On 12 June 1987, Ronald Reagan stood before West Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate and the wall that surrounded the free world’s enclave hundreds of miles inside Soviet-dominated Eastern Europe. There, in delivering the speech that defined the final phase of the Cold War, he called out a direct challenge to the leader of the Soviet Union: “Mr Gorbachev, Tear down this wall.”
Two years later, the wall came down. Between the speech and the night Berliners of East and West themselves breached the wall, events moved so quickly that Czech dissident and first president of the post-Soviet era Václav Havel later marvelled, “We had no time even to be astonished”.
Yet far from rapid, those events and the speech that opened imaginations to the possibility of the wall’s fall and the banishing of communism from Europe were decades in the making. This is the story of that address. It is a tale of five dates and a journey that they marked Ronald Reagan’s road to the Berlin Wall… and ours.
DATE 1: 23 OCTOBER 1947
Ronald Reagan started his political career fighting communism. It was in the years immediately following the Second World War. Reagan had just returned from wartime military service in which, because of his intensely bad eyesight, he had been assigned to a US Army unit that produced training films.
Back in Hollywood, he was elected first to the board of the Screen Actors Guild even as Communist Party elements began a campaign to seize control of that and other industry unions.
As Reagan later remembered, a meeting had been called and it turned out that the communists ran it. After the meeting broke, word went around that those who could not stomach what they had heard could gather at another actor’s home. Reagan was among the first to arrive. Soon Olivia de Havilland walked through the door. Seeing Reagan, she said, “I thought you were one of them”. He replied, “I thought YOU were one of them”. As one actor after another arrived, the exclamation was heard, “I thought you were one of them”. Again and again the answer came back, “No, but I thought YOU were one of them”. It was a lesson in the communist tactic of making opponents feel isolated and the power of saying, “You are not alone”. It was a lesson Ronald Reagan carried with him to the White House.
When the communists called a strike against the industry and enforced their picket lines with goon squads, those who opposed the strike where Reagan worked found an underground route behind the lot into the studio facilities. Reagan insisted on riding in full view, the only one in a bus that drove straight into the studio front gate. People would see that he was not afraid of the thugs and their tactics. Again he was saying, this time by his actions, “You are not alone”.
In March 1947, Reagan was elected president of the Screen Actors Guild. He served seven terms through 1959. On 23 October, a few months after he took office, he appeared together with actors Robert Montgomery and George Murphy before a committee of the US House of Representatives. The committee was investigating Soviet communist attempts at influencing the film industry. He reported on communist tactics of deception and intimidation.
Asked about how to fight communist influence, he showed both his grasp of totalitarian methods and his dedication to democratic principles:
[W]e have exposed their lies when we came across them, we have opposed their propaganda, and I can certainly testify that in the case of the Screen Actors Guild we have been eminently successful in preventing them from, with their usual tactics, trying to run a majority of an organisation with a well organised minority.
So that fundamentally I would say in opposing those people that the best thing to do is to make democracy work. In the Screen Actors Guild we make it work by insuring everyone a vote and by keeping everyone informed. I believe that, as Thomas Jefferson put it, if all the American people know all of the facts they will never make a mistake.
Whether the party should be outlawed … I would hesitate, or not like, to see any political party outlawed on the basis of its political ideology. We have spent 170 years in this country on the basis that democracy is strong enough to stand up and fight against the inroads of any ideology.
Someone once asked what it was that stopped the communists from organising Hollywood. “They ran into a one-man army”, a commentator reported, “an army by the name of Ronald Reagan.”
DATE 2: 27 OCTOBER 1964
In the decade and a half that followed, Reagan shifted his acting from movies to television. He also began speaking for fees to live audiences throughout the United States. Some of his audiences were factory workers at the plants of the General Electric Corporation, sponsor of the television show in which he starred. Some were clubs and civic groups that paid him to address their luncheons or dinners. Years later he explained that his early texts touched minimally on politics. But he found that audiences responded enthusiastically when he turned to current affairs, foreign as well as domestic. So he expanded on those topics, and ultimately they took over his talks. As in his talks as president of the Screen Actors Guild, the character of communism and the preciousness of freedom and democracy were among his core themes.
