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The morning of May 15, 1987, was a busy one for Ronald Reagan. “Quite an agenda,” he recorded in the diary he updated every day of his presidency. He reviewed names of possible appointees to a commission on AIDS—the disease that was claiming tens of thousands of lives but which Reagan had only recently acknowledged. At a meeting of the National Security Council, Reagan found his disputatious secretaries of state and defense, George Shultz and Caspar Weinberger, feuding over whether the United States should agree to a major arms cut proposal made by the Soviet Union’s leader, Mikhail Gorbachev. Reagan was also informed that a U.S. Army nurse had been kidnapped in Mozambique. “I want her rescued if we have to blow up the whole d——m country,” he wrote later. After lunch and a meeting with regional newspaper journalists, the seventy-six-year-old president retired “upstairs for the afternoon and evening,” with a stack of material to read over the weekend. Among his papers were drafts of the speeches he was to deliver on an upcoming trip to Europe—including one he would be giving on June 12 in West Germany, in the shadow of the Berlin Wall.
Even to some who knew him well, Reagan was a remote figure. His basic kindness and decency were obvious to all he encountered, but so were his emotional reserve and imperviousness to events that might disrupt his simple, sunny worldview. During his time in the White House, he rarely budged from a daily routine that included a lunch of soup and crackers, a light workout, and eight hours of sleep. On the morning of Reagan’s first inauguration, the man he had defeated, Jimmy Carter, received word that fifty-two American hostages, held in Tehran for 444 days, were to be released. When Carter phoned to give Reagan the news, an aide to Reagan, Michael Deaver, told the outgoing president that Reagan was sleeping and couldn’t be roused. “You’re kidding,” Carter said. “No, I’m not,” Deaver replied. By the final years of his second term, Reagan was often disengaged from the daily business of the presidency. His official biographer observed at the time that Reagan was “showing signs of depression, failing to read even summaries of important work papers, constantly watching TV and the movies.” Reagan’s celebrated speechwriter, Peggy Noonan, told an interviewer that when she met with Reagan before she left the White House in 1986, she had been struck most by his “frailty.” “He nods and encourages you,” she said, “but you’re never quite sure he hears every word.”
But Reagan could still rise to the occasion. “He believed that giving speeches was one of the president’s most important duties,” says James Baker, who served under Reagan as chief of staff and later as treasury secretary. “I’ve never known a president who was better at utilizing the bully pulpit, which is the most important thing that a president has.” Reagan’s gift for public speaking had been evident as far back as his days at Eureka College, when his peers tapped him as their spokesman during a student strike against the school president. That talent was honed by thousands of commentaries, radio broadcasts, town hall meetings, and fund-raising speeches Reagan gave before he even mounted his first campaign for office in 1966. His detractors confused Reagan’s eloquence with glibness, dismissing his ability to connect with audiences as an old actor’s trick. But those judgments now seem hollow; heard today, Reagan’s best speeches—“Evil Empire,” the elegy for the crew of the space shuttle Challenger, “The Boys of Pointe du Hoc”—retain much of their rhetorical power. Reagan approached speeches not merely as public performances but as opportunities to present his views in clear and unmistakable terms. Even his closest aides said they often learned about Reagan’s position on a given issue only after he mentioned it in a speech. Former President Gerald Ford once remarked in wonder that Reagan “was one of the few political leaders I have met whose public speeches revealed more than his private conversations.”
The address delivered by Reagan in West Berlin on June 12, 1987, was the 1,279th of his presidency. He was entering the twilight of his tenure. His long love affair with the American people had soured over the Iran-contra scandal. His approval rating had fallen twenty points in six months. On the world stage too, Reagan appeared a diminished figure, overshadowed by the dynamic Soviet leader, Gorbachev, whose push to reform the communist system seemed to be driving the course of history. In two dramatic summits to that point, Reagan and Gorbachev had established a promising personal connection, but their discussions had failed to yield tangible progress toward ending their nations’ rivalry. At their summit in Reykjavik, Iceland, in October 1986, the two leaders had come tantalizingly close to reaching an agreement to eliminate nuclear weapons, before the deal fell apart over Reagan’s refusal to abandon his plan to build a space-based defense against nuclear missiles. Few experts in either country believed the Cold War was about to end.
But the world was changing. In Eastern Europe, small-scale rebellions against communist rule had begun to stir. On the eve of Reagan’s visit, hundreds of East German youths revolted near the Berlin Wall when police tried to prevent them from listening to a rock concert in West Berlin. Whether the American president sensed the ground moving, or merely allowed himself to imagine it, is difficult to know. As Reagan climbed the dais in front of Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate just after 2 p.m. on June 12, 1987, it is unlikely that he anticipated that by the end of the year he and Gorbachev would sign the first U.S-Soviet treaty to reduce nuclear weapons; that he would leave office in January 1989 declaring that “the Cold War is over”; and that just nine months would pass after that before the fall of the Berlin Wall.
