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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8 Frightening Facts about Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw

John La Farge's title illustration for The Turn of the Screw in Collier's Weekly, 1898.
John La Farge's title illustration for The Turn of the Screw in Collier's Weekly, 1898.
Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Yale University, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

In 1898, Henry James published The Turn of the Screw, a bone-chilling novella about a governess, two seemingly saintly children, and a couple of wicked ghosts who may or may not actually be there. James wanted his terrifying tale to “scare the whole world,” and more than a century later, it’s still doing just that. The story has inspired countless adaptations in every format, the most recent being Netflix’s The Haunting of Bly Manor—a follow-up to 2018's The Haunting of Hill House (which was based on Shirley Jackson's classic 1959 novel). Prepare to be unnerved all over again with these facts about the classic novella.

1. The Archbishop of Canterbury planted the seed that inspired The Turn of the Screw.

The godly archbishop who inspired quite a devilish story.E.F. Benson, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

One afternoon in January 1895, Henry James and his cohorts were gathered around the fire at the country house of Edward White Benson, the Archbishop of Canterbury. While discussing how ghost stories had diminished in both quality and quantity, the esteemed church leader recounted a worthy one that a woman had told him years before. The story, James later wrote in his journal, involved “wicked and depraved” servants who “corrupt and deprave the children” in their charge and come back to haunt them after dying under mysterious circumstances. James also jotted down that the story should be told “by an outside spectator.” Not only does the story itself follow the basic plot of The Turn of the Screw, but James’s own fireside experience mirrors the opening frame of his novella, in which a man tells a ghost story that he first heard from a woman.

Benson died a couple of years before James got around to writing the story, and Benson's sons couldn’t recall their father ever having shared an anecdote that echoed it. But it seems probable that James spun his own story based on just a sentence or two; in his preface to the novella, he wrote that their host only remembered a “shadow of a shadow” of the story, likening it to a “precious pinch … extracted from an old silver snuff-box and held between finger and thumb.”

2. Henry James's main reason for writing The Turn of the Screw was because he needed money.

The royalties for James’s early novels were beginning to dry up by the 1890s, which prompted him to briefly pivot to playwriting. While most of his plays remained on paper only, Guy Domville did open in London in 1895. It was a disaster. “I’m the last, my lord, of the Domvilles!” the titular character exclaimed at the end, to which one disgruntled theatergoer allegedly very audibly responded, “It’s a bloody good thing y’are!”

James, humiliated and short on cash, quit theater and soon moved to New York. There, he resigned himself to work he despised: Writing serials for magazines. One of these was The Turn of the Screw, published in Collier’s Weekly between January and April 1898. "I have succumbed, in that matter, purely to the pecuniary argument … It means £40 a month, which I simply couldn’t afford not to accept,” James told fellow novelist William Dean Howells in a letter, confessing that he “will do it again & again, too, even for the same scant fee: it’s only a question of a chance!”

3. Henry James didn’t originally think much of The Turn of the Screw.

Henry James, failed playwright, painted by John Singer Sargent in 1913.National Portrait Gallery, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

James seemed to have a tough time separating his serialized work from the begrudging financial motivation behind it. He referred to it sardonically as “Literature drivel,” and considered The Turn of the Screw in particular “the most abject, down-on-all-fours pot-boiler, pure & simple, that a proud man brought low ever perpetrated.” Potboiler, a derogatory term for art or literature created for money, appears throughout his correspondence. In a letter to the poet F.W.H. Myers from December 1898, James called The Turn of the Screw "a very mechanical matter … an inferior, a merely pictorial, subject and rather a shameless pot-boiler.”

“I could easily say worse of [The Turn of the Screw] ... than the worst any one else could manage,” James wrote to H.G. Wells earlier that month. “The thing is essentially a pot-boiler and a jeu d’esprit.”

4. Henry James eventually came to appreciate The Turn of the Screw.

Despite its author’s private slights, The Turn of the Screw proved popular among readers and reviewers alike. The New York Tribune dubbed it “one of the most thrilling stories we have ever read,” and The American Monthly Review of Reviews described it as “a beautiful pearl: something perfect, rounded, calm, unforgettable.” Even critics with much less glowing remarks at least acknowledged its shock value. The Independent, for example, called it “the most hopelessly evil story that we could have read in any literature.”

