An Anecdote: Ronald Reagan’s Very First Trip to Germany, 1978
In late 1978, precisely two years before the election, Governor Reagan embarked on his first trip ever to Germany, via London and Paris. Peter Hannaford and I, and our wives, accompanied the Reagans.
The first two stops were productive, despite the decision of then British Prime Minister, James Callaghan, not to receive Reagan, and in Paris both President Valery Giscard d’Estaing and Premier Raymond Barre also declined the pleasure. Reagan was not miffed at all at being shunted to lesser officials; he had come to Europe to learn, and adequate compensation for the slights was that in London he met with Margaret Thatcher and Winston Churchill’s grandson, Winston..
In Bonn, still the German capital, he held a wide range of meetings, including a detailed session with Chancellor Helmut Schmidt, Free Democrat leader Otto Graf Lambsdorff, future NATO Secretary General Manfred Woerner, and others. A last-minute schedule addition was with an emerging CDU leader, Helmut Kohl, in a very detailed and cordial meeting that paid handsome dividends in the years of his presidency. Kohl didn’t speak a word of English and by the time of the meeting RR had mastered some six words of German. I had made the mistake of forgetting to request an interpreter, and wound up with a long and demanding stint of interpretation.
Then it was on to Berlin, a high point of the trip. By prior arrangement, we were briefed by US consular officers, and visited a part of the Berlin Wall that touched emotions for all Germans, the site where 18-year-old Peter Fechter was shot while trying to escape to the West and left entangled and unaided in the barbed wire until he bled to death.
Standing at the Wall that overcast day in November, 1978, Governor Reagan stared long and hard, his jaw firmly set. After a long pause, he turned to us and said, "We have to find a way to knock this thing down." In 1987, as President, he would stand before the Wall with Chancellor Helmut Kohl, and demand publicly that Gorbachev "tear down this Wall." His goal had not changed in any way from what he had uttered privately nine years earlier. We then proceeded into East Berlin, Hannaford, Reagan, and I, along with our advance man, Charles Tyson, where Reagan witnessed first hand the oppressiveness of the East German regime, and even became angry as we witnessed a hapless East German shopper being accosted and searched by two Volkspolizisten in uniform and carrying automatic weapons.
The Germany visit concluded with a trip to Munich, where Reagan had several hours of discussion with Franz-Josef-Strauss, the Minister-President of Bavaria, Germany’s most important politician after Kohl.
In 1981, by the time RR was in office, Kohl had become active leader of the CDU, but still in opposition. He came to Washington, had a small retinue of German reporters along, and made a request to my office to see the President. Kohl was a friend, and I supported the request. However, the State Department and the Secretary opposed a meeting of Kohl with the President, not wanting to offend Helmut Schmidt, still Chancellor. When the President asked me why State opposed his seeing a fellow who had courteously received him in Bonn two-plus years earlier, I told him of the opposition from State. He said, curtly, "Bring him in." And in he went.
As with all his contacts over the years, the early contacts made in 1978, and especially those with Margaret Thatcher, Helmut Schmidt and Helmut Kohl made an important contribution to building understanding with two key allies. The trip to Germany, an eye-opener for Reagan, gave him excellent insight into the mood of leaders there, and -- most important -- gave him the chance to establish firmly his views about the Berlin Wall, whose demise we celebrate on his Twentieth Anniversary of it being toppled.