On Nov. 9, 1989, large crowds of German citizens from both East and West Berlin approached the Berlin Wall. At several border crossing points, East Berliners began shouting at the armed communist guards, demanding they open the gates and shove aside barbed wire obstacles.
The confused guards yielded and disappeared. The gleeful crowds from the communist East and the free West mingled and mixed, occasionally waving at television cameras. Young men whacked at the wall's hideous concrete with pick axes and sledge hammers, then passed the tools to other eager hands.
Make no mistake. The Berlin Wall was a prison wall, an ugly urban segment of Soviet Russia's Iron Curtain barrier, but because it so definitively and obtrusively split one of the world's great cities into a vibrant west and a shabby, shackled east, it became the most potent symbol of the division of Germany, Europe and the Cold War world.
The Kremlin couldn't spin the dramatic photographs and video of Nov. 9. The palpable joy overwhelmed the jailers and their propagandists, and even stunned to silence their usually vocal Marxist sympathizers in the West. Middle-aged fraus laughing at the wall's mounting rubble as teenagers danced beneath abandoned guard towers visibly and undeniably signaled the collapse of the Soviet Union's Eastern European empire.
In its first "post-wall" issue, the German magazine Der Spiegel described the breach of the Berlin Wall with a short headline: "Das Volk Siegt" (the people win, the nation is victorious).
That is certainly true. A majority of Germans locked in the Stalinist eastern sector never lost hope, at least not entirely. A majority of Germans in the NATO-protected west didn't lose hope, either -- nor, despite harsh repression, did Poles (Solidarity movement, 1980), Hungarians (revolt, 1956), Czechs and Slovaks (Prague Spring, 1968) and the other nations enslaved by communism.
Though watched by ubiquitous secret police and their informers, these nations maintained the will to persevere against tyranny and oppression. It was a daily struggle, and spirits flagged as Soviet premiers told the United States, "We will bury you."
Many in the West, including the U.S., believed that the communists had history on their side. The wry debate reply from the defeatist lefties favoring unilateral U.S. nuclear disarmament was "better Red than dead." For decades -- I repeat, decades -- this crowd had a media pulpit from which its self-proclaimed intelligentsia preached the moral equivalency of the U.S. and the Soviet Union, and at times dropped the all pretense and fingered the U.S. as the "fascist state" and global oppressor.
In the language of the defeatist left, the U.S. was the jailer, the warmonger, the threat to world peace.
The Berlin Wall's collapse exposed that Big Lie, as did the documented moral, political, economic and ecological wretchedness of the Soviet Union. Unfortunately, we still hear echoes of this "blame America" cant lacing al-Qaida propaganda and the lectures of hard-left reactionaries like Bill Ayers. The great anti-American lies of the Cold War are recast as the great anti-American lies of the War on Terror.
Breaching the wall in 1989 was bloodless, but the Cold War certainly wasn't. World War III did not break out along the intra-German border and produce a nuclear conflagration, but the Cold War's battles on the periphery (e.g., Greece, Korea, Vietnam, El Salvador, Angola, Afghanistan) were expensive, fatiguing and deadly.
Despite the risk and strain, America didn't quit -- at least, the majority of Americans didn't.
Nov. 9, 1989, was a victory for freedom, but it would not have been possible without America and American perseverance. America carried the burden of leadership; American soldiers bore the brunt of defending freedom. American leadership and active defense kept hope alive -- the hope that empowered Eastern Europe's oppressed.
Austin Bay is the author of three novels. His third novel, The Wrong Side of Brightness, was published by Putnam/Jove in June 2003. He has also co-authored four non-fiction books, to include A Quick and Dirty Guide to War: Third Edition (with James Dunnigan, Morrow, 1996).
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