The 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, which culmitated a series of events in the summer and fall of 1989, allows us to begin looking through the lens of history. Important lessons are to be learned from the “year of miracles,” as Czech play-write and dissident Vaclav Havel called it, lessons about American leadership and lessons about the importance of engaging in the war of ideas with enemies of ffreddom and democracy.
The world has changed so dramatically since 1989, but many of us will never forget those spine chilling moments when demonstrations throughout Central and Eastern Europe started to challenge the power of the communist puppet regimes. The images of East Germans breaking down the Berlin Wall and pouring into freedom through the gashes will never fade away. But a new generation has come of age that has not known a world divided by the Iron Curtain or by that grim, grey, barbed-wired structure that separated the two Berlins.
The Berlin Wall now exists only as museum pieces and desk top ornaments. But during the Cold war it was powerful, both as a symbol and as a very real instrument of power to keep the population of East Berlin locked in. Many East Germans lost their lives trying to breach, scale or tunnel under it. Standing at checkpoint “Charlie,” you could look across a broad minefield into the dark wasteland of East Berlin, where empty apartment buildings with gaping holes for windows formed part of the buffer zone. The contrast between the two Berlins was stark. West Berlin was a colorful, gregarious city, tinged by life lived on the edge of the communist world. East Berlin was grey upon grey with few cars in the streets, pedestrians with averted eyes, and leather-booted soldiers goose stepping in formation at the tomb of the unknown soldier.
Communism did not simply collapse because of its own internal improbabilities, as some scholars on the left would have it. It collapsed because it was met by an opposing cause – represented by those who love freedom, democracy, and the inalienable rights of individuals to pursue their fate and happiness. Throughout the Cold War, the United States was the indispensable leader of that cause.
The fact that Cold War ended with the relatively bloodless dissolution of the Soviet empire was in part due to the U.S. instruments of power used to engage in the war of ideas, the U.S. Information Agency (USIA), Voice of America, Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty which broadcast into the Soviet Union itself. These institutions had their origin as far back as World War II, but were dismantled after the War as was much of the U.S. military. Following the Soviet blocade of Berlin, however, and the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950, it was clear that cashing in such “peace dividends” was premature. Consequently, when Dwight D. Eisenhower became president in 1953, “international information activities” of the U.S. government were made central to the national strategy of confronting and containing the Soviet expansionism. It was a long-term strategy that worked.
This is not to suggest that the road to victory in the Cold War was not a very bumpy one. U.S. leadership did falter on some notable occasions, such as the up-rising in Hungary in 1956, which drew heavily on the information provided by Radio Free Europe’s Hungarian-language broadcasts, but which failed to elicit any other support from the rest of the U.S. government. The protests were crushed by the Soviets and their puppets, as were the up-risings in Berlin in 1961 and in Czechoslovakia in 1968.
The value of providing information to parts of the world where censorship was the rule was, however, clear to both Democratic and Republican administrations. John F. Kennedy was keenly aware of its importance and made Edward R. Murrow director of USIA, giving him direct access to the Oval Office and a seat at the National Security Council. However, it was Ronald Reagan, who had the clearest vision of the potential of public diplomacy as an instrument of national power, combining a clear ideological, anti-communist vision and talents as a “great communicator.” Reagan brought a new infusion of resources and intiative to the ideological struggle with the Soviets, revitalizing the USIA, and providing it with a new clear mandate and strategy. Behind the Iron Curtain, dissidents and human rights activists took heart from the moral and material support that the U.S. government was able to privide them in their fight against communst oppression. When the Berlin Wall came down in on November 9, 1989, it was clear that ideas did matter, in the end.
Recommendations for the president:
Provide clear leadership on revitalizing U.S. public diplomacy intitutions, drawing on the lessons of the Cold War. This is particularly relevant for the struggle with ideological Islamism.
Propose an Agency for Strategic Communication to take the lead in formulating a national doctrine and strategy on communication and public diplomacy outreach.
Specify lines of authority and interagency cooperation to make sure the various parts of the U.S. government work together coherently in their messaging.