Marking the Falling of the Berlin Wall

The Fall of the Berlin Wall on Nov. 9, 1989 is an enormous happening worthy of celebration. Last night, I marked the event in New York by attending a special discussion by four U.S. foreign correspondents and a photographer who recorded the historic day in person.
The reporters, including those from The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and Newsweek, described the sense of surprise, the total joy and the underlying fear of reprisal as events throughout Eastern Europe started gaining unstoppable momentum. Borders suddenly opened in one country letting people scrape up a few belongings and race to Austria and then West Berlin as guards who used to shoot to kill didn’t seem to know what to do.
Unfortunately, what marked the unraveling of the Communist Bloc somehow got morphed into a “fantasy” that liberal democracy would churn forward unstopped, according to the participants of the event at the German Consulate sponsored by the Overseas Press Club of which I am a member.
Neo-cons twisted this tremendous victory, actually won by the guts and patience of millions of oppressed people, into some kind of laud for free market capitalism. Ronald Reagan got way too much credit for defeating Soviet Communism when his role was nothing compared to that of Lech Walesa or Pope John Paul II and plenty of others brave enough to demonstrate for freedom from Prague to Budapest to Gdansk.
As Roger Cohen of the New York Times and International Herald Tribune who moderated the discussion put it, can you have material prosperity and true political freedom? In some cases,yes, but look at Communist China where that very question is offering some inconvenient contradictions that the capitalism cheerleaders might find unsettling. There’s more in terms of refrigerators but the government just shut down Twitter when participants talked about real political freedom
For the record, I am also a member of the World Affairs Council of Greater Richmond which has a speaker, a young Time magazine editor, tonight on the same topic. I’m going to give that one a pass and save $20 because (a) the speaker was in high school in California when the Wall came down and (b) his book lauding Reagan’s role in the Wall was trashed by The Washington Post as being ridiculously simplistic.
It is a shame that more people don’t realize what the Berlin event meant. Why, for instance, didn’t Barack Obama attend the Berlin celebrations (Hillary went) while the heads of all Europe’s states were there. Maybe is too young to remember what I do — the “duck and cover” exercises I practiced as a grade school kid in suburban DC as we waited for the Soviets to nuke us. My dad was a Navy doctor in the late 1950s and 1960s and I learned years later that if the Big One came, he had orders to some Appalachian mountain cave while my mother, sister and I got to fry in Bethesda.
The Wall marked the end of billions of money wasted on nuclear bombers, missiles and warheads and one a two and a half war strategy by the Pentagon. The Soviets simply could not bear the cost of such expenditures which is why their empire collapsed. It didn’t have much to do with Reagan although he did help by getting religion about nukes after watching the made-for-tv movie “The Day After” in which Kansas City is destroyed. Being a Hollywood type, Reagan could learn more from movies than from briefing papers and the movie gave him the idea of ending nukes once and for all.
What always amazed me is that the Soviets did little to stop the Wall from coming down. They had intervened forcefully in East Germany in 1953, in Hungary in 1956 and in Prague in 1968. They had massed troops but didn’t use them in Poland in the late 50s and again in the Solidarity heyday of 1980-81. Their henchmen, the East German Stasi, the Hungarian AVO and the Polish SB, did it for them.
One reason for the weak Soviet response is that Mikhail Gorbachev still believed he could reform, not destroy, the Communist structure by being peaceful and reasonable. Another is that the Communist Chinese had just had their massacre at Tienanmen a few months before. To be sure, Gorbachev shifted to the right in 1990 and 1991 as reactionaries in the Party and KGB started rolling crackdowns in the Baltics which wanted to be free, too. Using new security troops called “OMONs” they held dress rehearsal for a coup against Gorbachev in Vilnius and Riga. Lucky for us that when the coup came against Gorbachev in 1991, it failed.
I missed that one but was one hand for the second, much bloodier coup against Boris Yeltsin in 1993. When the Wall came down, I was in New York, working as a new editor on the international desk of Business Week. I had just returned from a three-year tour in Moscow and my wife had delivered our first child. We were working day and night trying to coordinate coverage. I don’t remember much about those months. I was too tired.
Peter Galuszka

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19 responses to “Marking the Falling of the Berlin Wall”

  1. E M Risse Avatar

    Great post Peter.

    We (Linda and EMR) did not get to The Hole in the Wall until the spring of 1990. (Rome, Wien, Praha, East Berlin, West Berlin, Frankfurt) but what we say and heard then and since confirms your perspectives.

