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The Sentence That Knocked Down the Berlin Wall (But Almost Didn’t)
Thirty years ago this week, the Berlin Wall fell. The Intercollegiate Review is marking this anniversary with a reflection by the man who wrote President Ronald Reagan’s historic “Tear Down This Wall” speech, Peter Robinson.
In retrospect, what event fails to suggest a certain inevitability about itself, conveying the sense that because it happened it had to have happened? Thirty years ago, the Berlin Wall finally fell. Of course it did. How could it have remained in place a day longer? For that matter, how could the Soviet Union itself have failed to fall? How could the Cold War have ended any other way than in a victory for the West? History preserves only the events that took place, permitting the alternatives—the contingencies and near misses—to fade, disappearing completely in the end.
Yet if you’d like proof that history isn’t predetermined—that history contains within itself a multitude of alternative realities, of near misses and might-have-beens—consider the address that President Ronald Reagan delivered at the Brandenburg Gate twenty-nine months before the Berlin Wall came down. “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” Those words were very nearly dropped from the president’s text.
How do I know? I wrote the address.
The Angry Hausfrau
In April 1987 the celebrations for the 750th anniversary of the founding of Berlin were under way. Queen Elizabeth had already visited the city. Mikhail Gorbachev was due in a matter of days. Although President Reagan hadn’t been planning to visit Berlin himself, he was going to be in Europe in early June, first visiting Rome, then spending several days in Venice for an economic summit. At the request of the West German government his schedule was adjusted to permit him to stop in Berlin for a few hours on his way back to the United States from Italy.
I was then serving as a speechwriter to the president and was assigned to write the Berlin address. I was told only that the president would be speaking at the Berlin Wall, that he was likely to draw an audience of about ten thousand, and that, given the setting, he probably ought to talk about foreign policy.
In late April I spent a day and a half in Berlin with the White House advance team, the logistical experts, Secret Service agents, and press officials who went to the site of every presidential visit to make arrangements. All I had to do in Berlin was find material. When I met the ranking American diplomat in Berlin, I assumed he would give me some.
A stocky man with thick glasses, the diplomat projected an anxious, distracted air throughout our conversation, as if the very prospect of a visit from Ronald Reagan made him nervous. The diplomat gave me quite specific instructions. Almost all of it was in the negative. He was full of ideas about what the president shouldn’t say. The most left-leaning of all West Germans, the diplomat informed me, West Berliners were intellectually and politically sophisticated. The president would therefore have to watch himself. 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.
After I left the diplomat, several members of the advance team and I were given a flight over the city in a U.S. Air Force helicopter. Although all that remains of the wall these days are paving stones that show where it stood, in 1987 the structure dominated Berlin. From the air, the wall seemed less to cut one city in two than to separate two different modes of existence. On one side lay movement, color, modern architecture, crowded sidewalks, traffic. On the other lay a kind of void. Buildings still exhibited pockmarks from shelling during the war. Cars appeared few and decrepit, pedestrians badly dressed.
The wall itself, which from West Berlin had seemed a simple concrete structure, was revealed from the air as an intricate complex, the East Berlin side lined with guard posts, dog runs, and row upon row of barbed wire. The pilot drew our attention to pits of raked gravel. If an East German guard ever let anybody slip past him to escape to West Berlin, the pilot told us, the guard would find himself forced to explain the footprints to his commanding officer.
That evening, I broke away from the advance team to join a dozen Berliners for dinner. Our hosts were Dieter and Ingeborg Elz. Germans themselves, the Elzes had retired to Berlin after Dieter completed his career at the World Bank in Washington. Although we had never met, we had friends in common, and the Elzes 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 a while about the weather, German wine, and the cost of housing in Berlin. Then I related what the diplomat told me, explaining that after my flight over the city I found it difficult to believe. “Is it true?” I asked. “Have you gotten used to the wall?”
The Elzes and their guests glanced at one another uneasily. I thought I had proven myself just the sort of brash, tactless American the diplomat was afraid the president might seem.
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. Each morning on his way to work, he explained, he walked past a guard tower. Each morning, the same soldier gazed 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, 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. “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.”
“That’s What I’d Like to Say”
Back at the White House I told Tony Dolan, then director of presidential speechwriting, that I intended to adapt Ingeborg Elz’s comment, making a call to tear down the Berlin Wall the central passage in the speech. Tony took me across the street from the Old Executive Office Building to the West Wing to sell the idea to the director of communications, Tom Griscom.
