Yesterday was the 30th anniversary of President Reagan’s famous speech at the Brandenburg Gate in West Berlin that culminated in the famous line, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” I began the second volume of my Age of Reagan political biography with an account of it, and it seems worth repeating today:
Most of his senior aides didn’t want him to say it. Indeed, they tried repeatedly to talk him out of it. You’ll embarrass your host, West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl. You’ll anger and provoke Mikhail Gorbachev, with whom you’ve just started making progress on arms control. You’ll whip up false hope among East Germans—for surely the Berlin Wall isn’t coming down any time soon. Besides, Germans have grown used to the Wall. The ultimate reason: You’ll look naïve and foolish, Mr. President.
“Virtually the entire foreign policy apparatus of the U.S. government,” Reagan speechwriter Peter Robinson recalled, tried to stop Ronald Reagan from saying “Tear down this wall,” including Reagan’s Secretary of State George Shultz and the new national security adviser, General Colin Powell. “Some Reagan advisers,” the New York Times reported without naming names, “wanted an address with less polemics.” The State Department and the National Security Council persisted up to the last minute trying to derail it, including one meeting between Powell and White House communications director Tom Griscom that participants say was “tense and forceful.” Reagan had to intervene against his own advisers. Ken Duberstein, serving then as Reagan’s deputy chief of staff, has offered different accounts of how the conversation went, but the gist of it was like this—Reagan: “I’m the president, right?” Duberstein: “Yes, sir, Mr. President. We’re clear about that.” Reagan: “So I get to decide whether the line about tearing down the wall stays in?” Duberstein: “That’s right, sir. It’s your decision.” Reagan: “Then it stays in.”
But even this wasn’t the end of the effort to deflect the president from his purposes. While Air Force One was in flight to West Berlin, State and the NSC sent by fax one more speech draft to the plane without the Berlin Wall line. It went into the trash. Today Reagan’s personalized call to “tear down this wall” is recognized as the most memorable line of his presidency, and Reagan’s role in the surprising and swift end of the Cold War the most celebrated aspect of his statecraft. Some of the people who opposed the line and tried to stop it now claim to have written it and been for it all along.
The Berlin Wall speech is a perfect microcosm of Reagan’s entire political career. Reagan, the New York Times said in its news story about the Berlin Wall speech, “revived a long dormant debate over the Berlin Wall.” (Emphasis added.) “Long dormant” for whom? Certainly not the people of East Germany. Nor for the people of America, for whom Reagan revived lots of long dormant debates great and small about our political life. Indeed, the dominant theme and focus of this narrative is to survey and tie together the massive number of arguments Reagan opened up on nearly every front of American political life.
Kudos once again to Peter Robinson, the principal speechwriter for that speech, nowadays one of the impresarios of Ricochet among other things.