On June 12, 1987, President Ronald Reagan gave one of the greatest and most morally clear speeches for the advancement of liberty in the 20th century.
Twenty-five years ago today, President Reagan stood in front of the Brandenberg Gate and Berlin Wall that divided a communist East Berlin and a free West Berlin and challenged Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev to “tear down this wall.”
Peter Robinson, who wrote that speech and fought with the Foggy Bottom establishment to keep the words “tear down this wall” in there, really had nothing to worry about. Reagan saw the line, and loved it. Those iconic words would stay.
“The boys at State are going to kill me for this,” the president told Kenneth Duberstein, his deputy chief of staff, in the limousine on the way to the wall, “but it’s the right thing to do.”
(Watch the whole speech below.)
Robinson has a wonderful recounting of the story behind that speech, and those words, in last week’s Wall Street Journal. Please read the whole thing. It includes a tidbit I hadn’t heard before — how Robinson was inspired to write that line by a conversation over dinner in West Berlin with the wife of a former executive with the World Bank.
When I asked about their attitude toward the wall, Ingeborg, a gracious woman, grew angry. She blurted out a remark that I recorded in my notebook—and, composing the speech back at the White House, adapted. “If this man Gorbachev is serious with his talk of ‘glasnost’ and ‘perestroika,'” Ingeborg had said, “he can prove it by getting rid of this wall.” From Ingeborg Elz to “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.”
Another interesting, but unsurprising tidbit: Gorbachev hated the speech, and has apparently spent the last 25 years trying to diminish it as a piece of “theater.” Gorbachev explained earlier this year to an American audience:
“Don’t be surprised, but we really were not impressed. We knew that Mr. Reagan’s original profession was actor.”
How small … and how revealing. Gorbachev still cannot get over the fact that the tyrannical Soviet system was brought down by a mere “actor.” That “actor” was also a great leader, and inspiration to millions, and a tireless champion for liberty.
Of course, Reagan didn’t bring down the wall by himself. Indeed, he was too modest to even to take much credit for it — instead celebrating the dissidents and freedom-fighters whose long struggle ended after his presidency was over via their own actions.
I was a child of the Cold War. The wall came down when I was 19 years old, and I understood well it’s importance. I understood then what it was like when millions of Europeans lived in a prison state — how walls and guns were needed to keep people from fleeing the Marxist “paradise” their betters had created.
Living during the Cold War has informed my love of liberty, and my realization that freedom is not a permanent arrangement. How many people who are in their 20s and 30s today have the same perspective — the same appreciation for how fragile the liberty of ordinary men really is?
Here’s Reagan’s full speech that day: