Tear Out This Line: How Ronald Reagan’s Most Famous Words Almost Got Silenced

President Ronald Reagan with German chancellor Helmut Kohl at the Berlin Wall in 1987.
President Ronald Reagan with German chancellor Helmut Kohl at the Berlin Wall in 1987.
Dirck Halstead/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

"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."

It was June 1987. After an economic summit in Venice, President Ronald Reagan was invited by the West German government to stop in Berlin for a few hours on his way home and speak near the Brandenburg Gate and the Berlin Wall.

“… 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,” Reagan challenged.

“Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate!”

“Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”

That last line is probably the most famous and lasting thing that Reagan ever said, and if he had listened to any one of the dozens of aides and advisors and cabinet members who pleaded with him before the morning of June 12, the line might have died on the vine and never made it into the speech.

Get Used to It

After the invite from the West Germans, Peter Robinson—a speechwriter and special assistant to the president, who wrote more than 300 of his speeches—spent a day and a half in Berlin with the White House advance team to get some ideas for Reagan’s remarks.

He met the top American diplomat in Berlin, who only had suggestions for what the president shouldn’t say. In 2007, Robinson wrote about his recollections of that day—and the conversation:

"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."

That same night, Robinson had dinner with a group of locals, hosted by friends of friends. After some small talk and wine, Robinson asked his dining companions about what the diplomat had said. Had they really gotten used to the wall? Could they ever?

One man explained that his sister lived only 20 miles away on the other side of the wall, but it had prevented him for seeing her for some 20 years. How could he get used to that?

Another man said that every morning on his walk to work he passed one of the wall’s guard towers. He and the soldier in the tower were from the same country, he said. They spoke the same language and had the same history, yet they stood on opposite sides of a wall meant to separate them and their worlds. How could he get used to that?

It was then that Robinson's hostess—now red-faced and worked up from the conversation—pounded her fist on the table. If Gorbachev was serious about glasnost and perestroika, she said, he’d have to prove it. He’d have to get rid of the wall.

Sending a Message

Robinson was inspired. Disregarding the diplomat's words, Robinson took an idea to Anthony Dolan, Reagan's head speechwriter. He wanted to adapt the hostess’s comment for the speech and have Reagan issue a call for the wall to come down. Dolan and Tom Griscom, director of White House communications, were both on board, so Robinson got started on a draft.* He hit a few rough patches, and that one line was a sticking point. He tried, "Herr Gorbachev, bring down this wall.” Then, "Herr Gorbachev, take down this wall.” Then a few other versions. At the end of a week, he had something on paper and the draft was sent to the president.

The next week the speechwriters sat with Reagan and went over all the speeches he’d be giving on the trip. When he was asked about the Berlin speech in particular, Reagan only offered that he liked it.

Robinson pushed him for more, as he wrote in recollections of his White House years. "Mr. President," he said, "I learned on the advance trip that your speech will be heard not only in West Berlin but throughout East Germany." The speech, he said, might even be broadcast on the radio as far away as Moscow. "Is there anything you'd like to say to people on the other side of the Berlin Wall?" he asked.

"Well," Reagan said, “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.”

In and Out

Robinson went back to work tweaking the speech, especially the part about the wall. At one point, he took it out and replaced it with a challenge to open the Brandenburg Gate, all in German.

Dolan objected.

"Since the audience will be German,” Robinson protested, “the President should deliver his big line in German."

“When you're writing for the President of the United States, give him his big line in English,” Dolan replied, and forced the line back in before circulating it for review.

Higher-ups from the State Department, members of the National Security Council, and the diplomat in Berlin whom Robinson had originally consulted with all fired off objections and sent alternate drafts—all of which had excised the challenge to tear down the wall. At one point, Robinson had to defend his version of the speech, in person, in front of then-deputy national security adviser Colin Powell.

“After listening to Powell recite all the arguments against the speech in his accustomed forceful manner, however, I heard myself reciting all the arguments in favor of the speech in an equally forceful manner,” Robinson wrote. “I could scarcely believe my own tone of voice. Powell looked a little taken aback himself.”

The objections continued, and the secretary of state made his displeasure known to the White House through both the chief of staff and his deputy just days before Reagan left for Europe. Up until the morning of the speech, people from all over the executive branch continued to plead for the line to be removed, but the president was set on delivering it.

"We were in the limousine on the way to the Brandenburg Gate and he was reviewing the speech text one last time," Reagan's deputy chief of staff Kenneth Duberstein later recalled. “When he got to the section of the speech that was disputed by the State Department, he looked and me said, 'It's gonna drive the State Department boys crazy, but I'm gonna leave it in.'"

