The Sentence That Knocked Down the Berlin Wall (But Almost Didn’t)

Words that defined Ronald Reagan’s presidency, as remembered by the White House speechwriter.

As a speechwriter you spent your working life watching Reagan, talking about Reagan, reading about Reagan, attempting to inhabit the very mind of Reagan. When you joined him in the Oval Office, you didn’t want to hear him say simply that he liked your work. You wanted to get him talking, revealing himself. So you’d go into each meeting with a question or two you hoped would intrigue him.

“Mr. President,” I said, “I learned on the advance trip that your speech will be heard not only in West Berlin but throughout East Germany.” Depending on weather conditions, I explained, radios would be able to pick up the speech as far east as Moscow itself. “Is there anything you’d like to say to people on the other side of the Berlin Wall?”

The president cocked his head and thought. “Well,” he replied, “there’s that passage about tearing down the wall. That wall has to come down. That’s what I’d like to say to them.”

An early draft, submitted by a diplomat in Berlin, included the line “One day, this ugly wall will disappear.”

“This ugly wall will disappear”? What did that mean? That the wall would just get up and slink off of its own accord? The wall would disappear only when the Soviets knocked it down or let somebody else knock it down for them, but “this ugly wall will disappear” ignored the question of human agency altogether.

What State and the NSC were saying, in effect, was that the president could go right ahead and issue a call for the destruction of the wall—but only if he employed language so vague and euphemistic that everybody could see right away he didn’t mean it.

via The Sentence That Knocked Down the Berlin Wall (But Almost Didn’t)

| Intercollegiate Review.