And even the man known as the Great Communicator might not have believed, on that gray Berlin afternoon, that his words would become the most memorable delivered by any American president in the last quarter-century. Along with the assassination attempt against him in 1981, Reagan’s appearance at the Brandenburg Gate remains the iconic image of his presidency. During the 2008 presidential campaign, Time named “Remarks on East-West Relations at the Brandenburg Gate” one of the ten best political speeches in history. USA Today rated “Tear down this Wall” the second most memorable quote of the last twenty-five years.* “You look for one line you remember a president by,” says Ken Duberstein, a former White House chief of staff who accompanied Reagan on that day in Berlin. “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: Tear down this Wall.”
Twenty years since the fall of the Berlin Wall, it is sometimes difficult for Americans to recall the antagonism, bitterness, and depredation that characterized the Cold War. For more than four decades, the United States and Soviet Union remained locked in a struggle, in President George H. W. Bush’s words, “for the soul of mankind.” It was a conflict that distorted national priorities and led both countries into disastrous misadventures; hundreds of thousands died in the proxy conflicts waged by the superpowers around the globe. Wars against communist foes in Korea and Vietnam claimed the lives of more than 100,000 American troops. For millions living under communism in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, the price of the Cold War was paid in the form of dismal health standards, diminished life expectancy, an absence of political freedom, and the crushing of individual will. And due to the U.S.-Soviet arms race, for half a century the world lived with the specter of nuclear war, a hair’s-trigger away from Armageddon.
In this contest of wills, Berlin was the most visible staging ground. Divided into four sectors by the conquering Allies after World War II, the city came to embody the contrast between two competing ideologies: the vibrant, market-oriented democracy of the West versus the gray, statist socialism of the East. The Berlin Wall, built by the communists in 1961, was the Cold War’s defining symbol. Stretching over 100 miles, reinforced with concrete, barbed wire, and dog runs, the Wall literally separated brother from brother, neighbor from neighbor, and block from block. During the thirty-eight-year existence of the Berlin Wall, at least two hundred East Germans were killed and another five thousand captured while trying to cross it. Symbolically, the Wall stood for the mistrust that plagued East-West relations during the postwar period.
Reagan loathed the Wall. On a trip to West Berlin in 1978, he was taken to an eighth-floor office overlooking it and told the story of Peter Fechter, the youth who had been gunned down by East German police in 1962 as he tried to crawl over. The authorities left Fechter unattended for nearly an hour, while he bled to death. “Reagan just gritted his teeth when he heard all of this,” says Peter Hannaford, a longtime aide who was with Reagan that day. “You could tell from the set of his jaw and his look and some of the things he said that … he was very, very determined that this was something that had to go.”
Reagan’s speechwriters knew this. From the start of the administration, they viewed themselves as the keepers of the flame of the Reagan revolution. The presidential trip to West Berlin in June 1987, which came on the occasion of the city’s 750th birthday, presented an opportunity to create one last signature moment for the aging president. “We understood that this was what we had all been working for. It was going to be the speech of the Cold War,” says Dana Rohrabacher, a veteran Reagan speechwriter who would later become an eleven-term congressman. The writer assigned to the speech, Peter Robinson, had begun drafting it in April, after a scouting trip to Berlin. His early drafts included the line “Herr Gorbachev, bring down this wall.” Though the syntax was clumsy, the message grabbed Reagan. “That wall has to come down,” he told the speechwriters in a twenty-one-minute meeting in the Oval Office. Over the next three weeks, the speech—and specifically, the direct challenge to Gorbachev to tear down the Wall—became the subject of intense debate among Reagan’s national security team. Secretary of State George Shultz, chief of staff Howard Baker, and General Colin Powell, then the deputy national security adviser, all lobbied for the draft to be scrapped, arguing that it would embarrass Gorbachev and play into the hands of Kremlin hard-liners. Years later, Robinson wrote that “What State and NSC were saying, in effect, was that the President could go ahead and issue a call for the destruction of the Wall—but only if he employed language so vague and euphemistic that everybody could see right away he didn’t mean it.”
The truth is more complicated. This book is devoted to reconstructing Reagan’s “Tear Down This Wall” address, the context in which it was given and its ultimate place in history. It is based on interviews with former Reagan administration officials as well as journalists, historians, and numerous eyewitnesses to the speech in the United States and Germany. It also draws on primary source material rarely examined before, including declassified State Department documents and East German records of the president’s trip, now kept in the archives of the former East Germany in Berlin. A close examination of the history of the speech reveals texture and shadings often missing from previous accounts, including those of the main participants. And it clears up misconceptions—among them the claim, promoted by some of Reagan’s admirers, that by calling for the Berlin Wall to be removed, the president was defying the prevailing wisdom inside his own administration. In fact, Reagan’s call reflected a growing view among U.S. policymakers that the time had come to pressure the Soviets to liberate Berlin.
