12 June, 2012

June 12, 1987

Tear down this wall!

President Ronald Reagan (R-USA) spoke these famous words while standing in front of the Brandenburg Gate at the Berlin Wall.

Much of Reagan’s senior staff was against the inclusion of this phrase in the speech:

Several senior staffers and aides advised against the phrase, saying anything that might cause further East-West tensions or potential embarrassment to Gorbachev, with whom President Reagan had built a good relationship, should be omitted. American officials in West Germany and presidential speechwriters, including Peter Robinson, thought otherwise. Robinson traveled to West Germany to inspect potential speech venues, and gained an overall sense that the majority of West Berliners opposed the wall. Despite getting little support for suggesting Reagan demand the wall's removal, Robinson kept the phrase in the speech text. On May 18, 1987, President Reagan met with his speechwriters and responded to the speech by saying, "I thought it was a good, solid draft." Chief of Staff Howard Baker objected, saying it sounded "extreme" and "unpresidential," and Deputy National Security Advisor Colin Powell agreed. Nevertheless, Reagan liked the passage, saying, "I think we'll leave it in."

Reagan understood the power of words. While many criticized him for being overly antagonistic towards the Soviet Union, he knew that to change the direction of history, he needed to make the entire world understand the clear differences between the United States and the Soviet Union. This speech was one of many attempts to do just that.

Those are the most famous words from the speech, but they weren’t given in isolation. The final paragraph builds up to it. The whole paragraph is a masterpiece of wordsmithing.

We welcome change and openness; for we believe that freedom and security go together, that the advance of human liberty can only strengthen the cause of world peace. There is one sign the Soviets can make that would be unmistakable, that would advance dramatically the cause of freedom and peace. 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. Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate. Mr. Gorbachev, Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!

Twenty-nine months later, on my birthday, the gate was opened, and a few months later, the final dismantling of the Berlin Wall began.

Listen to the speech.

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