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Reagan’s Brandenburg Concerto

Marking the 20th anniversary of Ronald Reagan's "Tear Down This Wall" speech.

Published on May 1, 2007

Retroview: “Tear Down This Wall” 1987

Twenty years ago this June, President Ronald Reagan mounted a podium in front of the ugly concrete barrier separating the Brandenburg Gate from West Berlin and delivered a speech that included a simple plea: “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.”

It seems hard to believe now that, barely two years before the fall of the Berlin Wall, such a self-evident request raised anxiety among Western Europe’s cognoscenti. But it’s true: A mood had been developing in Europe that caused many to react with unease to the President’s words. Fifteen years of Ostpolitik and six years of bitter argument over NATO’s plans to counter the new Soviet SS-20 missile with deployments of intermediate-range nuclear missiles (INF) of its own had bred in many Europeans an acute aversion to any confrontation with the East. Growing American concern about the consequences of such drift was the primary reason that the speech, initially intended as a ceremonial address on the occasion of Berlin’s 750th anniversary, became instead a major political statement.

In the West European public mind, during the spring of 1987, NATO’s effort to defend itself against a new Soviet weapon had become yet another chapter in the Reagan Administration’s confrontational, militarized stance against the Soviet Union. The agendas of most European leaders were increasingly being defined by worries about the possibility of an imminent nuclear war. Skillful Soviet psychological “coaching” had created a widespread impression that peace could be secured only on the foundation of a perpetually divided Europe. In fact, hopes in Germany and in much of Europe on that June day lay not with Ronald Reagan, but with Mikhail Gorbachev.

It would be satisfying to claim that Ronald Reagan’s stirring challenge dramatically reversed this mood. The truth, however, is that Reagan’s June 12, 1987 speech had little immediate effect. In the days and weeks following the event, neither the American nor the European press treated the speech as an especially noteworthy event. Neither, of course, did the Soviets.

It was only after November 1989, when the Soviet Empire began to crumble, that the world began to honor President Reagan’s challenge as a harbinger of change. President George H.W. Bush’s immediate support for Chancellor Helmut Kohl’s dramatic push for reunification transformed perceptions of the American role in Germany. Almost overnight, the 1987 speech was resurrected as proof of the American spirit that had made reunification possible. Until then, West Europeans had relegated it to the archives as another example of the poetic license the former movie star allowed himself on such ceremonial occasions.

Today, of course, President Reagan’s Berlin challenge has become an object of admiration and legend. As with all legends, its origins and purposes have been subject to many interpretations. Some have defined the speech as a singular demonstration of American idealism, transcending the less lofty aims of then-contemporary American foreign policy. Learned professors have sought to find still deeper truths in a text essentially written by a fractious committee. In any event, all such interpretations of Reagan’s Berlin speech miss a critical point: The President’s appearance before the Brandenburg Gate was not an isolated event. The speech was part of a calculated strategy, conceived over several years by Administration officials, to counter the damage to Transatlantic unity caused by the massive public opposition to NATO INF developments, and to arrest the steady drift in Germany toward accommodation with the Russians. How do I know? I was the person charged with much of the planning and substance of the event.

A Larger Strategy

The events at the Brandenburg Gate were meant to reinforce a strategy begun with the President’s first speech in Berlin five years earlier, in June 1982. At that time, Reagan had sought to counteract fears resulting from the INF debate by launching important arms control initiatives in the “Berlin Initiative for Peace.” I participated in the drafting of the 1982 address and was present at its delivery. The President included a call to the Soviets on the Berlin Wall using words considerably more pointed than those he uttered in 1987:

 

Do Soviet leaders want to be remembered for a prison wall, ringed with barbed wire and with armed guards, whose weapons are aimed at their own civilians? Do they want to conduct themselves in a way that will earn only the contempt of free peoples and distrust of their own citizens?

 

In 1982, the controversy over intermediate-range missiles in Europe was at its peak. Anti-Reagan demonstrations in Berlin were so severe that the U.S. Secret Service would not even allow the President to ride in his limousine through the city. His words about the Berlin Wall were lost in the drama of the missile debate. By the time of the speech at the Brandenburg Gate in June 1987, the U.S. Pershing II and cruise missiles were being stationed, but the complex negotiations aimed at removing both them and their Soviet counterparts from Europe had yet to bear fruit. A growing sense of East-West confrontation, nurtured carefully by the Soviet Union, continued to undermine self-confidence in Western Europe. American and German visions about the future of Europe were diverging significantly. Above all, in 1987 the First Secretary of the Communist Party was not Leonid Brezhnev; it was Mikhail Gorbachev.

