Remembering Reagan's "Tear Down This Wall" speech 25 years later

March 24, 2018 – 11:22 am


(CBS News) On June 12, 1987, in a dramatic speech set against the backdrop of Berlin's Brandenburg Gate, President Ronald Reagan delivered a challenge to Soviet leader Mikahil 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."

The speech, delivered about 100 yards from the Berlin Wall, marked Reagan's most prominent call for the reunification of East and West Berlin, and was considered a bold challenge to Gorbachev to prove he was serious about reforming Soviet governmental policies. Ultimately, it also signaled a hallmark moment in Reagan's presidency.

"The audience was exhilarated, " says CBS News senior White House correspondent Bill Plante, who covered the speech for CBS at the time. "And so were most of us who covered the event."

See Plante's 1987 script for the report

The speech is remembered largely for Reagan's explicit call to "tear down this wall, " but the line, now recognized as its most powerful, almost didn't make it in to the script.

For weeks prior to the address, there had been controversy within the administration over whether or not to include it. According to Peter Robinson, the writer tasked with crafting the speech, there was resistance among both the State Department and the National Security Council (NSC) over the language. Detractors - among whom included then Deputy National Security Adviser Colin Powell - thought the "tear down this wall" line would be taken as an affront to Gorbachev, and could undermine policies he was already implementing aimed at opening Soviet society.

In fact, Robinson said, members of the state department and NSC were so concerned that they submitted "draft after draft after draft" of alternate possible versions of the address - absent in all of which was the direct call to "tear down this wall."

"The fear was that it was too provocative and that it was undermine Gorbachev's efforts at Glasnost and Perestroika, " said Ken Duberstein, former White House Chief of Staff under Reagan, who was at the time Reagan's Deputy Chief of Staff.

The president, however, appeared to have no hesitation over whether or not to deliver the line.

"We were in the limousine on the way to the Brandenburg Gate and he was reviewing the speech text one last time, " recalled Duberstein. "He was not using a teleprompter - he was using prepared remarks and paper. When he got to the section of the speech that was disputed by the State Department, he looked and me said, 'It's gonna drive the State Department boys crazy, but I'm gonna leave it in.'"

Despite the weeks of controversy that had preceded Reagan's address, most in the White House agreed afterward that the decision had been the right one, according to Robinson.

"Tommy [Griscom, the communications director at the time] said as soon as the president delivered the speech everybody felt that it had not only the right thing to do, but almost instantly it became impossible to imagine that he would not have done it, " said Robinson.

The Brandenburg Gate stands unilluminated during Earth Hour 2012 on March 31, 2012 in Berlin, Germany.

Photo by Adam Berry/Getty Images

Abroad, the reaction was more mixed: Tass, the Soviet press agency, accused Reagan of delivering an ''openly provocative, war-mongering speech." And according to Douglas Brinkley, a history professor at Rice University and the history consultant for CBS News, many observers saw the speech as "disastrous." Communist leaders were critical of the remarks, and even West Berlin's then-mayor, Eberhard Diepgen, was wary.


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