What the dismantling of the Berlin Wall means 30 years later

The return of war-as-the-answer.

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SOURCETom Dispatch

Some anniversaries are less about the past than the future. So it should be with November 9, 1989. In case you’ve long forgotten, that was the day when East and West Germans began nonviolently dismantling the Berlin Wall, an entirely unpredicted, almost unimaginable ending to the long-entrenched Cold War. Think of it as the triumph of idealistic hope over everything that then passed for hard-nosed “realism.” After all, Western intelligence services, academic Kremlinologists, and the American national security establishment had always blithely assumed that the Cold War would essentially go on forever — unless the absolute malevolence of Soviet Communism led to the ultimate mayhem of nuclear Armageddon. For almost half a century, only readily dismissed peaceniks insisted that, in the nuclear age, war and endless preparations for more of it were not the answer. When the Berlin Wall came down, such idealists were proven right, even if their triumph was still ignored.

Yet war-as-the-answer reasserted itself with remarkable rapidity. Within weeks of the Wall being breached by hope — in an era that saw savage conflicts in Central America, the Philippines, and South Africa transformed by a global wave of nonviolent resolution — the United States launched Operation Just Cause, the invasion of Panama by a combat force of more than 27,000 troops. The stated purpose of that act of war was the arrest of Panama’s tinhorn dictator Manuel Noriega, who had initially come to power as a CIA asset. That invasion’s only real importance was as a demonstration that, even with global peace being hailed, the world’s last remaining superpower remained as committed as ever to the hegemony of violent force.

Who ended the Cold War?

While President George H.W. Bush rushed to claim credit for ending the Cold War, the Soviet Union’s Mikhail Gorbachev was the lynchpin of that historic conclusion. It was he who, in the dramatic autumn of 1989, repeatedly ordered Communist forces to remain in their barracks while throngs of freedom-chanters poured into the streets of multiple cities behind the Iron Curtain. Instead of blindly striking out (as the leaders of crumbling empires often had), Gorbachev allowed democratic demands to echo through the Soviet empire — ultimately even in Russia itself.

Yet the American imagination was soon overtaken by the smug fantasy that the U.S. had “won” the Cold War and that it was now a power beyond all imagining. Never mind that, in 1987, when President Ronald Reagan issued his famed demand in then still-divided Berlin, “Mister Gorbachev, tear down this wall,” the Soviet leader was already starting to do precisely that.

As the wall came down, the red-scare horrors that had disturbed American dreams for three generations seemed to dissolve overnight, leaving official Washington basking in triumphalism. The U.S. then wrapped itself in a self-aggrandizing mantle of virtue and power that effectively blinded this country’s political leadership to the ways the Cold War’s end had left them mired in an outmoded, ever more dangerous version of militarism.

After Panama, the self-styled “indispensable nation” would show itself to be hell-bent on unbridled — and profoundly self-destructive — belligerence. Deprived of an existential enemy, Pentagon budgets would decline oh-so-modestly (though without a “peace dividend” in sight) but soon return to Cold War levels. A bristling nuclear arsenal would be maintained as a “hedge” against the comeback of Soviet-style communism. Such thinking would, in the end, only empower Moscow’s hawks, smoothing the way for the future rise of an ex-KGB agent named Vladimir Putin. Such hyper-defensive anticipation would prove to be, as one wag put it, the insurance policy that started the fire.

Even as the disintegration of the once-demonized USSR was firmly underway, culminating in the final lowering of the hammer-and-sickle flag from the Kremlin on Christmas Day 1991, the United States was launching what would prove to be a never-ending and disastrous sequence of unnecessary Middle Eastern wars. They began with Operation Desert Storm, George H.W. Bush’s assault on Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in 1990. In American memory, that campaign, which crushed the Iraqi autocrat’s army and forced it out of Kuwait, would be a techno-war made in heaven with fewer than 200 U.S. combat deaths. 

That memory, however, fits poorly with what was actually happening that year. An internationally mounted sanctions regime had already been on the verge of thwarting Hussein without the U.S.-led invasion — and, of course, what Bush the father began, Bush the son would, with his 2003 shock-and-awe recapitulation, turn into the permanent bedrock of American politics.

