A Clarion Call for Freedom

Saturday, October 30, 1999

I was asked recently to name the most patriotic speech delivered by a U.S. president this century. Obviously, this was no easy task. My mind reeled with uplifting oratory, ranging from FDR’s March 1933 inaugural address, when he reassured a depression-weary nation that they had nothing to fear but fear itself, to John F. Kennedy’s unforgettable January 1961 inaugural exhortation to “ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.” But after careful consideration, I decided that the high-water mark of presidential discourse was probably Ronald Reagan’s Berlin address of June 12, 1987, in front of the Brandenburg Gate, in which the president appealed to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to dismantle the Berlin Wall. In the most memorable line of the speech, Reagan declared: “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, tear down this wall.”

The story of how Reagan came to deliver his freedom-tolling speech is worth retelling. In May 1987, White House speechwriter [now Hoover fellow] Peter Robinson had been assigned to draft an address for President Reagan’s upcoming journey to Berlin, a teeming city that was celebrating its 750th anniversary. Unfortunately, Berlin—although one of the blessed centers of Europe, with its Bauhaus architecture, imposing Reichstag, Tiergarten Park, and smoky cabarets—was divided by a concrete barrier and encircled in barbed wire.

The Berlin Wall, erected in August 1961, was a monstrous affront to Jeffersonian democracy, human rights, common decency, and laissez-faire capitalism. It had become an ugly, drab symbol of Soviet totalitarianism gone haywire. Obviously any society that had to wall in citizens or, as Reagan put it, “had to pen its people up like farm animals,” was committing an enormous affront to the very notion of justice.

Not content to just sit at his White House desk to draft such an important international speech, Robinson flew to Berlin, took the pulse of the city, and asked a lot of questions. It was at a dinner party, however, that Robinson came up with the simple but powerful “tear down this wall” phrase. When the host of the party, Dieter Eltz, a retired World Bank official, was asked about the wall, she suddenly made a fist with one of her hands and slapped it into the palm of her other and said, “If this man Gorbachev is serious with this talk of glasnost and perestroika, he can prove it. He can get rid of this wall.”

Ronald Reagan’s Berlin Wall speech stands as a permanent testimony to the power of presidential rhetoric—and to one man’s inclination to ignore the conventional wisdom and follow his own beliefs.

Robinson had the line he was looking for, the centerpiece of the thirty-minute speech Reagan would deliver. When Reagan read the first draft of the Robinson speech he loved it, particularly the part about the wall having to come down. But the State Department and National Security Council were in an uproar. They pleaded with the president to drop the inflammatory line about the wall, which they considered antagonistic in the extreme. A flurry of telephone calls and memoranda circulated, insisting that the Robinson speech be thrown away, or at least seriously rewritten.

America’s top foreign policy experts were vehement that Reagan not deliver the so-called crude and unduly provocative speech, which would only incite friction with the Kremlin. Even on the morning that Reagan arrived in Berlin, top aides pleaded with the president not to deliver the Robinson speech. Reagan told his top advisers that he would consider their recommendation. But on the limousine ride to the Brandenburg Gate, Reagan told his deputy chief of staff, Ken Duberstein, that he just had to deliver the powerful line about tearing down the wall. With an “aw shucks” smile, he poked Duberstein in the ribs and said, “The boys at State are going to kill me, but it’s the right thing to do.”

Ronald Reagan had the self-confidence to pull off a clarion call for democracy on that June afternoon. Today, the speech stands as a permanent testimony to the power of presidential rhetoric and to one man’s inclination to ignore the conventional wisdom and follow his own beliefs. And isn’t that what we expect from our presidents?