‘Tear down this wall’ – An annotated look at the Reagan speech that ended the Cold War

On 12th September 1990, now-former President Reagan returned to Berlin, where he personally took a few symbolic hammer swings at a remnant of the Berlin Wall. On the same day in Moscow, two Germanies and the Four Powers sign the Treaty on the Final Settlement With Respect to Germany, paving the way for the Re-unification

Twenty years ago, on Nov. 9, 1989, the Berlin Wall fell, as protestors on both sides began chipping away with sledgehammers, picks and hands. But the first crack in the wall appeared two years before that — on June 12, 1987 — when President Ronald Reagan stood at the Brandenburg Gate and gave his ultimatum to the Soviet leader: “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”In his new book, “Tear Down This Wall” (Simon & Schuster), Romesh Ratnesar, deputy managing editor at Time magazine, traces the origin of Reagan’s remarks, noting how administration officials disagreed over whether the president should be that tough. Here, Ratnesar takes us through an edited version of the speech that brought down the Wall:

Chancellor Kohl, Governing Mayor Diepgen, ladies and gentlemen:

1987 - During a visit to the divided German city of Berlin, President Ronald Reagan publicly challenged Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev to ”tear down this wall.”

Twenty-four years ago, President John F. Kennedy visited Berlin, speaking to the people of this city and the world at the City Hall. Well, since then two other presidents have come, each in his turn, to Berlin. And today I, myself, make my second visit to your city. (see footnote 1 below)

We come to Berlin, we American presidents, because it’s our duty to speak, in this place, of freedom. But I must confess, we’re drawn here by other things as well: by the feeling of history in this city, more than 500 years older than our own nation; by the beauty of the Grunewald and the Tiergarten; most of all, by your courage and determination. Perhaps the composer Paul Lincke understood something about American presidents. You see, like so many presidents before me, I come here today because wherever I go, whatever I do: Ich hab noch einen Koffer in Berlin. [I still have a suitcase in Berlin.] (2)

Our gathering today is being broadcast throughout Western Europe and North America. I understand that it is being seen and heard as well in the East. To those listening throughout Eastern Europe, a special word: Although I cannot be with you, I address my remarks to you just as surely as to those standing here before me. For I join you, as I join your fellow countrymen in the West, in this firm, this unalterable belief: Es gibt nur ein Berlin. [There is only one Berlin.] (3)

Behind me stands a wall that encircles the free sectors of this city, part of a vast system of barriers that divides the entire continent of Europe. From the Baltic, south, those barriers cut across Germany in a gash of barbed wire, concrete, dog runs, and guard towers. Farther south, there may be no visible, no obvious wall. But there remain armed guards and checkpoints all the same — still a restriction on the right to travel, still an instrument to impose upon ordinary men and women the will of a totalitarian state. Yet it is here in Berlin where the wall emerges most clearly; here, cutting across your city, where the news photos and the television screen have imprinted this brutal division of a continent upon the mind of the world. Standing before the Brandenburg Gate, every man is a German, separated from his fellow men. Every man is a Berliner, forced to look upon a scar. (4)

President von Weizsacker has said, “The German question is open as long as the Brandenburg Gate is closed.” Today I say: As long as the gate is closed, as long as this scar of a wall is permitted to stand, it is not the German question alone that remains open, but the question of freedom for all mankind. Yet I do not come here to lament. For I find in Berlin a message of hope, even in the shadow of this wall, a message of triumph.

In this season of spring in 1945, the people of Berlin emerged from their air-raid shelters to find devastation. Thousands of miles away, the people of the United States reached out to help. And in 1947 Secretary of State George Marshall announced the creation of what would become known as the Marshall Plan. Speaking precisely 40 years ago this month, he said: “Our policy is directed not against any country or doctrine, but against hunger, poverty, desperation, and chaos.”

In the Reichstag a few moments ago, I saw a display commemorating this 40th anniversary of the Marshall Plan. I was struck by the sign on a burnt-out, gutted structure that was being rebuilt. I understand that Berliners of my own generation can remember seeing signs like it dotted throughout the western sectors of the city. The sign read simply: “The Marshall Plan is helping here to strengthen the free world.” A strong, free world in the West, that dream became real. Japan rose from ruin to become an economic giant. Italy, France, Belgium — virtually every nation in Western Europe saw political and economic rebirth; the European Community was founded.

In West Germany and here in Berlin, there took place an economic miracle, the Wirtschaftswunder. Adenauer, Erhard, Reuter, and other leaders understood the practical importance of liberty — that just as truth can flourish only when the journalist is given freedom of speech, so prosperity can come about only when the farmer and businessman enjoy economic freedom. The German leaders reduced tariffs, expanded free trade, lowered taxes. From 1950 to 1960 alone, the standard of living in West Germany and Berlin doubled.

