On June 12, 1987, Ronald Reagan stood in front of the Berlin Wall, the Brandenburg Gate rising behind him, to deliver a speech I had drafted. "General Secretary Gorbachev," the president said, "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!"
Back in Washington a few weeks earlier, the State Department and National Security Council had objected to this passage, arguing that it would sound unduly provocative. Yet when I asked the president what message he wanted to convey to the East—conducting research in Berlin, I had learned that listeners throughout East Germany would be able to hear the speech on their radios—Reagan singled out this part of the draft.
"That wall has to come down," the president replied. "That's what I'd like to say to them." The State Department and National Security Council made repeated attempts to strike the passage; the president overruled them. A year-and-a-half after Reagan delivered the address, the Berlin Wall came down.
This may sound like an odd admission, but for years afterward I wondered whether President Reagan's Berlin Wall address had really mattered. Only a single piece of evidence that the speech had produced any practical results ever came to my attention. At lunch in the White House mess a week after the speech, a member of the National Security Council staff told me that our intelligence services had picked up unusual cable traffic between Moscow and East Germany.
The Soviets, the cable traffic showed, wanted the East Germans to make the Berlin Wall less offensive to the West, opening more checkpoints or easing travel restrictions on people who wanted to visit their relatives. "Each generation of Soviet leaders," said the NSC staffer, who after opposing the Berlin Wall address had changed his mind about it, "needs to be reminded that the wall is a public relations disaster." I'd have called the wall an affront to human decency, not just a public relations disaster, but I understood what he meant.
Yet that was all I'd ever heard. A suggestion that the speech might have prompted some cable traffic. After that, nothing.
Then I returned to Berlin.