Letters to the Editor

Peter Robinson and John Kornblum on Reagan’s “Tear Down This Wall” speech.

Reagan’s Brandenburg Concerto

In “Reagan’s Brandenburg Concerto”, his article about President Reagan’s June 12, 1987 address at the Berlin Wall, John Kornblum appears to imply that he composed the now famous line, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” He didn’t. A brief account:

As the speechwriter assigned to the address, I visited West Berlin in April 1987, when a German woman, Ingeborg Elz, made a comment so striking that I remarked upon it in my notebook. “If this man Gorbachev is serious with his talk of glasnost and perestroika”, she said, “he can prove it. He can get rid of this wall.”

Back at the White House I adapted her comment, making “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” the central line in my draft. President Reagan expressed approval of this draft in a May meeting in the Oval Office, mentioning the central passage in particular. “That wall”, the President said, “has to come down.”

When the draft circulated to the State Department and the National Security Council, both opposed it. Negotiating, the White House speechwriting office made a number of changes, incorporating into the text, for example, several paragraphs from a State Department draft to which Kornblum had contributed. (This was the first time I saw any material Kornblum had written.) Yet on the central passage, the call to tear down the wall, the speechwriting office refused to compromise.

If Kornblum had composed this passage, his superiors at the State Department could simply have removed it. Yet as both Tom Griscom (the White House Director of Communications) and Ken Duberstein (the Deputy Chief of Staff) have attested, the State Department instead lobbied the White House.

In early June Duberstein briefed President Reagan on the objections to my draft, explaining that foreign policy professionals believed a direct challenge to Gorbachev could damage our relations with the Soviets. The President weighed these objections. Then he overruled them.

“Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” was thus suggested by the remark of a German woman, given shape by a White House speechwriter, and insisted upon by the fortieth chief executive. Although as distinguished then as he remains today, Kornblum—now former Ambassador Kornblum—played no role.

Peter Robinson

Hoover Institution

John Kornblum replies: Robinson’s letter of repeats a version of the Reagan speech which he has expressed in print a number of times. He ascribes the “tear down this Wall” sentence solely to a chance meeting with some Berliners and to his own single-minded determination to fend off high-level Administration officials, including myself, who were opposed to its inclusion in the speech.

As my article seeks to demonstrate, the reality was considerably different. Robinson himself admits in his letter that he wasn’t even aware of the months of work that had gone into organizing the event or in drafting the speech until very late in the process. Speechwriters only rarely participate in the substantive preparation of the drafts which are presented to them. Until he read my article, there is no way he could have fully understood the political and bureaucratic background to the event. Nor had he any way of knowing what my personal role had been.

In addition to presenting an accurate rendition of the facts, the main message I sought to convey in my article was that Ronald Reagan’s decision to include the famous sentence was taken against a background of several years of careful Administration policy that was the work of dozens of dedicated officials. Calling attention to this aspect in no way weakens the importance of the President’s personal vision as the ultimate source of his words. To claim otherwise does not do justice to the President, nor to the many other officials whose contribution to this historic event was every bit as important as was Robinson’s.

Appeared in: Volume 03, Number 1 | Published on: September 1, 2007
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