American Portraits

Tear Down This Wall: Ronald Reagan, the Cold War, and Responsibility

In this lesson, students will review Ronald Reagan’s life-long commitment to ending the tyranny of communism and analyze Reagan’s application of the virtue of responsibility. They will achieve the following objectives.

Founding Principles

Civic Virtue image

Civic Virtue

A set of actions and habits necessary for the safe, effective, and mutually beneficial participation in a society.

Individual Responsibility image

Individual Responsibility

Individuals must take care of themselves and their families and be vigilant to preserve their liberty.


On June 12, 1987, President Ronald Reagan stood before the wall that had separated East and West Berlin since 1961. The Berlin Wall was one of the most important symbols of the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union, and a representation of communist oppression….

Narrative PDF

Compelling Question

Why is acting responsibly important for one who leads in any capacity? To what extent is it also important for those who are not officially considered to be leaders?

Virtue Defined

Responsibility is accountability to myself and others.

Lesson Overview

In this lesson, students will review Ronald Reagan’s life-long commitment to ending the tyranny of communism and analyze Reagan’s application of the virtue of responsibility. They will achieve the following objectives.


  • Students will analyze Ronald Reagan’s character as a leader and his actions in speaking out against communism throughout his career, in spite of opposition.
  • Students will examine Reagan’s understanding of responsibility as an American citizen.
  • Students will understand why acting responsibly affects the future of the United States.
  • Students will act responsibly in their own lives to protect freedom.


After World War II, a Cold War erupted between the world’s two superpowersthe United States and the Soviet Union. During the 1960s and 1970s, the Soviet Union built the Berlin Wall to divide East and West Berlin, engaged in a massive arms build-up, supported communist insurrections around the globe, and invaded Afghanistan.

When Ronald Reagan was elected president in 1980, he instituted a tough stance towards the Soviets that was designed to reverse their advances and win the Cold War. His administration supported the Polish resistance movement known as Solidarity, increased military spending, and armed resistance fighters around the world, including those battling a Soviet invasion in Afghanistan. Partly due to these efforts, the Berlin Wall fell by 1989, and communism collapsed in both Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union by 1991.


  • Provocative
  • Communism
  • Nazism
  • Totalitarianism
  • Accommodation
  • Détente
  • Adamant
  • Deterred
  • Dais
  • Liberalization

Introduce Text

Have students read the background and narrative, keeping the Compelling Question in mind as they read. Then have them answer the remaining questions below.

For more robust lesson treatment, check out our partners at the Character Formation Project

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Walk-In-The-Shoes Questions
As you read, imagine you are the protagonist.

  • What challenges are you facing?
  • What fears or concerns might you have?
  • What may prevent you from acting in the way you ought?

Observation Questions

  • In what ways did Ronald Reagan exercise responsibility to enhance life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for himself and others?
  • What was Ronald Reagan’s identity during the Cold War? To what extent do you see a consistent message in the various statements he made about communism from 1952 – 1987?
  • With respect to communism and the Soviet Union, how did Reagan see his purpose as president during the 1980s?

Discussion Questions
Discuss the following questions with your students.

  • What is the historical context of the narrative?
  • What historical circumstances presented a challenge to the protagonist?
  • How and why did the individual exhibit a moral and/or civic virtue in facing and overcoming the challenge?
  • How did the exercise of the virtue benefit civil society and Reagan?
  • What might the exercise of the virtue cost him?
  • Would you react the same under similar circumstances? Why or why not?
  • How can you act similarly in your own life? What obstacles must you overcome in order to do so?

Additional Resources

  • Hayward, Steven F. The Age of Reagan: The Conservative Counterrevolution, 1980-1989. New York: Three Rivers Press, 2009.
  • Ratnesar, Romesh. Tear Down This Wall: A City, A President, and the Speech that Ended the Cold War. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2009.
  • Schweizer, Peter. Reagan’s War: The Epic Story of His Forty-Year Struggle and Final Triumph Over Communism. New York: Doubleday, 2002.
  • Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum,
  • National Park Service; Reagan’s Boyhood Home

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