“The two of you thought you’d have to work real hard to keep me from saying no,” Griscom now says. “But when you told me about the trip, particularly this point of learning from some Germans just how much they hated the wall, I thought to myself, ‘You know, calling for the wall to be torn down—it might just work.’ ”
The following week I produced an acceptable draft. It needed work, but it set out the main elements of the address, including the challenge to tear down the wall. On Friday, May 15, the speeches for the president’s trip to Rome, Venice, and Berlin, including my draft, 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. Tom Griscom asked the president for his comments on my draft. The president replied simply that he liked it.
Now, you might suppose that after hearing the president say he liked his draft, a speechwriter would feel so delighted he’d leave it at that. Somehow, it didn’t work that way. As a speechwriter you spent your working life watching Reagan, talking about Reagan, reading about Reagan, attempting to inhabit the very mind of Reagan. When you joined him in the Oval Office, you didn’t want to hear him say simply that he liked your work. You wanted to get him talking, revealing himself. So you’d go into each meeting with a question or two you hoped would intrigue him.
“Mr. President,” I said, “I learned on the advance trip that your speech will be heard not only in West Berlin but throughout East Germany.” Depending on weather conditions, I explained, radios would be able to pick up the speech as far east as Moscow itself. “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 (NSC). Both attempted to squelch it. The assistant secretary of state for Eastern European affairs challenged the speech by telephone. A senior member of the NSC staff protested the speech in memoranda. The ranking American diplomat in Berlin objected to the speech by cable. 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, including one written by the diplomat in Berlin. In each, the call to tear down the wall was missing.
Now, in principle, State and the NSC had no objection to a call for the destruction of the wall. The draft the diplomat in Berlin submitted, for example, contained the line, “One day, this ugly wall will disappear.” If the diplomat’s line was acceptable, I wondered at first, what was wrong with mine? Then I looked at the diplomat’s line once again. “One day”? One day the lion would lie with the lamb, too, but you wouldn’t want to hold your breath. “This ugly wall will disappear”? What did that mean? That the wall would just get up and slink off of its own accord? The wall would disappear only when the Soviets knocked it down or let somebody else knock it down for them, but “this ugly wall will disappear” ignored the question of human agency altogether.
What State and the NSC were saying, in effect, was that the president could go right ahead and issue a call for the destruction of the wall—but only if he employed language so vague and euphemistic that everybody could see right away he didn’t mean it.
The week the president left for Europe, Tom Griscom began summoning me to his office each time State or the NSC submitted a new objection. Each time, Griscom had me tell him why I believed State and the NSC were wrong and the speech, as I’d written it, was right. When I reached Griscom’s office on one occasion, I found Colin Powell, then deputy national security adviser, waiting for me. I was a thirty-year-old who had never held a full-time job outside speechwriting. Powell was a decorated general. After listening to Powell recite all the arguments against the speech in his accustomed forceful manner, however, I heard myself reciting all the arguments in favor of the speech in an equally forceful manner. I could scarcely believe my own tone of voice. Powell looked a little taken aback himself.
A few days before the president was to leave for Europe, Tom Griscom received a call from the White House chief of staff, Howard Baker, asking Griscom to step down the hall to his office. “I walked in and it was Senator Baker [Baker had served in the Senate before becoming chief of staff] and the secretary of state—just the two of them.” Secretary of State George Shultz now objected to the speech.
“He said, ‘I really think that line about tearing down the wall is going to be an affront to Mr. Gorbachev,’ ” Griscom recalls. “I told him the speech would put a marker out there. ‘Mr. Secretary,’ I said, ‘the president has commented on this particular line and he’s comfortable with it. And I can promise you that this line will reverberate.’ The secretary of state clearly was not happy, but he accepted it. I think that closed the subject.”
When the traveling party reached Italy (I remained in Washington), the secretary of state objected to the speech once again, this time to deputy chief of staff Kenneth Duberstein. “Shultz thought the line was too tough on Gorbachev,” Duberstein says. On June 5, Duberstein sat the president down in the garden of the estate in which he was staying, briefed him on the objections to the speech, then handed him a copy of the speech, asking him to reread the central passage.
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 the NSC submitted yet another alternate draft. “They were still at it on the very morning of the speech,” says Tony Dolan. “I’ll never forget it.” 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 Lessons of History
No matter how it may seem in retrospect, there was nothing inevitable about the event that took place thirty years ago. The fall of the Berlin Wall took place because certain men and women—people including Pope John Paul II, Margaret Thatcher, Lech Walesa, and Ronald Reagan—took certain specific actions, demonstrating their capacity for reason and courage. And that, really, is why we study history: to remind ourselves that if those who went before us could do the right thing, then we can do no less ourselves.
Peter Robinson is editor in chief of Ricochet.com, research fellow at the Hoover Institution, and host of the interview program Uncommon Knowledge. He is the author of several books, including How Ronald Reagan Changed My Life, from which parts of this essay are adapted.
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