The Gipper or the Guard?

Ask an average American how the Cold War ended and often as not he or she has a ready answer. “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall,” said Ronald Reagan. And lo, as if word were deed, it was so.

Everyone remembers that immortal line. A generation of speechwriters wish they had crafted it. A generation of statesmen wish they had uttered it. And for a generation of Americans, particularly on the political right, it has become shorthand for an entire geopolitical worldview.

Like the Gipper, we have only to stand tall against tyrants. Hollow at the core, they will fall. Their downtrodden people will rise up, triumphant, like the multitudes of captive East Europeans of yore. Democracy will bloom.

Twenty years ago next week, on Nov. 9, 1989, the Berlin Wall fell. Never mind that Reagan delivered his epochal speech a full two years earlier. Over the coming days and weeks, it will play and re-play on America’s TV screens, reconfirming the myth every American holds dear about the Cold War. We won!

Did we? Well, yes and no. Certainly, we didn’t do it by ourselves. If you were on the ground during that tumultuous year of 1989, as I was as a correspondent for Newsweek, you saw a more complex picture.

The prime force setting the great changes in motion flowed from the East, not the West: Mikhail Gorbachev. Suddenly free to experiment, in-between countries found paths to a new future. Poland held elections — which the country’s Communists lost, decisively. Hungary cut down its Iron Curtain, sparking an exodus from across the East bloc. In the former German Democratic Republic, East Germans screwed up their courage and, by the hundreds of thousands, took to the streets.

As we look back at these events that shook the world, we should remember that chance, sheerest happenstance, played a huge role. Call it the logic of human messiness, for which Exhibit A must surely be the “fall” of the Wall itself. It began with those restive East Germans, demanding not freedom in the abstract but freedom in particular: the right to travel. In the face of mass protests, the East German leader Egon Krenz recklessly decided to grant what he no longer feared to forbid — and promised to open the gates to the West.

Few remember, today, that this right was to be strictly controlled, subject to all sorts of Communist rules and regulations — nor that it was to take effect on Nov. 10. But neither did a new Communist Party spokesman. Asked at a press conference when the new policy would be implemented, he paused, shuffled through his papers, fiddled with his glasses, then replied with a shrug “... ab sofort” — immediately.

For Krenz, “immediately” meant the next day. For the East German people, the words meant “right now.”

I was on the eastern side of Checkpoint Charlie that night, watching as they gathered by the thousands, a heaving multitude faced off against a thin line of Volkspolitzei fingering their weapons. “Open up! Open up,” people cried.

Past the police and their guard dogs, past the watchtower and barbed wire of the infamous death strip, on the other side of the gray Berlin Wall, came an answering call from an equally boisterous mob of West Germans: “Come over!”

Inside his glassed-in command post, the captain of the East German border guard, a beefy guy with a square jaw and the dark bristly air of a Doberman, stood dialing and re-dialing his telephone. Similar calls flew from checkpoints up and down the Wall. What was happening? What should be done?

But no instructions came back from the Interior Ministry. For a last time, he put down his phone. For a moment he stood rock-still. Perhaps he had just been informed that the Bornholmer Strasse crossing, to the north, had moments earlier opened its barriers, besieged by some 20,000 people. Perhaps he came to his own decision. Whatever the case, at 11:17 p.m., precisely, he shrugged his shoulders, as if to say, “Why not?”

“Alles auf,” he ordered. “Open ‘em up,” and the gates swung wide. A torrent of humanity poured through, as though the plug had been pulled on a bathtub. In a heartbeat the Wall fell, and with it the Communist world. History turned on the misuse of a single word, pure human accident.

If there is a lesson to be drawn, it has to do with the dangers of mythmaking, in attempting to “manage history” as Reinhold Neibuhr put it. Yes, the United States won the Cold War with its Marshall Plan, the doctrine of containment, the blackmail of mutually assured nuclear destruction.

But Americans have never bothered to understand how, exactly, it ended. Rather than appreciating its complexity, not to mention the element of chance, we credited ourselves with unambiguous victory. Without over-stretching the point, it can be argued that it was a straight line from this mythologized history to America’s misadventure in Iraq.

Michael Meyer, communications director for the U.N. secretary general and the author of The Year that Changed the World.