The influential German news magazine Der Spiegel thus completely ignored the event at the time. Only six months later, in January 1988, did it carry its first report, under the headline, “The Work of Amateurs.” Its journalists, having dutifully collected comments from German and European officials, concluded that the speech had done more harm than good. Foreign Ministry officials were quoted as describing the initiative as “hasty, poorly conceived and full of risks.” I was fingered as the main “amateur” for having thought up the idea in the first place.

This was not the first time I had found myself enmeshed in German political debate. Between 1981 and 1985, when I was head of the Central European Division of the State Department, my fluency in German landed me the difficult task of debating the INF issue at public and private events in Germany. I spoke at dozens of meetings, often on the same platform with members of the German peace movement and the Soviet government.

The depth of European and especially German fears awakened by the missile confrontation made a deep impression on me. Often at public debates, I could not speak above the jeering from the audience. I was called a warmonger and worse. Mothers with tear-filled eyes carried their babies to me to plead for an end to “American aggression.” Fear of nuclear war had become palpable, and it was driving not a few Germans slightly over the edge. These experiences suggested to me that while the United States had won the military debate and had gained Allied approval to station new missiles in Europe, the Soviets were steadily winning the political and psychological war of words.

In the summer of 1985, I became U.S. Minister and Deputy Commandant of the United States in Berlin. As the senior American civilian official in the city, I was drawn into the public debate even more directly. In particular, I began to speak out against repeated proposals coming from across the political spectrum to abandon the special status of Berlin and Germany as a whole as a preliminary step for an arrangement with Gorbachev.11. Berlin’s special status resulted from agreements on the occupation of Germany concluded in 1945 among the four victorious powers. It was based on the original rights of victors to occupy Germany’s capital until the conclusion of a peace treaty. Neither German state was fully sovereign, and Berlin remained a collective ward of the United States, Great Britain, France and the Soviet Union until reunification in 1990.


The speech, June 12, 1987 [credit: WallyMcNamee/Corbis]

Why were ideas like these gaining such strong support? By 1987, many West Europeans believed that Gorbachev offered the West an unprecedented opportunity to pull back from what they considered to be a dangerous confrontation over INF. Rather than giving President Reagan credit for having brought the Soviets to the negotiating table, large segments of public opinion in Europe believed that the Americans had used a technical debate among arms control experts as a pretext to begin a dangerous escalation of the nuclear confrontation in Europe. Indeed, the belief that the Americans were actually considering nuclear war in Germany to smash Soviet nuclear potential was widespread, especially among young Germans. Opposing American “war plans” had become a rallying cry for political activism by a generation ten years removed from the anti-Vietnam movements of the 1960s and 1970s. We know now, of course, that the East German and Soviet governments financed many of the anti-INF peace movements.

Thanks in part to these pressures from public opinion, both voters and politicians in Germany became increasingly worried that the postwar European peace would collapse if the Americans continued to challenge the Soviets on human rights and nuclear weapons. Sentiment grew for a “Europeanization” of East-West relations, meaning in effect going around the Americans to conclude a separate peace with the East as the only way to end the military confrontation in Central Europe. The SPD and a coalition of peace activists argued for a “new Ostpolitk”, whose aim was accommodation rather than change. A first step was to be full diplomatic recognition of the German Democratic Republic, acceptance of East German citizenship, an end to Berlin’s special status and formal abandonment of the goal of reunification.

Had this effort succeeded, the ability of the Western Allies to exercise their rights to be in Berlin, and the chance of achieving democracy in all of Germany, would have effectively been destroyed. During the détente era, NATO countries had demanded Soviet recognition of the continued validity of these rights as the precondition for more normal East-West relations. This was achieved in the Quadrapartite Agreement of September 3, 1971. Years later, during the so-called Two Plus Four negotiations, it was the authority drawn from these same rights that provided a legal mandate for the peaceful reunification of Germany. In other words, if the special status of Berlin and Germany as a whole had been abandoned, NATO’s political and legal position on human rights, political self-determination and the division of Europe would have become untenable. The longer-term consequences could have been even more dramatic. Without the authority the Western powers derived from these rights, it is unlikely that the Soviet Empire would have disappeared as peacefully it did.

