ARC's 1st Law: As a "progressive" online discussion grows longer, the probability of a nefarious reference to Karl Rove approaches one

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

One day, this ugly wall will disappear.

“General Secretary Gorbachev, if you seek peace, if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, if you seek liberalization: Come here to this gate. Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate. Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”

--Ronald Reagan, June 12, 1987

As I'm sure MontereyJohn remembers the media and the Washington intelligentsia laughing at the naive president. They were scared that it would antagonize Gorbachev. That this old man would bring nuclear Armageddon to the world.

At the time it seemed as if the Soviet Union would never end. That the Berlin Wall was something the world (and Berliners) would have to become accustomed. Even Peter Robinson, the speechwriter, was told not to to mention the wall (all emphasis mine).

A stocky man with thick glasses, the diplomat projected an anxious, distracted air throughout our conversation, as if the very prospect of a visit from Ronald Reagan made him nervous. The diplomat gave me quite specific instructions. Almost all were in the negative. He was full of ideas about what the president shouldn't say. The most left-leaning of all West Germans, the diplomat informed me, West Berliners were intellectually and politically sophisticated. The president would therefore have to watch himself. No chest thumping. No Soviet bashing. And no inflammatory statements about the Berlin Wall. West Berliners, he explained, had long ago gotten used to the structure that encircled them.

Encircled... imprisoned... Peter gives a good description of the wall back in 1987.

After I left the diplomat, several members of the advance team and I were given a flight over the city in a U.S. Air Force helicopter. Although all that remains of the wall these days is paving stones to show where it stood, in 1987 the structure dominated Berlin. From the air, the wall seemed less to cut one city in two than to separate two different modes of existence. On one side lay movement, color, modern architecture, crowded sidewalks and traffic. On the other lay a kind of void. Buildings still exhibited pockmarks from shelling during the war. Cars appeared few and decrepit, pedestrians badly dressed. When we hovered over Spandau Prison, the rambling brick structure in which Rudolf Hess was still being detained, East German soldiers peered up at us through binoculars, rifles over their shoulders. The wall itself, which from West Berlin had seemed a simple concrete structure, was now revealed as an intricate complex -- the East Berlin side lined with guard posts, dog runs and row upon row of barbed wire.

Had the Berliner's gotten used to their imprisonment? Was the wall something to just accept?

That evening I broke away from the advance team to join a dozen Berliners for dinner. Our hosts were Dieter and Ingeborg Elz. German themselves, the Elzes [...] We chatted for a while about the weather, German wine and the cost of Berlin housing. Then I related what the diplomat had told me, explaining that after my flight over the city that afternoon I found it difficult to believe. "Is it true?" I asked. "Have you gotten used to the wall?"

The Elzes and their guests glanced at each other uneasily. I assumed I'd proved to be just the sort of brash, tactless American the diplomat was afraid the president might seem. Then one of the men raised his arm and pointed. "My sister lives 20 miles in that direction," he said. "I haven't seen her in more than two decades. Do you think I can get used to that?" Another man spoke. Each morning, he explained, on his way to work he walked past the same guard tower. Each morning the same soldier gazed down at him through binoculars. "That soldier and I speak the same language. We share the same history. But one of us is a zookeeper and the other is an animal, and I am never certain which is which."

Our hostess broke in. A gracious woman, she had grown angry. Her face was red. She made a fist with one hand, then pounded it into the palm of the other. "If this man Gorbachev is serious with his talk of glasnost and perestroika," she said, "he can prove it. He can get rid of this wall."

What is more interesting is that members inside the government were also against the speech, in favor of maintaining the status quo.

With three Weeks to go before it was delivered, the speech was circulated to the State Department and the National Security Council. Both attempted to squelch it. The assistant secretary of state for Eastern European affairs challenged the speech by telephone. A senior member of the National Security Council staff protested the speech in memoranda. The ranking American diplomat in Berlin objected to the speech by cable. The draft was naive. It would raise false hopes. It was clumsy. It was needlessly provocative. State and the NSC submitted their own alternate drafts -- my journal records that there were no fewer than seven, including one written by the diplomat in Berlin. In each, the call to tear down the wall was missing.

Now in principle, State and the NSC had no objection to a call for the destruction of the wall. The draft the diplomat in Berlin submitted, for example, contained the line, "One day, this ugly wall will disappear." If the diplomat's line was acceptable, I wondered at first, what was wrong with mine? Then I looked at the diplomat's line once again. "One day?" One day the lion would lie down with the lamb, too, but you wouldn't want to hold your breath. "This ugly wall will disappear?" What did that mean? That the wall would just get up and slink off of its own accord? The wall would disappear only when the Soviets knocked it down or let somebody else knock it down for them, but "this ugly wall will disappear" ignored the question of human agency altogether. What State and the NSC, I realized, were saying in effect was that the president could go right ahead and issue a call for the destruction of the wall -- but only if he employed language so vague and euphemistic that everybody could see right away he didn't mean it.

It's been 20 years since that speech, and yet similar issues confront the country today. We should accept Islamofacism. Iraq was a sovereign state. Iraqi's had gotten used to Baath party rule. The Middle East will never be able to form a democracy. They are savages. We should have just contained Saddam in his box. He was no threat to us.

How similar that sounds to "One day, this ugly wall will disappear".

*** Update ***

Peter Robinson has posted his condensed account with the Powerline folks as well today. They have pictures.

Your Co-Conspirator,
ARC: Brian