How top Advisers opposed Reagan"s Challenge zu Gorbachev—But Lost

Summer 2007, Vol. 39, No. 2

By peter Robinson


Behind me stands a wall surface that encircles ns free sectors of this city, part des a huge system des barriers that divides die entire continent von Europe. . . . Standing before the brandenburg Gate, every man ist a German, separated from his fellow men. Every man zu sein a Berliner, forced zu look ~ above a scar. . . . As lang as this gate zu sein closed, as lang as this scar des a wall is permitted to stand, it ist not ns German question alone that continues to be open, but die question of freedom zum all mankind. . . . Basic Secretary Gorbachev, if sie seek peace, if you seek prosperity zum the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, if you seek liberalization, come here kommen sie this gate. Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, tear under this wall!


—Ronald Reagan, address at the brandenburg Gate, June 12, 1987

In april 1987, when i was assigned zu write ns speech, the celebrations for the 750th anniversary von the founding of berlin were already under way. Queen elisabeth had currently visited ns city. Mikhail Gorbachev was due bei a matt of days.

Du schaust: Tear down the wall

Although the President hadn"t to be planning kommen sie visit berlin himself, he was going kommen sie be in Europe in early June, zuerst visiting Rome, then spending numerous days in Venice for an economic summit. At die request von the west German government, his schedule was adjusted to permit er to stop in Berlin for a few hours ~ above his way rückseitig to die United says from Italy.

I was told just that the President would be speaking hinweisen the berlin Wall, the he was likely zu draw an audience des about 10,000, and that, given ns setting, he most likely ought kommen sie talk about foreign policy.

Later the month i spent a day and a half bei Berlin with die White House breakthrough team—the logistical experts, Secret leistungen agents, and press officials who went to ns site of every presidential visit kommen sie make arrangements. All that i had to do bei Berlin was find material. When i met ns ranking American diplomat in Berlin, ich assumed that would offer me some.

A stocky einer with special glasses, ns diplomat projected an anxious, distracted air throughout our conversation, together if ns very prospect von a visit native Ronald reagan made him nervous. Die diplomat gave me quite certain instructions. Practically all des it was an the negative. He was full of ideas about what ns President shouldn"t say. Die most left-leaning von all west Germans, ns diplomat informed me, west Berliners to be intellectually und politically sophisticated. Die President would certainly therefore oase to watch himself. No chest-thumping. No Soviet-bashing. And no inflammatory statements about the berlin Wall. West Berliners, the diplomat explained, had lang ago acquired used to the structure the encircled them.

After ich left the diplomat, number of members of the development team and I were offered a trip over the city in a U.S. Army helicopter. Although all the remains of the wall surface these days space paving stones that nur where the stood, an 1987 die structure overcame Berlin. Erected in 1961 zu stanch ns flow of east Germans seeking to escape die Communist system über fleeing kommen sie West Berlin, die wall, a dozen feet tall, completely encircled west Berlin. From ns air, the wall seemed zu separate two various modes von existence.

On one side von the wall lay movement, color, modern-day architecture, crowded sidewalks, traffic. On die other place a kind of void. Buildings still exhibited pockmarks indigenous shelling during die war. Cars appeared few und decrepit, pedestrians badly dressed. When he hovered end Spandau Prison, the rambling brick structure an which Rudolf Hess was ausblüten being detained, soldiers at ost German guard posts beyond die prison stared up at us v binoculars, rifles over your shoulders. The wall itself, which indigenous West berlin had seemed a an easy concrete structure, was revealed from ns air as in intricate complex, die East berlin side lined v guard posts, dog runs, und row top top row of barbed wire. Die pilot drew our attention to pits of raked gravel. If bei East German guard ever before let anybody slip past ihm to escape kommen sie West Berlin, ns pilot called us, ns guard would uncover himself forced to explain ns footprints kommen sie his commanding officer.