“Mr. Gorbachev,” Reagan said just a little while later. “Tear down this wall!”

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*Chief speechwriter Anthony R. Dolan gives another account of the line's origins, attributing it directly to Reagan. He says that the president came up with it independently in a meeting with Dolan before Robinson’s draft circulated, but after Robinson had gone to Dolan with the idea, causing Dolan to tell him afterwards, "Can you believe it? He said just what you were thinking. He said it himself." Robinson takes issue with Dolan’s version of the events, and Dolan with Robinson’s objections. You can read their exchange in the Wall Street Journal here and here.

This story has been updated for 2020.

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From Campaign Slogans to Social Movements, New Book Explores the Role Buttons Have Played Throughout History

Princeton Architectural Press/Amazon
Princeton Architectural Press/Amazon

From their early days on the campaign trail during the 1896 presidential race to their current role as a way of showing support for social causes like the LGBTQIA+ pride movement, pinback buttons have remained one of the most popular ways for people to express their values and beliefs for well over a century. And now, button experts Christen Carter, founder of Chicago’s Busy Beaver Button Company and the Button Museum, and Ted Hake, owner of Hake’s Auctions, have put their extensive knowledge of the subject into the new book Button Power: 125 Years of Saying It With Buttons ($25), a cultural journey showcasing 1500 of the most important and unique pinbacks throughout American history.

“Buttons seem like really a niche thing, but they really are very general,” Carter tells Mental Floss. “They cover so much history, and the history goes deep and wide.”

For the book, Hake and Carter—who both began collecting buttons during their respective childhoods—cover how buttons have been used to communicate messages during their 125-year history, from pinbacks featuring landmark political slogans and anti-war sentiments to others that simply proclaim a person's love of Dallas.

“[Buttons] are little windows on the world, and you can pick an avenue and head down to your heart's content,” Hake tells Mental Floss.

Some of the 20th century's most important moments had a button to go along with them.Princeton Architectural Press/Amazon

One of Hake's favorite buttons in the book doesn't feature a political or social statement—it's just a picture of a buffalo with the words “Eat Me at Bremen, Kans. June 9, 1935” emblazoned across it. But it wasn't just the design that really caught his attention; it was also its backstory.

The button's origins lie within the town of Bremen, Kansas, which, in June 1935, was celebrating both its 50th anniversary and the dedication of a marker for the defunct Oregon Trail, according to Kansas Historical Quarterly. Two weeks before the celebration, 500 townspeople gathered in Bremen to watch a buffalo get slaughtered, which was then shipped to the neighboring town’s ice house for preservation. When the big day finally arrived, the buffalo was shipped back to become the centerpiece of a community-wide feast. The button was made to spread the word for the unique event.

“Here he is on this button, inviting the good folks of Bremen to enjoy him,” Hake says. “So it is a little bit surreal, to tell you the truth.” During his research, Hake recovered this niche historical event that could’ve otherwise been easily lost to history. “At the end of the day, they capped it off with supper, a band concert, and they gave away a baby buffalo calf,” he says.

Buttons have been used to express both support and opposition to the United States's involvement in wars. Princeton Architectural Press/Amazon

While pinback button technology has not changed drastically in the past 125 years, Hake and Carter still consider their golden era to be from 1896 to 1921. “The colors are just unusual and beautiful,” Carter says. “They were able to get fine details that, [even] with digital printing, we can’t do.” Carter also enjoys how buttons were used as a communication device during the punk movement, saying, “They're important identifiers to a counter-culture movement, and they were not afraid to piss people off.”

Though the book covers buttons featuring celebrities, bands, and brands, many of the most popular ones come from the political arena and sports. Hake’s Auction just set the record for the most expensive pinback sold on September 23, 2020, with a 1916 Boston Red Sox World Series button that went for $62,980. “What makes it great is that every team member is on the button and up at 11 o’clock is one Babe Ruth. He was in his second year and was a pitcher back in those days,” Hake explains.

Even though there are buttons like the Babe Ruth ones that sell for thousands of dollars, it's still an accessible hobby for everyone. “You can start your button collection with just $10 and already have a good start. It is a good thing to collect if you don’t have much money or much space,” Carter explains.

The power of the political button eventually became fertile ground for satire in the '70s.Princeton Architectural Press/Amazon

Looking forward to the next 125 years, Carter hopes that buttons can become more eco-friendly by eliminating steel use and replacing it with recycled materials. “They haven’t changed that much in the last 125 years. They are pretty timeless in that way, and they are inexpensive, so whatever keeps them as inexpensive as possible as resources change in the next 100 years, they will probably change."

You can order Button Power: 125 Years of Saying It With Buttons on Amazon or on the Princeton Architectural Press website.

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