President Obama’s decision to send a video of himself to Berlin on the anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, in which he said that “few would have foreseen [on that day in 1989] that . . . their American ally would be led by a man of African descent,” is not the first time he assigned that world-historical event a bit part in his own saga. The Wall also played a walk-on role in his election-night victory speech, included in a long litany of “Yes We Can” paragraphs (“A man touched down on the moon, a wall came down in Berlin, a world was connected by our own science and imagination”). He mentioned it in his Berlin citizens-of-the-world speech, attributing the fall to the world standing as one.
Benjamin Kerstein has written an eloquent reminder that the fall of Communism was not the result of the world standing as one, but of the long and often despairing efforts of certain people to fight a future to which much of the world was resigned:
This anniversary, this triumph, this vindication, does not belong to all of us. It belongs to the anti-communists of all countries and all parties who fought for it, sometimes at great cost to reputation, family, friendship, sanity, and often life and limb. …
Some, like Solzhenitsyn, Natan Sharansky, and many, many others, had to face prison, expulsion, harassment, and the constant threat of death in order to make their plight known to the world. …
[The Hungarian and Czech uprisings were] ignored as the march of history supposedly passed them by … until the wall came down, and even the most dedicated apologists had to admit that the Czechs, the Hungarians, and their supporters had been the wave of the future all along.
In America, presidents of both parties pressed policies on their fellow citizens designed to keep the world standing as two. Richard Nixon brought forth “détente.” Jimmy Carter lectured us about our “inordinate fear of communism.” When Ronald Reagan called the Soviet Union an “evil empire,” elite opinion considered it unforgivably rude.
“Tear down this wall” has entered the lexicon of great presidential utterances, but the president who uttered it went unmentioned this week by President Obama. Undoubtedly, as huge numbers of people rushed to freedom 20 years ago, few of them would have foreseen that Obama would become president of the United States. Even fewer would have foreseen that one day an American president would decline to join his fellow heads of state in Berlin to celebrate what happened that day.