Sometimes a president has to step out on a limb and do something he knows is needed and is right, even though his political advisors say otherwise. That is what President Ronald Reagan did in 1987 at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin when he demanded “Mr Gorboachev, tear down this wall.”
On Saturday Germany celebrated the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.
The wall stood for 28 years dividing the free West Berlin from the communist/socialist East Berlin keeping Germans from fleeing the oppression of East Germany.
That did not stop people from trying as thousands risked their lives to escape over the Berlin Wall with 140 killed in the attempt.
In 2007 Peter Robinson, the man assigned to write Reagan’s speech explained how Reagan’s top advisors were opposed to those four words in the speech.
The advice he received from the ranking American diplomat in Berlin was “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 was bad advice.
After Robinson spoke with a dozen actual Berliners at dinner he received the opposite impression.
It was his hostess who gave him the idea for that iconic line. She made a fist with one hand and pounded it into the palm of the other. “If this man Gorbachev is serious with his talk of glasnost and perestroika,” she said, “he can prove it. He can get rid of this wall.”
Three weeks before the speech both the State Department and the National Security Council attempted to squelch that famous line.
Others objecting to the speech included Colin Powell, then deputy national security adviser, chief of staff Howard Baker and Secretary of State George Schultz.
Today we are constantly told about how President Trump’s advisors disagree with him. It’s not the first time that has happened and won’t be the last.
The day Reagan arrived in Berlin he said. “The boys at State are going to kill me, but it’s the right thing to do.”
According to History.com Reagan’s speech received relatively little media coverage, and few accolades, at the time. Western pundits viewed it as misguided idealism on Reagan’s part.
In 1989 it was not Gorboachev who tore down the wall, it was the people of East Berlin when Günter Schabowski, the head of East Germany’s Communist Party, announced that citizens could now cross into West Germany freely.
In 2016 Connie and I traveled to Washington D.C. with the Missouri Press Association.
While in D.C. we visited the Newsum, an interactive museum that promotes free expression and the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. It was there that we were able to see and touch a section of the 12 foot tall Berlin wall and one of the towers where guards were stationed to stop escapees.
When you see a section of the wall it becomes real. Not a story or myth.
On a sad note the Newsum is closing on Dec. 31. If you are planning to be in D.C. before then it is well worth your time to visit this museum which has wonderful exhibits and digitally displays nearly 1,000 newspapers’ front pages each day from around the world.
During a celebration on Saturday marking the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, Germany unveiled a statue at the Brandenburg Gate.
It was not a statue of Gorboachev or Schabowski but of Reagan. Because words matter.
You see even though the speech received little media coverage in the west it was heard over most of Germany, including East Germany, where according to Douglas Brinkley, professor of history at Rice University, Reagan’s speech is “seen as a turning point in the Cold War” because it “bolstered the morale of the pro-democracy movement in East Germany.”
Robinson described what he saw in a helicopter ride over the two Berlins. “On one side of the wall lay movement, color, modern architecture, crowded sidewalks, traffic. On the other lay a kind of void. Buildings still exhibited pockmarks from shelling during the war. Cars appeared few and decrepit, pedestrians badly dressed.”
The contrast between a free and democratic society and a socialist government was never more noticeable than with that wall.