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Did Reagan's 'Tear Down This Wall!' Speech, 25 Years Ago, Really Matter?

U.S. President Ronald Reagan speaks in front of the Brandenburg Gate and the Berlin Wall on June 12, 1987.
Twenty-five-years ago, U.S. President Ronald Reagan delivered one of the most -- perhaps the most -- iconic speeches of his presidency.

On June 12, 1987, Reagan stood before Berlin's Brandenburg Gate and uttered four words (just as President John F. Kennedy did 24 years before with "Ich bin ein Berliner") that have resonated across the decades:

"There is one sign the Soviets can make that would be unmistakable, that would advance dramatically the cause of freedom and peace. General Secretary [Mikhail] 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!

And two years later, the wall would come tumbling down.

In a revealing essay for "The Wall Street Journal," former Reagan speechwriter Peter Robinson recalls that the State Department, the National Security Council, and the ranking U.S. diplomat in Berlin all objected to Reagan delivering the speech:
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 speaking copy of Reagan's Brandenburg Gate address (courtesy of the National Archives)
The speaking copy of Reagan's Brandenburg Gate address (courtesy of the National Archives)
Robinson quotes Reagan as telling his deputy chief of staff, Kenneth Duberstein, "The boys at State are going to kill me for this, but it's the right thing to do."

The right thing to do, perhaps, but in his essay, Robinson wonders whether the speech had any impact, whether it really mattered.

Gorbachev himself told an American audience earlier this year: "We were not impressed. We knew that Mr. Reagan's original profession was actor."

But Robinson says he has been convinced otherwise. First, by a former German World Bank employee, Dieter Elz, who credited Reagan with changing Germany's consciousness that day:
"Everyone was aware of the suffering in the East, 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?"

And then by Yuri Yarim-Agaev, a former Soviet physicist and dissident who's now a consultant in New York:
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."

"The Berlin Wall address," Robinson writes, "represented a call to awaken."

Two years later, the people of Berlin did just that.
U.S. President Ronald Reagan tours the Berlin Wall before delivering his speech.
U.S. President Ronald Reagan tours the Berlin Wall before delivering his speech.

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Written by RFE/RL editors and correspondents, Transmission serves up news, comment, and the odd silly dictator story. While our primary concern is with foreign policy, Transmission is also a place for the ideas -- some serious, some irreverent -- that bubble up from our bureaus. The name recognizes RFE/RL's role as a surrogate broadcaster to places without free media. You can write us at

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