In 1908, James published the novella in the 12th volume of The Novels and Tales of Henry James, New York Edition—a 24-volume collection of his selected works—and his preface suggested a change of heart toward the potboiler. He called it “a piece of ingenuity pure and simple, of cold artistic calculation, an amusette to catch those not easily caught” and pontificates about the mechanics of writing it.

“Indeed if the artistic value of such an experiment be measured by the intellectual echoes it may again, long after, set in motion, the case would make in favor of this little firm fantasy—which I seem to see draw behind it a train of associations,” he writes. “I ought doubtless to blush for thus confessing them so numerous that I can but pick among them for reference.”

5. Henry James made around 500 edits to The Turn of the Screw after its initial publication.

The governess sees a specter (or does she?) in Eric Pape's illustration for Collier's Weekly.Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Yale University, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

While the success of The Turn of the Screw may have contributed to James’s newfound fondness, it’s also likely that he was much happier with the 1908 version of the tale. It wasn’t published piecemeal, and it didn’t have the illustrations that Collier’s had printed with the serialized edition. James also made more than 500 edits to the text itself. These alterations don’t really impact the story, but it’s clear that James carefully tinkered with each sentence to find what he considered the perfect word or phrase. In a few places, for example, he changes stellar references to lunar ones—"bare to the constellations" became "uncovered to the moonlight," and "a great glitter of starlight" became "a great still moon"—and Flora’s "furious wail" goes from being "produced" to being "launched."

6. Critics can’t agree on whether or not the governess imagined the ghosts in The Turn of the Screw.

Even though the edits seem stylistic on the surface, critics have still used them to try to prove certain theories about the story. Perhaps the most highly contested one involves the reliability of the governess. Some scholars believe that she’s suffering from psychosis or another mental illness that’s causing her to hallucinate the ghosts, since we only ever hear her personal account of them (and the idea that the children can also see them is also solely based on her perception). Others, meanwhile, think The Turn of the Screw is a good, old-fashioned ghost story with good, old-fashioned ghosts. Proponents of the former theory cite James’s shift in verbiage as an indication that he wants us to distrust the governess—on many occasions in the 1908 edition, he changed phrasing to make her experiences seem more subjective. “I became sure” was changed to “I felt sure”; “I perceived” became “I felt”; “I found myself” became “I knew”; and so on. Skeptics argue that this shift isn’t consistent and there are still plenty of strong, objective verbs to make the point moot.

7. The Turn of the Screw scared almost everyone—including its author.

Eager listeners gather for a ghost story in another illustration by Eric Pape.Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Yale University, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Rife with sinister uncertainty and culminating in a horrific cliffhanger, The Turn of the Screw is widely regarded as one of the best scary stories in American literature. So scary, in fact, that even James was spooked by it. “I had to correct the proofs of my ghost story last night,” he told poet Edmund Gosse, “and when I had finished them I was so frightened that I was afraid to go upstairs to bed!”

One person, however, remained completely unperturbed: James’s stenographer, William MacAlpine. James was ill while writing the story, so he decided to dictate it to MacAlpine. He also hoped seeing MacAlpine’s reaction to the tale might help him predict how other readers would receive it.

“Judge of my dismay when from first to last page this iron Scot betrayed not the slightest shade of feeling!” James said. “I dictated to him sentences that I thought would make him leap from his chair; he short-handed them as though they had been geometry, and whenever I paused to see him collapse, he would enquire in a dry voice, ‘What next?’”

8. Netflix’s The Haunting of Bly Manor is based on The Turn of the Screw.

More than 120 years after its initial publication, The Turn of the Screw continues to inspire adaptations of every kind (and caliber). Floria Sigismondi's poorly received film The Turning, which was released in January, is a contemporary spin on the story, and horror fans have high hopes for another modern take: Netflix’s The Haunting of Bly Manor, which premieres on October 9. It’s the second season of an anthology series called The Haunting of Hill House, whose first season is based on Shirley Jackson’s 1959 horror novel of the same name. Jackson's novel, incidentally, is often compared to The Turn of the Screw.