Let's go on a tear

The power of words within us can inspire, transform and topple. Let them out.


Peter Robinson didn't know a phrase he jotted in 1987 would change the world.

Four words conceived by the young speechwriter for President Ronald Reagan went on to inspire freedom-starved people behind the Iron Curtain, helping to topple it.

Robinson wrote the famous challenge issued by Reagan, in Berlin, to Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev: “Tear down this wall!”

By 1989, the wall that had separated the communist world from free Germany was gone.

Reagan in Berlin, 1987: "Tear down this wall!"

Reagan in Berlin, 1987: "Tear down this wall!"


Of course it took more than a speech to effect monumental change. But we know those four words mattered. Gary Kasparov, the former Russian world chess champion and a democratic activist, said Reagan's words inspired those struggling for freedom inside the Soviet empire.

“It had a profound psychological effect on the people on the other side of the wall,” he said. “The collapse of the Soviet Union was not inevitable.”  (See the interview below.)

Kasparov pointed out that two other U.S. presidents made powerful four-word statements that also gave courage to the oppressed:

  • In 1963, John F. Kennedy told a cheering Berlin audience “Ich bin ein Berliner” – “I am a Berliner” – expressing American solidarity with West Germans in the face of the Soviet threat.
  • Harry Truman committed to the 1948 Berlin airlift when the Soviets tried to isolate the city from the West: “We shall stay – period.”

Four words echoing in history. Changing its course.

Kennedy in Berlin, 1963: "I am a Berliner."

Kennedy in Berlin, 1963: "I am a Berliner."


This is inspiring for those of us who communicate for a living. We're in the word-crafting business. If we do our job right, we can help businesses succeed, noble causes thrive and people of character to be elected. 

Dare we say it? We can change the world. Or at least our small part of it.

But perhaps more important are the words we share with those in our lives. We should start with those closest to us: our spouse, children, siblings and parents. What expressions of kindness and appreciation have we held back?

And what about those who labor invisibly and unnoticed in our lives? The custodian. The receptionist. The cashier. Who sincerely thanks them?

When was the last time you sent a hand-written note that had the sole goal of encouraging someone?


Sound daunting? Maybe it should. If it were easy to communicate life-changing truths in four words – or in any number of words for that matter – everyone would do it.

It was a challenge for Robinson, too. Conflicting accounts obscure the record, but the words “tear down this wall” were nearly stricken from the speech. Depending on who recounts the story, the objection came from Washington aides, State Department aides or Reagan himself. Or all of them.

Reagan was ultimately convinced of the difference the words could make, and responded to an objection with, “I'm the president aren't I?”

“[Reagan] could visualize a world without a Soviet Union,” Robinson said. “So he understood that if he was going to stand at that wall, he was going to call for it to be torn down.”

Overcome the resistance. State the words that will bring change. Who knows what wall you may tear down?