The portrait of Reagan that emerges is more complex too. To both his critics and champions, Reagan’s address reflected the qualities that defined him in the public imagination—idealism touched with naÏvetÉ, rhetorical toughness verging on cowboy posturing. With the benefit of two decades of reflection, it is possible to read the speech in a different way: as an open gesture to Gorbachev, an attempt to move beyond the enmities of the past by pointing him to a different future. Listen closely to a recording of it: the speech is as much an invitation as it is a challenge. “There is one sign the Soviets can make that would be unmistakable, that would advance dramatically the cause of freedom and peace,” Reagan says. As he goes on, you hear scattered claps and hollers. “General Secretary Gorbachev, if you seek peace, if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, if you seek liberalization: Come here to this gate!” Reagan entreats. The cheers grow. “Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate!” Reagan would later say that as he gave the speech, he felt anger at the East German authorities for preventing people in East Berlin from hearing it.* Though the Soviets dismissed the speech as “openly provocative, war-mongering,” history has proven Reagan farsighted. “In this age of redoubled economic growth, of information and innovation, the Soviet Union faces a choice,” he said later in the speech. “It must make fundamental changes, or it will become obsolete.”
That remark echoed Reagan’s prediction, made in a 1982 address to the British Parliament, that the West would leave the communist system “on the ash heap of history.” But the Reagan who arrived in Berlin in the summer of 1987 was a different president. The historian Sean Wilentz observed that “[Reagan’s] dare to Gorbachev, by even mentioning peace and liberalization, showed how much his rhetoric had changed since his denunciation of the Soviet Union four years earlier as ‘the focus of evil in the modern world.’”
What did Reagan hope to achieve in Berlin? How did those who heard the speech react to it? How much did the speech contribute to the toppling of the Wall and the ultimate collapse of communism? In his diary Reagan wrote that he “addressed tens & tens of thousands of people—stretching as far as the eye could see. I got a tremendous reception—interrupted 28 times by cheers.” Coverage of the speech led the three network-news broadcasts that night, but did not make the front page of the New York Times. Time called it a “strong performance” but “not quite enough to erase the impression that Reagan is losing the initiative to his Soviet rival.” The speech failed to generate much excitement among Reagan aides like National Security Adviser Frank Carlucci, who saw it firsthand. “I remember thinking to myself, ‘It’s a great speech line. But it’ll never happen.’“
Just twenty months later, it did. But how? Though largely overlooked at the time of the speech, it was the relationship that Reagan was forging with Gorbachev that ultimately defused the Cold War. If some of Reagan’s advisers fretted that personally calling on Gorbachev to tear down the Wall might offend the Soviet leader, Reagan was convinced it might actually inspire him. “If he took down that Wall, he’d win the Nobel Prize,” Reagan told an aide after returning home from Berlin. The confidence Reagan and Gorbachev had in each other allowed them finally to overcome the suspicions that stymied their predecessors. In that respect, the “Tear Down This Wall” speech marked, if not the end of the Cold War, then the beginning of the end.
For a politician, Reagan could be remarkably guileless. He actually believed what he said. And far more than those around him, Reagan recognized the power of words. That is a quality he shared with the two other great presidential orators of the last century: Franklin D. Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy. The journalist James Fallows writes that Roosevelt, Kennedy, and Reagan “all magnified their power … through their ability to explain what they were trying to do. ‘The only thing we have to fear…, ’ ‘Ask not … ,’ ‘Tear down this Wall’—such phrases changed people’s minds and shaped events.” Rare is the speech that alters history on its own. But the ones we remember manage, if only through a single phrase, to capture the characters and principles of the presidents who deliver them. They are windows into their minds.
In his book on Kennedy’s first inaugural address, Ask Not, Thurston Clarke wrote that “Every great speech is supposed to express a great idea.” The ideas running through Reagan’s speech in Berlin remained remarkably consistent throughout his public life: Change is possible. The human spirit is indomitable. Freedom triumphs. Reagan was also building on a broad foundation laid down over the course of four decades. The American commitment to a free Berlin—and beyond it, a free and undivided Europe—stretched back to the earliest, treacherous days of the postwar period, when during the Berlin Airlift, Harry Truman resolved not to allow the city to fall into Soviet hands. If that commitment wavered on occasion over the years, it never broke. It is not an exaggeration to say that the support of generations of Americans helped enable the people of Berlin to take back their city, tear down the Wall and deal the decisive blow to communist rule in Europe.
On November 10, 1989, the day after the Wall came down, West German chancellor Helmut Kohl spoke by phone to Reagan’s successor, George H. W. Bush. “Without the U.S. this day would not have been possible,” Kohl said, telling Bush that Germans gathered at the Brandenburg Gate had roared in appreciation when Kohl thanked America. The peaceful end of the Cold War and the unification of Europe stand as the high-water mark of U.S. foreign policy in the second half of the twentieth century. Ronald Reagan’s speech at the Brandenburg Gate was indispensable to that achievement. But it is only part of the story.
*“Let’s Roll,” the phrase immortalized by Todd Beamer, a passenger on United Flight 93—which was hijacked on September 11, 2001, and crashed in Shanksville, Pennsylvania—came in first.
*Reagan claimed in an interview in 1989 that he had watched police push crowds in East Berlin back from the Wall shortly before his speech. In fact, the authorities had blockaded the perimeter near the Brandenburg Gate the night before. While about two hundred East Germans headed to the Unter den Linden for the Reagan speech, they could get no closer than a half-mile from the Brandenburg Gate. It is highly unlikely Reagan actually saw them.
© 2009 Romesh Ratnesar