Former President Ronald Reagan delivered his famous Berlin Wall speech 34 years ago on June 12, 1987.
Reagan stood in front of the Berlin Wall and delivered the lines that echoed around the world, a direct challenge to the Soviet Union’s power in Eastern Europe: “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” (RELATED: Dennis Quaid Reveals His Roommate’s Reaction When He Voted For Reagan: ‘You’re Kicked Out Of The Hippies’)
Behind me stands a wall that encircles the free sectors of this city, part of a vast system of barriers that divides the entire continent of Europe. . . . Standing before the Brandenburg Gate, every man is a German, separated from his fellow men. Every man is a Berliner, forced to look upon a scar. . . . As long as this gate is closed, as long as this scar of a wall is permitted to stand, it is not the German question alone that remains open, but the question of freedom for all mankind. . . .
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, tear down this wall!
The speech, written for Reagan by Peter Robinson, went through a series of challenges before it was delivered to a crowd of around 10,000 on a stop that almost did not happen. Reagan was not scheduled to stop in Germany, but made last-minute arrangements to do so on his way back to the United States from Italy — and scheduled a short speech in West Berlin.
Robinson said that he spoke with the ranking American diplomat in Berlin — who advised Reagan to avoid any comments that could provoke the Soviet Union.
“No chest-thumping. No Soviet-bashing. And no inflammatory statements about the Berlin Wall. West Berliners, the diplomat explained, had long ago gotten used to the structure that encircled them,” Robinson said.
But Robinson said that he later went to dinner with several residents of West Berlin, and they changed his perspective dramatically. He asked whether it was true, what the diplomat had said: “Have you gotten used to the wall?”
“My sister lives 20 miles in that direction,” one man replied. “I haven’t seen her in more than two decades. Do you think I can get used to that?”
Another man said that he walked past one of the guard towers every day, where soldiers with binoculars stood watch over the wall. “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,” he said.
“Our hostess broke in. A gracious woman, she had suddenly grown angry. Her face was red. She made a fist with one hand and pounded it into the palm of the other,” Robinson continued. “‘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 drafted the speech then, struggling with the right way to word a call for Gorbachev to remove the wall. He initially wrote, “tear down this wall,” but then removed it in favor of a plea — in German — for him to open the Brandenburg Gate.
“I spent a couple of days attempting to improve the speech. I suppose I should admit that at one point I actually took ‘Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall’ out, replacing it with the challenge, in German, to open the Brandenburg Gate, ‘Herr Gorbachev, machen Sie dieses Tor auf,'” Robinson said.
Communications director Thomas Griscom asked why Robinson had changed the line to be delivered in German, and Robinson said he felt that the big line should be delivered in the language of the audience.
“Peter, when you’re writing for the President of the United States, give him his big line in English,” Griscom directed — and the line was put back into the speech.
Other critics from within the State Department and the National Security Council raised objections, but Robinson pushed back – and Reagan ultimately chose to deliver the line to great effect.