By Peter M. Robinson
Twenty-five years ago this month, on June 12, 1987, Ronald Reagan delivered a speech in Berlin. Standing in front of the Berlin Wall, with the Brandenburg Gate, the historic ceremonial entrance to the city, rising behind him, the president of the United States issued a challenge to the leader of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev.
“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.
“Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate.
“Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.”
This may sound odd coming from a Reagan speechwriter, but for much of these past 25 years a question about the Berlin Wall address bothered me: Had it really mattered? The speech had been just that, a speech. Mere talk. Had it made any difference?
The Berlin Wall address revealed a lot about Reagan himself, I always granted. The State Department, the National Security Council and the ranking American diplomat in Berlin all objected to it. The challenge to tear down the wall, they insisted, would raise false hopes, place Mr. Gorbachev in a difficult position inside the Politburo, and divert attention from modest but realistic initiatives, such as negotiations to increase air traffic between West Berlin and Western Europe. State and the NSC submitted alternative drafts—by my count, no fewer than seven—each of which omitted the call to tear down the wall. The president insisted on delivering the call anyway.
“The boys at State are going to kill me for this,” the president told Kenneth Duberstein, his deputy chief of staff, in the limousine on the way to the wall, “but it’s the right thing to do.”
Yet if the speech enabled President Reagan to display tenacity and moral clarity, had it changed anything? “Don’t be surprised,” Mr. Gorbachev explained this past spring, answering a question from an American audience, “but we really were not impressed. We knew that Mr. Reagan’s original profession was actor.”
The Berlin Wall address, pure theater.
A German retiree, Dieter Elz, and a former Soviet dissident, Yuri Yarim-Agaev, finally convinced me otherwise.
Dieter Elz and I became friends in April 1987, soon after he left the World Bank and, with his wife, Ingeborg, retired from Washington, D.C., to West Berlin. Learning through a mutual acquaintance that I was visiting the city for research, Dieter and his wife hosted a dinner party for me. When I asked about their attitude toward the wall, Ingeborg, a gracious woman, grew angry. She blurted out a remark that I recorded in my notebook—and, composing the speech back at the White House, adapted. “If this man Gorbachev is serious with his talk of ‘glasnost’ and ‘perestroika,’” Ingeborg had said, “he can prove it by getting rid of this wall.” From Ingeborg Elz to “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.”
“I can see why Gorbachev would say so, but it was no piece of theater,” Dieter, now in his 80s, told me when I called recently. “Here stood the most powerful man of the world. And he spoke the most powerful words he could have spoken. This was fact.”
When the Red Army swept into Germany at the end of the World War II, he explained, he and Ingeborg had both fled—Dieter, just 17, had had to escape from a Soviet prisoner of war camp. When they retired to Germany four decades later, the division of the continent had come to seem permanent, inescapable, fixed.
“Everyone was aware of the suffering in the East,” Dieter said, “but no one could see what to do about it. Reagan made us understand that maybe things could be different. Here is a piece of wall. Why not remove it? Reagan changed—how would you say it in English? In German, Bewusstsein. Consciousness? Yes. He changed our consciousness.”
Later I spoke with Yuri Yarim-Agaev. Now a consultant in New York, Yuri trained as a physicist in the Soviet Union. As a young man he had become a dissident, joining Yuri Orlov and other scientists in a group that monitored Soviet compliance with human-rights agreements. Exiled in 1980—the KGB had picked him up on a Moscow street, giving him just days to leave the country—Yuri had remained in touch with the dissident movement until the Soviet Union collapsed.
“Theater?” Yuri said. “No.”
In the 1975 Helsinki Accords, Yuri explained, even the West accepted the division of Europe. “Imagine how hard this made our struggle. We almost had to admit that it was hopeless. Then Reagan says, ‘Break the wall!’ Why break this wall if these borders are valid? To us, it was more than a question of Berlin or even of Germany. It was a question of the legitimacy of the Soviet empire. Reagan challenged the empire. To us, that meant everything. After that speech, everything was in play.”
Das Bewusstsein wiedererlangen. To regain consciousness. Zu Bewusstsein kommen. To come to, to snap out of it, to awaken. Ronald Reagan was hardly alone, of course. John Paul II, Margaret Thatcher, Lech Walesa and Vaclav Havel called for an end to the division of Europe. Yet when the president of the United States demanded the destruction of the Berlin Wall, Dieter and Yuri enabled me to see, he issued a summons of such power and clarity that many who heard him felt as if they had suddenly regained consciousness. The Berlin Wall address represented a call to awaken.
A final note: Although Nancy Reagan, who will turn 91 next month, no longer gives interviews, a friend at the Reagan Library asked her a question on my behalf, then relayed her answer. Had the president ever remarked that it was the people of Berlin, not General Secretary Gorbachev, who had torn down the Berlin Wall? “Oh, yes,” Mrs. Reagan replied. “He always felt that it happened because the people made it happen, and he was happy to have helped them in any way possible.”
Ronald Reagan, that good and valiant man, happy to have helped.
Mr. Robinson, a fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution and a founder of Ricochet.com, wrote speeches in the Reagan White House from 1982 to 1988. He is writing a book on the Cold War.