Today is the 30th anniversary of President Ronald Reagan’s famous Brandenburg Gate speech given in front of the infamous Berlin Wall where he challenged Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev to “tear down this wall”. As riveting as was the actual speech (the full speech is here https://youtu.be/5MDFX-dNtsM and the money part is here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YtYdjbpBk6A), what is equally riveting are two fascinating back stories.
Reagan’s speechwriter Peter Robinson arrived in Berlin three weeks ahead of the official Presidential party to do research as background for the speech. Before meeting people, the senior American diplomat in the Berlin Embassy assigned to brief Robinson urged him to not mention the Wall because West Berliners had gotten used to it. Mr. Robinson recalls that he got his idea for the famous line of his speech from the reaction of the guests at a dinner party he attended not long after his arrival. At the dinner was a gathering of some Berlin society elites: a prominent industrialist, businessmen, several well-known academics and a popular socialite. Discussion had been polite and genial when partway through the dinner, the subject turned to the coming Presidential speech at the front of the most famous part of the Berlin Wall, the Brandenburg Gate. Robinson was curious to gauge attitudes in the room to the Wall and the speech. At first there was an embarrassed silence as it clearly was not a topic in polite society. Various around the table mumbled politically correct bromides and made rather neutral comments. There was a pause in the conversation and suddenly one of the women changed her tone and said bluntly and loudly “I don’t care what you think but I hate the wall with a passion”. With emotion tinging her voice she said that her sister lived only 5 km from her apartment but that she had not been able to see her over 20 years. She pounded her fist and said that if Gorbachev was serious about peace, he’d get rid of the Wall. This outburst acted as an emotional dam burst and suddenly almost everyone in the room piled on with similar comments that betrayed the visceral loathing that all in the room actually held for the Wall and all it stood for. Various of them told similar stores of family separation and of the sadness and trauma associated with the brutal partitioning of Berlin.
Robinson was taken completely by surprise. Here was the creme of Berlin society and to a man and a woman, they detested the wall and the communist ideology that erected it. This strong reaction from normally such polite and measured people made Robinson realise that the existence of the Wall was a huge hot button issue for Berliners and that to make a bold statement about its removal was a comment that Reagan’s audience in Berlin would warm to. The speech was drafted, Reagan liked it and it was entered the system and circulated amongst the State Department and other key Cabinet members in advance of the actual speech so that the diplomats could be ready for its impact. Well all hell broke loose. The entire foreign policy apparatus of the government immediately weighed in with lengthy memos strongly urging the “tear down the wall” line be taken out with dire warnings of inflaming Cold War tensions, provoking the Soviets into some form of damaging reprisal and calling it naive and needlessly raising expectations. Soon Reagan had his Chief of Staff Howard Baker, his Secretary of State George Schultz and even National Security Adviser Carlucci all urging the him to listen to the officials and take out the line.
Reagan allowed the debate to rage around him but demurred on a decision. In the final meeting in the hotel suite the day before the speech, Reagan met with his Deputy Chief of Staff Ken Duberstein who again represented the consensus objections of many in the senior echelons of government and showed him their various revised drafts. Reagan turned to Duberstein asked, “Am I the President and can I say what I want in a speech?” to which he replied, “Yes Mr. President”. Reagan emphatically said to him “the line stays in”. The rest, as they say, is history.
The Soviet Dissident in the Gulags
An equally gripping tale of the impact of the speech is told by prominent Soviet Jewish dissident Natan Sharansky in his landmark book “The Case for Democracy”. At the time of the speech, he was the third most senior Soviet dissident incarcerated in the Gulags (after Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Andrei Sakharov). He said that when news of the speech was smuggled in to one prisoner in a coded letter, he tapped the news in Morse code to his neighbouring prisoner who in turn tapped Morse code or whispered the line of Reagan’s speech from cell to cell until all the prisoners knew. He said that as each man heard the news, a cheer would go up. He said the feeling in the prison camp was electrifying and that hope swept through the camp like a wildfire. It raised the spirits of these starved and tortured men immeasurably. They knew that leader of the free world was prepared to stand up to the Soviets and call for the dismantling of one of the most potent symbols of their repression. Sharansky said that he knew at that moment that the days of the Soviet regime were numbered if Reagan remained President.