Tear Out This Line: How Ronald Reagan’s Most Famous Words Almost Got Silenced
By Matt Soniak
"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.
"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!”
*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.