Cold War's End -- The Wall Comes Down

It must be a little hard to understand, for anyone reading this under the age of about 30 or so, the significance of the fall of the Berlin Wall 20 years ago. Because one event has become historical shorthand for an immense change in the dynamics of not just our country, but the entire world. We've all seen the pictures of an exuberant crowd at the Brandenburg Gate (or "Checkpoint Charlie"), seemingly tearing The Wall down with their bare hands. But it wasn't just one wall, or one city, or even one country that the events in Berlin were changing -- it was the entire political makeup of the planet. Because the fall of The Wall signified the fall of the Soviet Union, and an end to the Cold War. And while this was of enormous historical import, I fear that future generations won't really pay much attention to it. Truth be told, I can already feel it slipping away in the American consciousness. Which, while I understand the impulse, I still think is a shame. Because as the Cold War is forgotten, passing into the dusty pages of children's history books, we run the risk of forgetting some of its lessons.

The Cold War was a war of shadows. It only erupted into outright (or "hot") wars in limited ways and limited areas (Korea, Vietnam, various Central American and African skirmishes). The history books do a fine job of marking these flareups (since they have concrete facts like battles and dates), distilling them into a couple of paragraphs for bored schoolchildren to read. But these are mere trees; the forest left unseen was the national fear which every sane man, woman, and child felt for almost half a century -- the fear of instant and total annihilation from a massive nuclear strike. And that is the lesson which is in danger of being forgotten, at least in my humble opinion.

The single-most stunning political prophecy which has even been written in American history was written by a Frenchman. In the 1830s -- when the United States of America was barely a half-century old itself, Alexis de Tocqueville wrote, as the final words to the first volume of Democracy In America (it sold so well, he went back and wrote a sequel later; at the urging of his publisher, no doubt) a fairly accurate description of the Cold War -- over one hundred years before it happened. What Tocqueville wrote, in the time of Andrew Jackson:

There are now two great nations in the world which, starting from different points, seem to be advancing toward the same goal: the Russians and the Anglo-Americans.

Both have grown in obscurity, and while the world's attention was occupied elsewhere, they have suddenly taken their place among the leading nations, making the world take note of their birth and of their greatness almost at the same instant.

All other peoples seem to have nearly reached their natural limits and to need nothing but to preserve them; but these two are growing. All the others have halted or advanced only through great exertions; they alone march easily and quickly forward along a path whose end no eye can yet see.

The American fights against natural obstacles; the Russian is at grips with men. The former combats the wilderness and barbarism; the latter, civilization with all its arms. America's conquests are made with the plowshare, Russia's with the sword.

To attain their aims, the former relies on personal interest and gives free scope to the unguided strength and common sense of individuals.

The latter in a sense concentrates the whole power of society in one man.

One has freedom as the principal means of action; the other has servitude.

Their point of departure is different and their paths diverse; nevertheless, each seems called by some secret design of Providence one day to hold in its hands the destinies of half the world.

As you can see, this is a fairly accurate description of the latter half of the Twentieth Century, given the limitations Tocqueville faced in making such a prediction (he did not, you'll notice, foresee the rise of communism and overthrow of the czars). But his last sentence stands as the absolute gold standard of political prediction, for this country's history at least.

Because that was what the Cold War was all about. It was seen as a global struggle for territory, and for hearts and minds, between two "super" powers. Democracy and Communism were in the mightiest struggle this planet has ever seen, each competing to gain enough strength to destroy the other. And each side had nuclear weapons. Lots of them. Lots and lots and lots of them. Thousands and thousands of A-bombs and H-bombs. Back then the term "ground zero" held only one meaning -- the point directly under a nuclear explosion. Not to be disrespectful, but it never would have entered our minds back then to cheapen this frightening term by applying it to anything less, no matter how horrifying.

All of America (and, one assumes without having too much data, all of the Soviet Union as well) lived with the constant fear that these bombs could drop at any time. The college I attended had, just to remind you (in those anti-nuke-movement days), little arrows painted here and there stating "9.2 miles to ground zero," since we had an Air Force base nearby. But virtually nowhere in America (where anybody actually lived) was truly deemed safe. Everywhere was a potential target for an atom bomb, for one reason or another. And, again, the bombs could have dropped any day during that time.

It's tough for younger readers who were not exposed to this mindset to understand what this meant in terms of daily life. I came of age in the later parts of the Cold War, and didn't even see the craziness of the early parts (the McCarthy era, the backyard bomb shelter craze, the Civil Defense air raid drills, and all the rest of it). By the time I came on the scene, most of these had faded. But the background anxiety remained. The Emergency Broadcast System was just beginning to be used for natural disasters, when I was growing up. It was created, of course, to warn us all that the bombs were coming. And it was tested frequently ("bee-eee-eee-eee-eep"), so you'd remember it was there. Likewise, the first of the month at noon the local neighborhood air raid sirens would be tested. And the knowledge that everything around you could be incinerated in a flash was always present.

