WSJ Editorial: From Truman to Reagan, the benefits of moral clarity

Roundup: Talking About History

In the debate over who deserves credit for causing the Berlin Wall to collapse on the night of November 9, 1989, many names come to mind, both great and small.

There was Günter Schabowski, the muddled East German politburo spokesman, who in a live press conference that evening accidentally announced that the country's travel restrictions were to be lifted "immediately." There was Mikhail Gorbachev, who made it clear that the Soviet Union would not violently suppress people power in its satellite states, as it had decades earlier in Czechoslovakia and Hungary. There were the heroes of Poland's Solidarity movement, not least Pope John Paul II, who did so much to expose the moral bankruptcy of communism.

And there was Ronald Reagan, who believed the job of Western statesmanship was to muster the moral, political, economic and military wherewithal not simply to contain the Soviet bloc, but to bury it. "What I am describing now is a plan and a hope for the long term—the march of freedom and democracy which will leave Marxism-Leninism on the ash-heap of history," he said in 1982, to the astonishment and derision of his critics. Now, there was the audacity of hope.

All of these figures played their part, as did a previous generation of leaders who insisted that the West had a moral duty to defend the little enclave of freedom in Berlin.

Fulfilling that duty came at a price—71 British and American servicemen lost their lives during the Berlin Airlift—that more "pragmatic" politicians might have gladly forgone for the promise of better relations with the Soviets. Not a few NATO generals thought the defense of Berlin needlessly exposed their forces in a militarily indefensible position while giving the Russians an opportunity to blackmail the West as they advanced on strategically more vital ground, particularly Cuba.

Yet if the West's stand in Berlin demonstrates anything, it is that moral commitments have a way of reaping strategic dividends over time. By ordering the airlift in 1948, Harry Truman saved a starving city and defied Soviet bullying. As importantly, he showed that the U.S. would not abandon Europe to its furies, as it had after World War I, thus helping to pave the way for the creation of NATO in April 1949.

By holding firm for 40 years, Truman and his successors transformed what was supposed to be the Atlantic alliance's weakest point into its strongest. To know what the West stood for during most of those years, one merely had to go to Berlin, see the Wall, consider its purpose, and observe the contrasts between the vibrant prosperity on one side of the city and the oppressive monotony on the other.

Those contrasts were even more apparent to the Germans trapped on the wrong side of the Wall. Barbed wire, closed military zones and the machinery of communist propaganda could keep the prosperity of the West out of sight of most people living east of the Iron Curtain. But that wasn't true for the people of East Berlin, many of whom merely had to look out their windows to understand how empty and cynical were the promises of socialism compared to the reality of a free-market system.

Yet it bears recalling that even these obvious political facts were obscure to many people who lived in freedom and should have known better. "Despite what many Americans think, most Soviets do not yearn for capitalism or Western-style democracy," said CBS's Dan Rather just two years before the Wall fell. And when Reagan delivered his historic speech in Berlin calling on Mr. Gorbachev to "tear down this wall," he did so after being warned by some of his senior advisers that the language was "unpresidential," and after thousands of protesters had marched through West Berlin in opposition...
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Arnold Shcherban - 11/13/2009

<There was indeed "something" to the domino theory.>
Sure it was "something" - falsity.

The US trade union system refused to be "duped" by Communists, instead they were... corrupted and finally controlled by anti-communist Repub-Demo plutocratic Janus and Cosa Nostra.
Great success!

LB Samms - 11/13/2009

Here, here! Good comments---thanks.

vaughn davis bornet - 11/13/2009

Well and good, and pretty much first to last what I believed, wrote, and to an extent (until retirement) taught. It is not what many historians believe, or teach.

There is more, and the editorial is strangely silent on that.

The resistance of the United States all over the globe should be included. There was Korea where a line was drawn against international Communism. There was Taiwan, where we stood by this succeeding state in fact and in the UN against the Communist mainland. And there was Vietnam.

The myth that Vietnam achieved nothing and was a total loss doesn't stand up when one thinks globally. There was indeed "something" to the domino theory. Had we simply stood by, that would have become much clearer throughout the South Asia region--at least in my view.

I am not in the least afraid to be on the unpopular side of things. In this case, however, I believe that even a moment's reflection will show the truth of what I have offered here.

The American Military, which went overseas in the era between World War II's close and, say, 1990 at the minimum, deserves a full tribute in any editorial effort assessing Credit--such as this one. Maybe it's implied and maybe it's just not said.

But it needs to be said. American troops who lived in Germany all those years deserve credit.

At the same time, it is not irrelevant to the collapse of the USSR that we patiently built Japan into democratic ways and that we constructed and shored up NATO.

We also kept our cool and despite many examples of misconduct in the UN in the second half of the 20th century, we stayed the course in the UN, paid its cost in money, participated, gritted our teeth, and participated all those decades, anyway.

It is not irrelevant that the American public never suckered on Communist ideology either. No matter what false picture was offered on the happy, dancing Soviet citizens, we who observed mostly let the phony intellectuals have their day in court and at the end said: "We don't believe you."

I did my doctoral dissertation on communism versus the American trade union movement (and how our trade union movement refused to be duped), and communism's feeble effort to use our party system to grow itself. I remain proud of my 1964 book that came out of all that research: Labor Politics in a Democratic Republic: the Republican, Democratic, Socialist, and Communist Parties in the Election of 1928.

The resistence to communism that lasted from 1945 to 1990 and beyond rested squarely on earlier resistence inside our democratic republic.