    ESPECIALLY, that what brough down the Wall (and what will bring down Business – As – Usual) is that NO ONE can afford to continue on an unsustainable Global trajectory — economic, social and physical.

    Keep up the good work.

  2. E M Risse Avatar


    "What we SAW and heard…"


  3. Anonymous Avatar

    Great. They took one down and we are putting one up.


  4. Gooze Views Avatar
    Gooze Views

    Good point! That came up last night regarding Bush's wall with Mexico. I did a story once about the plan to take the wall through a university at Brownsville, Tx where the campus is in both countries. Kids would have to go through passport control to get to psych class. Luckily they altered the plan.
    Peter Galuszka

  5. Peter:

    You are completely right to deny Reagan credit for bringing down the wall. The real death knell for the Soviet Union came 10 years earlier when Jimmy Carter first refused to turn on the lights of the White House Christmas tree to teach the Iranians a lesson and then followed that heroic piece of leadership bravery by boycotting the 1980 Summer Olympics to teach the Russians a lesson. 10 years later, still reeling from Jimmy "Hurricane" Carter's one-two punch the Russkies had no choice but to fold up tent and "tear down that wall".

    The only fault I can find in your article is your failure to properly insult the memory of Ronald W. Reagan for his completely ridiculous and absurd Star Wars program. Do you realize that some people think that analyzing the costs of countering SDI, or Star Wars, was a factor in the Soviet Union's decision to "take their nukes and go home"? I mean EVERYBODY knows that you can't shoot down something in orbit before it hits Earth. Anything in orbit is just moving too fast to hit. Thank goodness the liberal press had the wisdom to declare such nonsense impossible. The fact that both the Chinese and Americans have, in fact, shot down satellites while still in space is just another fact muddying the chrystal clear waters of modern liberal thought. Clinton did cancel that absurd program, right? He didn't just change the name from Strategic Defense Initiative to Ballistic Missle Defense?

    If Ronald Reagan had visibly walked on water you libs would have jumped up and shouted, "Look! The jerk doesn't know how to swim.".

  6. Gooze Views Avatar
    Gooze Views

    Jeez, calm down or get back to Amsterdam!
    SDI was never really funded and wasn't needed and much of it didn't work. Today, you don't need a program of that size in 2010 dollars for still marginal threats from Iran or N. Korea or even China.
    As for Reagan, he was what he was and I make no apologies. I do admire the man for breakthroughs with Gorbachev on INF that lead to a truly sea change.
    But the man was daft. I actually watched him at Spaso House, the U.S. Ambassador's Residence in Moscow in 1988 at a summit. Everything was going well and he had dropped his Evil Empire stuff. He walked onto the press stage in a brown suit, bigger than life, and claimed that the problem of Soviet dissidents was merely some "government" bureaucrats filing documents the wrong way. He actually said this. I heard it. All of us in the room, Russians included, started shaking their heads.
    And don't forget that the more bellicose Reagan's thoughtful choice of words earlier in his administration brought the USSR to a hair trigger on nuclear alert just about Cuban Missile Crisis level.
    You are entitled to your opinions of Ron, but I still call the DC airport "National." Screw his "memory," Groveton!

    Peter Galuszka

  7. Gooze Views Avatar
    Gooze Views

    And one more thing, Groveton,
    Think what you will of Jimmy Carter but he was extremely tough on the Soviets when they invaded Afghanistan.
    Peter Galuszka

  8. Peter:

    I am actually in New Delhi India right now. Getting back to Amsterdam would be very calming indeed. I like India but this is just a tense place. If EMR wants to see real dysfunctional human settlement patterns he should come here.

    As for SDI never being funded – well that's quite a stretch. While some of the program was classified and off budget many people believe we have spent at least $100B on the program since that dunce Reagan first publicly described it on March 23, 1983.

    As for the improbability of an attack by North Korea or Iran – Bill Clinton's Secretary of Defense (William Cohen) proposed spending $6.6B to build a national shield to guard against intentional launches by North Korea or accidental launches by Russia or China. That was in 1998 and Cohen was right. He almost sounded like … well, a Republican. Where did Clinton fiund him anyway.

    Of course, a hundred billion of so is chump change to the Obama-ites. They expect to fimd that kind of money underneath the cusions in the White House couches.

