By Mark Bowser
“Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.” The words are famous and they made history. But, those words were almost never spoken. In his wonderful history book, Rick Beyer shares how that line stayed in the speech and impacted the world.
So, how did it come about that President Ronald Reagan on June 12, 1987 said those historic words at the Berlin wall?
It all started at a dinner party. Ingeborg Elz from Berlin hosted a dinner party for White House speechwriter Peter Robinson. At the time, Robinson was researching the speech that he was assigned to write for President Reagan’s address in Berlin.
In the midst of the conversation that evening, Ingeborg mentioned to Robinson that if Gorbachev really wanted to show that he cared about perestroika than he should just get rid of the wall separating East Berlin from West Berlin.
Perestroika is a term that literally means “restructuring” but usually refers to political reform that was taking place in the Soviet Union during the 1980’s.
Ingeborg’s words gave Robinson some ideas. But all the words that he put together as he wrote President Reagan’s speech didn’t seem to fit. He had writer’s block. After trying different word combinations, it finally came to him. He decided to be straightforward, blunt, and to the point. The result was the immortal words, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.”
Robinson had felt that he had hit the right tone for the speech. Unfortunately, he was about the only one in the West Wing who felt that way. Secretary of State George Schultz hated the line and National Security Advisor, General Colin Powell felt that the line had too much of an edge to it. Powell’s fear was that it could provoke the Soviets into making a rash decision. But, there was one other person in the West Wing who loved the line. That person was Ronald Reagan.
President Reagan’s inner circle began to work on him to change his mind. They told the President that it could cause tensions and hurt relations between the United States and the Soviet Union. But, President Reagan understood that change usually won’t happen without some form of tension. Tension doesn’t have to be a negative thing. He also understood that sometimes you have to take a hard stand.
The debate about that sentence went on for days. Finally, the president had an exchange with Deputy White House Chief of Staff Ken Duberstein.
The President said, “I’m the President, aren’t I?”
“Yes sir, Mr. President,” said Duberstein.” We’re clear about that.”
“So I get to decide whether the line about turning down the wall stays in?” said Reagan in more of a statement than a question.
“That’s right, sir. It’s your decision.”
“Then it stays in,” said Reagan.
So, the President stood firm for his beliefs and convictions. What does history show? That he was right. On November 9, 1989, the Berlin wall came down. And finally once again Germany began to unite West and East into peaceful unity. Thanks for reading today.
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