Ronald Reagan's Son Visits Germany Berlin! Build My Dad a Memorial!

Two decades after his father's famous speech at the Brandenburg Gate, Michael Reagan pushes for the erection of a memorial to honor the former US President. In a 1987 speech in Berlin, Ronald Reagan famously implored, "Mr. Gorbachev! Tear down this wall!"

By Peter Bild in Berlin

Should monument-saturated Berlin build a memorial to Ronald Reagan?

Should monument-saturated Berlin build a memorial to Ronald Reagan?

The backdrop was Berlin's historic Brandenburg Gate. But US President Ronald Reagan had a different structure in mind when he gave his famed speech on June 17, 1987. Just behind him ran the Berlin Wall, the concrete, barbed-wire and fortified barricade that had sliced through the city since August 1961. Reagan wanted it gone and issued a direct challenge to the leader of the Soviet Union: "Mr. Gorbachev! Tear down this wall!"

Of course, these words alone did not bring about the end of Soviet Communism. Mikhail Gorbachev has even privately joked that it was women angered by a shortage of panty hose in Moscow that caused the Iron Curtain's fall.

Ronald Reagan wasn't the first American president to leave his mark on a divided Berlin. In 1963, John F. Kennedy, on a visit to West Berlin, memorably pledged his solidarity, declaring, "I am a Berliner." Berlin has a school, a university department, a museum and a plaza named after Kennedy, but the capital has nothing commemorating Ronald Reagan.

On Tuesday, Reagan's eldest son Michael visited the German capital to lobby for support for a permanent monument to his father's great speech. In monument-saturated Berlin, Reagan said he would be pleased with almost any form of homage -- be it a statue, bust or even just a modest plaque.

A sometimes rabidly conservative talk show host from California, Michael Reagan is on a crusade. He insists his father's political contribution as president and his leadership in the free world deserve explicit recognition in the city that symbolized the Cold War division of Europe. "He was able to bring together people who ultimately brought down the Berlin Wall," he told SPIEGEL ONLINE.

Until it was dismantled in 1989, the Berlin Wall divided democratic Western Europe from the communist east.

Until it was dismantled in 1989, the Berlin Wall divided democratic Western Europe from the communist east.

Berlin may now be groaning under the weight of the memorials already erected to its turbulent history, but that, he says, is also an argument for getting one erected in honor of his father. "You wouldn't have all these memorials if he hadn't done his job to free the East and bring the East and West together to make a united Berlin. He was the one at the forefront of all of it during the 1980s that led to the fall of the Berlin Wall."

According to Michael Reagan, after years of failed détente, his father adopted a new and successful approach to facing down the Soviet Union: "We win, they lose." His son says: "If there isn't a 'we win, they lose', there's no 'tear down this Wall'."

The Soviet state was crumbling anyway, Reagan acknowledges, a disintegration fueled partly by efforts on the part of the US to undermine the Soviet economy and "starve the bear." The combination of that with the strong rhetoric "left the Soviets with no choice but to bring down the Berlin Wall and come back to the bargaining table and sign non-proliferation treaties with my father."

Michael Reagan says he gets together from time to time with Mikhail Gorbachev at public events to talk about the 1980s and relations with his father.

"It's a joyous time, it's interesting to hear his perspective, how he sees things," Reagan says. "We don't get into confrontation, it's simply a conversation. He saw he had to embrace the other side of the Wall if Russia was going to survive. And Ronald Reagan nudged him in that direction. If you talk to him, he likes to take credit for everything."

Gorbachev wasn't alone in feeling he deserved the full credit. He ultimately won the Nobel Peace Prize -- an honor that Reagan believes should have been shared with other actors in the twilight of the Cold War. "They didn't think about Ronald Reagan, Lady Margaret Thatcher, Lech Walesa, Vaclav Havel or Pope John Paul," Michael Reagan says. "But Mikhail Gorbachev was the one who was brought back to the bargaining table by Ronald Reagan. Mikhail Gorbachev finally allowed the Wall to come down. He could have brought out his tanks. He didn't."

So where do those Soviet panty hose fit into the picture?

Recalling his conversations with Gorbachev, Michael Reagan, offers an alternative explanation often given by the former Soviet leader for the end of the Cold War. "What influenced him was something else he told me," Reagan says with a straight face. "It was so bad in the Soviet Union financially, the women there were angry because they couldn't find panty hose. And Gorbachev told me, 'I had to appoint a czar of panty hose to get panty hose into the Soviet Union so that the women would be happy.' And that's what really impressed him. Not just the panty hose but the fact that he was being bankrupted. The Soviet Union had no place to go. They had to come to the bargaining table, they had to make changes."

Conservative radio talk show host Michael Reagan is leading the crusade for his father to be honored in Germany.

Conservative radio talk show host Michael Reagan is leading the crusade for his father to be honored in Germany.

Reagan gets passionate about his father's long-standing battle against communism. "From the time in the 1960s when that Wall went up, I can remember, all this man could think about was: 'How I can end the Cold War?' And in the end, he ran for president. He only wanted to accomplish two things: to lower taxes and end the Cold War."

Michael Reagan grew up with his mother, actress Jane Wyman, whose marriage to Ronald Reagan ended in Mike's early childhood. But Michael, "as the only other conservative in the family," says he worked closely with his father during his campaign to become governor of California and again as Ronald Reagan campaigned twice to win the Republican nomination and ultimately, in 1980, the presidency.

Political and personal splits within the family have left 63-year-old Michael Reagan alone in his campaign for a Berlin memorial.

"I'm old enough to decide on my own," he says. "I haven’t really talked to Nancy about this. She's very busy. And approaching 90 years of age, I don't know if another campaign is really in her for this. I would love to see my brother and sister involved. But if they are not, I do have a lot of support within the 'Reagan Command' back in the USA to begin to honor my father in this country."


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