At the end of World War II, Europe had been divided between the Allied forces coalescing as NATO and the Soviets under Joseph Stalin. Defeated Germany was split between East and West, and Berlin itself partitioned.
In the summer of 1948, Stalin imposed a blockade to try to bring the Allied-occupied part of the city to its knees, but the United States responded with a massive airlift that lasted almost a year, before, finally, a secure land corridor was opened.
That was the good news. The bad news: later that same summer, the Soviets exploded their first nuclear weapon and the race toward MAD began.
American men and women now in their sixties and seventies grew up drilling in schools to survive nuclear attacks by hiding under their desks in the improbable hope that it might help them make it through the first blast, then rushing into well-marked fallout shelters where they were told they might be able to live for weeks or months underground protected from radioactive dust.
In fact, the generation now quaintly dubbed “boomers” grew up thinking the entire planet could be blown straight to hell.
When the East Germans first started building the Berlin Wall in August 1961 to keep their people from crossing to the West, the sense of crisis, echoing the earlier blockade, was enormous and a huge test for the new U.S. administration of President John F. Kennedy.
It came just four months after the abortive Bay of Pigs attempt to overthrow the Soviet-backed regime of Fidel Castro and was part of a succession of aggressive tests by the Soviets that seemed to have the world on the brink of destruction.
The omens of apocalypse culminated in the crisis of October 1962 when Kennedy confronted the Russians over nuclear missiles placed in Cuba. Remarkably, the Soviets backed down in public in exchange for certain assurances Kennedy made in private and the world stepped back from assured destruction. But it was not until the summer of 1963 that Kennedy went to West Germany and then to West Berlin. In a kind of victory lap, he declared, “All free men, wherever they may live, are citizens of Berlin, and, therefore, as a free man, I take pride in the words ‘Ich bin ein Berliner.’” I am a Berliner.
1989 was 26 years later and mutually assured destruction had given way to gradual efforts at arms control, but the threat remained, and despite the invocation of Reagan (who was consciously trying to build on Kennedy’s speech), the Wall remained.
That weekend in November, we did not know for certain if the world of the Cold War was ending, but we could feel it being turned upside down. The Soviet Union’s grip on Europe had been loosening for months, and now the harshest of its satellites seemed to have lost control completely. [Continue reading…]