On a tile platform behind the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, framed by dust-brown hills that once were backdrops for Hollywood westerns, a graffiti-splashed fragment of the Berlin Wall thrusts toward the sky. It is a window to the past, to the dangerous years of the Cold War. The window opens on twenty-eight miles of barriers, fortifications, and electrified fences that divided Berlin and extended another seventy-five miles beyond the city. Collectively, they were known as the Berlin Wall. The 6,000-pound segment of the wall at the Reagan Library, ten feet high and three and a half feet wide, is painted with pastel drawings of faded flowers and an enormous butterfly. Its beauty is deceptive, for the wall itself was deadly. One hundred and ninety-one people were killed trying to cross it, more than 5,000 people escaped to freedom over and under it, and many thousands more were held in servitude by its grim presence. On June 12, 1987, President Ronald Reagan stood on the western side of the wall in front of the historic Brandenburg Gate and addressed the leader of the Soviet Union. "Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate!" Reagan said, his voice rising to be heard above the loudspeakers that sought to drown him out on the East German side. "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!"
Reagan's message resonated throughout eastern Europe—all the way to Moscow. Two and a half years later, the wall was torn down by the German people without objection from Mikhail Gorbachev or resistance from the Communist rulers of East Germany. Although Reagan was no longer president, Berliners were grateful for what he had done for them and for the cause of freedom. In April 1990 they sent him the piece of the wall now preserved at the Reagan Library accompanied by a letter that commended his "unwavering dedication to humanitarianism and freedom over communism throughout his presidency."
Reagan's dedication began long before he went to Washington. During the 1930s, he spoke out against the barbaric denial of freedom in Nazi Germany. Later, he vehemently denounced the evils of Stalinist Russia and other communist regimes. Freedom came naturally to Reagan. It was part of the air he breathed as a boy in small-town Illinois, where once we honored Lincoln. Reagan was born in Tampico, Illinois, on February 6, 1911. He grew to manhood in Dixon, where an arch spanned Main Street in tribute to American soldiers who had died in Europe during the Great War, then known as the "war to end all wars" and now remembered as World War I.