“Mr. Gorbachev, Tear down this wall!”
On June 12, 1987, President Ronald Reagan made one of his most famous Cold War speeches at the Berlin Wall. James Alan Williams recalls that day, as well as the Gipper’s famous sense of humor at the lesser known party for the city of Berlin. Williams was interviewed by Ray Ewing beginning in October 2003.
WILLIAMS: [President Reagan] came for the 750th anniversary of Berlin. This was a huge birthday party that the city wanted to throw for itself. The Reagan administration was heading to elections in a few months and they wanted to throw it to showcase Berlin, to showcase their leadership of the city. And the Allies were very happy to participate, because as I said most of our expenses, certainly our birthday party expenses were paid for by the Bundestag. So we had lots of resources for a tremendous birthday bash.
Reagan came; he was in Berlin I think for less than 12 hours. He flew into Tempelhof [airport], he came to the B hall which was the original civilian passenger terminal of Tempelhof for the American birthday for Berlin. Just a little humorous aside. This was 1987. He had been shot six years before. He was in Germany, in Berlin, surrounded by Soviets, the Secret Service went a little goosey, but we got him in there. The B hall was full of people. There was a balloon drop because Mike Deaver liked balloon drops and the President loved them.
There was a huge number of balloons in nets waiting to be dropped at the right moment of Reagan’s speech. They were apparently close to some source of heat, I guess lights, so Reagan is giving his speech and it’s a very charismatic speech, very uplifting, and midway through a sentence is this loud boom that goes off. We didn’t know what to make of it, it sounded like a gunshot. We thought, oh my god, somebody is shooting the President, and the Secret Service and everybody else is very nervous.
Without missing a beat, Reagan said, “Missed me,” and then went on with his speech. Huge roar and cheer from the crowd. It was great showmanship.
But his best showmanship was in front of the Brandenburg gate, outdoors, with a very carefully screened audience of Allied civilians mainly. This was the British sector, but all three sectors were represented. The backdrop was the chancellor of Germany and the ministers of the three Allied powers, the ambassadors and so forth, and that’s the speech at which Reagan said “Mr. Gorbachev, Tear down this wall.” And there were several sentences addressed rhetorically to Gorbachev in the first person, but “Tear down this wall” was the most dramatic one. That made quite an impact apparently among the population to whom it was really addressed, that is the East Germans and others of the east.
I think, at the time, I felt and I think a lot of my colleagues felt it was melodramatic, it was too much showmanship, it just wasn’t statesmanlike, but I think we were wrong. Looking back on it, if you look at how that sentence is played in retrospective histories of it post-wall it’s quite an important event that the head of the free world, the head of the United States government, thought it important enough to say to Gorbachev in Berlin, “Tear down this wall,” very principled position.