He also began to move his political allegiance from the Democratic to the Republican Party, in part because he felt the Democrats were moving away from dedication to individual freedom and showing insufficient concern for the dangers of collectivism. In 1960, though he had not yet switched parties, he campaigned for the Republican candidate for president, Vice President Richard Nixon. In 1964 he recast the speech he had developed for GE factory workers and after- dinner audiences into a campaign pitch for Senator Barry Goldwater, that year’s Republican presidential nominee.
On 27 October 1964, several weeks before the national voting, in airtime purchased by supporters of the Goldwater campaign, he delivered his repurposed remarks on national television. In addressing communism versus freedom, he said:
I have spent most of my life as a Democrat. I recently have seen fit to follow another course. I believe that the issues confronting us cross party lines…
Not too long ago, two friends of mine were talking to a Cuban refugee, a businessman who had escaped from Castro, and in the midst of his story one of my friends turned to the other and said, “We don’t know how lucky we are”. And the Cuban stopped and said, “How lucky you are? I had someplace to escape to”. And in that sentence he told us the entire story. If we lose freedom here, there’s no place to escape to. This is the last stand on earth. And this idea that government is beholden to the people, that it has no other source of power except the sovereign people, is still the newest and the most unique idea in all the long history of man’s relation to man.
This is the issue of this election: whether we believe in our capacity for self- government or whether we abandon the American Revolution and confess that a little intellectual elite in a far-distant capitol can plan our lives for us better than we can plan them ourselves.
You and I are told increasingly we have to choose between a left or right. Well I’d like to suggest there is no such thing as a left or right. There’s only an up or down – [up] man’s old – old-aged [sic] dream, the ultimate in individual freedom consistent with law and order, or down to the ant heap of totalitarianism. And regardless of their sincerity, their humanitarian motives, those who would trade our freedom for security have embarked on this downward course…
You and I have a rendezvous with destiny.
We’ll preserve for our children this, the last best hope of man on earth, or we’ll sentence them to take the last step into a thousand years of darkness.
DATE 3: 29 JANUARY 1981
While Senator Goldwater lost the 1964 election by one of the largest margins in the country’s history, the reaction to Mr Reagan was immediate and immense. Soon people throughout his home state were urging him to run for office himself. Two years later he was elected governor of California. In the decade and a half that followed, while serving two highly successful gubernatorial terms and then after leaving office, he continued to speak throughout the nation. The struggle between collectivism and freedom remained central to his repertoire.
In the late 1970s, as he was preparing to run for president, the by-then-former governor visited Berlin. With him was Richard Allen, later his first national security advisor. As Allen tells it, Reagan stood looking at the wall. He said nothing. But Allen could see his face and the fury building in him. The same storm that had swept away the communists in the union was gathering against the citadel of Communism, the Soviet Union. But Reagan’s opposition to communism was not simply emotional. Even now it is little known how widely and deeply he read. He was a voracious consumer of books, articles, speeches, everything.
On 29 January 1981, by now newly sworn in as president, Mr Reagan held his first White House press conference. Decades of experience, passion and study came to the fore when, in answer to a question about the “long-range intentions of the Soviet Union”, he spoke more forthrightly and with deeper understanding of Soviet thinking than any American president had ever spoken, saying:
Now, as long as they… have openly and publicly declared that the only morality they recognise is what will further their cause, meaning they reserve unto themselves the right to commit any crime, to lie, to cheat, in order to attain that, and that is moral, not immoral, and we operate on a different set of standards, I think when you do business with them… you keep that in mind.
DATE 4: 12 JUNE 1987
Peter Robinson was one of fourteen men and women to serve as speechwriters to the president during Mr Reagan’s eight years in the White House. At any one time, the staff could be as few as three or as large as six but was usually four or five along with an equal number of research assistants and fact checkers. In early spring 1987, Robinson was assigned to write a speech the president was to deliver in a couple of months at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin.
All presidential trips are really three trips, one for planning, one for setting up the logistics supporting the plan, and the president’s actual journey. Robinson was told he should go on the planning trip, something speechwriters were rarely asked to do.
