What the Dismantling of the Berlin Wall Means 30 Years Later

tags: Cold War, BERLIN WALL, German history

James Carroll, TomDispatch regular and former Boston Globe columnist, is the author of 20 books, most recently the novel The Cloister. His history of the Pentagon, House of War, won the PEN-Galbraith Award. His Vietnam War memoir, An American Requiem, won the National Book Award. He is a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.


While President George H.W. Bush rushed to claim credit for ending the Cold War, the Soviet Union’s Mikhail Gorbachev was the lynchpin of that historic conclusion. It was he who, in the dramatic autumn of 1989, repeatedly ordered Communist forces to remain in their barracks while throngs of freedom-chanters poured into the streets of multiple cities behind the Iron Curtain. Instead of blindly striking out (as the leaders of crumbling empires often had), Gorbachev allowed democratic demands to echo through the Soviet empire -- ultimately even in Russia itself.

Yet the American imagination was soon overtaken by the smug fantasy that the U.S. had “won” the Cold War and that it was now a power beyond all imagining. Never mind that, in 1987, when President Ronald Reagan issued his famed demand in then still-divided Berlin, “Mister Gorbachev, tear down this wall,” the Soviet leader was already starting to do precisely that.

As the wall came down, the red-scare horrors that had disturbed American dreams for three generations seemed to dissolve overnight, leaving official Washington basking in triumphalism. The U.S. then wrapped itself in a self-aggrandizing mantle of virtue and power that effectively blinded this country’s political leadership to the ways the Cold War’s end had left them mired in an outmoded, ever more dangerous version of militarism.

After Panama, the self-styled “indispensable nation” would show itself to be hell-bent on unbridled --- and profoundly self-destructive -- belligerence. Deprived of an existential enemy, Pentagon budgets would decline oh-so-modestly (though without a “peace dividend” in sight) but soon return to Cold War levels. A bristling nuclear arsenal would be maintained as a “hedge” against the comeback of Soviet-style communism. Such thinking would, in the end, only empower Moscow’s hawks, smoothing the way for the future rise of an ex-KGB agent named Vladimir Putin. Such hyper-defensive anticipation would prove to be, as one wag put it, the insurance policy that started the fire.

Even as the disintegration of the once-demonized USSR was firmly underway, culminating in the final lowering of the hammer-and-sickle flag from the Kremlin on Christmas Day 1991, the United States was launching what would prove to be a never-ending and disastrous sequence of unnecessary Middle Eastern wars. They began with Operation Desert Storm, George H.W. Bush’s assault on Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in 1990. In American memory, that campaign, which crushed the Iraqi autocrat’s army and forced it out of Kuwait, would be a techno-war made in heaven with fewer than 200 U.S. combat deaths. 

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