A fragment of the berlin Wall zu sein displayed at ns Ronald reagan Presidential Library an Simi Valley, California. (Ronald reagan Library)

That evening, ich broke far from die advance mannschaft to sign up with a dozen Berliners weil das dinner. Ours hosts were Dieter und Ingeborg Elz, who had actually retired to berlin after Dieter perfect his career at the World Bank an Washington, D.C. Although we had actually never met, we had friends in common, and the Elzes had offered zu put ~ above this dinner splitter linterparty to offer me a feel zum their city. They had invited Berliners von different walks von life und political outlooks—businessmen, academics, students, homemakers.

We chatted weil das a if about die weather, German wine, and the cost of housing bei Berlin. Then i related what ns diplomat told me, explaining that after my trip over the stadt that afternoon ich found it difficult to believe. "Is it true?" ich asked. "Have freundin gotten supplied to the wall?"

The Elzes and their guest glanced punkt each other uneasily. Ich thought ich had proven myself nur the sort des brash, tactless American ns diplomat was afraid die President might seem. Climate one man raised bei arm and pointed. "My sister lives twenty miles in that direction," the said. "I haven"t seen her in more than two decades. Do sie think I kann sein get used zu that?" Another einer spoke. Every morning ~ above his way zu work, he explained, he walked previous a guard tower. Each morning, a soldier gazed under at ihm through binoculars. "That soldier und I speak the same language. We share ns same history. Yet one des us is a zookeeper and the other is in animal, and I bei der never details which is which."

Our hostess damaged in. A gracious woman, she had actually suddenly get an impression angry. Produziert face was red. She made a fist v one hand und pounded the into the palm of the other. "If this einer Gorbachev ist serious v his talk von glasnost and perestroika," she said, "he kann sein prove it. He kann get rid von this wall."

Back at die White House ich told Tony Dolan, then director von presidential speechwriting, that ich intended to adapt Ingeborg Elz"s comment, make a call kommen sie tear down the berlin Wall die central passage in the speech. Tony took me throughout the street from the old Executive Office building to ns West Wing to sell die idea to die director of communications, tom Griscom. "The two des you assumed you"d have to work real hard to keep me from speak no," Griscom now says. "But wie man you called me about ns trip, specifically this point von learning from some Germans nur how viel they hated die wall, i thought to myself, "You know, calling zum the wall zu be take it down—it might just work.""

When i sat down zu write, I"d like zu be able to say, i found myself deswegen inspired that ns words just came kommen sie me. The didn"t take place that way. Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall. i couldn"t even get the right. In one draft ich wrote, "Herr Gorbachev, bring down this wall," making use of "Herr" because ich somehow assumed that would please the President"s German audience und "bring" since it was die only verb that came zu mind. In the next draft ich swapped "bring" for "take," writing, "Herr Gorbachev, take under this wall," as if that were some sort des improvement. By the ende of the week I"d produced nothing yet a erste draft even i considered banal. I can ausblüten hear die clomp-clomp-clomp des Tony Dolan"s cowboy boots as he walked down die hallway native his office kommen sie mine zu toss the draft onto my desk.

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"It"s no good," Tony said.

"What"s wrong with it?" ich replied.

"I nur told you. It"s no good."

The adhering to week i produced bei acceptable draft. It necessary work—the ar on arms reductions, for instance, still had zu be meat out—but it set out the hauptsächlich elements von the address, including the challenge kommen sie tear down die wall. On Friday, may 15, die speeches for the President"s trip to Rome, Venice, and Berlin, including my draft, were forwarded to die President, and on Monday, might 18, ns speechwriters joined him in the Oval Office. My speech was the tonnage we discussed. Tom Griscom asked ns President weil das his comment on mine draft. The President replied merely that he favored it.


White house speechwriters accomplish with president Reagan in the Oval Office on may 18, 1987. Peter Robinson zu sein second from the left. (Ronald reagan Library)

"Mr. President," ich said, "I learned on die advance pilgrimage that her speech will be heard not only an West berlin but throughout ost Germany." depending upon weather conditions, ich explained, radios would certainly be able to pick up die speech as far ost as Moscow itself. "Is there anything you"d like to say zu people on die other side von the berlin Wall?"

The chairman cocked his head and thought. "Well," that replied, "there"s the passage about tearing down the wall. That wall has to come down. That"s what I"d like to say zu them."

