One of Ronald Reagan’s most famous speeches is the Tear Down This Wall speech given in Berlin. This Prologue article is written by Peter Robinson, one of Reagan’s speechwriters who helped to write this speech.
Robinson first talks about his prep work in Berlin with the American diplomats:
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 that 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.
Then Robinson spoke with Berliners:
That evening, I broke away from the advance team to join a dozen Berliners for dinner. Our hosts were Dieter and Ingeborg Elz, who had retired to Berlin after Dieter completed his career at the World Bank in Washington, D.C. Although we had never met, we had friends in common, and the Elzes had 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 that afternoon 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 each other 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, a 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."
Robinson then went to work on the speech, but found it hard going to express what he had learned and wanted to say. He finally got an acceptable draft that the President liked:
"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."
Robinson admitted that he actually considered taking out the “tear down the wall” comment:
I spent a couple of days attempting to improve the speech. I suppose I should admit that at one point I actually took "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall" out, replacing it with the challenge, in German, to open the Brandenburg Gate, "Herr Gorbachev, machen Sie dieses Tor auf."
"What did you do that for?" Tony asked.
"You mean you don't get it?" I replied. "Since the audience will be German, the President should deliver his big line in German."
"Peter," Tony said, shaking his head, "when you're writing for the President of the United States, give him his big line in English." Tony put "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall" right back in.
The speech was circulated first and got almost universal bad reviews. High US state officials were worried about the content and the challenge to Gorbachev:
A few days before the President was to leave for Europe, Tom Griscom received a call from the 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."
But the subject wasn't closed and more alternative drafts continued to come in from State and the NSC, but Reagan held firm – he was going to use it the original speech. While the wall didn't come down that day, it did fall two years later.
Robinson ends the article with his thoughts on why Reagan has been celebrated as a great speaker:
There is a school of thought that Ronald Reagan only managed to look good because he had clever writers putting words in his mouth. But Jimmy Carter, Walter Mondale, Bob Dole, and Bill Clinton all had clever writers.
Why was there only one Great Communicator?
Because Ronald Reagan's writers were never attempting to fabricate an image, just to produce work that measured up to the standard Reagan himself had already established. His policies were plain. He had been articulating them for decades—until he became President he wrote most of his material himself.
When I heard Frau Elz say that Gorbachev should get rid of the wall, I knew instantly that the President would have responded to her remark. And when the State Department and National Security Council tried to block my draft by submitting alternate drafts, they weakened their own case. Their speeches were drab. They were bureaucratic. They lacked conviction. The people who wrote them had not stolen, as I had, from Frau Elz—and from Ronald Reagan.