But in Moscow, the target of Reagan’s fiery rhetoric, Gorbachev was unperturbed and his top aides made clear to their American counterparts that they were fine with Reagan’s demand. Standard Cold War stuff, they said. Bring it on.
Thirty years after the Reagan speech, video of that zinger — “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” — has become shorthand for a version of history in which the U.S. vanquishes what Reagan called the “evil empire,” with the Great Communicator himself setting the collapse of Soviet communism into motion. As time edits the end of Cold War into the two-sentence version that shows up in high school textbooks and pop history videos, the juxtaposition is just too enticing: Reagan issues his demand in Berlin on June 12, 1987, and two years later, the Wall opens and half a century of East-West animus dissolves.
But at the time, the speech was hardly seen as the beginning of any end. To the contrary, what is today often referred to as perhaps Reagan’s most powerful one-liner was almost completely ignored.
The speech didn’t make many front pages back home (but the New York Times that day did highlight a story about new clashes between Polish police and workers, the real beginning of the end of the Soviet East bloc). The network newscasts barely noted it. Germany’s main news magazine, Der Spiegel, reported nothing about the speech until six months later, when it called Reagan’s address “the work of amateurs.”
The primary “amateur” in question was John Kornblum, who came up with the idea of having the president throw down the challenge. “It’s gone down in history as this great important speech, which is sort of funny because it was totally ignored at the time,” said Kornblum, then the top U.S. official in Berlin and later the U.S. ambassador to Germany. “If the Wall had not come down, nobody would have thought of the speech again.”
But, of course, the Wall did fall and the speech retroactively became a soaring achievement. When ex-president Reagan made a triumphant return to Berlin in 1990, he took a hammer to one of the still-standing remnants of the Wall and said that he had set in motion “a process in the Soviet Union that has not ended.” In the 1987 speech, Reagan had envisioned a reunited Berlin with free air traffic, a jointly sponsored Olympics and a bustling conference center. Except for the Olympics, most of what he dreamed of came to pass.
Still, Reagan remained deeply unpopular in Germany, viewed more as a warmongering cowboy than as a world-changing peacemaker. “The Germans had gotten it in their heads that Gorbachev was the only thing that was going to save Europe from nuclear war,” Kornblum said.
In West Germany in the late 1980s, as historian Timothy Garton Ash has written, many people believed that nothing was more important than maintaining peace, not even freedom. “Better red than dead,” Ash’s friends in the West German peace movement would tell him.
Historians continue to argue about whether Reagan’s speech paved the path to taking down the Wall or was “empty rhetoric,” irrelevant to the fate of both the Wall and Soviet communism. “This is a debate that will go on forever,” Kornblum said.
“It wasn’t an earthshaking event,” said Romesh Ratnesar, author of a book on Reagan’s speech in Berlin, “Tear Down This Wall.” “A groundswell of dissent was already building in East Germany and Eastern Europe. Would the collapse have happened without Reagan and the speech? Probably. The speech obtained more influence after the fact, years later. Nevertheless, it established the goal and the vision that was then hard for the U.S. to back away from.”
Gorbachev himself has repeatedly noted that far from being angered or chastened by Reagan’s speech, he considered the American president a friend and realized from the start that Reagan’s harsh rhetoric was aimed at the West Germans, not at him.
“You can’t overstate the importance of the personal chemistry between Reagan and Gorbachev from the moment they first met in Geneva in ’85,” Ratnesar said. “We don’t really see those kinds of relationships between leaders anymore because they were built on three or four days of sustained conversation between two leaders at long, serious summits.”
The Reagan-Gorbachev bond clearly created a level of trust that allowed the Soviet leader to focus on internal reforms without putting the confrontation with the West at the top of his agenda, but in all of their summit meetings, the Wall came up for discussion only a couple of times and only briefly.
The speech was born in Kornblum’s mind as a way to try to reposition the United States in German public opinion and in the West German political parties as a moral voice for human rights. “We could see that the Germans were breaking away,” believing that Reagan’s military buildup was likely to turn the Cold War hot, Kornblum said. By going to the Brandenburg Gate — the iconic arch that had been cordoned off in the no man’s land that the Wall created at the center of the divided city — and staking out moral high ground, the president could symbolically reach out to Germans who had been yearning for four decades for a return to normalcy.
But officials at the White House and State thought such a dramatic gesture would antagonize Gorbachev just as Reagan was developing a good relationship with him, and West German leaders — more inclined toward accommodation with the Soviets than with a lunge for change — tried to block the American planners from staging the president’s address within view of the Wall.
Reagan had made powerful statements about the Soviet Union throughout his presidency. In 1982, in another visit to Berlin, he asked, “Do Soviet leaders want to be remembered for a prison wall, ringed with barbed wire and with armed guards, whose weapons are aimed at their own civilians?”
In his early drafts of the speech, Kornblum included a direct call to Gorbachev to open the Wall. Back in Washington, White House speechwriter Peter Robinson was similarly inclined and weeks of heated debate ensued.
Robinson has said that when he showed the draft to Reagan, the president immediately embraced the tough language. But White House chief of staff Howard Baker said the challenge to Gorbachev was “unpresidential,” Secretary of State George Shultz said the times called for caution rather than brassy naivete, and other officials thought the call to tear down the wall would raise false expectations.
It was only when Air Force One landed in Berlin that a White House official approached Kornblum and said Reagan had decided. “Congratulations, your sentence made it in,” the official said.
Reagan nailed the delivery, coming across as tough and morally clear. “It was a defining moment of the Reagan presidency,” Ratnesar said, “because it embodied what Americans most admired about Reagan as an orator and great communicator.”
Over the next two years, the dissident movements in East Germany, Poland and other countries behind the Iron Curtain grew larger and bolder. In the fall of 1989, when East Germans took to the streets of Leipzig in silent, peaceful marches and thousands of their countrymen fled the Soviet bloc through new holes in the borders with Hungary and Czechoslovakia, the collapse began in earnest.
The Wall finally did open up in November 1989. Within weeks, Reagan’s 1987 speech was resurrected as a harbinger of the change to come.