Tear Down This Wall

On this date 14 years ago, the Germans opened the Berlin wall.

One is reminded of Ronald Reagan’s remarkable speech two years before:

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!

Great political speeches are all sleight of hand, because things are never that simple:

Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty.

This much we pledge?and more.

Of course we were unwilling to pay an price. Of course it took far more and different than Mr. Gorbachev and Mr. Reagan. But great political moments are crystalline, because the complexities are so much harder to understand at the time, and even harder still to grasp from even the short distance of history that separates us now.

Here is the complexity I learned today. It was proposed that German Day of Unity be celebrated today, Nov. 9, in honor of that first accidental opening of the wall, until it was realized this was also the anniversary of the first night of Kristallnacht.

For man holds in his mortal hands the power to abolish all forms of human poverty and all forms of human life.

Kennedy was too optimistic and too pessimistic there by a long measure, we weren’t watching his hands closely enough, but damn it was a great speech.