Today (November 9) is the anniversary of one of the most remarkable days in my life. It happened 25 years.
The Berlin Wall — the symbol of a divided world — was torn down by the residents of Berlin on November 9, 1989. The Cold War, the defining feature of world politics for forty-four years, ended without a battle. It ended with a bunch of teenagers climbing on top of an ugly concrete edifice, covering it with spray paint, and then knocking it down with sledge hammers.
I was a college senior in Williamstown, Massachusetts, watching the events with my roommates. Yes, the revolution was actually televised. It was the capstone of a remarkable year of student-led protests, beginning with the overthrow of Marcos in the Phillipines, then the protests in Tianamen Square (which were crushed), and culminating in the crowds of Berliners taking destiny in their own hands.
To fully appreciate the magnitude of the Wall coming down, you had to live during the Cold War when the rivalry between the U.S.-U.S.S.R. dominated everything: Olympic sports, Hollywood movies, American politics. My generation was the “Wolverine generation,” raised with the specter of Communist invasion or nuclear war.
(If you don’t understand the allusion, then go immediately to Netflix and rent “Red Dawn,” with starring turns by Jennifer Gray and Patrick Swayze).
It may seem remote and far-fetched today but those same impulses propelled Ronald Reagan to huge electoral majorities. (And also elected a lot of hawkish Democrats). America’s business was staying ahead of the Soviets in any way that we could.
That narrative didn’t end overnight. It took the elevation of Gorbachev in the Soviet Union as a “reformer” of the Soviet system, which was meanwhile collapsing around the globe as a viable economic mechanism.
In 1989, the forces had begun to push opposition groups in Eastern Europe to actually assert themselves publicly, an unthinkable option during the era of Communist domination when the Soviets or their satellite stooges routinely crushed nationalists, democrats or other dissidents.
When Gorbachev announced that the Eastern Europe nations could decide their own destiny, then the fate of their Communist regimes was sealed. Nobody ever liked them and their incestuous relation with the Soviets made them toxic to the general populace in countries like Poland, Hungary, East Germany and Czechoslovakia. If they were lucky they could fade into obscurity. If they were unlucky, then they were shot by their unbound countrymen (like Ceaucescu in Romania).
We didn’t know this in November 1989 but the fall of the Berlin Wall would change American politics permanently and dramatically. For two generations, the principal job of an American President was to be the “Leader of the Free World.” That was not hyperbole; that was a job description which accurately described the role of the USA in preserving free institutions and free countries like Japan, West Germany and South Korea. The success in that role has been one of our greatest national achievements.
In my own mind, the fall of the Berlin Wall shows that individuals can determine their own destiny — and that freedom eventually wins. It did in 1989.