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Sunday, November 1, 2009

What brought down the Berlin Wall?

Some Americans like to think that Ronald Reagan bellowed out "Mr. Gorbachev, Tear down this wall!" and the Berlin Wall came tumbling down.  The Berlin wall came down because it was built on a faulty foundation in the first place.

This week marks the 20th year since the Wall fell and Soviet communism came to an end.  At least for a time.  In a ceremony attended by Mikhail Gorbachev, Helmut Kohl, and George H.W. Bush,  Bush commented that the impetus that brought the wall down did not come from the politicians; it came from the people.  

Professor Gerard DeGroot of the University of St. Andrews in Scotland reviews three books in the Washington Post that give perspectives on why communism failed and what brought down the wall. His major point is that the simplistic explanations for the fall of communism tend to be wrong because they do not acknowledge the complicated factors that ended the Soviet reign over much of Europe.  Essentially, the problem was bad government.  He warns that free elections do not necessarily bring good government.

Many people celebrate that fall 20 years ago as the end of the Cold War.  Few acknowledge that the Cold War itself is what ended the Cold War.  The weapons of the Cold War eventually won out.

I was in Germany at the height of the Cold War.  Our radars tracked aircraft flying patrols along the East German border and our missiles were poised to shoot down any aircraft that ventured into NATO airspace, but to allow defecting pilots from the Soviet bloc to land at allied airbases and turn their aircraft over to the NATO forces.   It was a touchy game.

The isolated post on which I served had vacated the pre-fabricated barracks built after World War II and moved the troops into steel and concrete billets, but they left the pre-fabs standing as a place where military projects could take place in relative secrecy.  Some of those barracks served as debriefing stations for operatives who were sneaking in and out of East Germany.  I won't pretend to know everything they were up to, but they were carrying messages back and forth between East and West Germany to keep families and friends in touch with each other.  In 1959, the wall had not been built and the iron curtain had many holes.  People were escaping to West German constantly.  

 At the time, it was possible to visit West Berlin by getting on a train in West Germany with special papers and travel through East Germany under the vigilant eyes of agents to make sure no one from the west got off or talked to anyone before they reached West Berlin.  However, the real problem was East Germans finding ways to escape to the West, and that is why the Berlin Wall was built.  

What was motivating those defections?  Voice of America and the Armed Forces Radio Network were  broadcasting 24 hours a day, and the radio signals could not be successfully blocked  But it was not the propaganda that was effective.  It was the news reports,  the music, the overall reflections of a free lifestyle that people behind the Iron Curtain craved and envied.  It is often said that the most effective weapons during the Cold War were Levi jeans, rock and roll and jazz, Folgers coffee, and Coca Cola.  To people who had to wait in line for hours to buy bread, these commodities which were common goods in the West were wild luxuries behind the iron curtain.  Most importantly, they represented freedom and opportunity that cast an illuminating light on the repressive regimes behind the Iron Curtain.  

The restlessness of the people in East Germany and the other Soviet satellites exerted a pressure on the governments, and the answer was more oppression.  That's why the Berlin Wall was built and the Iron Curtain was welded shut.  But those measures only intensified the realization by the people that the regimes were incompetent, corrupt, and greedy, and the very existence of America and West fed that dissatisfaction and fueled the resolve to bring down those regimes.

Behind it all, however, was the stark realization that if one nuclear weapon was detonated as a hostile act, the planet was done for.  All aspirations, dreams, and hopes for a better life would end.  Arms reduction agreements were an important part of the transition from the Soviet bloc to independent states which more or less determined the kind of governments they wanted.  The incompetence and corruption did not go away; it was displaced into new forms and new threats.

Once again we are facing the nuclear threat, only this time from people for whom the total destruction of the planet is not a deterrent.  To them a gamma ray is a fast ride to Allah and the 70 virgins or whatever they think paradise is.  As the bombings in Iraq and Afghanistan show, total, indiscriminate destruction is a goal to achieve, not a demise to be avoided.  During the Cold War, the oppressed people were longing for the life represented by America.  During the Islamic jihads, oppressed people long to exterminate America.  

While the nuclear threat is what kept the Cold War cold, and eliminating that threat became a pathway to peace and the end of the oppressive regimes of the Soviet bloc, no such pathway exists with the nuclear threat we presently face.  

And our own country is locked in the prosecutions of petty malice and political obstruction.  The vision that once could perceive the realities of war seems to have vanished with the Berlin Wall.  

There is most likely gamma rays in our future.  

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Aberdeen, South Dakota, United States