Where four decades ago there was rubble, today in West Berlin there is the greatest industrial output of any city in Germany — busy office blocks, fine homes and apartments, proud avenues, and the spreading lawns of parkland. Where a city’s culture seemed to have been destroyed, today there are two great universities, orchestras and an opera, countless theaters, and museums. Where there was want, today there’s abundance — food, clothing, automobiles — the wonderful goods of the Ku’damm. From devastation, from utter ruin, you Berliners have, in freedom, rebuilt a city that once again ranks as one of the greatest on earth. The Soviets may have had other plans. But my friends, there were a few things the Soviets didn’t count on — Berliner Herz, Berliner Humor, ja, und Berliner Schnauze. [Berliner heart, Berliner humor, yes, and a Berliner Schnauze.] (5)

In the 1950s, Khrushchev predicted: “We will bury you.” But in the West today, we see a free world that has achieved a level of prosperity and well-being unprecedented in all human history. In the Communist world, we see failure, technological backwardness, declining standards of health, even want of the most basic kind — too little food. Even today, the Soviet Union still cannot feed itself. After these four decades, then, there stands before the entire world one great and inescapable conclusion: Freedom leads to prosperity. Freedom replaces the ancient hatreds among the nations with comity and peace. Freedom is the victor.

And now the Soviets themselves may, in a limited way, be coming to understand the importance of freedom. We hear much from Moscow about a new policy of reform and openness. Some political prisoners have been released. Certain foreign news broadcasts are no longer being jammed. Some economic enterprises have been permitted to operate with greater freedom from state control. Are these the beginnings of profound changes in the Soviet state? Or are they token gestures, intended to raise false hopes in the West, or to strengthen the Soviet system without changing it? We welcome change and openness; for we believe that freedom and security go together, that the advance of human liberty can only strengthen the cause of world peace.

There is one sign the Soviets can make that would be unmistakable, that would advance dramatically the cause of freedom and peace. 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! (6,7)


1. Throughout the Cold War, Berlin was the most visible proving ground of the US-Soviet conflict. When Kennedy visited in 1963, two years after the construction of the Berlin Wall, close to a million West Berliners turned out to see him. Reagan first visited Berlin in 1978, before his 1980 run for President. During that trip, he went to an office building overlooking the Wall. “You could tell from the set of his jaw and his look,” says Peter Hannaford, a longtime aide who accompanied Reagan to Berlin, “that he was very, very determined that this was something that had to go.”

2. The German quotation came from a song made famous by Marlene Dietrich. The main speechwriter on the Berlin address, Peter Robinson, had picked up the phrase at a dinner party he attended on an April research trip to the city, at the home of Dieter and Ingeborg Elz. Ingeborg gave Robinson the inspiration for the speech’s most enduring line. “If this man Gorbachev is serious . . . he can prove it,” she said. “He can get rid of this Wall.”

3. It is highly unlikely that Reagan’s speech was heard by many on the other side of the Wall. A few days before Reagan’s visit, clashes between East German youths and state police had erupted near the Wall, the biggest protests against the communist government in more than three decades. The East German authorities were so worried about the possibility for more disturbances during Reagan’s speech that they set up barricades in front of the Brandenburg Gate, preventing anyone from coming within one thousand yards of the Wall. Though about 500 people gathered in East Berlin to try to catch a glimpse of the American President, they were too far away to actually hear anything.

4. The East German regime was one of the world’s most notorious police states. During its 40-year existence, the state police, or Stasi, enlisted anywhere from 600,000 to 2 million East Germans, out of a population of 17 million, to spy on their friends and neighbors. By the time of Reagan’s visit, popular discontent was growing. In 1989, when Hungary opened its borders with East Germany, people began to pour out of the country, with no intention of coming back. Hundreds of thousands took to the streets to clamor for the same right to travel. The pressure on the government ultimately led to its collapse.

5. The speechwriters inserted an unusually large number of German phrases. Some were removed by members of the National Security Council staff, who believed they would sound awkward to the audience in Berlin. As late as June 8, the first half of the famous challenge to Gorbachev — “Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate” — was still in German. Reagan did not speak German, but he often regaled audiences by telling them how Marlene Dietrich taught him how to ask for a match in a perfect German accent. Speechwriters provided Reagan with phonetic pronunciations, which he painstakingly rehearsed.

6. The call for Gorbachev to tear down the Wall had been the source of heated dispute inside the White House for close to a month. Some of the President’s closest aides, including chief of staff Howard Baker and Secretary of State George Shultz, argued that the line was unpresidential, unrealistic and could embarrass Gorbachev. The line was still being debated as Air Force One left Venice for Berlin on the morning of the 12th. But Reagan insisted that it stay in the speech. The crowd cheered Reagan for 20 seconds after he delivered the line, but even some of his advisers thought it sounded farfetched. “I thought to myself, ‘It’s a great speech line, but it will never happen,’ ” recalls National Security Adviser Frank Carlucci.

7. Reagan’s faith that the Berlin Wall would eventually collapse remained consistent throughout his Presidency — indeed, throughout his life — even though others, like East Germany’s leader Erich Honecker, predicted it would stand another 100 years. On a 1982 trip to Berlin, Reagan was asked if he thought the city would be reunited someday. “Yes,” he replied. Three years later, on another trip to Germany, he predicted, “Ahead of us may be a time when the artificial barriers that divide Germany, and indeed all of Europe, are cast away, a time when there will be no need for weapons or barbed wire or walls in Berlin.” On Nov. 9, 1989, the night the Wall came down, Sam Donaldson asked Reagan if, when he challenged Gorbachev to tear down the Wall, he believed it would happen so soon. “I have to tell you, I’m an eternal optimist,” Reagan replied. “I believed with all my heart that it was in the future.”


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