As the 30th anniversary of the end of the Cold War approaches, it should be obvious that there’s been a refusal in the United States to reckon with a decades-long set of conflagrations in the Greater Middle East as the inevitable consequence of that first American invasion in 1990. Above all, Desert Storm, with its monumental victory parade in Washington D.C., brought the Pentagon’s Cold War raison d’être back from the brink of obsolescence. That campaign and what followed in its wake guaranteed that violence would continue to occupy the heartlands of the U.S. economy, its politics, and its culture. In the process, the world-historic aspirations kindled by the miracle of the Berlin Wall’s dismantling would be thoroughly dashed. No wonder, so many years later, we hardly remember that November of hope — or the anniversary that goes with it.

Out of the memory hole

By revisiting its astonishing promise as the anniversary approaches, however, and by seeing it more fully in light of what made it so surprising, perhaps something of that vanished positive energy can still be retrieved. So let me call to mind the events of various earlier Novembers that make the point. What follows is a decade-by-decade retracing of the way the war machine trundled through recent history — and through the American psyche — until it was finally halted in a battle-scarred, divided city in the middle of Europe, stopped by an urge for peace that refused to be denied.

Let’s start with November 1939, only weeks after the German invasion of Poland that began what would become World War II. A global struggle between good and evil was just then kicking into gear. Unlike the previous Great War of 1914-1918, which was fought for mere empire, Hitler’s war was understood in distinctly Manichaean terms as both apocalyptic and transcendent. After all, the moral depravity of the Nazi project had already been laid bare when Jewish synagogues, businesses, and homes everywhere in Germany were subject to the savagery of Kristallnacht, or “the night of broken glass.” That ignition of what became an anti-Jewish genocide took place, as it happened, on November 9, 1938.

The good-versus-evil absolutism of World War II stamped the American imagination so profoundly that a self-righteous moral dualism survived not only into the Cold War but into Washington’s twenty-first-century war on terror. In such contests against enemies defined as devils, Americans could adopt the kinds of ends-justify-the-means strategies called for by “realism.” When you are fighting along what might be thought of as an axis of evil, anything goes — from deceit and torture to the routine sacrifice of civilians, whose deaths in America’s post-9/11 wars have approached a total of half a million. Through it all, we were assured of one certain thing: that God was on our side. (“God is not neutral,” as George W. Bush put it just days after the 9/11 attacks.)

From genocide to omnicide

But what if God could not protect us? That was the out-of-the-blue question posed near the start of all this — not in August 1945 when the U.S. dropped its “victory weapon” on two cities in Japan, but in August 1949 when the Soviet Union acquired an atomic bomb, too. By that November, the American people were already in the grip of an unprecedented nuclear paranoia, which prompted President Harry Truman to override leading atomic scientists and order the development of what one called a “genocidal weapon,” the even more powerful hydrogen bomb. Then came the manic build-up of the U.S. nuclear arsenal to proportions suitable less for genocide than for “omnicide.” Such weapons mushroomed (if you’ll excuse the word in a potentially mushroom-clouded world) from fewer than 200 in 1950 to nearly 20,000 a decade later. Of course, that escalation, in turn, drove Moscow forward in a desperate effort to keep up, leading to an unhinged arms race that turned the suicide of the human species into a present danger, one measured by the Doomsday Clock, of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, which was set at two minutes to midnight in 1953 — and then again in 2019, all these Novembers later.

Now, let’s flash forward another decade to November 1959 when the mortal danger of human self-extinction finally became openly understood, as Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev began issuing blatant threats of nuclear war over — you guessed it — Berlin. Because part of that city, far inside Communist East Germany, was still occupied by American, French, and British forces, it amounted to a tear in what was then called the Iron Curtain, separating the Soviet empire from Western Europe. With thousands fleeing through that tear to the so-called Free World, the Soviets became increasingly intent on shutting the escape hatch, threatening to use the Red Army to drive the Allies out of Berlin. That brought the possibility of a nuclear conflict to the fore.

Ultimately, the Communists would adopt a quite different strategy when, in 1961, they built that infamous wall, a concrete curtain across the city. At the time, Berliners sometimes referred to it, with a certain irony, as the “Peace Wall” because, by blocking escape from the East, it made the dreaded war between the two Cold War superpowers unnecessary. Yet within a year the unleashed prospect of such a potentially civilization-ending conflict had hopscotched the globe to Communist Cuba. The Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 caused the world to shudder as incipient nuclear war between Washington and Moscow suddenly loomed. That moment, just before Khrushchev and American President John F. Kennedy stepped back from doomsday, might have changed something; a relieved world’s shock of recognition, that is, might have thrown the classic wooden shoe of sabotage into the purring engine of “realism.” No such luck, however, as the malevolent power of the war state simply motored on — in the case of the United States directly into Vietnam.

