Today, folks in their 20s may have a difficult time recalling just why a Wall was erected in Berlin sometime in the past, and may wonder why such a fuss is being made today in the media and why celebrations are being held to commemorate the disappearance of the Wall. To be sure, the wall is a modern relic of 20th century history, but its significance was far greater than its physical effectiveness in forming a barrier.
But a barrier to what? A barrier for what? Walls are intended to ensure privacy, to give security and prevent unwanted intruders from entering. Intended as a means to enforce punishment, as in a prison, walls are meant specifically to keep people inside from being able to reach the other side.
The Berlin Wall was unusual in modern history in the sense that it was built to divide a city and a people who shared the same language, culture, customs and daily life: they were all Germans, shared a German heritage. But at the end of World War II, Berlin had become a capital city divided into four parts and occupied by four separate military powers: the United States, France, Great Britain and the Soviet Union, allies in the great victorious struggle against the Nazi menace that sparked World War II and the huge loss of life and incalculable destruction it brought to the Continent.
To make matters worse, the occupied city of Berlin was located well within that part of eastern Germany dominated by the Soviet Union. It meant enormous difficulty for the Allied Powers to supply their garrisons in the isolated city, and the Soviet Union imposed enormous barriers to even the mundane tasks of helping keep the people of the city alive. At one point, the United States found it necessary to airlift food and fuel and medicines to the beleaguered population after the Soviets blocked regular access to the city by road and rail.
For many years transit from one part of the city to another part was not blocked, but in 1961, East Germany decided that it must stop the drain of East Germany’s best educated citizens to the West. An East German seeking to escape only had to ride an elevated train into West Berlin and then seek refuge by flying out to West Germany, there to escape the tyranny of the East. Some 3 million East Germans had fled in this fashion.
To stem the flow of the 3 million German escapees, the Communist authorities began constructing a primitive wall of barbed wire and concrete blocks, and the fabled Berlin Wall rose.
Watchtowers were created along the wall, and additional fortifications were installed, guard dogs were deployed and orders were given to shoot to kill anyone attempting to escape. Those captured while trying to escape were given stiff prison sentences.
When the wall went up in August 1961, just months after President John F. Kennedy had met with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev in Vienna and had been rattled by Khrushchev’s bellicose demeanor, the reaction was one of helplessness.
As Kennedy told a Time Magazine White House correspondent at the time, “I never met a man like this. I talked about how a nuclear exchange would kill 70 million people in 10 minutes, and he just looked at me as if to say, “so what?” By contrast, Khrushchev was not at all rattled by the encounter, but resolved to tighten the screws on the West. It was this date that the perceptive German writer, Josef Joffe, wrote in a recent article that it “was the start of a 28-year prison term.”
Over many years attempts to improve the situation with respect to four-power access to Berlin continued, despite the Wall and the tragic consequences it brought, but none were very effective in the period of the Berlin Wall’s existence
Various sources disagree on the number but some 238 people are reported to have died, usually by shooting, while trying to cross to the West, clearly inspired by the nearly 5000 successful attempts. Travel to and from East Germany and East Berlin was difficult for Germans. For West Germans, it was far easier to visit China then East Berlin.
Successive presidents after John F. Kennedy were willing to live with the Berlin wall, and many believed that even West Germany and the citizens of West Berlin had become “accustomed” to the Wall and were not interested in removing it.
In late 1978 former Governor Ronald Reagan made his first trip ever to Germany; as his chief foreign policy advisor, I had arranged the trip, working in conjunction with his principal associate, Peter D. Hannaford. Hannaford, a longtime key advisor to Reagan in Sacramento and thereafter, his wife, Irene and my wife Pat and I went along on the trip with Gov. Reagan and Nancy Reagan.
It is highly significant that on the occasion he view the Wall close-up for the first time, he stood there for a few moments, tensed, then turned to us and said, simply “we have to find a way to knock this thing down.” It was a tremendously important statement, signifying that he had confirmed his even earlier reaction concerning the inhumanity of the wall, an ugly scar across a beautiful city, and had actively been thinking about how to bring it down.
The remark was also prescient: nine years later, then President Reagan stood in front of the wall and demanded that Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev “tear down this wall.”
Berlin did not become a significant issue in Ronald Reagan’s campaign against Jimmy Carter in 1980, but he never lost sight of the goal of ultimately helping remove the ugly blot that divided a nation and in fact signified the divide between East and West.
Elected 40th president of the United States in November 1980, Reagan wasted no time after taking office in expressing his views about the true nature of the systems that operated places like East Germany and the Soviet Union. In his very first press conference, less than 10 days after taking office, Reagan remarked that the Soviet Union (and, by extension, their East German puppets) would “reserve unto themselves the right to commit any crime, to lie, to cheat, in order to attain that goal,” which he described as “world domination.” The mainstream media were astonished at this direct, unvarnished description of the miserable empire that the Soviet Union had created. Many denounced Reagan as “provocative” and warned urgently that saying such things (regardless of the inherent truth expressed) would simply increase tensions and could even lead to war.
Reagan knew what the Berlin Wall signified, and Reagan knew also of the feelings of the people trapped behind it, far behind it even into Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary and the Soviet Union itself.
It took just nine years from the first time he stood before that Wall as an interested citizen and not even a candidate for office, on his first visit ever to Germany, until the time as President when he could stand shoulder to shoulder with the chancellor of Germany, Helmut Kohl, to appeal to Gorbachev to “tear down this Wall.”
Reagan knew that forces were beginning to build well behind that wall to assist in bringing it down. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher of Britain, Chancellor Helmut Kohl of Germany, the brave Polish people expressing their resistance through the Solidarity labor movement and its leader, Lech Walesa, the growing number of Soviet and East European dissidents chafing to remove the brutal restrictions on their freedom to write and read, the extraordinary influence of Pope John Paul II emanating from Rome as the first East European pope who had Polish roots and many others yearning for a better life than that provided by the tyranny of a bankrupt doctrine called “Communism.”
Over the years that I had the honor of working closely with Ronald Reagan, perhaps few moments where is instructive as what I learned on the morning of January 21, 1981 as I began his first national security briefing as President. There were a few pictures of the family on the credenza behind, a blotter and a leather folder containing the briefing on the desk. Not much else on the desk that first morning as he began to go through the briefing save for a lamp in the corner of the desk and a small brass plaque next to it that read: “There is no limit to what a man can do or where he can go if he doesn’t mind who gets the credit”
That one short statement sums up Reagan’s view of effective governance. It was a reminder that great and important objectives can be accomplished if one persists in the pursuit of what is right and just and is a benefit to the people.
When on November 9, 1989 the hated Wall finally fell, or was pushed from the other side by the people and the forces imprisoned by it, it was scarcely nine months after Ronald Reagan had left office. I know that he shared the pride that all who were liberated by this highly symbolic collapse of an instrument of oppression, and he didn’t mind at all how the credit was distributed. That truly was Ronald Reagan at his best.