US Bureaucrats Resisted Reagan's Challenges to Soviets

By Kevin Mooney | July 7, 2008 | 8:32pm EDT

( - With more events planned this week to mark President Ronald Reagan's 1987 challenge for the Soviet Union to dismantle an iconic symbol of the Cold War, a Cybercast News Service investigation shows that Reagan's own State Department tried to prevent his famous "tear down this wall" speech. Among other criticisms, State Department bureaucrats found Reagan's speech "naive."

The man who wrote the speech, in which Reagan demanded that Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev tear down the Berlin Wall that had separated communist East Germany from democratic West Germany for decades, said some U.S. bureaucrats were unsettled by Reagan's strong moral rhetoric.

Documents made available by the Reagan presidential library in California show that senior State Department officials tried to obstruct portions of the Berlin speech that Reagan used to contrast communism with freedom and democracy. Some diplomats found the passages too forceful, according to Peter Robinson, the former White House speechwriter who penned the address.

Among those who objected to the language was Colin Powell, who would later serve as President George W. Bush's first secretary of state.

When Reagan decided to issue his challenge to Gorbachev on June 12, 1987 at Berlin's Brandenburg Gate, opposition came from both the State Department and National Security Council (NSC), where "incremental steps" were favored over dramatic policy shifts, Robinson said.

Robinson, now a senior fellow with the Hoover Institute in Washington, D.C., spoke with Cybercast News Service at the Reagan Ranch Center in Santa Barbara, Calif., where the 20th anniversary of the speech was commemorated last week.

He said State Department and NSC officials tried to "squelch" the line about tearing down the wall right up until the morning the speech was given. Officials described the rhetoric as "crude," "needlessly provocative" and even "naive."

The line only remained in the speech because Reagan insisted on keeping it there after becoming apprised of the objections, Robinson said.

Presidential library documents show that several portions of the address drew negative reactions from State and NSC officials.

Toward the end of the speech, Reagan speculated as to why the people living in the Western part of the divided city chose to remain.

"Certainly there's a great deal to be said for your fortitude, for your defiant courage," he said. "But I believe there's something deeper, something that involves Berlin's whole look and feel and way of life - not mere sentiment.

"No one could live long in Berlin without being completely disabused of illusions ... I would submit that what keeps you in Berlin is love - love both profound and abiding ...The totalitarian world produces backwardness because it does such violence to the spirit, thwarting the human impulse to create, to enjoy, to worship," he added.

A June 1, 1987 memo from the NSC marking up this passage includes a note in the margin that says, "this is all rather negative in its implications." The memo proposes an alternative ending with "a more positive theme."

In a separate memo addressed to White House communications director Tom Griscom, Powell - who was then deputy national security advisor - also objected to this part of the speech.

After expressing misgivings toward some of the thematic passages, Powell wrote that "We continue to be uneasy at the negative undertone of the section near the end that questions why Berliners stay in Berlin."

Reagan's remarks on the economic achievements evident in West Berlin also caused concern. In another memo issued a few days before the speech, critics at the State Department and NSC called the comments "patronizing" and "overly materialistic."

The same memo also takes issue with the following comment, which Reagan delivered partially in German:

"From devastation, from utter ruin, you Berliners have, in freedom, rebuilt a city that once again ranks as one of the greatest on earth. The Soviets may have had other plans. But, my friends, there were a few things the Soviets didn't count on - Berliner herz, Berliner humor, ja, und Berliner schnauze. [Berliner heart, Berliner humor, yes, and Berliner 'bluntness.']"

"We still don't like this, too crude" - the memo states in the margins.

'Evil empire'

It was not only the Berlin speech that upset the bureaucrats.

Both Reagan's June 1982 address to the British Parliament, where he predicted the Marxist-Leninist system was destined for the "ash heap of history," and his "evil empire" speech delivered the following year in Orlando, Fla., drew flak.

Richard Pipes, a historian and Harvard University professor of Sovietology, who served on the National Security Council during the Reagan administration, discussed the State Department reaction at length during a 2002 Heritage Foundation lecture.

Reagan's willingness to challenge communist ideology during the 1982 address in Britain ran counter to State Department thinking, which was unaccustomed to viewing and shaping policy from a moral standpoint, he argued.

Early drafts of the 1982 speech included a passage in which Reagan called the Soviet Union the "focus of evil" in the modern world. The phrase was expunged at the behest of U.S. diplomats but was resurrected for the use in the "evil empire" speech in Florida nine months later, the documents show.

In a June 1987 memo to the president, Anthony Dolan, the primary author of the "evil empire" speech, attributed the strong material to Reagan himself. See memo

"We frequently tell people: most of what we do over here is plagiarize your old speeches or take good notes about where you want to go in a speech," he wrote. In the same memo, Dolan drew a distinction between Reagan's words and views and those of the "bureaucracy."

Former Sen. George Allen (R-Va.), now a presidential scholar with Young America's Foundation, told Cybercast News Service he believes Reagan greatly benefited from the times he spent away from "the process and elitism" of Washington, D.C.

"When you visit the [Reagan] ranch you get a sense for how he stayed grounded ... when State said be diplomatic he would stand by what he believed was right. I think he would get rejuvenated just by being out there in God's creation."

Media coverage

Author and radio talk show host Michael Medved, another participant at last week's commemorative event, recalled in an interview that the Berlin Wall speech was not widely reported in the U.S. when it was delivered. The resentment at the State Department was shared in much of the mainstream media, he said.

A Nexis search on the news articles circulated in North America in the weeks immediately following Reagan's June 12, 1987 speech calls up 34 documents, heavily reliant upon foreign sources such as the "BBC Summary of World Broadcasts," "The Toronto Star" and "The Guardian."

Those same foreign news sources tended to focus their attention on the Soviet perspective and the Soviet reaction to Reagan's remarks.

A June 13, 1987 headline from The Guardian reads, "Reagan calls on Gorbachev to pull down Wall: Russians denounce 'war-mongering' speech in Berlin as return to spirit of Cold War," while a Toronto Star headline reads "Reagan Talk 'War Mongering,' Soviets Say."

U.S. sources, who did make mention of the speech, tended to dismiss Reagan's ability to move policy in his second term. "Reagan's European tour underscored the special handicaps that confront the beleaguered president," Newsweek Magazine stated on June 22, 1987.

"With just 19 months left in office, and with the Iran-Contra affair still closing in on him, Reagan has lost much of his ability to steam-roll Congress or to fire up the American public," the article stated.

The Chicago Tribune in a June 20 article described Reagan as a "scandal-plagued president" and only mentioned the Brandenburg Gate speech at the very end.

Twenty years on, it is evident that Reagan prevailed over his opponents both inside and outside of the U.S. government, in the view of his son, Michael Reagan.

"He wanted to tell the truth about the Soviet Union and he wasn't about to let the State Department or his staff get in his way," Reagan said in an interview. "Everyone in Washington laughs at the State Department when you drive by," he added.

Michael Reagan, a radio talk show host, recalls how his father, prior to becoming president, had grown frustrated with policies of d?tente he believed worked to the advantage of the Soviet Union.

"For so long it seemed America was always kowtowing to the Russians and giving up something to get along with them," Michael Reagan said. "He looked forward to sitting down with [former Soviet President Leonid] Brezhnev and saying nyet."

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