Preparing to draft a presidential speech always involves a measure of interviewing the relevant policy centres of the government and seeking insight into the audiences that will be addressed. In Berlin, Robinson went first to the office of the senior American diplomat. What should the president say in his Brandenburg Gate address? the young speechwriter asked. Not the Berlin Wall, the diplomat told him. Berliners are used to it. They don’t care about it. Europeans already see Reagan as a cowboy. We don’t need reinforce that impression.
That evening Robinson attended a dinner in his honour. Fewer than six years out of Oxford, he had encouraged a friend from school to find a way for him to meet and talk with Berliners who were not part of the city’s diplomatic, military and policy communities. The friend in turn had asked a woman and her husband to host the gathering in their home. The dozen or so attendees were from the professions and business.
As conversation began over dinner, Robinson recounted his talk earlier that day and asked if the diplomat had been right that no one thought about the wall.
After a long silence, one man spoke up. “My sister lives 25 miles to the east. I haven’t seen her in more than 25 years. What do you think I think about the wall?”
Another said, “Each day I walk to work and pass a guard tower. The young man in it holds an AK-47 [the standard-issue firearm for Soviet-bloc troops]. And I think to myself, this is a zoo, but I don’t know who is the zookeeper and who is the animal.”
Finally the hostess spoke: “If Mr Gorbachev is serious about this glasnost and perestroika [Russian terms for reform of the communist system], he will come to Berlin and he will remove the wall.”
Robinson returned to Washington and, with the editorial oversight of the head of the speechwriting office, Anthony Dolan, drafted the address. Knowing Ronald Reagan’s history and passion and fortified by what he had heard at the dinner, he ignored the senior diplomat’s instructions. He built the speech around the call, “Mr Gorbachev, tear down this wall” – a formulation he worked over extensively for tempo and impact.
In the Reagan White House, presidential speeches normally went from speechwriters through someone known as the staff secretary to key staff members for review and correction. In this case, the staff secretary sent the draft first to the President.
The President met with the writers several days later to review a number of upcoming speeches. When the agenda turned to the Brandenburg Gate speech, Robinson asked if the President had thoughts about it. “Yes”, Reagan replied. “That line about the wall. It should stay in.”
Reagan was anticipating what indeed occurred. The speech was circulated throughout the US government’s foreign policy community, and the State Department and National Security Council both appealed for removal of “tear down this wall”. The appeals kept up for weeks, with alternative draft after alternative draft submitted, all removing the line. Robinson and the communications director, Tom Griscomb, did what they could to accommodate the foreign policy specialists while preserving the call to the Soviet leader. At one point, the Secretary of State took his department’s opposition directly to the President himself. He was rebuffed.
It came the day before the speech was to be delivered. The President and his entourage were in Venice. That year’s economic summit of the major industrialised nations had been held in the city and had just ended. The President was sitting in the garden of the palace that had served as White House headquarters during the week, going through papers. His deputy chief of staff, Kenneth Duberstein, came up to him.
“State has come back to us one more time”, he said. “They really want that line out.”
Mr Reagan looked up at Duberstein. “Well, Ken, I am the president, aren’t I?”
“Yes, Sir, that you are.”
“And that means I get to make these decisions, doesn’t it?”
“Yes, Sir, we are all clear about that.”
“Then it stays in.”
The next day – 12 June 1987 – in the car in Berlin on the way to the gate and the wall, the President slapped Duberstein on the knee and said, “The boys at State are going to kill me for this but it’s the right thing to do”.
DATE 5: 9 NOVEMBER 1989
In the months after he delivered the Berlin Wall address, Mr Reagan encountered increasing opposition from his most loyal and influential supporters at home to his outreach to General Secretary Gorbachev. The first Reagan–Gorbachev arms agreement and the adulation of Gorbachev that Mr Reagan seemed to encourage when the Soviet leader came to the US for the Washington Summit in December 1987 alarmed them.
At a private dinner with conservative intellectuals shortly after the summit concluded, one of the country’s most respected conservative writers, Ben Wattenburg, confronted the President. With all of Reagan’s accommodation to the Soviets since the June speech, there was only one rational explanation to the President’s policies, other than folly.
“Have we won the Cold War?” demanded Wattenburg.
Reagan was silent.
“Have won the Cold War?” Wattenburg repeated.
Reagan remained silent for a moment more. Then he said one word: “Yes.”
Two years later, on 9 November 1989, the Berlin Wall came down.