    Finally, why do you revel in physical descriptions of Ronald Reagan – "he walked onto the press stage in a brown suit…". So, now you're writing for GQ? What should he have worn, a bikini? But, since you've brought up physical appearances … will one of you liberals please send Barack Obama some food? He can come over to my house and I'll cook. Because no matter how much I give President Obama and his supporters grief there is one thing freightens me more than a second term and that's even one day of President Biden. Please do not allow Obama to starve to death!

  9. Gooze Views Avatar
    Gooze Views

    Can we meet in Amsterdam?
    Point taken on not knowing the real, classified expenditures on SDI.
    As for descrtibing Reagan, what can I say? The guy was a movie star and he knew how to make an entrance. He was impressive in this capacity. It was part of his persona. He sure looked better than "W"

    Peter Galuszka

  10. Anonymous Avatar

    Reagan spent the Russkies into submission.

  11. Anonymous Avatar

    The kinetic interceptor technology that came out of star wars is pretty amazing stuff. It still has a ways to go before it is reliable.

    If you are trying to shoot down a hundred incoming nukes 99% reliable doesn't cut it.

    The software to control this project will be one of the most complex thngs ever written, and you will need thousands of launchers on ready alert.

    By the time it is finished we'll find out that for what it costs to build it you could probably just go buy the Soviet Union, which in the end is pretty much what happened.

  12. Gooze Views Avatar
    Gooze Views

    Actually, Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Carter, Reagan and Bush spent the russkies into submission.

    Peter Galuszka

  13. On the SDI – the difficulty is much more than knocking down one missile.

    Modern missiles have multiple – as many as 15 or more independent bombs on the missile and they get released early once the missile reaches the top of it's trajectory.

    Additionally, each one of the individual bombs can be maneuvered and aimed towards a GPS coordinate.

    The original Reagen Star Wars concept was the ring a country with defensive missiles but this strategy would not have caught the missile before it released it's individual independently targeted bombs.

    the only way to do that would be to position a ship offshore from the launching country to take out the missile on it's way up – not down as Reagan had envisioned.

    So.. to stop Korea, Iran , even Russia.. you have to have a defensive missile close enough to catch the launched missile on it's way up.

    You can probably do that with Iran and Korea but it's gonna be tougher with Russia since they can set back their launch sites far enough from where intercepting missile might be physically located near their border.

    In other words.. trying to intercept 15 or 20 bombs falling at the speed of sound and about the size of a TV set is much, much harder than trying to take up the ascending missile or even the 3rd/4th state "bus" before it start dropping the individual bombs.

    I don't think Reagan had a clue about this or if he did then he was carrying out an elaborate bluff…

  14. Anonymous Avatar

    If it ever works it will be the most elaborate, expensive thing ever built.

    If it ever doesn't work, all bets are off.

    Same as trying to remediate global warming.


  15. Gooze Views Avatar
    Gooze Views

    Calling all Dr. Strangeloves!

    For you folks fascinated with nuclear combat toe-to-toe with the Russkies, the deterrence factor probably isn't SDI but more accurate warheads.
    CHeck out the latest Foreign Affairs. It said that in 1985, a single US ICBM had only a 60 percent chance or so of destroying, counterforce style, an enemy missile silo. Today, a Trident II has a 99 percent chance of destroying the silo (provided that you can find them).

    Here's the cite:

    Peter Galuszka

  16. Anonymous Avatar

    Too bad George didn't use Tridents to wipe out all those nasty old WMD's.

    Could have saved 4600 coalition lives.

    Probably more efficient at killing insurgents, too.

  17. "Today, a Trident II has a 99 percent chance of destroying the silo (provided that you can find them).".

    Destroying the silo is interesting. Destroying the missle is fascinating. Tridents are great as long we fire first.

    "If you are trying to shoot down a hundred incoming nukes 99% reliable doesn't cut it.".

    However, if you are trying to shoot down 1 incoming nuke (from North Korea for example) – having a 99% chance of shooting down the missle is a whole lot better than having a 0% chance of shooting down the missle.

  18. In all cases hitting the missile before it reaches apogee and releass the weapons is less difficult than trying to to pick them up on the way down – ESPECIALLY if you don't really know WHERE they are coming down.

    Of course, for those with the "Govt is incompetent and can't do anything right" mindset – the problem would appear to be even more difficult.

  19. real estate agent Toronto Avatar
    real estate agent Toronto

    Well said. Yeah, I don't get why Obama didn't attend the celebrations either. This was such an important event, how could he not know? I was thinking about the Berlin Wall whole Monday here in Toronto.


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