James A. Baker III: Why the Wall Fell





[Baker was the 61st U.S. secretary of state.]

The Berlin wall fell on Nov. 9, 1989, marking the end of one era and the beginning of another. I'll never forget East and West Germans striking their blows for freedom, taking sledgehammers to the barrier that divided them for almost three decades. The 20th anniversary of this moment provides an opportunity to reflect on an extraordinary event—and to draw lessons that might guide us today.

It may seem now like the fall of the Berlin Wall was a historical inevitability—after all, the same European nations that battled one another for most of the 20th century cooperate today on economic, political, and military matters. Though tensions still exist between Washington and Moscow, and between Russia and some of the former Soviet republics, there is cooperation on a range of issues unimaginable in 1989. It's easy to take what happened that day for granted.

We shouldn't. For most of my adult life, I lived with the reminder that civilization might perish in a fiery hail of atoms; my kids ran practice drills in their school hallways in case Russia dropped the bomb. American diplomacy wasn't very complex: if the Russians were for it, we were against it. Cold or not, the world was at war. And it could have gotten much worse...

... The Cold War would not have concluded as it did without the stewardship of leaders beginning with Harry Truman. I feel immense pride for having served during that era, a time when our long-term strategy was highlighted by JFK's "Ich bin ein Berliner" moment and Ronald Reagan's challenge to Gorbachev ("Tear down this wall"). For more than 40 years, nine presidents, Democrat and Republican, stood firm against the Soviet empire.

They were able to do this because Americans were largely united for a common goal. It wasn't easy. During that period, we suffered the growing pangs of a country experiencing domestic upheaval. Our efforts to curb the spread of communism sometimes failed, most notably in Vietnam. But in the end, our dedication prevailed, and without a Dr. Strangelove ending. Democracy has spread to 50 nations...

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