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First person: Reagan's historic Berlin speech

CBS News Senior White House Correspondent Bill Plante recalls covering Reagan's famous remarks in Berlin on June 12, 1987. At left, watch Plante's report from that day on the "CBS Evening News."

Twenty-five years after Ronald Reagan's historic speech at the fortified barrier which divided Communist East Berlin from free West Berlin, one moment stands out - Reagan's challenge to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev: "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall."

What's not as well-remembered is that at the time, that line of the speech was considered by many in the U.S. government to be a risky taunt - even a provocation - to the Soviets.

Those of us who were on that trip and covered the speech were told by administration insiders that Colin Powell, then the deputy national security adviser, and White House Chief of Staff Howard Baker both advised against using such direct language. But the president decided that he wanted the line in, and it remained in the speech - classic Ronald Reagan.

Remembering Reagan's "Tear Down This Wall" speech 25 years later

At the time, Reagan's job approval ratings were in a trough. They had dropped below 50 percent by late 1986 after the Iran-Contra scandal, when the nation learned that the administration had sold arms to Iran and used the money to illegally fund the Contra rebels in Nicaragua.

The day before the speech in Berlin, the president had been at the annual G7 Economic Summit in Venice, where not much happened and where he faced repeated questions about the Iran-Contra affair. In the "CBS Evening News" piece for that day, June 11, 1987, I used sound of the president saying, "evidently maybe some people were giving the impression that they were acting on order from me, but I wasn't giving those orders, because no one had asked or told me what was truly happening here."

Things didn't look much better in the foreign policy arena. There were violent protests in Berlin on June 11 against U.S. missile defenses installed in Europe earlier in the decade.

One bright spot for President Reagan was Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev's increasing willingness to discuss possible nuclear arms reductions because his nation's economy was failing and could no longer afford the arms race. (As it turned out, there would be no START Treaty until 1991, well after Reagan left office.)

So, Reagan chose the Berlin speech and the majestic backdrop of the Brandenburg Gate to make a dramatic challenge to Gorbachev: "If you seek peace, if you seek prosperity for 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!"  (watch Reagan deliver those lines here)

Reagan also echoed President Kennedy's Berlin speech, made in 1963, when he told the crowd "Ich bin ein Berliner," I am a Berliner (though his pronunciation was said by some to make the phrase sound like "I am a jelly doughnut"). Twenty-four years later President Reagan said in German, "Es gibt nur ein Berlin": there is only one Berlin.

The audience was exhilarated - and so were most of us who covered the event.

At the end of the day, well after midnight, my CBS colleagues and I had a late supper at the Café de Paris, a popular spot in Berlin. Rome Hartman, then the White House producer, put the coda on a memorable day. "Look," he said pointing excitedly at a table behind me, "it's the piano guy!" I turned, looking for Billy Joel. But it wasn't Billy Joel. It was Vladimir Horowitz. Perfect!

Read the script for Plante's June 12, 1987 report from Berlin

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