Seizing the Moment
Memorable presidential speeches are few and far between. But Ronald Reagan's words in Berlin two decades ago will live on
Duberstein said it was a great line, but Reagan was the president and he got to decide. Reagan read the passage and said, "I think we'll leave it in." In the limousine en route to the Berlin Wall for the actual address, Duberstein checked one last time. He asked the president to review the final draft, which contained the "tear down this wall" language.
Reagan, slapping Duberstein on the knee jovially, said: "The boys at State are going to kill me for this, but it's the right thing to do." He also confided later to friends that he wanted to mention Gorbachev specifically to put responsibility for the walland the division of Eastern Europesquarely on his shoulders.
So, on that dramatic June afternoon, Reagan delivered his lines. The staff members who had opposed the demand were "horrified," recalled Martin Anderson, a senior Reagan aide at the time. And the media reaction at home was tepid at best. Most of Reagan's critics thought that he was hopelessly naive and that the wall would remain intact for their lifetimes, at least.
But Reagan saw something that his detractors missed. He concluded that the U.S.S.R. was rotting from within, and that, if the West continued to forcefully apply economic, military, and diplomatic pressure, it would collapse. Millions of Europeans living under communism, especially those in East Germany, took Reagan's message to heart and felt that at last an American president was standing up for them. In the Kremlin, Russian sources say, Gorbachev dismissed the address as "just the actor being the actor."
But he quickly discovered that Reagan's words had resonance. "Suddenly, life without that wall became thinkable," says Robinson. "He permitted a new space for the imagination."
For his part, Reagan felt the impact immediately. "Addressed tens and tens of thousands of people stretching as far as I can see," he wrote in his diary June 12. "I got a tremendous receptioninterrupted 28 times by cheers."
It took a whiletwo more yearsbefore the hammer fell. When Gorbachev finally allowed Berliners to destroy the wall, blow by blow, in 1989, it was clear that Reagan's speech was not just a brilliant moment of theater. Miraculously, the Soviet Union broke up, just as Reagan said it would. The evil empire unraveled. And Reagan's words took on the mystique of prophecy.