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30 Years Later, the Lessons of ‘Tear Down This Wall’

On this day in 1987, Reagan gave his seminal speech at the Brandenburg Gate — defying tyranny with the message of Liberty.

“General Secretary Gorbachev, if you seek peace, if you seek prosperity of 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!” —President Ronald Reagan, June 12, 1987

Today marks the 30th anniversary of Reagan’s seminal speech at the Brandenburg Gate and the remarks are often seen as a significant point in the Cold War between the United States and the former Soviet Union. Reagan’s call for tearing down the wall between West and East Berlin was considered by many foreign policy experts at the time to be very provocative. However, history has shown his instincts to be correct — less than 18 months later the Berlin Wall fell.

Unfortunately, many critics of our nation’s 40th president and his administration’s savvy policy decisions would prefer to give credit to Mikhail Gorbachev, the Soviet General Secretary, and his implementation of perestroika and glasnost rather than acknowledge Reagan’s life-long fight against Communism. Instead, they choose to overlook Reagan’s sizable foreign policy contributions and focus their censures on his management style or his alleged lack of intellectual prowess. However, an in-depth look at Reagan’s record of accomplishment as a public figure reveals an individual who dedicated himself to not only taking on totalitarian regimes, but more importantly, an individual who understood the importance of delivering robust, inspired rhetoric that would encourage action.

While many people are familiar with Reagan’s activities as an actor in Hollywood, Screen Actors Guild President, host of General Electric Theater in the 1950s and early 60s, public speaker and California governor, most are not aware of his prolific skills as a writer. In their book, “Reagan, In His Own Hand: The Writings of Ronald Reagan that Reveal His Revolutionary Vision for America,” editors Kiron K. Skinner, Annelise Anderson, and Martin Anderson show Reagan as prodigious author who penned over 600 unique radio addresses during the 1970s. The topics, which ranged the gambit from taxes to nuclear armament, usually centered around a common theme and many of them revolved around the issue of freedom.

This trend continued after he was elected president in 1980. Reagan, in consultation with his team of speechwriters, continued to focus the bulk of his speeches on the topic of freedom and his performance in West Germany in 1987 was no exception. Peter Robinson, the speechwriter who crafted the Brandenburg remarks and who worked at the White House for six years, spent almost two months preparing the speech and working with Reagan on the content. He understood his principal’s predisposition toward communicating fundamental American values on the world stage while simultaneously reassuring our allies.

Reagan and Robinson were fully aware that the remarks would be heard on the other side of the Wall and they wanted to ensure that the message would he hopeful while also showing America’s unwavering commitment to ending Soviet oppression. A thorough examination of the 25 minute remarks illustrates this point as Reagan used a derivative of the word free (freedom, freer, and free) a total of 21 times, a derivative of the word ally (allies and alliance) five times, and liberty three times. Reagan’s repeated use of those emotional words showed his innate understanding of communicating to many different audiences. When Reagan spoke, he realized that he couldn’t merely inform his listeners about the injustice of the Berlin Wall, he had to persuade them that it was an affront to the entire civilized world. Reagan’s words on that day were authentic and they represented his core beliefs. That’s why the speech continues to resonate all these years later.

There are many valuable lessons that Republican leaders from today can glean from Reagan’s awe-inspiring statements in West Berlin, but the most important ones are that his words were uplifting and were a reflection of his personal and professional credibility. Throughout the speech, Reagan identified fundamental truths and exhibited a high level of determination. He didn’t engage in personal attacks but focused his comments on the importance of freedom being the victor over oppression and encouraging others to join the cause. And he was credible because he was consistent in his message and his work.

It has been 13 years since “The Great Communicator” died, and while he gave many impressive talks over the course of his life there few with as much impact as his Brandenburg Gate effort. It was the apogee of his endeavors as president, and it serves as a reminder that personal and professional credibility are critical traits when communicating grand ideas of the world stage.

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