Communism was the greatest catastrophe of the 20th century, and one of the greatest in human history. Twenty years ago, suddenly and improbably, it fell into its death throes.
The end began the night of Nov. 9, 1989, when the Berlin Wall was opened, allowing East Germans to leave the prison that constituted their country. Throughout Eastern Europe, one Communist regime after another disintegrated. Within two years, the Communist Party of the Soviet Union was not only out of power but banned by law. A system soaked in the blood of millions was gone.
It was the most dramatic, life-affirming and miraculous event of our time. And for those of us in the West, it is one from which we have yet to recover.
The Cold War was often grim and scary. For four decades, we had to maintain vast defenses against a numerically superior enemy that threatened the freedom of our allies and, by extension, ourselves. We lived with the daily reality that, with the push of a button in the Kremlin, we would all be dead in half an hour.
But the "long twilight struggle," as John F. Kennedy called it, was also inspiring. It gave us a purpose greater than ourselves. In those days, most Americans understood it was our national duty to prevent the spread of the most malignant force on earth, lest it enslave us all.
That may sound absurd to anyone who has grown up since 1989. But there were serious people who feared the worst. British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher thought that in the 1970s, the West was "slowly but surely losing."
Our unequivocal victory brought joy, but it also created something else: a void in our lives. If upholding freedom and democracy against a global enemy was not our purpose, what was?
In his 1989 essay, "The End of History?" published in The National Interest, Francis Fukuyama celebrated the triumph of liberal democracy over communism. But he feared "centuries of boredom" once the "worldwide ideological struggle that called forth daring, courage, imagination and idealism" was replaced by such dull fare as "the endless solving of technical problems, environmental concerns and the satisfaction of sophisticated consumer demands."
The end of the Cold War left us searching for something to match its gravity, drama and urgency. Unfortunately, some people have managed to find it.