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.
Having worked for the National Security Advisor, in preparation for the West Berlin trip, I remember working on various briefing books and talking points for President Reagan..
I had the extreme great fotrune to be the trip coordinator on this trip to Berlin. I remember all the long days and late-night hours of planning that went into our visit to Berlin. The one thing we had diffulcult planning for was the weather. We needed to build the staging in front of the Berlin Wall that would fit the enormity of the event and the participants that day, but also allow for this monumental speech to be given rain or shine. We ended up building a stage with a roof overhead for protection from threatening rains; but yet would allow for removal of the roof with a few hours notice. We all knew the event would be more powerful without the roof overhead, but we woke up the morning of June 12, 1987 to dark clouds and thunderstorms. As Air Force One got closer to arriving to Berlin that late morning, we had to make a final weather call and decide whether or not to remove the roof for President Reagan's famous speech to General Secretary Gorbachev. The advance team made the call to remove the roof of the stage with just minutes to spare, as we had received word that Air Force One was en route to Berlin. The press needed time to reset and plan on relighting the event with no roof..
We worried about our premature call as the clouds remained dark and rain continued to fall in Berlin. The advance team made sure we had plenty of umbrellas to pass out to the dais guests if the rain continued. As the Berlin Wall site team got word Air Force One had just landed at Tempelhof Air Force Base, the sunshine came pouring through the clouds and rain instantly stopped! I remained at my post at the base of the stage ready to slide umbrellas deftly to the guests as President Reagan urged "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!" Although he delivered that speech that day in slightly overcast conditions, the rain did not fall again.
To this day I get goose bumps to think back on how lucky I was to witness that moment in time. I thought I would never again be a part of such a historical moment in my lifetime. But I was again incredibly fortunate to be doing the lead advance for a trip to New York City for President and Mrs. Reagan in November, 1989. President Reagan was meeting in his suite with a number of former colleagues throughout the day and early evening. Mrs. Reagan and I were in another room in their suite and we were watching the news being reported that the Berlin Wall was, in fact, coming down. Mrs. Reagan and I went into the living room to inform the President and turn on the television. We stood there that evening watching this great event unfold and I reminded the President that I had been with with him on the trip to Berlin when he delivered his speech in June, 1987. I told him that night that I could never in my lifetime envision being present for those two great moments in history; but that I could not even begin to imagine what he was feeling at that moment knowing his words a few years earlier played such a part in tearing that wall down. He replied that Secretary Gorbachev deserved all the credit for that moment; but I know differently!