You know, it's strange. There are certain moments that you and everyone in your generation never forget. For instance, I can tell you exactly where I was -- eating a 25-cent hamburger in a diner that might have been called the Yankee Doodle in New Haven, Connecticut -- when a man stuck his head in the front door and said, "The president's been shot." That, of course, was John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963, and I have little doubt that, if you asked just about anyone else my age, they'd have a remarkably specific memory of that moment, too.
But here's the strange thing that TomDispatch regular and former Boston Globe columnist James Carroll brought to my mind with today's piece on what may qualify as the single most important historical event of my life: the dismantling of the Berlin Wall. I have no idea what I was doing or where I was that November 9th in 1989 when I first heard that the forever structure dividing East from West that symbolized the two-superpower world of the Cold War was coming down. I have just vague memories of TV images of crowds surging and the wall being whacked at by people with sledgehammers.
And that should qualify as odd indeed. After all, my life was, in a sense, an artifact of the Cold War. I still remember photos of grim-faced Korean War G.I.s in Life magazine when I was only six or seven. I remember the duck-and-cover moments under my desk in school, preparation for the potential nuclear obliteration of my city, when I was just a few years older. I remember sitting in a car on the evening of October 22, 1962, with the radio on, and hearing the still-living John F. Kennedy alert the nation that the Cuban Missile crisis was underway and say that "we will not prematurely or unnecessarily risk the costs of worldwide nuclear war in which even the fruits of victory would be ashes in our mouth; but neither will we shrink from that risk at any time it must be faced." I think I tasted those very ashes then and felt I was a goner, that my specific world might blow sky-high. I remember being out in the streets amid masses of antiwar protestors in the Vietnam War years and wondering how all this would ever end. And so it went until that day in 1989 when, suddenly, to the utter shock of every last pundit, wise man, official, and politician in Washington, that wall began to be torn down and the Soviet Union's end came into sight.
What a moment, as Carroll makes so clear today -- and how strange that it and the hopes that went with it disappeared into the maw of the American national security state and its endless wars. Tom
What the Dismantling of the Berlin Wall Means 30 Years Later
And the Return of War-as-the-Answer
By James Carroll
Some anniversaries are less about the past than the future. So it should be with November 9, 1989. In case you've long forgotten, that was the day when East and West Germans began nonviolently dismantling the Berlin Wall, an entirely unpredicted, almost unimaginable ending to the long-entrenched Cold War. Think of it as the triumph of idealistic hope over everything that then passed for hard-nosed "realism." After all, Western intelligence services, academic Kremlinologists, and the American national security establishment had always blithely assumed that the Cold War would essentially go on forever -- unless the absolute malevolence of Soviet Communism led to the ultimate mayhem of nuclear Armageddon. For almost half a century, only readily dismissed peaceniks insisted that, in the nuclear age, war and endless preparations for more of it were not the answer. When the Berlin Wall came down, such idealists were proven right, even if their triumph was still ignored.
Yet war-as-the-answer reasserted itself with remarkable rapidity. Within weeks of the Wall being breached by hope -- in an era that saw savage conflicts in Central America, the Philippines, and South Africa transformed by a global wave of nonviolent resolution -- the United States launched Operation Just Cause, the invasion of Panama by a combat force of more than 27,000 troops. The stated purpose of that act of war was the arrest of Panama's tinhorn dictator Manuel Noriega, who had initially come to power as a CIA asset. That invasion's only real importance was as a demonstration that, even with global peace being hailed, the world's last remaining superpower remained as committed as ever to the hegemony of violent force.
Who Ended the Cold War?
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.
That memory, however, fits poorly with what was actually happening that year. An internationally mounted sanctions regime had already been on the verge of thwarting Hussein without the U.S.-led invasion -- and, of course, what Bush the father began, Bush the son would, with his 2003 shock-and-awe recapitulation, turn into the permanent bedrock of American politics.
As the 30th anniversary of the end of the Cold War approaches, it should be obvious that there's been a refusal in the United States to reckon with a decades-long set of conflagrations in the Greater Middle East as the inevitable consequence of that first American invasion in 1990. Above all, Desert Storm, with its monumental victory parade in Washington D.C., brought the Pentagon's Cold War raison d'être back from the brink of obsolescence. That campaign and what followed in its wake guaranteed that violence would continue to occupy the heartlands of the U.S. economy, its politics, and its culture. In the process, the world-historic aspirations kindled by the miracle of the Berlin Wall's dismantling would be thoroughly dashed. No wonder, so many years later, we hardly remember that November of hope -- or the anniversary that goes with it.
Out of the Memory Hole