Tomorrow it will have been twenty five years since President Reagan, against the advice of many of his "experts," uttered these famous four words, "Tear down this wall." I remember it well.
In an editorial, his former speechwriter movingly captures the background and true meaning of what happened in Berlin on June 12, 1987 in Four Words That Moved The World: 'Tear Down This Wall':
"Twenty-five years ago this month, on June 12, 1987, Ronald Reagan
delivered a speech in Berlin. Standing in front of the Berlin Wall, with
the Brandenburg Gate, the historic ceremonial entrance to the city,
rising behind him, the president of the United States issued a challenge
to the leader of the Soviet Union, Mikhail 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."
This may sound odd coming from a Reagan speechwriter, but for much of
these past 25 years a question about the Berlin Wall address bothered
me: Had it really mattered? The speech had been just that, a speech.
Mere talk. Had it made any difference? . . .
"The boys at State are going to kill me for this," the president told
Kenneth Duberstein, his deputy chief of staff, in the limousine on the
way to the wall, "but it's the right thing to do."
Yet if the speech enabled President Reagan to display tenacity and
moral clarity, had it changed anything? "Don't be surprised," Mr.
Gorbachev explained this past spring, answering a question from an
American audience, "but we really were not impressed. We knew that Mr.
Reagan's original profession was actor.". . .
The Berlin Wall address, pure theater.
A German retiree, Dieter Elz, and a former Soviet dissident, Yuri Yarim-Agaev, finally convinced me otherwise.
Dieter Elz and I became friends in
April 1987, soon after he left the World Bank and, with his wife,
Ingeborg, retired from Washington, D.C., to West Berlin. Learning
through a mutual acquaintance that I was visiting the city for research,
Dieter and his wife hosted a dinner party for me. When I asked about
their attitude toward the wall, Ingeborg, a gracious woman, grew angry.
She blurted out a remark that I recorded in my notebook—and, composing
the speech back at the White House, adapted. "If this man Gorbachev is
serious with his talk of 'glasnost' and 'perestroika,'" Ingeborg had
said, "he can prove it by getting rid of this wall." From Ingeborg Elz
to "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall."
"I can see why Gorbachev would say so, but it was no piece of
theater," Dieter, now in his 80s, told me when I called recently. "Here
stood the most powerful man of the world. And he spoke the most powerful
words he could have spoken. This was fact."
When the Red Army swept into Germany at the end of the World War II,
he explained, he and Ingeborg had both fled—Dieter, just 17, had had to
escape from a Soviet prisoner of war camp. When they retired to Germany
four decades later, the division of the continent had come to seem
permanent, inescapable, fixed.
"Everyone was aware of the suffering in the East," Dieter said, "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? Reagan changed—how would you say it in English? In German, Bewusstsein. Consciousness? Yes. He changed our consciousness."
Later I spoke with Yuri Yarim-Agaev. Now a consultant in New York,
Yuri trained as a physicist in the Soviet Union. As a young man he had
become a dissident, joining Yuri Orlov and other scientists in a group
that monitored Soviet compliance with human-rights agreements. Exiled in
1980—the KGB had picked him up on a Moscow street, giving him just days
to leave the country—Yuri had remained in touch with the dissident
movement until the Soviet Union collapsed.
"Theater?" Yuri said. "No."
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."
Das Bewusstsein wiedererlangen. To regain consciousness. Zu Bewusstsein kommen. To
come to, to snap out of it, to awaken. Ronald Reagan was hardly alone,
of course. John Paul II, Margaret Thatcher, Lech Walesa and Vaclav Havel
called for an end to the division of Europe. Yet when the president of
the United States demanded the destruction of the Berlin Wall, Dieter
and Yuri enabled me to see, he issued a summons of such power and
clarity that many who heard him felt as if they had suddenly regained
consciousness. The Berlin Wall address represented a call to awaken.
A final note: Although Nancy Reagan, who will turn 91 next month, no
longer gives interviews, a friend at the Reagan Library asked her a
question on my behalf, then relayed her answer. Had the president ever
remarked that it was the people of Berlin, not General Secretary
Gorbachev, who had torn down the Berlin Wall? "Oh, yes," Mrs. Reagan
replied. "He always felt that it happened because the people made it
happen, and he was happy to have helped them in any way possible."
Ronald Reagan, that good and valiant man, happy to have helped."
Recapping the Berlin Lessons
(1) Words matter. Ideas do, too.
(2) Regaining consciousness. Wake up. Snap out of it.
(3) The people made it happen.
(4) It was the right thing to do.
We the People need to internalize the many lessons to be learned from Reagan's "Tear Down This Wall" speech. (See 1-2-3-4-5-6-7 above.)
We also must dedicate ourselves to apply those lessons learned as we seek to solve the profound and difficult issues we're facing as a people today.
If anybody ever doubted the power of leadership, words, ideas, clarity and ordinary people, when acting together to do the right thing, what Reagan said 25 years ago should set them straight. And the rest of us, too.
Because compared to what Reagan accomplished in Berlin, our task will be a cakewalk.