Michael Meyer: The Gipper or the Guard?

Roundup: Talking About History

[Michael Meyer, communications director for the U.N. secretary general, is the author of “The Year that Changed the World.”]

Ask an average American how the Cold War ended and often as not he or she has a ready answer. “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall,” said Ronald Reagan. And lo, as if word were deed, it was so.

Everyone remembers that immortal line. A generation of speechwriters wish they had crafted it. A generation of statesmen wish they had uttered it. And for a generation of Americans, particularly on the political right, it has become shorthand for an entire geopolitical worldview.

Like the Gipper, we have only to stand tall against tyrants. Hollow at the core, they will fall. Their downtrodden people will rise up, triumphant, like the multitudes of captive East Europeans of yore. Democracy will bloom.

Twenty years ago next week, on Nov. 9, 1989, the Berlin Wall fell. Never mind that Reagan delivered his epochal speech a full two years earlier. Over the coming days and weeks, it will play and re-play on America’s TV screens, reconfirming the myth every American holds dear about the Cold War. We won!

Did we? Well, yes and no. Certainly, we didn’t do it by ourselves. If you were on the ground during that tumultuous year of 1989, as I was as a correspondent for Newsweek, you saw a more complex picture.

The prime force setting the great changes in motion flowed from the East, not the West: Mikhail Gorbachev. Suddenly free to experiment, in-between countries found paths to a new future. Poland held elections — which the country’s Communists lost, decisively. Hungary cut down its Iron Curtain, sparking an exodus from across the East bloc. In the former German Democratic Republic, East Germans screwed up their courage and, by the hundreds of thousands, took to the streets.

As we look back at these events that shook the world, we should remember that chance, sheerest happenstance, played a huge role. Call it the logic of human messiness, for which Exhibit A must surely be the “fall” of the Wall itself. It began with those restive East Germans, demanding not freedom in the abstract but freedom in particular: the right to travel. In the face of mass protests, the East German leader Egon Krenz recklessly decided to grant what he no longer feared to forbid — and promised to open the gates to the West.

Few remember, today, that this right was to be strictly controlled, subject to all sorts of Communist rules and regulations — nor that it was to take effect on Nov. 10. But neither did a new Communist Party spokesman. Asked at a press conference when the new policy would be implemented, he paused, shuffled through his papers, fiddled with his glasses, then replied with a shrug “... ab sofort” — immediately.

For Krenz, “immediately” meant the next day. For the East German people, the words meant “right now.”...

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