25 years ago today, November 9, 1989, marks one of the most monumental, pivotal moments of modern history.
After more than four decades of seclusion from the Western World, with a literal concrete wall separating them from freedom, economic hope, as well as often their own families, the people of East Berlin were freed from their virtual imprisonment from the totalitarian excesses of the Soviet Empire.
Today, many view this as obvious, almost fated occurrence in the world’s march toward progress and freedom.
That is a modern delusion that ill-suits not only the facts, but does a disservice into understanding the sacrifice and effort that the great undertaking of undermining the ‘Evil Empire’ of the Soviet Union cost the Western World, especially the United States of America.
Modern liberals, such as President Barack Obama, have a faith-like belief that the world will continually improve, that freedom naturally expands and grows, that economic freedom is the natural evolution of humanity’s existence on this planet.
Nothing can be further from the truth.
In the 20th century, we saw at least two great, existential threats to the progress of freedom in the globe: Nazism and Communism.
The first took the death of 60-80 million people, or approximately 2.5% of the entire population of the planet. In dollars and cents, the war cost the United States approximately $7 trillion…or half of our current gross domestic product. Worldwide, that cost shoots to almost $25 trillion…which would be 1/3 of the entire GDP of the entire race of Homo sapiens.
As for the Cold War, the costs are far less obviously, but no less consequential. The rise of the Soviet State led to the worldwide threat of global thermonuclear war. The brush fire conflicts that erupted around the globe, including in places like Korea, Vietnam, Angola, and elsewhere had to one degree or another their origins in the struggle of democracy versus communism.
It is very easy in hindsight to think that the results of either World War II or the Cold War was utterly expected and predicted. But the facts and history tell us otherwise. There were many moments during the history of both conflicts when the march toward of freedom could have chosen a different path, with far different results.
In both, however, it was the unending, fearless leadership of moral men, standing up for what was right and what was worth fighting for, that made the difference. Obviously in World War II, those men were primarily Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill.
During the Cold War, almost every U.S. President made this argument, and should be lauded for it. But no two names were more meaningful than John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan.
For Kennedy, his moment in the crucible came in October 1962, as the Russians planned to deploy missiles to the nearby island of Cuba. Many members of Kennedy’s own party wanted him to stand down, and avoid any conflict. But Kennedy understood a basic tenet of foreign policy: if you give into thugs, they will continue to demand more and more. So instead, Kennedy established the blockade of Cuba…and the events unfolded as the success story we know today.
In 1961, Kennedy has little options to halt the Communists from erecting the Berlin Wall. In June of 1963, he went to Berlin, and made claim to the mantle of freedom:
Two thousand years ago the proudest boast was “civis Romanus sum.” Today, in the world of freedom, the proudest boast is “Ich bin ein Berliner.”
“There are many people in the world who really don’t understand, or say they don’t, what is the great issue between the free world and the communist world. … Let them come to Berlin!”
“Lass’ sie nach Berlin kommen! [Let them come to Berlin!]”
What we see with Kennedy is an understanding that actions and words are important in defending your beliefs. If you do not back up your lofty words with strong, forceful actions, those around the world that oppose you have no reason to believe in your word.
President Ronald Reagan in many ways was JFK’s successor in this regard. He used forceful, sometimes scary language to describe the Soviet Union. He did not mince words, calling them adversaries or whatnot; he called them the enemy, and stood steadfast behind that belief.
On June 12, 1987, in front of the Brandenburg Gates that had become the symbolic heart of the Berlin Wall conflict, Reagan spoke words that JFK would have thought unthinkable to state in Berlin a generation earlier:
Behind me stands a wall that encircles the free sectors of this city, part of a vast system of barriers that divides the entire continent of Europe. From the Baltic, south, those barriers cut across Germany in a gash of barbed wire, concrete, dog runs, and guard towers. Farther south, there may be no visible, no obvious wall. But there remain armed guards and checkpoints all the same–still a restriction on the right to travel, still an instrument to impose upon ordinary men and women the will of a totalitarian state. Yet it is here in Berlin where the wall emerges most clearly; here, cutting across your city, where the news photo and the television screen have imprinted this brutal division of a continent upon the mind of the world. Standing before the Brandenburg Gate, every man is a German, separated from his fellow-men. Every man is a Berliner, forced to look upon a scar. …
…And now the Soviets themselves may, in a limited way, be coming to understand the importance of freedom. We hear much from Moscow about a new policy of reform and openness. Some political prisoners have been released. Certain foreign news broadcasts are no longer being jammed. Some economic enterprises have been permitted to operate with greater freedom from state control.
Are these the beginnings of profound changes in the Soviet state? Or are they token gestures, intended to raise false hopes in the West, or to strengthen the Soviet system without changing it? We welcome change and openness; for we believe that freedom and security go together, that the advance of human liberty can only strengthen the cause of world peace. There is one sign the Soviets can make that would be unmistakable, that would advance dramatically the cause of freedom and peace.
General Secretary 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!
Today, this speech seems such an obvious, integral part of what modern America is, and what modern democracy is based on. But at the time, many worldwide leaders were critical of Reagan’s harsh tone; and some Democrats in America thought it was bellicose and incendiary.
To this day, there is debate of the true effects of the speech on both the Communist Party’s transition that would occur in the months to come (The Soviet Union would be dissolved on December 26, 1991, only 25 months later). But the symbolic importance of the moment, especially considering the Berlin Wall fell 2 years after the speech and the Soviet Union only 2 years after that, cannot be overstated. Fundamentally, even the Fall of the Berlin wall was, in a sense, only a symbolic gesture on the world’s path to ridding us of the tyranny of communism.
The lessons learned from the Cold War could be profound for our modern conflicts, but our current leadership seems unwilling or unable to accept the lessons at hand. The demise of Communism was never a certainty, never a fate we were promised by some higher power or by some vague form of manifest destiny. It took political leaders, from both American political parties, from all ends of the modern Western political spectrum, to slowly, steadily, and methodically push back against the forces of oppression that the Warsaw Pact represented.
Today, we face a similar existential threat in Radical Islam, Islamofascism, or whatever term you see most fit. But we still have not learned the lessons of the past. We must hold fast to the belief that freedom and democracy, above all else, is the way forward. We must believe that although we don’t want to impose, in any fashion, our belief system in others, we should not deny that our system has been far superior to these alternatives around the globe.
Our leadership today seems unwilling to accept this type of moral superiority. They refuse to truly grasp the mantle of freedom the way that Kennedy, Reagan, and so many others across the globe did. And they don’t understand that without such true belief in our system, we can never be victorious over the forces of violence, oppression, and hatred that confronts today.
So, we should celebrate the momentous symbolic achievement of the Fall of the Berlin Wall. We should accept the great victory that it was over the oppressive communist threat. But hopefully, some will also learn the larger lessons we should derive from that.