The fall of the Berlin wall caught the world by surprise. For months, East Germany’s beleaguered communist rulers had tried in vain to silence a growing opposition movement and stem the tide of people pouring out of the country. On the night of Nov. 9, 1989, an East German official held a press conference to announce new government travel policies but inadvertently announced that crossings to the West would be opened “without delay.” Within hours, thousands of East Berliners began lining up at checkpoints near the Wall. At first the border guards tried to check passports, but they quickly realized it was futile. The masses surged through. Many of them ran. Crowds of West Berliners waited on the other side, hugging strangers and popping champagne. The scenes were stunning. By the fall of 1989 cracks in the communist bloc had started to emerge. But few people imagined the Berlin Wall would disappear anytime soon.
Ronald Reagan did. “I didn’t know when it would come, but I have to tell you, I’m an eternal optimist,” the former President said in an interview with ABC’s Sam Donaldson that night. “I believed in all my heart it was in the future.” Two years earlier, Reagan had addressed a crowd of some 20,000 near Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate and challenged Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to tear down the Wall. At the time, even his closest advisers dismissed the notion as far-fetched. “It’s a great speech line,” Reagan’s National Security Adviser, Frank Carlucci, remembers thinking. “But it will never happen.” When the Wall came down, however, Reagan’s speech entered American lore. “You look for one line you remember a President by,” says Ken Duberstein, a former White House chief of staff who accompanied Reagan on the day of his Berlin speech. “FDR is easy. Bill Clinton is easy: ‘I did not have sex with that woman.’ What is Ronald Reagan going to be remembered by One line: ‘Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this Wall.'” And yet 20 years later, Reagan’s role in bringing about the fall of the Berlin Wall and the peaceful end of the Cold War remains exaggerated, manipulated and misunderstood. To many of his conservative admirers, the challenge to Gorbachev in Berlin epitomized the toughness that made Reagan great: by refusing to compromise his core principles, he defeated communism and won the Cold War. But the truth is that Reagan was more adaptable, politically shrewd and open to compromise than either his champions or his critics prefer to admit. He may have called the Soviet Union an “evil empire,” but he was not above negotiating with it. While others saw the enmity between the superpowers as immutable, he insisted that change was possible. And though today he is revered by foreign policy hawks, Reagan’s greatest successes were achieved not through the use of force but by persuasion, dialogue and diplomacy. Reagan loathed the Berlin Wall. “It’s a wall that never should have been built,” he often said. As early as 1967, while still governor of California, he said the U.S. should have knocked down the barbed wire separating East and West Berlin the moment the communists put it up. On a trip to West Berlin in 1978, he was told the story of Peter Fechter, an East German youth who had been killed trying to crawl over the Wall in 1962. The authorities left Fechter unattended for nearly an hour while he bled to death. “Reagan just gritted his teeth,” says Peter Hannaford, a longtime aide who was with him in Berlin. “You could tell from the set of his jaw and his look that … he was very, very determined that this was something that had to go.” See TIME’s audio slideshow “1989: The Year That Changed the World.”
Watch TIME’s video “A GPS Tour of the Berlin Wall.”