"As I looked out a moment ago from the Reichstag, that embodiment of German unity, I noticed words crudely spray-painted upon the wall, perhaps by a young Berliner: 'This wall will fall. Beliefs become reality.' Yes, across Europe, this wall will fall. For it cannot withstand faith; it cannot withstand truth. The wall cannot withstand freedom."
June 12, 1987
It would be hard, 20 years later, to recapture the exhilaration of the day the Berlin Wall came tumbling down. The amazement. The happiness. The first swing of the ax. The thousands, then tens of thousands, then hundreds of thousands pouring across like a great human tide. The joy. Above all, the peace of it.
The hated, feared, despised Stasi were just standing by, uncertain and overwhelmed. The puppeteers in charge of a puppet state were confounded, uncertain, undone. The irresistible force of freedom was being loosed in Europe without a shot being fired. And more was to come.
How did it happen? Theories abound. Everybody and his cousin has an explanation, usually about how it was all the result of some quirk, some accident of timing, some unintentional announcement on the part of the authorities. As if freedom were just a result of chance events, a domino effect without anything toppling that first domino. All such explanations confuse immediate and underlying cause, the occasion with the reason.
The great tide had been building for years, for decades. But it would take daring and determination to release it. Walls do not come tumbling down by themselves, however much it might seem that way looking back. There is a tide in the affairs of men which, taken at the flood, leads on to freedom. High tide came November 9, 1989, when the Wall came down, 20 years ago today.
There was a time when it took daring for an American president to call tyranny by its right name. For there were always those who saw freedom not as what would end the Cold War and the nuclear arms race it had spawned, but as the spark that would destroy civilization itself.
Any American president who embraced freedom too openly, from a plain-spoken Missourian named Harry Truman to a B-movie actor named Ronald Reagan, was sure to be denounced as a warmonger, a threat to world peace, a dangerous simpleton, a Cold Warrior fill in your own favorite epithet here. Mine, which has a deliciously ironic sound now, comes from that political mastermind of the Democratic establishment, Clark Clifford, who once dismissed Ronald Reagan as "an amiable dunce." Well, he got the amiable part right.
There was a sad time when the American people were told by another president, Jimmy Carter, that we needed to grow up and get over our "inordinate fear of Communism." That was not Ronald Reagan's tack. From his first days in the Oval Office, after being subjected to one of those three-hour seminars on the fine points and subtle nuances of diplomacy, he summed up his own idea of the Cold War in just a few words: "We win, they lose."
We did. They did.
Ronald Reagan did not mince his words. He dared call an evil empire an evil empire. "Tear down this wall!" he told Mikhail Gorbachev when he visited Berlin in 1987. Two years later, the wall was torn down.
Who would've thought it could happen? It was as inconceivable as a world without a Soviet Union. To this day sophisticates speak as if the fall of the Wall indeed, the whole collapse of Soviet Communism was some kind of happy accident that just happened to occur on Ronald Reagan's watch. My, what a coincidence.
Even now the received history of the Cold War in gliberal versions is that the saintly Mikhail Gorbachev ended it. Wasn't he Time magazine's Man of the Year as 1988 dawned? Just as Barack Obama was this year's winner of the Nobel Peace Prize.
It takes a rare liberal (excuse me, progressive) historian, like Princeton's Sean Wilentz, to let it slip that Ronald Reagan's "success in helping finally to end the Cold War is one of the greatest achievements by any president of the United States and arguably the greatest single presidential achievement since 1945."
But usually that's not bruited about in the professor's intellectually acceptable circles. His idol, the court historian of Camelot, Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., visited the Soviet Union the same decade the Wall would fall, and came back warning against those right-wing nuts "who think the Soviet Union is on the verge of collapse, ready with one small push to go over the brink." Which it did once the Wall fell and the gates were open all over Europe. But it wouldn't have happened without American presidents like Harry Truman and Ronald Reagan willing to tell the simple truth about the choices facing the world.
Freedom has had its low tides, too. One of Ronald Reagan's more ineffectual predecessors, Gerald Ford, was reduced to scurrying through the White House at Henry Kissinger's wily direction lest he be caught publicly shaking hands with Alexander Solzhenitsyn. He might have offended the tyrants in the Kremlin by being seen with the prophet of the age.
The pattern continues. The current occupant of the Oval Office finds excuses not to meet with the Dalai Lama yet, lest people remember that Tibet is still in thrall. Why embarrass our creditors in Beijing? Better to hold our mouths just right in the presence of the world's tyrants. We wouldn't want to offend them.
Yet freedom still calls even when it isn't heard.. The tyrannized around the world grow restive, while an American president extends his open hand to their oppressors. On the 30th anniversary of the seizure of the American embassy in Teheran, an uncowed group of protesters gathered to stage their own unofficial, unapproved and unafraid counter-demonstration. Their purpose: to denounce Iran's stolen election and shout slogans against the dictatorship. One of the chants heard: "Obama, Obama either you're with them or with us." It's not clear, but the suspicion grows that he's with them. Mainly, he dithers.
Many of us seem to have forgotten that walls do not come down of themselves. Freedom is not something just to be commemorated. It requires courage, candor, vision, will. A willingness to take risks. Like the risk of speaking out. As in: "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!"
Paul Greenberg Archives