In the summer of 1986, the Berlin Wall turned 25. On its anniversary, noting the general measure of grudging acceptance the wall had earned among Germans on both sides, a British journalist wrote that in all likelihood, the wall “will still be there for the 50th anniversary.” That would have been last year, but as we know the wall couldn’t make it another half-decade. Today, then, is the 25th anniversary of perhaps the most significant moment in the life of the wall aside from its construction and destruction: Ronald Reagan’s speech imploring Mikhail Gorbachev to tear it down.
In his own book on the fall of the wall, William F. Buckley wrote—with what one imagines to be a not-insignificant amount of gleeful satisfaction—of the various arguments Reagan’s advisers employed to try to talk him out of those two famous sentences:
The president must not speak those words. They would harm Gorbachev and get in the way of continuing Soviet reforms. And if Reagan used such language, it would harm him. Any demand so importunate, so outrageous and inflammatory, was among other things “not presidential.”
The late Peter Rodman, the erudite and esteemed national security affairs deputy, was one of those aides. In his own account, Rodman admitted that “the whole affair is a vivid example of a president’s possessing a strategic and moral insight that escaped his experts. Reagan’s intuition about Gorbachev was undoubtedly right.”
And that is what was both impressive and misunderstood about Reagan’s speech. He wasn’t there primarily to rile up a crowd, or be some kind of folk hero. Reagan was having a public conversation with Gorbachev. He appealed to the Soviet leader’s better angels–to Gorbachev the revolutionary, the reformer.
The other thing Reagan understood better than most was the importance of symbolism. Reagan insisted on keeping the controversial lines in the speech because in his mind he had no choice. As American Ambassador Richard Burt explained, quoted by Romesh Ratnesar, “There’s no way [Reagan] can stand there in front of the wall and not make that statement.”
Reagan’s speech did not bring down the wall, but it was a memorable and vivid expression of what did. And, perhaps as much in retrospect as at the time, it taught the public something about Reagan, the man they thought they had known pretty well after nearly two full terms as president. As Ratnesar retells it, Reagan knew exactly what he was doing at that wall, as evidenced by his exchange with the press on his way to deliver the speech:
“Mr. President,” NBC’s Chris Wallace shouted as Reagan was being escorted back outside, “some of these demonstrators think Gorbachev is more a man of peace than you are.” Reagan stopped and looked back over his shoulder. He said, “They just have to learn, don’t they?”