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Tear Down This Wall

DW staff with dpa wire reports (ot)June 12, 2007

Twenty years ago, then US President Ronald Reagan made his historic speech in front of the Berlin Wall. His message for his Soviet counterpart was clear: "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall."

People dancing atop the Berlin Wall in November 1989
Two and a half years after Reagan's speech the wall fell

On June 12, 1987, President Reagan addressed the residents of Berlin with his back to the Berlin Wall. With these few words Reagan redirected his remarks further east toward the Soviet Union and its leader Mikhail Gorbachev.

At the time of the speech, the Soviet Union was in the midst of glasnost, Gorbachev's plan to liberalize the Soviet economy. The two leaders had met less than two years earlier in Geneva, where witnesses say they struck up a personal relationship.

It might have been just six words, but they were part of a long dialogue about communism, the Cold War and world peace that culminated in the fall of the Berlin Wall less than two and a half years later.

A fight over words

Reagan and Gorbachev in Geneva in 1985
Reagan and Gorbachev met in Geneva in 1985Image: picture-alliance/dpa

In the months preceding Reagan's visit to Berlin a "hell of a fight went on" regarding the precise wording of Reagan's speech at the wall, according to Helmut Trotnow, the director of the Allied Museum in Berlin.

Reagan's speech had been written by Peter Robinson, a young presidential speechwriter who spent several months in Berlin consulting officials on what should go into the 20-minute speech.

"There was a great amount of discussion at the US Secretary of State and National Security level about what should be included in the speech," Trotnow said in an interview with German news agency dpa.

During the drafting process, there was an immense amount of debate over three months, with the document being passed back and forth. US National Security Advisor and future Secretary of State, Colin Powell was among those with objections to what Reagan was about to say.

"This was, after all, a time when events were moving fast in the Soviet Union and there was much talk about Perestroika (economic restructuring) and Glasnost (liberalization and cultural thaw)," said Trotnow.

Our man in Berlin

Reagan at the Berlin Wall
President Reagan giving his famous speechImage: AP

As US Ambassador in Berlin, John Kornblum, was also consulted on the presidential text.

"It was a time when Gorbachev in the Soviet Union was just beginning to define his new kinds of policies, and a number of people were worried that a too aggressive speech might damage the ability to have a more positive relationship with him," Kornblum, now a Lazard banking executive in the city, told dpa.

Asked who came up with the "Tear down this wall" section of the speech, surprisingly Kornblum replied: "It came from Berlin. We proposed it. But other people had it also in mind. Then, there was a big debate going on in the White House about it. It went all the way up to the secretary of state."

In "The Reagan Diaries" published recently in the US, the late president described how, after arriving at Tempelhof Airport for his 1987 visit, he and his wife Nancy were driven to the Reichstag, where "we viewed the wall from a balcony."

"Then, it was on to the Brandenburg Gate where I addressed tens and tens of thousands of people stretching as far as I could see. I got a tremendous reception," wrote Reagan proudly, and "was interrupted 28 times by cheers."

The Historic Speech

President Reagon was proud of his speech
President Reagon was especially proud of his speechImage: AP

Reagan had stood on a hastily erected platform, just yards away from the Berlin Wall and in the presence of then-German President Richard von Weizsäcker, Chancellor Helmut Kohl, and Berlin's mayor, Eberhard Diepgen.

Reagan said: "We hear much from Moscow about a new policy of reform and openness. 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?"

"There is one sign the Soviets can make," continued Reagan, "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."

Curiously, international media reaction was subdued, even dismissive, with the press choosing "either to ignore it or to criticize it," Kornblum said.

Then on November 9, 1989, the brutal 29-year history of the Berlin Wall finally ended.

"It (Reagan's speech) wasn't really elevated to its current status until 1989, after the wall came down," said Kornblum.