By November 1969, President Richard Nixon’s cynical continuation of the Vietnam War for his own political purposes had already driven the liberal-conservative divide over that misbegotten conflict into the permanent structure of American politics. The ubiquitous “POW/MIA: You Are Not Forgotten” flag survives today as an icon of Nixon’s manipulations. Still waving over ball parks, post offices, town halls, and VFW posts across the nation, that sad black banner now flies as a symbol of red state/blue state antagonism — and as a lasting reminder of how we Americans can make prisoners of ourselves.

By 1979, with the Vietnam War in the past, President Jimmy Carter showed how irresistible November’s tide — the inexorable surge toward war — truly was. It was in November of that year that militant Iranian students overran the American embassy in Tehran, taking sixty-six Americans hostage — the event that was credited with stymying the formerly peace-minded president. In reality, though, Carter had already initiated the historic anti-Soviet arms build-up for which President Ronald Reagan would later be credited.

Then, of course, Carter would ominously foreshadow America’s future reversals in the deserts of the Levant with a failed rescue of those hostages. Most momentously, however, he would essentially license future Middle East defeats with what came to be known as the Carter Doctrine — the formally declared principle that the Persian Gulf (and its oil) were “vital interests” of this country, worthy of defense “by any means necessary, including military force.” (And of course, his CIA would lead us into America’s first Afghan War, still in a sense going on some 40 years later.)

Retrieving hope?

Decade by decade, the evidence of an unstoppable martial dynamic only seemed to accumulate. In that milestone month of November 1989, Washington’s national security “realists” were still stuck in the groove of such worst-case thinking. That they were wrong, that they would be stunned by the fall of the Berlin Wall and the subsequent implosion of the Soviet Union, should mandate thoughtful observance of this coming 30th anniversary.

During the late 1980s, a complex set of antiwar and antinuclear countercurrents seemed to come out of nowhere. Each of them should have been impossible. The ruthlessly totalitarian Soviet system should not have produced in Mikhail Gorbachev a humane statesman who sacrificed empire and his own career for the sake of peace. The most hawkish American president in history, Ronald Reagan, should not have responded to Gorbachev by working to end the arms race with him — but he did. 

Pressuring those two leaders to pursue that course — indeed, forcing them to — was an international grassroots movement demanding an end to apocalyptic terror. People wanted peace so much, as President Dwight D. Eisenhower had predicted in 1959, that, miracle of all miracles, governments got out of their way and let them have it. With the breaching of the Berlin Wall that November 9th — a transformation accomplished by ordinary citizens, not soldiers — the political realm of the possible was substantially broadened, not only to include prospective future detente among warring nations, but an eventual elimination of nuclear weapons themselves.

Yet, in November 2019, all of that seems lost. A new Cold War is underway, with East-West hostilities quickening; a new arms race has begun, especially as the United States renounces Reagan-Gorbachev arms-control agreements for the sake of a trillion-plus dollar “modernization” of its nuclear arsenal. Across the globe, democracy is in retreat, driven by pressures from both populist nationalism and predatory capitalism. Even in America, democracy seems imperiled. And all of this naturally prompts the shudder-inducing question: Were the worst-case realists right all along?

This November anniversary of the dismantling of the Berlin Wall should offer an occasion to say no to that. The Wall’s demise stopped in its tracks the demonic dynamic set in motion on the very same date in 1938 by that Kristallnacht. If idealistic hope could so triumph once, it can so triumph again, no matter what the die-hard realists of our moment may believe. I’ve referred to that November in Berlin as a miracle, but that is wrong. The most dangerous face-off in history ended not because of the gods or good fortune, but because of the actions and efforts of human beings. Across two generations, countless men and women — from anonymous community activists and union organizers to unsung military officials, scientists, and even world leaders — overcame the seemingly endless escalations of nuclear-armed animus to make brave choices for peace and against a war of annihilation, for life and against death, for the future and against the doom-laden past.

It can happen again. It must.

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James Carroll, TomDispatch regular and former Boston Globe columnist, is the author of 20 books, including the new novel The Cloister (Doubleday). His history of the Pentagon, House of War, won the PEN-Galbraith Award. His memoir, An American Requiem, won the National Book Award. He is a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He lives in Boston with his wife, the writer Alexandra Marshall.

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