Tear down this wall!” was the challenge issued by United States President Ronald Reagan to Soviet Union leader Mikhail Gorbachev to destroy the Berlin Wall, in a speech at the Brandenburg Gate near the Berlin Wall on June 12, 1987, commemorating the 750th anniversary of Berlin. Reagan challenged Gorbachev, who was then the General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, to tear it down as an emblem of Gorbachev’s desire to increase freedom in the Eastern Bloc through glasnost (“transparency”) and perestroika (“restructuring”) .
Built in 1961, the Berlin Wall became known as a symbol of communist oppression. In the 1963 “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech, U.S. President John F. Kennedy stated the support of the United States for democratic West Germany shortly after the Soviet-supported Communist state of East Germany erected the Berlin Wall as a barrier to prevent movement from East to West.
President Reagan’s 1987 visit was his second within five years. It came at a time of heightened East-West tensions, caused in particular by the debate over the stationing of short range American missiles in Europe and the United States’ record peacetime defense buildup. Reagan was scheduled to attend the 1987 G-7 summit meeting in Venice, Italy, and later made a brief stop in Berlin.
The Brandenburg Gate site was chosen to highlight the President’s conviction that Western democracy offered the best hope to open the Berlin Wall. His speech focused on a series of political initiatives to achieve this end. The famous “tear down this wall” phrase was intended as the logical conclusion of the President’s proposals. As the speech was being drafted, inclusion of the words became a source of considerable controversy within the Reagan administration. 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.” White House Chief of Staff Howard Baker objected, saying it sounded “extreme” and “unpresidential,” and Deputy US National Security Advisor Colin Powell agreed. Nevertheless, Reagan liked the passage, saying, “I think we’ll leave it in.”
Chief speechwriter Anthony R. Dolan gives another account of the line’s origins, however, attributing it directly to Reagan. In an article published in the Wall Street Journal in November 2009, Dolan gives a detailed account of how in an Oval Office meeting that was prior to Robinson’s draft Reagan came up with the line on his own. He records vivid impressions of his own reaction and Robinson’s at the time. This led to a friendly exchange of letters between Robinson and Dolan over their differing accounts, which the Wall Street Journal published
Arriving in Berlin on June 12, 1987, President and Mrs. Reagan were taken to the Reichstag, where they viewed the wall from a balcony. Reagan then made his speech at the Brandenburg Gate at 2:00 pm, in front of two panes of bulletproof glass protecting him from potential snipers in East Berlin. About 45,000 people were in attendance; among the spectators were West German president Richard von Weizsäcker, Chancellor Helmut Kohl, and West Berlin mayor Eberhard Diepgen. That afternoon, Reagan said,
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!
Later on in his speech, President Reagan said, “As I looked out a moment ago from the Reichstag, that embodiment of German unity, I noticed words crudely spray-painted upon the wall, perhaps by a young Berliner, ‘This wall will fall. Beliefs become reality.’ Yes, across Europe, this wall will fall. For it cannot withstand faith; it cannot withstand truth. The wall cannot withstand freedom.”
Another highlight of the speech was Reagan’s call to end the arms race with his reference to the Soviets’ SS-20 nuclear weapons, and the possibility “not merely of limiting the growth of arms, but of eliminating, for the first time, an entire class of nuclear weapons from the face of the Earth.”
Response and legacy
Although it has been called “The four most famous words of Ronald Reagan’s Presidency”, the speech received “relatively little coverage from the media”, Time magazine reported 20 years later. Communists were critical of the speech, and the Soviet press agency Tass accused Reagan as giving an “openly provocative, war-mongering speech.”
Twenty-nine months later, on November 9, 1989, after increasing public unrest, East Germany finally opened the Berlin Wall. By the end of the year, official operations to dismantle the wall began. With the collapse of the Communist governments of Eastern Europe and, eventually, the Soviet Union itself, the tearing down of the wall epitomized the collapse for history. In September 1990, Reagan, no longer President, returned to Berlin, where he personally took a few symbolic hammer swings at a remnant of the Berlin Wall.
Former West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl said he would never forget standing near Reagan when he challenged Gorbachev to tear down the Berlin Wall. “He was a stroke of luck for the world, especially for Europe.” Although there is considerable disagreement over how much influence Reagan’s words had on the destruction of the wall, the speech is remembered as an important moment in Cold War history.
Peter Robinson, the White House wordsmith who drafted the address, said its most famous line was inspired by a conversation with Ingeborg Elz of West Berlin who had remarked in a conversation with him, “If this man Gorbachev is serious with his talk of Glasnost and perestroika he can prove it by getting rid of this wall.”