The words—’Mr Gorbachev, tear down this Wall’—that moved the world would have been edited out from Reagan’s Berlin Wall Speech had it not been for the US President’s insistence in the face of objections from mandarins
On June 12, 1987, United States (US) President Ronald Reagan challenged Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) leader Mikhail Gorbachev in front of the Berlin Wall. With the city’s historic ceremonial entrance Brandenburg Gate in the backdrop, Regan said, ‘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 would ask Gorbachev to open the gate before delivering the iconic line of his Berlin Wall Speech: ‘Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.’ Over a year later, divided Germans gathered on both sides of the Wall and whacked it away with hammers and chisels in November 1989.
The Wall was reduced to rubble decades after Germany’s eastern part went to the Soviet Union, while the western to the US, and Britain, after the Second World War. It marked the culmination of the Cold War, the rivalry between the capitalist US, the Marxist-Communist state of the Soviet Union, and their allies.
The fall of the Berlin Wall preceded the eventual collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 around two decades after Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, who likened capitalist West Berlin to a bone stuck in the Soviet throat and believed the Soviets would not win if socialism did not triumph in East Germany, cleared its construction.
Gorbachev’s push for reform meant the Soviet Union was no longer willing to back Eastern European Communist regimes. The borders between the two parts of Germany lost relevance. They would soon open for people to cross without checking of identities paving the way for the fall of the Berlin Wall.
The tearing down of the wall was a major boost for Germans, who rose literally from the ashes post-Second World War to emerge among the world’s top economies. The success story continued after the re-unification in 1990 of German states.
Reagan’s iconic words had ‘moved the world.’ But they would have been edited out from the draft Berlin Wall Speech had it not been for Regan’s insistence. The words were retained despite objections from mandarins at the US State Department, the National Security Council, and the top American diplomat in Berlin.
The mandarins felt the challenge of tearing down the wall would raise false hopes. They thought it would put Gorbachev in a difficult position inside CPSU’s executive committee Politburo. The mandarins submitted as many as seven alternative drafts omitting the call to tear down the wall. But Reagan insisted on delivering the call anyway.
‘The boys at State are going to kill me for this,’ Reagan is quoted to have told his deputy chief of staff Kenneth Duberstein en route to the Wall. But Regan insisted it was the right thing to do. In a Wall Street Journal piece in June 2012, Reagan’s speech writer Peter Robinson wrote that the address enabled the President to display tenacity and moral clarity.
Robinson, who is now Murdoch Distinguished Policy Fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, wrote the idea for the iconic line came from his conversation with German couple Ingeborg Elz and Dieter Elz at a dinner they hosted for Regan’s speech writer. He wrote he adapted the remark—’If this man Gorbachev is serious with his talk of “glasnost [Soviet policy of open discussion]” and “perestroika [restructuring of the political and economic systems of the Soviet Union]”, he can prove it by getting rid of this wall’.
The remark came when he asked the couple about their attitude toward the Wall and angered Ingeborg, who blurted the comment out. Robinson recorded the comment in his notebook and included it in the Berlin Wall speech while composing it back at the White House.
Years later Dieter Elz told Robinson that Regan spoke the most powerful words he could have spoken. ‘Here stood the most powerful man of the world.’ He told them the couple was in their teens when they escaped from a Soviet prisoner-of-war camp as the Red Army swept into Germany at the end of the Second World War.
When the couple relocated to Germany four decades later after Dieter Elz left the World Bank, Europe’s division had come to seem permanent, inescapable, and fixed. Dieter Elz told Robinson that everyone was aware of the suffering in the Communist East but no one could see what to do about it. He added Reagan made them understand that maybe things could be different. ‘Here is a piece of wall. Why not remove it?’ He added Regan changed their consciousness.
Along with Dieter Elz, Yuri Yarim-Agaev, a dissident exiled from the Soviet Union in 1980, enabled Robinson to see how Regan’s speech mattered. For years, Robinson wondered had the Berlin Wall speech really mattered. To him, the speech had been for him ‘just that, a speech. Mere talk.’ Robinson wondered if had it made any difference.
Yarim-Agaev told Robinson that the West accepted the division of Europe under the 1975 Helsinki Accords making their struggle harder. He added they almost had to admit that it was hopeless before Reagan made the speech.
‘Why break this wall if these borders are valid? To us, it was more than a question of Berlin or even of Germany. It was a question of the legitimacy of the Soviet empire.’ Agaev told Robinson that Reagan challenged the empire. “To us, that meant everything. After that Berlin Wall Speech, everything was in play.”
Robinson noted Pope John Paul II, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, Polish leader Lech Walesa, and Czech Republic president Vaclav Havel called for an end to Europe’s division. ‘Yet when the president of the United States demanded the destruction of the Berlin Wall, Dieter and Yuri enabled me to see, he issued a summons of such power and clarity that many who heard him felt as if they had suddenly regained consciousness.’ Regan’s Berlin Wall ‘address represented a call to awaken.’