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President Ronald Reagan's "Tear Down This Wall" Speech

Updated: Jun 28, 2020

Thirty three years ago, on June 12, 1987, President Ronald Regan gave gave a speech in West Berlin which would later become known as the "Tear down this wall" speech, also known as the Berlin Wall Speech, as delivered it by United States to West Berlinians. Reagan called for the General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev, to open the Berlin Wall, which had separated West and East Berlin since 1961. The name is derived from a key line in the middle of the speech addressing the former Soviet Union President directly: "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!" Though it received relatively little media coverage at the time, it became widely known in 1989 just two years later, as the Cold War began to thaw across Eastern Europe, when a spokesman for East Berlin's Communist Party announced a change in his city's relations with the West. Starting at midnight that day, he said, citizens of the GDR were free to cross the country's borders. Here is a short clip with a brief recap from CNN's The Seventies Documentary series:

The "Tear down this wall" speech was not the first time Reagan had addressed the issue of the Berlin Wall. In a visit to West Berlin in June 1982, he stated, "I'd like to ask the Soviet leaders one question [...] Why is the wall there?". In 1986, 25 years after the construction of the wall, in response to West German newspaper Bild-Zeitung asking when he thought the wall could be removed, Reagan said, "I call upon those responsible to dismantle it [today]".

On the day before Reagan's 1987 visit, 50,000 people had demonstrated against the presence of the American president in Berlin. During the visit itself, wide swaths of Berlin were closed off to prevent further anti-Reagan protests. The district of Kreuzberg, in particular, was targeted in this respect, with movement throughout this portion of the city in effect restrained completely (for instance the subway line 1 was shut down).

About those demonstrators, Reagan said at the end of his speech: "I wonder if they ever asked themselves that if they should have the kind of government they apparently seek, no one would ever be able to do what they are doing again".

The speech also drew controversy within the Reagan administration, with several senior staffers and aides advising 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. According to an account by Robinson whose factual accuracy has been disputed, he 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 Monday, 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 U.S. National Security Advisor Colin Powell agreed. Nevertheless, Reagan liked the passage, saying, "I think we'll leave it in." Chief speechwriter Anthony 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 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. Though the speech has become notable as a bold statement for democracy, it is relatively unknown how much actual effect the speech ultimately had towards the Wall coming ultimately down in November of 1991.

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