30th Anniversary of Reagan’s ‘Tear Down This Wall’ Speech: An Essential Lesson for Today’s Leaders

Thirty years ago today, the world saw one of the twentieth century’s greatest examples of leadership, an example of moral clarity and political courage that may not have been matched since, but which the world desperately needs to be reminded of today.

On June 12, 1987, President Ronald Reagan delivered delivered his defining speech at the Brandenburg Gate in West Berlin (the entirety of which can be read here and watched here). There he challenged Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to back up his Communist regime’s rhetorical baby steps toward freedom with an action that would make a real difference:

We hear much from Moscow about a new policy of reform and openness. Some political prisoners have been released. Certain foreign news broadcasts are no longer being jammed. Some economic enterprises have been permitted to operate with greater freedom from state control. Are these the beginnings of profound changes in the Soviet state? Or are they token gestures, intended to raise false hopes in the West, or to strengthen the Soviet system without changing it? We welcome change and openness; for we believe that freedom and security go together, that the advance of human liberty can only strengthen the cause of world peace.

There is one sign the Soviets can make that would be unmistakable, that would advance dramatically the cause of freedom and peace. 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!

But while many Americans and most conservatives today understand the significance of this moment to America finally winning the Cold War under Reagan’s leadership (the wall came down two years later), fewer realize that if Reagan’s own advisers had their way, it never would have happened.

At the Daily Signal, Reagan biographer Lee Edwards explains:

White House aide Peter Robinson, who drafted Reagan’s Berlin Wall speech, has recounted how the State Department and the National Security Council fought for weeks, right up to the day that the speech was delivered, to delete the words “tear down this wall!” on the grounds they were overly provocative.

When Robinson asked the president what he wanted to say to the German people “on the other side of the Berlin Wall,” Reagan replied, “That wall has to come down. That’s what I’d like to say.” And so he did.

Robinson has elaborated:

The week the President left for Europe, [White House communications director] Tom Griscom began summoning me to his office each time State or the NSC submitted a new objection. Each time, Griscom had me tell him why I believed State and the NSC were wrong and the speech, as I’d written it, was right. When I reached Griscom’s office on one occasion, I found Colin Powell, then deputy national security adviser, waiting for me. I was a 30-year-old who had never held a full-time job outside speechwriting. Powell was a decorated general. After listening to Powell recite all the arguments against the speech in his accustomed forceful manner, however, I heard myself reciting all the arguments in favor of the speech in an equally forceful manner.

Incredibly, Robinson goes on to recount how not even the fact that the president himself still liked the line didn’t get the administration’s naysayers to stop trying to knock it out — up until the morning of the speech. Ultimately, it stayed in for one simple reason: the president’s confidence in his own convictions. “The boys at State are going to kill me,” Reagan said, “but it’s the right thing to do.”

Communism fell due to a combination of factors — the Soviets’ inability to match America’s defense buildup chief among them — but ultimately it was all driven by Reagan’s refusal to accept the Evil Empire’s legitimacy. That conviction was a huge departure from the decades-long conventional wisdom of both parties.

As today’s America faces a different, but just as evil and even more dangerous, global power in the form of Islamic supremacism, that may be the most important lesson President Trump and his successors need to take from President Reagan’s example: while a leader must consider the expertise of those around him, the right decisions ultimately require his own independently-developed set of principles, reinforced by the fortitude to see them through no matter what.