TLDR: The speech’s most famous line, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” almost didn’t happen because Reagan’s own advisers thought it was too divisive. Speechwriter Pete Robinson visited West Berlin and spoke to many Berliners who indicated they despised the wall and wanted it to come down. This led to the inclusion of the line.
So What? Reagan ultimately decided it was a better idea to be bold and play the long game with the Soviet leader, and history has proven him to be correct. Here’s how great communicators can apply the lesson today.
The speech by Ronald Reagan on June 12, 1987 at the Brandenburg Gate on the west side of Berlin has become known as a turning point in the Cold War that eventually led to the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. In the speech, Reagan plainly called on Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev to “tear down this wall” as the West Germans in attendance cheered loudly.
The speech could be heard by those in East Berlin as well over the radio, and Reagan likely wanted them to hear that the U.S. sought their freedom strongly enough to risk offending a new friend in Gorbachev by demanding he remove the wall.
With its removal in 1989, Germany was united again after four decades of division and oppression. More than 30 years after it was delivered, this speech is still quoted and remembered favorably as a time when the U.S. took a stand for freedom and helped change the world.
Many of Reagan’s advisers and cabinet members advised him to take the line out of the speech because the relationship between the U.S. and the Soviet Union had improved (though it was still tenuous). They felt Gorbachev’s new “glasnost” or openness could be rescinded if Reagan challenged him too strongly.
In the car on the way to the speech, however, Reagan told his deputy chief of staff Ken Duberstein he would leave the line in and “drive the State Department boys crazy.” History would prove him right in the decision, which was consistent with his “peace-through-strength” policy.
Even though the wall didn’t come down for another two years, speechwriter Pete Robinson related later that communications director “Tommy [Griscom] said as soon as the president delivered the speech everybody felt that it was not only the right thing to do, but almost instantly it became impossible to imagine that he would not have done it.”
Not only did his own advisers argue against him using the line, but per History.com, much of the press largely ignored what would become a famous and iconic speech. A few even criticized it as divisive, at a time when the Soviets and the U.S. were in disarmament talks.
The Soviet news agency Tass called it “openly provocative” and “war-mongering.” To pro-democracy forces in Germany, however, it served as fuel for the fire, sending the clear message that the U.S. wanted an end to a divided Germany and freedom for those on the east side of the wall.
Most speeches written by consensus and the goal of not offending anyone will be forgotten because they don’t have anything different to say. Reagan had the courage of his convictions, without trying to be extreme just for extremity’s sake. His message resonated with courage and strength: a reminder that words can change the world.
Do a “Deep Dive” into Your Audience
Robinson said he went to West Berlin six weeks before the speech to research the people who would be the target audience for Reagan’s words, seeking help in how to write it. The American diplomat in the area told him not to mention the wall, as the people were “used to it.”
When he spent time at a dinner party with some West Germans, however, he asked them whether the diplomat’s statement was true. They recounted stories of family members stuck in East Germany and East German guards looking down on them as they commuted to work.
It was clear the diplomat had been wrong, Robinson concluded, and he said his discovery of the people’s true feelings about the wall led him to include the now-iconic line. Whether Gorbachev wanted to hear it at the time suddenly didn’t matter. The wall had to come down to make the people of Germany whole.
Play the Long Game
If Reagan was looking at the situation with the Soviet Union and Germany in terms of what he wanted to accomplish in the short term, he would have left the controversial line out of the speech. He was trying to get the Soviet Union to disarm, and Gorbachev could have taken offense to this and pulled out of the talks.
But if the ultimate goal was to dismantle Communism and substitute freedom, Reagan boldly did what his last three predecessors did not: he told Gorbachev to dismantle the wall. It didn’t come down while he was president, but historians broadly credit this speech for its fall.
It can be tempting to look at short-term gains when communicating to your team, your target audience, or existing customers. Keeping an eye on the long game can be even more beneficial, however, and it can bring more meaning and purpose to your content and messaging.
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