Thursday, June 12, 2008

June 12, 1987: "Mr. Gorbachev, Tear Down This Wall"

The 21st anniversary of the speech that later brought real change and peace to a scarred and divided Europe!

52 second excerpt

Ronald Reagan has been in the news again lately. Democrat Presidential candidate Barack Obama has attempted to redefine the Regan legacy to suit his foolish idea of direct presidential negotiations with the Iranians and other tyrants without preconditions.

So, on this 21st anniversary of the speech where Reagan laid out his vision for peace with justice and freedom in Europe it's worthwhile to reflect on the true legacy Reagan left and how it can be a roadmap for the future.

The Story Behind "Tear Down This Wall"

In 1978, two years before he was elected President, Ronald Reagan was visiting Berlin. Along with him was Richard V. Allen, who would later serve as President Reagan's first National Security Advisor (1981-1982). Allen tells of driving to the Berlin Wall along with Reagan and his wife Nancy. Looking out over the wall, Reagan turned to Allen and said: "You know, Dick, we've got to find a way to knock this thing down."

Throughout his life and throughout his presidency Reagan was determined that the Iron Curtain, which Josef Stalin drew over Central and Eastern Europe at the end of World War II, was an injustice that could not be accepted if real peace was to reign in Europe. Unlike the left of Reagan's day and today, Reagan understood that peace was more than the absence of conflict. And the tyranny of a Soviet imposed captivity on half of Europe was a threat to peace. The status quo was not acceptable.

Common themes on the power of freedom, a strong U.S. military and a thriving U.S. economy were central to Reagan's vision to change the world for the better and leave behind a legacy of real peace, not stalemate and injustice.

Writing in How Ronald Reagan Changed My Life, Peter Robinson, a thirtysomething speechwriter assigned to write the speech describes a trip he took to Berlin to get a feel for what people there thought was important to say and hear:

In April 1987, when I was assigned to write the Brandenburg Gate address, I spent a day in Berlin with the White House advance team, the logistical experts, Secret Service agents, and press officials who went to the site of every presidential visit to make arrangements. In the evening, I broke away from the advance team to join a dozen Berliners for dinner. Our hosts were Dieter and Ingeborg Elz, who, after Dieter completed his career at the World Bank in Washington, had retired to Berlin. Although we had never met, we had friends in common, and the Elzes had offered to put on this dinner party to give me a feel for their city. They had invited Berliners of different walks of life and political outlooks—businessmen, academics, students, homemakers.

We chatted for awhile. Then I explained that, earlier in the day, the ranking American diplomat in West Berlin had told me that over the years Berliners had made a kind of accommodation with the wall. “Is it true?” I asked. “Have you gotten used to it?”

The Elzes and their guests glanced at each other uneasily. Then one man raised an arm and pointed. “My sister lives twenty miles in that direction,” he said. “I haven’t seen her in more than two decades. Do you think I can get used to that?” Another man spoke. As he walked to work each morning, he explained, a soldier in a guard tower peered down at him through binoculars. “That soldier and I speak the same language. We share the same history. But one of us is a zookeeper and the other is an animal, and I am never certain which is which.”

Our hostess broke in. A gracious woman, Ingeborg Elz had suddenly grown angry. Her face was red. She made a fist with one hand and pounded it into the palm of the other. “If this man Gorbachev is serious with his talk of glasnost and perestroika,” she said, “he can prove it. He can get rid of this wall.”
Robinson returned to the White House and wrote a draft of the speech that included the memorable phrase "tear down this wall." Important foreign speeches by the President are always reviewed by many departments throughout the government and this was no exception. Soon after Robinson circulated his draft it seemed that most of the Washington foreign policy and national security establishment, including Secretary of State Schultz, White House Chief of Staff Howard Baker and Asst. National Security Advisor Colin Powell wanted to remove that line.

Throughout the drafting process alternative drafts, perhaps seven in total, were submitted with the now famous phrase omitted. But Reagan persisted. He finally told Deputy Chief of Staff Duberstein he would leave it in because "it’s the right thing to do."

At the time, no one thought much about the speech. Or, if they did, they thought the famous line was just a stunt without any meaning. But those critics did not wish to understand how powerful the symbolic value was of having President Reagan say those words in that place at that time in concert with all the other moves he had and was taking to give America a position of strength upon which to force change in the mindset of those who would have happily left half of Europe enslaved.

Years later, Secretary Schultz reflected on the matter this way:

"I guess the point I'm making here is that ideas matter a lot, the underlying ideas that stand behind policies. When you don't have ideas, your policies are flip-flopping all over the place. When you do have ideas, you have more consistency. And when you have the right ideas — then you can get somewhere."
Reagan had the right ideas and he had a clear unwavering vision based not on polls but a lifelong understanding of what was "the right thing to do." And he achieved that vision through a patient policy that combined economic and military strength with diplomacy.

That is the lesson which some today forget.

  • Full text of the speech. Reagan Library.
  • Reagan’s Address at the Brandenburg Gate—A Retrospective Look 20 Years Later,
    The Miller Center for Public Affairs (Univ. of Virginia).
  • Ronald Reagan Library photos from the Berlin Wall speech.
  • Time Magazine interview with former Secretary of State George Schultz. Jun 11, 2007.
  • Reagan's famous line nearly clipped from Berlin speech, The Washington Times.

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