went on, the Berlin Wall would grow with walls reaching up to 15 feet high in some places. Streets were now walled up cutting off access to neighborhoods that before could be easily accessed by walking back and forth. The effect was grim as the top of the walls had barbed wire and watchtowers manned with soldiers with machine guns to deter anyone from trying to escape.

The system of walls, and later with electrified wires, would stretch 75 miles around West Berlin, separating it from East Germany. The East Germans also erected barriers on the entire border between East and West Germany. With the erection of this wall, it aptly fit Winston Churchill’s descrption of the Iron Curtain that had fallen in Europe between the democracies of Western Europe and the Communist dictatorships of Eastern Europe. The wall became the most visible symbol of Communist oppression. Many would still try to escape and 5,000 did succeed though many failed either being killed in the attempt or arrested and sent to prison. As the East Germans added even more fortifications, the successful escapes became rare. Checkpoint Charlie became the most visible border between the East and West.

East Berlin Death Strip as seen from Axel Springer Building, 1984
Photo by George Garrigues
Image credit: GeorgeLouis via Wikimedia Commons

By the late 1980’s, the Soviet Union was starting to collapse and many of its client states were starting to feel the pressure of people who resented the oppression they had been forced to endure. It would be on 12 June 1987 that a call would be made that would start a movement that would bring down the Berlin Wall. President Ronald Reagan, in Berlin to celebrate the 750th anniversary of the city, would stand 100 yards away from the concrete barrier and say to the world:

“Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.”

It electrified the crowd and was a major departure from the previous presidents who said nothing. While many in the State Department thought it unwise, Reagan looked at this most visible sign of Communist oppression and said it should come down. Gorbachev dismissed the comment, and many Western leaders thought it a reckless comment. Yet what began was a movement to challenge the Communist leaders in East Germany and elsewhere. And it began to bear fruit when, on 9 November 1989, East Germany announced citizens could  cross between East and West Berlin freely. Thousands on both sides went to the wall and began taking the wall down with hammers, chisels, and other tools. The wall would be dismantled in several weeks and 26 years of having a divided city was over. And on 3 October 1990, both East and West Germany were officially reunited ending the separation that had occurred at the end of World War II.

Today only historic signs, photos, and tour guides will point out where the infamous wall once stood. You can see the differences in some areas that have the old Soviet style buildings right next to the modern areas that were once part of West Germany. Rick Steves in his travel show about Berlin shows how much it has changed since those terrible days. The wall put up to keep people from moving from East Germany to the freedom of the west itself is now a memory, with people selling parts of the wall now to collectors.



YouTube Videos on the Berlin Wall

Berlin Wall Goes Up


The Building of the Berlin Wall in 1961 – Propaganda Documentary (1962)


President Ronald Reagan “Take Down This Wall “ Speech, 12 June 1987




Remembering the Challenger Explosion 28 Jan 1986

I was at work when news trickled through the office that something had occurred to the space shuttle Challenger. By noon (Pacific time), more details had become known. Challenger had exploded after liftoff killing everyone aboard. Lunch was quiet as this news was digested. At dinner I remember watching Tom Brokaw on NBC describe the awful events of that day.

For those who boarded the shuttle on 28 Jan 1986, it was lifetime ambition coming true. Each of them had been selected to be part of this mission. The most well known was Christa McAuliffe, a high school teacher from New Hampshire. She had won a competition to be the first teacher in space. The space shuttle program, launched in 1976, had been a success. It was the first time a space vehicle would use reusable vehicle. And had been used bring satellite equipment into space and perform scientific experiments.

Hundreds had assembled to watch the launch; many of them family members of the astronauts aboard. A live feed of the launch was being watched by school kids all over the country. The news networks were there as well to cover the launch. The launch had been delayed since 23 January due to poor weather and technical issues. The morning of the launch had been cold at Cape Canaveral, Florida. An unusual cold wave had hit Florida and temperatures had dropped to below freezing during the night.

At 11:38 am EST, Challenger lifted off and began her ascent. The assembled crowd watched as the shuttle moved upwards. A minute after the launch, they were told to go for full throttle. And then, 73 seconds into the flight, there was an explosion. Spectators on the ground stood in disbelief at the forking plume and smoke. Millions, including school children, saw it as well on television. At first no one was quite sure what happened. Then confirmation was made that the shuttle had been destroyed.



That night President Ronald Reagan made a public address to the nation. It was a simple but powerful address. But his closing remarks have always remained with me:

 The crew of the space shuttle Challenger honored us by the manner in which they lived their lives. We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them, this morning, as they prepared for their journey and waved goodbye and “slipped the surly bonds of earth” to “touch the face of God.” (President Reagan’s Address to the Nation, 28 Jan 1986)

President Reagan appointed a special commission to determine what went wrong, and to develop ways to prevent it from happening again. Former secretary of state William Rodgers led the commission which had former astronaut Neil Armstrong and former test pilot Chuck Yeager on it. Also on the panel was noted physicist Richard Feynman. Feynman clashed with Rodgers and was unafraid to call out NASA for its failures. He also graphically demonstrated during a live hearing how the O-rings were less resilient in cold weather. He did this by lowering a sample of it in ice-cold water and showing when he took it out how inflexible it was. Ultimately it was the O-rings that were at fault. The hard cold during the night had caused it to contract and thus no longer provide proper sealing. When it was subjected to high heat, it lost coherence which led to the chain of events where the shuttle exploded. It would be two years before another space shuttle would be launched. Both Morton Thiokol and the U.S. government contributed to a settlement fund of $7.7 million dollars to the families of the Challenger astronauts.

The crew of Space Shuttle mission STS-51-L pose for their official portrait on November 15, 1985. In the back row from left to right: Ellison S. Onizuka, Sharon Christa McAuliffe, Greg Jarvis, and Judy Resnik. In the front row from left to right: Michael J. Smith, Dick Scobee, and Ron McNair.
Source: NASA
Public Domain



This Day in History: January 28, 1986
Report of the Presidential Commission on the Space Shuttle Challenger Accident
Explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger: Address to the Nation, January 28, 1986