“I distinguish between two kinds of politicians. There are those who view politics as a tactical game, a game in which they do not reveal any individuality, in which they lose their own face. There are, however, leaders for whom politics is a means of defending and furthering values. For them, it is a moral pursuit. They do so because the values they cherish are endangered. They’re convinced that there are values worth living for, and even values worth dying for. Otherwise they would consider their life and work pointless. Only such politicians are great politicians and Ronald Reagan was one of them.”– Pres. Lech Walesa
Twenty-three years ago today, Ronald Reagan delivered this famous address at Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate. Two years later, the Wall he insisted be torn down, came down.
Has it only been 23 years? Seems like lifetimes, doesn’t it?
Reagan loathed the Berlin Wall. “It’s a wall that never should have been built,” he often said. As early as 1967, while still governor of California, he said the U.S. should have knocked down the barbed wire separating East and West Berlin the moment the communists put it up. On a trip to West Berlin in 1978, he was told the story of Peter Fechter, an East German youth who had been killed trying to crawl over the Wall in 1962. The authorities left Fechter unattended for nearly an hour while he bled to death. “Reagan just gritted his teeth,” says Peter Hannaford, a longtime aide who was with him in Berlin.
He first visited Berlin in November 1978, and spent many minutes surveying the wall’s “death strip” from the penthouse offices of the conservative Axel Springer publishing house that stood right on the border between the two cities. “You could tell from the set of his jaw and his look,” recalls former aide Peter Hannaford, “that he was very, very determined that this was something that had to go.”
Reagan, then a private citizen, asked if he could visit East Berlin. Told that he needed only a one-day visa and to exchange a certain amount of Western currency for almost worthless Ost Marks, he said : “Let’s go.” One of the places they visited was East Berlin’s central department store, “a K Mart but with almost no inventory.” Upon leaving, they were confronted with a scene of two East German “Vopo” policemen roughing up a young man. “We’ve got to find a way to knock this thing down,” Reagan said.
Richard V. Allen, National Security Advisor: “(In 1978) We went on to Berlin and got the consulate to provide us a little van and we went out to the Wall. The ladies got out, my wife Pat, Irene Hannaford, Nancy got out, the Governor, Peter, and I got out and we stand there and we’re looking at the Wall. Of course, I’d lived in Berlin before the Wall, I’d been there many times since the Wall, and he just looked at it and after what seemed a long, long time he turned to me and said, “You know, Dick, we’ve got to find a way to knock this thing down.” Then nine years later he would stand in front of the Wall and say, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.” Really important because the notion that some speechwriter, a good one, Peter Robinson, put that into his head is wrong, entirely. It was his idea. Like most of the ideas that he had, they were his. They weren’t put to him by some pointy-headed guy or a speechwriter.”
Frederick Ryan, Chief of Staff, post-presidency: “I know that just before the speech President Reagan would tell this story often they took him to the Reichstag, where you could see over the wall, and they gave him a pair of big binoculars. He was looking over the wall and he could see East German police pushing the crowds back. Word had gotten out that Ronald Reagan was going to be speaking at the wall, and they really couldn’t see it. They wanted to be within hearing range of it. And the East German police were pushing them back.
It made him mad. Maybe it was part of his days as an actor, that his audience was being driven away. It was partly the fact that he had an important message and these Communist police were stopping them from hearing it. It made him mad, and that’s how he delivers the speech. He really punched that line about “Tear down this wall” because he was angry and he wasn’t hesitant about showing that. He admitted afterwards that when he saw those people pushing them back, that really got him.”
Reagan speechwriter Peter Robinson:
[T]he 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.” …
Back at the White House I adapted her comment, making “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” the central line in my draft. On Friday, May 15, the speeches for the President’s trip–he would be traveling to Rome and Venice before reaching Berlin–were forwarded to the President, and on Monday, May 18, the speechwriters joined him in the Oval Office. My speech was the last we discussed. “Mr. President,” I said, “I learned on the advance trip that this speech will be heard not only in West Berlin but throughout East Germany. Is there anything you’d like to say to people on the other side of the Berlin Wall?”
The President cocked his head and thought. “Well,” he replied, “there’s that passage about tearing down the wall. That wall has to come down. That’s what I’d like to say to them.” …
With three weeks to go before it was delivered, the speech was circulated to the State Department and the National Security Council. Both attempted to suppress it. The draft was naive. It would raise false hopes. It was clumsy. It was needlessly provocative. State and the NSC submitted their own alternate drafts–my journal records that there were no fewer than seven. In each, the call to tear down the wall was missing.
When in early June the President and his party reached Italy (I remained in Washington), Ken Duberstein, the deputy chief of staff, sat the President down in the garden of the palazzo in which he was staying, then briefed him on the objections to my draft. Reagan asked Duberstein’s advice. Duberstein replied that he thought the line about tearing down the wall sounded good. “But I told him, ‘You’re President, so you get to decide.'” And then, Duberstein recalls, “he got that wonderful, knowing smile on his face, and he said, ‘Let’s leave it in.'”
The day the President arrived in Berlin, State and NSC submitted yet another alternate draft. Yet in the limousine on the way to the Berlin Wall, the President told Duberstein he was determined to deliver the controversial line. Reagan smiled. “The boys at State are going to kill me,” he said, “but it’s the right thing to do.”
The “realists” weren’t right…or even realistic.
But Reagan was.
(Hat-tip: Dave In Texas)
UPDATE: Tear down this wall, too.