Thinking along the same lines we were, the Wall Street Journal published chief Reagan speechwriter Tony Dolan’s account of Reagan’s “tear down this wall” speech in connection with the twentieth anniversary celebration of the fall of the Wall in Berlin on Monday. We posted Peter Robinson’s account of the speech, condensed from the memoir How Ronald Reagan Changed My Life. Yesterday the Journal published Peter’s letter to the editor gently correcting Dolan’s account:
In his account of President Ronald Reagan’s June 12, 1987 Berlin Wall address (“Four Little Words,” op-ed, Nov. 9) Anthony Dolan, my boss in the Reagan speechwriting shop, describes a wonderfully improbable pair of events. Both took place, Tony states, “Well before a draft was circulated.”
As the speechwriter assigned to draft the address, I told Tony I wanted to include “tear down this wall.” Then, in “an Oval Office meeting” just a few minutes later, President Ronald Reagan told Tony he wanted the address to say, “Tear down the wall.”
“Can you believe it?” Tony claims he told me. “[The president] said just what you were thinking.”
All this makes for such a marvelous story that it may seem churlish to gainsay it, but in the interest of keeping the record straight I really have no choice: Tony’s memory here is mistaken.
What actually took place?
In Berlin on April 23, 1987, while conducting research, I encountered a German woman, Ingeborg Elz, who made a comment so striking that I committed it to my notebook. If Mikhail Gorbachev were serious about glasnost, she said, he could prove it by getting rid of the wall. Back at the White House I adapted this comment, making the call to tear down the wall the central passage in my draft. On May 15, 1987 my draft went to the president. On May 18, we speechwriters joined Reagan in the Oval Office.
Explaining that the address would be heard throughout East Germany, I asked the president what he would like to say to those on the Communist side of the wall. Reagan thought for a moment. “Well,” he replied, “there’s that passage about tearing down the wall. That wall has to come down. That’s what I’d like to say to them.”
Although this meeting took place after, not before, the president had seen my draft, it must represent the encounter with Reagan that Tony recalls. Why am I sure? My own notes, the recollection of Director of Communications Tom Griscom, to whom Tony and I reported, and–critical point–the documents in the Reagan Library. As I learned while researching my book, “How Ronald Reagan Changed My Life,” May 18 is the first date during the turbulent year of 1987 on which the White House “daily diary” shows Tony–or, for that matter, me–entering the Oval Office.
Although he mistakes the sequence of events, Tony remains invaluable on the larger matters, insisting that Reagan rejected mere containment for a policy of defeating Soviet Communism outright. Indeed Reagan did. As early as 1978, during his first visit to Berlin, Reagan insisted that the wall had to be dismantled. And in 1987, no one but Reagan would have overruled the objections of a furious State Department and National Security Council to call on Mr. Gorbachev to do just that. “Reagan spoke formally and repeatedly of deploying against criminal regimes the one weapon they fear more than military or economic sanction: the publicly-spoken truth.”
Tony got that right.