The Berlin wall fell on Nov. 9, 1989, marking the end of one era and the beginning of another. I'll never forget East and West Germans striking their blows for freedom, taking sledgehammers to the barrier that divided them for almost three decades. The 20th anniversary of this moment provides an opportunity to reflect on an extraordinary event—and to draw lessons that might guide us today.
It may seem now like the fall of the Berlin Wall was a historical inevitability—after all, the same European nations that battled one another for most of the 20th century cooperate today on economic, political, and military matters. Though tensions still exist between Washington and Moscow, and between Russia and some of the former Soviet republics, there is cooperation on a range of issues unimaginable in 1989. It's easy to take what happened that day for granted.
We shouldn't. For most of my adult life, I lived with the reminder that civilization might perish in a fiery hail of atoms; my kids ran practice drills in their school hallways in case Russia dropped the bomb. American diplomacy wasn't very complex: if the Russians were for it, we were against it. Cold or not, the world was at war. And it could have gotten much worse.
But everything changed in the 26-month period symbolized by the fall of the wall. Less than 11 months later, on Oct. 3, 1990, East and West Germany reunited. The Warsaw Pact dissolved in March 1991, and later that year, on Christmas Day, the Soviet Union ceased to exist.
The East German people, and those of the other captive nations of Eastern and Central Europe, sparked this chain reaction. Their desire for freedom couldn't be shackled indefinitely. But once the wall tumbled, statesmanship was critical for the sequence of events that followed.
Those events could not have happened without Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and his foreign minister, Eduard Shevardnadze, who disregarded their hawkish advisers and didn't use Soviet troops to keep the empire together. They could not have happened without German Chancellor Helmut Kohl and his foreign minister, Hans-Dietrich Genscher, who advocated for German unity. They could not have happened without British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and French President François Mitterrand, who overcame fears that a new Germany might repeat its old aggressions. And they certainly could not have happened without George H.W. Bush, whose measured and effective leadership of the endgame ensured that it transpired peacefully.
The Cold War would not have concluded as it did without the stewardship of leaders beginning with Harry Truman. I feel immense pride for having served during that era, a time when our long-term strategy was highlighted by JFK's "Ich bin ein Berliner" moment and Ronald Reagan's challenge to Gorbachev ("Tear down this wall"). For more than 40 years, nine presidents, Democrat and Republican, stood firm against the Soviet empire.
They were able to do this because Americans were largely united for a common goal. It wasn't easy. During that period, we suffered the growing pangs of a country experiencing domestic upheaval. Our efforts to curb the spread of communism sometimes failed, most notably in Vietnam. But in the end, our dedication prevailed, and without a Dr. Strangelove ending. Democracy has spread to 50 nations.
Similarly today, the United States and the world are presented with challenges whose resolution will require a concerted effort. Terrorism, climate change, the economy—these issues can't be solved in a year or two. They require American leadership to build long-lasting international alliances like those that led to the end of the Cold War. And they will require building bipartisan domestic support to span turnover in administrations and shifts in the power balance.
The will of the people is the final arbiter of foreign policy in a democracy like ours. During the Cold War, we articulated a policy based on fundamental values, and then we had the commitment to see it through. On the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, we should remember that determination—and call upon it again.