Tuesday, November 03, 2009

History; ancient and otherwise

I remember as a high school student reading about Columbus, our founding fathers, Lincoln and FDR. At the time they seemed as distant to me as if I were studying Greek mythology. As I grew up, I began to understand what was happening around me would someday be taught in a monotone voice by a seemingly disinterested teacher to even more disinterested students as history.

It is a rather hard idea to grasp as a sophomore in high school, but it is true nevertheless; history is happening every day. Students give your thumbs a break from texting for a moment and try to remember just one or two things about what is happening in the world right now. Even if your world view changes in the years to come, just remembering how you felt about what is happening today may give you an insight to balance what someone writes in a textbook or newspaper years from now.

This coming Monday, November 9th marks the twentieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. For those of you in high school, let me put this event in context for you.

Imagine for a moment out there in the world is a very real, very large, very militaristic, and very evil nation who has vowed to defeat your way of life and conquer your nation. Imagine that for as long as you can remember, you have watched the flickering, grainy images of "Duck and cover" a short film on how to protect yourself from a Soviet nuclear attack on your city by getting under your desk. Imagine that same nation is expanding its reach across the globe and there are those inside your country who think Soviet Communism will ultimately overtake American Capitalism and freedom. Imagine a world with two competing ideas, two very different ideas on the best way forward for the human race. One that focuses on individual liberty and freedom and one that emphasizes the collective good of "the state" over the individual. Imagine you are right in the middle of that battle, and there is no clear favorite.

That was what it was like to be alive in 1989. For many of us, the center of this battle, this Cold War, was Berlin in West Germany. Not the bustling, prosperous Berlin of today. This was a city divided into two parts, West Berlin, a free democracy, the other surviving under the oppression of its Soviet masters back in Moscow. The wall separating the city was not put up by the free citizens of West Berlin; it was built to keep the oppressed people of East Berlin from escaping.

While everyone had an opinion as to what to do about the cold war, not many had a clear understanding of the stakes, and the real differences between the two ideas at the center of the struggle.

Ronald Wilson Reagan was a man who understood this struggle and more importantly, he understood that we could win, we must win. Twenty two years ago President Reagan stood at the Brandenburg Gate, the dividing line between East and West Berlin and called out the new soviet leader.

The infrastructure holding up the Soviet Union was a rotten and ready to collapse. From the outside, the facade looked menacing and impenetrable, but underneath was a crumbling foundation. It is not clear just how much of this was known outside of the Soviet establishment, and many folks have claimed that we just needed to give it a push and the evil empire would come crumbling down. In hindsight, I don't think that is right. No one knew how vulnerable the Soviet Union was at that point, Reagan just knew the west needed to push because it was the right thing to do.

I remember many criticized Reagan for even talking about pushing back against communist aggression. When Reagan called the Soviet Union the evil empire, there were those in the media who were terrified that we were provoking our mortal enemy. This actor turned trigger-happy politician was going get us all killed, that is what elites in the Washington thought. President Reagan stood up to the Soviets because we were right and they were wrong.

Right here is where your civics teacher will stop and point to the sins of America, from slavery to the unjust treatment of Native Americans to the internment of Japanese Americans during WWII. Guilty as charged. America is not perfect, it simply the last best hope for freedom loving people around the world. I often quote the late Democratic Senator, Daniel Patrick Moynihan "Am I embarrassed to speak for a less than perfect democracy? Not one bit. Find me a better one. Do I suppose there are societies which are free of sin? No, I don't. Do I think ours is, on balance, incomparably the most hopeful set of human relations the world has? Yes, I do."

Now for a confession; early on, I was not a fan of Ronald Reagan. I was still young and naive, dreaming of a world where everyone would learn to get along and we could settle our differences by talking nice. In other words, I was a Democrat. Reagan opened my eyes to the realities of the Soviet Union by telling me who they were, what they stood for, and conversely who we were and what we stood for. Warts and all, Reagan truly loved this nation and wanted to show the rest of the world what is possible if you unleash people to pursue their dreams, free from an oppressive state or an overpowering government. What can I say, I was young.

Reagan's speech aimed at the new General Secretary of the USSR contained a clear and concise message.

There is one sign the Soviets can make that would be unmistakable, that would advance dramatically the cause of freedom and peace.

General Secretary Gorbachev, if you seek peace, if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, if you seek liberalization: Come here to this gate.

Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate.

Mr. Gorbachev -- Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!

Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall. Even Reagan's own State department guys did not want him to mention the wall in his speech, too inflammatory, too confrontational; this was not talking nice.

In two short years, on November 9th, 1989 the collapse of the Soviet Union was well underway and the Berlin Wall was torn down by jubilant Germans from both sides. The reunification of families separated for decades by this concrete barrier was a scene that flashed around the world. The world learned that day to put their faith in freedom.

As we look back on that day, let's remember it was not about armies as much as it was about ideas. It's not that Reagan was right about the wall, or the fall of the Soviet Union, it's that Reagan was right about America.

1 comment:

JazGram said...

I remember.
I remember Duck and Cover Drills at school and newsreels before the movie at the theater.

In 1989, I was plenty old enough and aware enough to understand the significance of tearing down the Berlin Wall. The impact of that act has been felt around the world, and yet somehow, in the turmoil of today's uncertainties, it has been relegated to the back of my mind.

Thank you, Walt, for opening up a fresh train of thought for me.
Perhaps 'looking back', instead of just thinking of the 'right here and right now', will lend hope to my thoughts of tomorrow.