During this internal German debate, Chancellor Helmut Kohl held firm to his principles. Despite pro-Soviet demonstrations on the streets, Kohl’s relations with Gorbachev were anything but warm. This was one reason why our concerns were heightened—from “concern” to “growing alarm”, to use standard State Department language—even further in 1986 and early 1987, when tendencies in favor of a separate arrangement with the Soviets and the East Germans started to appear in the Foreign Ministry and even in the Chancellor’s office in Bonn. Indeed, in mid-1986, the U.S. Embassy in Bonn received strong indications that the German government itself was considering proposing an arrangement whereby East Berlin would become part of the GDR and East German citizenship would be recognized, if the East accepted the incorporation of West Berlin into the Federal Republic.

The existence of such thinking revealed that even the conservative Kohl government was beginning to bend to strong public pressure to offer “peace initiatives” to the East, which put Allied rights in Berlin in question. Debating dissidents was one thing, but if the German government itself started to doubt the foundation of our joint policies, our ability to maintain the postwar status of Europe would become untenable. So the U.S. Ambassador to the Federal Republic at that time, Richard Burt, convened a meeting with me and his deputy, Jim Dobbins, to consider the implications of the apparent weakening of the Kohl government’s resolve. We agreed that the United States should reject any proposal to negotiate the status of Berlin. In addition, we favored a strong political initiative to add weight to our arguments against separate deals with the East. We decided that the focus of our political initiative would be Berlin itself, whose population was beginning to question the need for an Allied presence. Berlin’s heroic postwar history made it the perfect place to address the disaffection that was burdening German-American relations, and an excellent opportunity was already on the calendar: President Reagan’s planned visit to Berlin to mark the 750th anniversary of the city.

This concept was ushered through the bureaucracy by Assistant Secretary for Europe Roz Ridgeway and her deputy, my good friend Bill Bodde. At the NSC, much hard work by two German hands, Nelson Ledsky and Rudy Perina, helped ensure earn the support of National Security Advisor Colin Powell. The program would consist of active participation in Berlin’s anniversary festivities and a major address by the President. Work began in both Washington and Germany. In a March 10, 1987 memorandum sent to Washington, Ambassador Burt stressed the importance of presenting a bold vision as an antidote to the malaise affecting Germany. We noted that a personal touch, which demonstrated that the President cared “as much about the search for peace as the Europeans do . . . is an important goal in Germany, where many people feel they have lost control of the issues which affect their lives.” The memo concluded: “In both the United States and Europe such an approach will help counter the feeling that Gorbachev has seized the initiative.” Above all, the memorandum suggested that the President’s speech should call for specific actions to back up his words.

 

As preparations for the visit progressed, the East-West debate continued to intensify. Arguments over various options for an INF agreement remained contentious. Berlin Mayor Eberhard Diepgen was trying to build his own relationship with the Mayor of East Berlin, Friedrich Ebert. Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher seemed to tilt far in Gorbachev’s direction in an address delivered in February at the World Economic Forum in Davos. Chancellor Kohl set a September date for an “official” state visit by East German chief Erich Honecker to Bonn, a visit later characterized as having given Honecker his cherished goal of official recognition by the Bundesrepublik.

It was becoming more important than ever to demonstrate the self-confidence and vision suggested in our memorandum. An important piece of this puzzle would be the choice of the site for the speech. Our staff had been busy collecting the “usual suspects”—public buildings, factory halls, universities, auditoriums and the like. None of them worked. I suggested the Reichstag or the Brandenburg Gate. The Berlin Senat discouraged the idea, arguing that security could not be guaranteed at either of these locations. But it is important to recall that, in West Berlin, security matters were the direct responsibility of the Western Allies. This turned out to be essential to the success of the President’s speech.


East Germans stream West through the Wall, November 15, 1989. [credit: Régis Bossu/Sygma/Corbis]

In early February, I had a chance discussion with the chief of the Berlin security police at a reception for a visiting dignitary. I asked if it would be possible to guarantee security for the President if he spoke before a large crowd at the Reichstag or the Brandenburg Gate. With considerable pride, this official said that there would be no problem. He sketched on a cocktail napkin how he would draw a secure perimeter at the Brandenburg Gate. I showed the drawing to our own military people and to the British, whose sector bordered on the Wall at the Brandenburg Gate.

This was the chance we had sought. The Brandenburg Gate was physically in East Berlin but fully visible in the West, as well. This was because the wall ran perhaps fifty yards in front of the Gate, forming a wide curve along old district boundaries. This made possible a full view of the Gate from the Western side, though not the ability to approach or pass through it.

Over the years, the image of the Wall cutting in front of the Brandenburg Gate had become the most powerful symbol of the tragic division of Europe. It was the perfect spot from which to emphasize America’s determination to work for democratic change in Europe. A message delivered from there would resonate with the peoples of Eastern Europe as well with the residents of Berlin. It would be a bold and courageous act for the President to stand at the borders of communism to deliver his personal vision for freedom in Europe.

I returned to the Berlin authorities and again proposed the Brandenburg Gate as the venue for the President’s speech. The response from the Rathaus (city hall) was swift and negative: Security could not be guaranteed, the venue would provoke the East and interfere with important political initiatives underway with the GDR. The discussion with the Senat resumed on March 11 during a visit by the White House Survey Team. Jim Hooley, who had worked with the President since his days as governor, headed the team. He knew the President’s preferences intimately. To make sure the White House had a full range of options, we took Hooley and his team to several possible sites. I saved the Brandenburg Gate for last. I described the significance of the Gate and the drama that would be created by such a large gathering in front of it. I purposely stopped the team about fifty yards from the spot at which the President would speak. Since several journalists were present, I asked them to consider the impressive images that would emerge from such an event. The sale was made.

In subsequent meetings with the Hooley team, Berlin representatives argued vehemently against holding the speech at either the Brandenburg Gate or the Reichstag. After the Survey Team left, the Berlin government made a strong effort in Washington, which was supported by the Federal German government in Bonn, to change the White House decision. They did not want the speech to be given anywhere near the Berlin Wall.

I heard soon thereafter from Hooley that Washington had approved the Brandenburg Gate as a site, but that a further inspection would take place during the April 23–25 visit of the White House Preadvance Team, headed by Special Assistant to the President Bill Henkel. After his tour of the sites, Henkel confirmed the decision for the Brandenburg Gate. He returned to the Rathaus and informed the Berliners. They still opposed and fought the idea behind the scenes, but they knew they would eventually have to agree. Henkel added, however, that to be successful, this event should draw at least 40,000 viewers. The Berlin officials objected immediately that no more than 15,000 could be accommodated. The site was too small and, in any case, it would be impossible to complete security checks on more than 15,000 attendees.

I told Henkel that our experts, after surveying the sites, were sure that we could accommodate at least 40,000 within the security perimeter. I told him we would make certain the security checks were carried out. This promise was based more on hope than experience, but I was determined that the President should give his speech at the Brandenburg Gate, and that the crowd be of suitable size. When we returned to the office, I gathered the staff to consider options. They concluded that we could pre-check the audience by drawing its members from the American community and from major German corporations in Berlin whose personal data was already on file. This would give us more than 40,000 names.

It was here that our authority over the Berlin police again served us well. We commandeered police name-check files and loaded them into the early versions of personal computers at the U.S. Mission. We ran every name given to us by the German companies through them. At the slow speed of 1987 computers, the project took several days, but it did succeed. The crowd at the President’s speech was estimated at more than 40,000.

The Speech

The final piece of the puzzle was the speech itself. We knew from our colleagues in the State Department and the NSC that a number of the specific initiatives in early drafts of the speech, such as the modernization of the 1945 air-corridor regime guaranteeing Western air access to Berlin, were running into opposition at the Pentagon and elsewhere. There were also influential persons in Washington, including some members of our own European Bureau in the State Department, who shared concerns expressed by the German government in Bonn that aggressive language in the President’s speech could undermine hopes for cooperation with the new Soviet First Secretary..

I had tried to assuage concern in Washington and Bonn about Soviet reactions by proposing that I inform my Soviet counterpart in East Berlin of plans for the President’s visit. My suggestion was approved and I met with Minister Valentin Koptelsev in East Berlin on March 17, 1987. Without describing the details of the program, I told Koptelsev that the major event would be a speech by the President, probably held at the Brandenburg Gate. I said the speech would be positive in tone and would stress the need to improve cooperation between East and West. It would conclude with some concrete proposals for better cooperation.

Koptelsev said he assumed the President would again make statements about the Berlin Wall and human rights, as he did in 1982. I said, of course. Koptelsev said the Soviets would understand the need for “standard” language. The concrete proposals in the speech would interest them most. (Koptelsev was a professional who had served several tours in Germany and was well-connected in Moscow. His initial calm reaction was borne out after the President’s speech. Despite standard statements in the Soviet press condemning the “aggressive” nature of the President’s language, neither U.S.-Soviet relations nor the INF negotiations were damaged by the President’s words.)

During the six weeks leading up to the President’s visit, we continued to refine our ideas of what the speech should say. I had worked directly on several speeches both for President Reagan and other presidents, so I knew how difficult the process could be. There was always competition between the State Department and the National Security Council staff on one hand and the White House speechwriters on the other. This gap was even more pronounced in the Reagan White House, where the speechwriters viewed themselves as both makers and keepers of the Reagan legacy.

Our final, and ultimately the most important, idea became caught up in this competition. As new drafts filtered through to us at irregular intervals, it became clear that the logical conclusion to be drawn from our broader initiative was missing from the text. The President needed to be emphatic without being provocative. He needed, in our view, to issue a direct call to Gorbachev to open the Berlin Wall. After testing the idea with my Berlin staff, I sent it to the NSC as a personal proposal.

I soon heard that the speechwriters were pushing the same basic notion, but that my own home, the State Department, was strongly against it. As we later found out, a heated battle over whether to include the challenge ultimately involved the President’s most senior advisers. I learned that the President had decided personally to include the sentence in the speech when an NSC colleague reported as he descended from the delegation bus at the Brandenburg Gate: “Congratulations, your sentence made it in.”

The speech itself was a moment I will never forget. After all of the debate, Reagan had understood the power of words better than all of his senior advisers. He was not called the great communicator for nothing. This, to me, was Ronald Reagan’s Brandenburg Concerto.

 

The rest, as they say, is history. The wave of peace marches began to ebb after the conclusion of the INF Agreement in December 1987. The productive relationship that developed between President Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev, the growing signs of democratic unrest in Hungary, Poland and elsewhere, and perhaps above all, America’s willingness to honor the “zero option” to remove all intermediate nuclear weapons from Europe, began to have an effect.22. The zero option was the brainchild of Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Richard Perle. My State Department colleagues were stridently opposed to it, arguing first that it was non-negotiable and hence objectively “anti-arms control”, and later that zero intermediate-range missiles would eliminate a potential escalation break should nuclear war ever break out.

These hopes turned to reality as events raced toward November 1989. The commencement of Poland’s Solidarity roundtable in February, Hungary’s decision to cut through the barbed wire at the border with Austria in August, and the beginning of the legendary Monday demonstrations in Leipzig on September 25 were all the sort of bold steps we had hoped to encourage with the President’s appearance at the Brandenburg Gate. After all, East Europeans had never shared West European inclinations to accept the status quo. They were ready to risk a great deal for freedom because they had little to lose. West Europeans preferred to keep what they had rather than risk it all for the possibility of a better world.

There is a lesson in all this for us now. West Europeans were not losing their nerve during the 1980s because they loved Communism. Their nerve had been broken by the fears that belligerent language on both sides of the Iron Curtain would destroy the peace of the post-1945 era. Even after the collapse of Communism, I experienced this same fragility during my service as Deputy Chief of the Dayton negotiations and later as Ambassador to Germany. It remains central to the psychology of many Europeans, East and West. One of history’s proudest achievements is the fact that American support has brought them as far as they have come. Europeans are not inherently weak-willed, but the traumas of a century of warfare sit so deep that the continent is still rebuilding its self-confidence. The underlying fears that made the 1980s such a dramatically fearful period are still with us, as evidenced recently by the dominant west European reaction to Vladimir Putin’s February 2007 Werkunde speech. The emotions that caused so much Transatlantic conflict during the debate over the Iraq war, too, were strikingly similar to the anger directed against the United States in the 1980s.

Recent events have demonstrated that Europeans are still liable to lose their composure rapidly if their American protector of last resort seems to veer too far from expected behavior. President Reagan’s greatest skill was his ability to deliver dramatic truths in a manner that built confidence. One of the many challenges facing the United States today is to understand that the skill required to maintain confidence in our leadership is nearly as important as the substance of what we do. This involves more than making dramatic speeches at carefully chosen venues, but it involves that, too.


1. Berlin’s special status resulted from agreements on the occupation of Germany concluded in 1945 among the four victorious powers. It was based on the original rights of victors to occupy Germany’s capital until the conclusion of a peace treaty. Neither German state was fully sovereign, and Berlin remained a collective ward of the United States, Great Britain, France and the Soviet Union until reunification in 1990. 2. The zero option was the brainchild of Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Richard Perle. My State Department colleagues were stridently opposed to it, arguing first that it was non-negotiable and hence objectively “anti-arms control”, and later that zero intermediate-range missiles would eliminate a potential escalation break should nuclear war ever break out.

 

John C. Kornblum is chairman of Lazard Germany. He served as an American diplomat for more than 35 years, concluding his career in 2001 as U.S. Ambassador in Berlin.