November 9th, 1989 was one of those moments in world history when, in front of your eyes, you saw the world change. Very few moments in world history have had that effect: Pearl Harbor and September 11th come to mind. In the matter of hours, the Iron Curtain of the Warsaw Pact came crumbling down, as we saw the end of the Cold War occur not with bullets and missiles, but with civilians with hammers and sticks tear down a wall that was the symbol for oppression for the better part of the 20th century.
Ronald Reagan was criticized by liberals, in American and abroad, as being a cowboy and not understanding world diplomacy. They stated that he spoke to ‘too bluntly’ about the reality of the Soviets as an ‘Evil Empire’ and made jokes about pressing ‘the’ button. And when he went to Berlin and asked Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev, “Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate. Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”, editorials in America laughed at him. And yet, that was only two short years before the wall actually fell. While the rest of the world was shocked by the events, Reagan’s vision had predetermined them.
The signs of the Communists demise had been there to see; of course, hindsight is 20/20. Both the CIA and KGB now admit that they did not see the revolution coming. It was possibly the biggest intelligence failure in world history. The media had no clue as well; only one network, NBC, was on the ground in Berlin as the wall fell, and even that was blind coincidence.
By the fall of 1989, the Solidarity movement had pushed out the Communist government from Poland; Hungary had moved to a multi-party system. A new kind of Russian leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, was applying “perestroika” (economic reform) and “glasnost” (openness) to a Soviet system that was failing badly; he was doing his utmost to save the communist system, but was failing miserably. And communist satellite countries like Cuba were left to survive on their own, with the stoppage of huge subsidies that had propped up those regimes for decades.
In the weeks leading up to the Fall, the East German government had come under increased pressure to make serious reforms. The economic system built their over the past half century was crumbling, and people were fleeing to the West. On November 8th, the East German politburo resigned amid the massive protests. Still, on the morning of the ninth, no one really knew what was coming. It culminated with the East Germans announcing that they would allow, for the first time, their citizens the right to travel abroad…including the West.
At first, there was confusion. The public rushed to the Wall, seeing if the border was truly open. At first, the border guards kept up their duties, but as the crowds grew, they ultimately opened the gates, fearing a riot. The wall, symbolically, had fallen. People eventually climbed the wall, and started tearing down the wall in earnest. Tom Brokaw, alone along the wall, was blessed to be the only major reporter on the site as the wall came down. The other networks were talking about the off year elections, while Brokaw was at the site of one of modern history’s most important moments. Peter Jennings and Dan Rather rushed to Berlin a day later.
What did the fall of the wall mean? It mean the end of the oppression of basic human rights that had defined the 20th century. Half the world lived under that oppression in some form or another, and the wall’s fall began the process where many (though not all) of those people regained some of their basic human rights.
The fall of the wall ended the Warsaw Pact and iron curtain. It would take several years for the Soviet Union to dissolve, but the writing was on the wall. Gorbachev would fight in earnest to save the communist system and would fail.
Ultimately, history will record the Cold War as the closest humanity has come to destroying itself. Over 30,000 nuclear warheads were pointed toward the earth at the height of the Cold War, and only a small fraction of those were necessary to destroy all significant life on the planet.
The lesson that future leaders must take from this is that the impossible is possible. As late as the 1970s, many in American intelligensia thought it was a matter of time before we lost the Cold War. Whether Vietnam, Afghanistan, and elsewhere, American power appeared waning. Reagan’s vision, however, was that freedom is the most basic human right, and humans will fight for that right at all costs. Reagan put faith in the basic goodness of humanity. The lesson for future leaders is to stand up for what is right, for what is good, and what is necessary, even in the face of opposition.
President Barack Obama decided not to travel to Berlin for the 20th Anniversary ceremonies, as is his right. But whether he goes or not, I hope he learns the lesson of the Cold War. You can negotiate with your enemy, like Reagan did. You can make concessions, like Reagan did. But you can only win peace from a vantage point of strength. When your enemies see weakness, as they saw with Jimmy Carter, no peace can be had. Ultimately, peace with power is the only peace to be had. It is a lesson that Democrats, and our current President, would benefit to learn sooner rather than later.