I invested a couple von days attempting zu improve ns speech. I suppose i should admit that punkt one point ich actually took "Mr. Gorbachev, tear under this wall" out, instead of it with die challenge, bei German, to open the brandenburg Gate, "Herr Gorbachev, machen sie dieses Tor auf."

"What did you do the for?" Tony asked.

"You mean sie don"t get it?" ich replied. "Since the audience wollen be German, die President should provide his big line an German."

"Peter," Tony said, shaking his head, "when you"re writing zum the President des the united States, give er his huge line bei English." Tony put "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall" right rückseitig in.

With 3 weeks to go before it was delivered, die speech was circulated to the zustand Department and the national Security Council. Both attempted to squelch it. Die assistant secretary des state for Eastern europe affairs challenged the speech von telephone. A hohes level member of the national Security Council employee protested ns speech bei memoranda. Die ranking American diplomat an Berlin objected to die speech von cable. Die draft was naïve. It would certainly raise false hopes. It was clumsy. It was needlessly provocative. State and the NSC submitted their own alternative drafts—my tagebuch records that there were no fewer 보다 seven—including one written von the diplomat an Berlin. Bei each, the call zu tear down die wall was missing.

Now in principle, State and the NSC had no objection to a call zum the destruction des the wall. The draft ns diplomat bei Berlin submitted, zum example, contained the line, "One day, this ugly wall wollen disappear." If the diplomat"s line was acceptable, i wondered at first, what was wrong through mine? Then ich looked at ns diplomat"s line as soon as again. "One day?" One day die lion would certainly lie down with ns lamb, too, but you wouldn"t want zu hold her breath. "This ugly wall will disappear?" What go that mean? That the wall would just get up und slink off of its own accord? ns wall would disappear just when the Soviets knocked it under or let someone else knock the down weil das them, but "this ugly wall möchte disappear" ignored die question of human agency altogether. What State and the NSC to be saying, an effect, was that die President can go ahead and issue a call weil das the destruction von the wall—but only if that employed language deswegen vague und euphemistic the everybody could seen right away he didn"t average it.

The week ns President left for Europe, tom Griscom began summoning me zu his office each time state or die NSC submitted a neu 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 top top one occasion, i found Colin Powell, climate deputy national security adviser, waiting zum me. I was a 30-year-old who had actually never hosted a full-time job outside speechwriting. Powell was a decorated general. ~ listening to Powell recite all die arguments against die speech in his accustomed forceful manner, however, i heard myself reciting all the arguments an favor des the decided in an equally forceful manner. Ich could scarcely glauben my very own tone des voice. Powell looked a little taken aback himself.

A couple of days before die President was zu leave zum Europe, tom Griscom got a speak to from ns chief von staff, Howard Baker, asking Griscom kommen sie step down die hall zu his office. "I walked an and that was senator Baker und the secretary von state—just ns two des them." Secretary des State george Shultz now objected to ns speech. "He said, "I really think the line around tearing down the wall ist going to be bei affront kommen sie Mr. Gorbachev,"" Griscom recalls. "I told ihm the decided would put a marker out there. "Mr. Secretary," ich said, "The President has commented on this details line and he"s comfortable through it. And I tun können promise you that this line will reverberate." ns secretary des state plainly was not happy, however he embraced it. Ich think that closed ns subject."

It didn"t.

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When die traveling splitter linterparty reached Italy (I remained in Washington), die secretary des state objected to die speech once again, this time kommen sie deputy chief von staff Kenneth Duberstein. "Shultz thought ns line was too tough on Gorbachev," Duberstein says. On June 5, Duberstein sat ns President down bei the garden von the estate bei which he was staying, briefed him on die objections to the speech, then handed er a copy des the speech, asking er to reread die central passage.

Reagan asked Duberstein"s advice. Duberstein responded that that thought ns line about tearing down die wall sound good. "But ich told him, "You"re President, deshalb you get zu decide." and then," Duberstein recalls, "he gott that wonderful, knowing smile ~ above his face, und he said, "Let"s leaving it in.""