Children today, thankfully, grow up largely without this awareness (even though the danger still does indeed exist, America and Russia have largely buried the hatchet -- at least for now -- so the danger is not viewed as imminent). They don't do "duck and cover" drills in elementary schools anymore, in other words. Truth be told, by the time I was in school, people had mostly figured out the ludicrousness of hiding under your desk when the whole building was likely to be vaporized in an attack, so I never experienced such drills myself.

America has so rarely been directly attacked on our own territory that such overreaction is understandable. There was 9/11, of course. There was Pearl Harbor and a few Aleutian islands during World War II -- back when Hawai'i and Alaska weren't even states, merely territories. And there was the War of 1812, when the British burned the original White House. But that's about it, not counting the Civil War (since it didn't directly involve foreigners). During World War II, both the East and West Coasts of America prepared for attacks and invasions, but thankfully they never came. We simply didn't have to go through anything akin to the Blitz in London.

Americans, to put it bluntly, are not used to having bombs dropped on us. And with the arms race which took place during the Cold War, all of a sudden one bomb could obliterate an entire city. And thousands of those bombs were in the hands of people we considered downright unstable, if not outright insane. The threat of a "first strike" was the biggest fear, because we, as a nation, demonized the Soviets until they were barely recognizable as human beings. This happens in any war, I should mention -- cold or hot. But these "evil monsters" were capable of such widespread and massive destruction that it literally changed the psychology of our entire country for almost 50 years.

And when the Berlin Wall came down, it symbolized the end of that era. The Soviet Union's disintegration meant America could finally take a deep breath and heave an enormous sigh of relief. We had won the long battle of wits. The Cold War was over.

That is what The Wall coming down meant. That is why it was important, beyond the boundaries of one city in Europe. It was the end of an era for the entire planet.

My personal Berlin Wall story, such as it is: I was in Berlin about eleven months after The Wall came down, in 1990. I visited Brandenburg Gate, but didn't see the statue of the horses on top, because they had taken them down to be cleaned. Oh, well. But on the site was an open-air bazaar of East Germans selling anything they thought the tourists would buy. You could buy as big -- and as graffitied -- a chuck of The Wall as you could afford. You could also buy all sorts of other things. The military mementos were simply stunning. I could have, for a hundred bucks or so, bought a full East German general's dress uniform -- although the medals would have run me a little extra. Because I couldn't really see a use for such a thing for myself, I took a pass. But I did buy one of those fuzzy Russian hats with the ear flaps, which were standard issue for their militaries. It had a big metal star on it (red, of course), with a hammer-and-sickle icon in the middle. Being a Californian, I don't have a lot of use for such a hat, but I did wear it recently (minus the big red star, I wasn't making any sort of political statement, just keeping my ears from freezing off) to Barack Obama's inauguration.

But back to Berlin. Being eleven months late for the party, we found no Wall at Brandenburg Gate. We got some advice, headed off on the U-bahn, and got off were we had been directed. It was a very strange place. Imagine, if you will, a city park. This park is long, but rather narrow, as it stretches and curves off into the distance. It seems like a grassy place where soccer fields should be, until you notice the oddity of the enormous light poles dotting the landscape. The Wall was gone -- but its ghost remained. You could easily see where it had been, and which side had wanted to keep an eye on it (in West Berlin, it ran right up to buildings and streets, because nobody cared how close to it you got in the West -- the dogs, the mines, the snipers, the floodlights and all the rest were all on the East side). We followed a line of other tourists, to a section of the Wall which hadn't been torn down yet. When we got there, we paid a few marks to some enterprising Ossies (who were much better at the whole capitalism game than the sad former soldiers at Brandenburg, selling off their former glory). They had little hammers and chisels, which they would rent to you (until you got tired), for a few marks.

So not only did I get to see the actual Wall, I got to chip off my own little chunks and flakes of it. I brought enough back from my trip to give one out to all the members of my extended family who were younger than I. All the cousins and nieces and nephews opened their holiday presents from me that December... and were likely profoundly disappointed in what they saw. A little flake of concrete, with a dash of paint on it. "This is what Chris is giving out this year?" I could almost hear them collectively say. I don't even know if any of them kept them, truth be told. But I wanted them to own a little piece of history, so they might understand a little bit of what all the kids who grew up before them had to live through. At the very least, I hope they got some "show and tell" points at school with them.

I did keep one chunk for myself, though. I have it here on my desk. I was extremely late to the party, as I said, but I like to think that I did my own tiny, tiny bit -- with a little rock collector's hammer and chisel, rented from a former communist -- striking my own little blow for freedom.


[Note: I couldn't really find a way to work this in to the story, as it would have been a distraction, but if you haven't seen it, I highly recommend Roger Waters' live performance of Pink Floyd's The Wall, which was staged and filmed at the Brandenburg Gate site the same year I was there (no, I didn't get to see it). It is the most surreal overlap of art and reality (which is imitating which?) I have ever seen, complete with East German military displays (as part of the staging), as well as cameos from a seriously eclectic group of artists (the only time, I would warrant, that Joni Mitchell, Cyndi Lauper, and Tim Curry ever shared a stage -- to name but three). If you've heard the album before, but never seen this "concert flick," I would urge you to do so as soon as possible.]


Chris Weigant blogs at:

NEW! Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant