Right around the corner as you make your way through the front door of the Spectator’s Arlington offices is a brown particleboard bookcase. Its function is to display the last year or so’s worth of magazines so that staff can quickly get at back issues. A few times a week, I find myself in front of this bookcase, thumbing through issues of this unwonted publication. I sometimes pause, mid-pageturn, to eyeball a curious artifact on the fourth shelf from the top. Inside a Plexiglas container rests a chunk of mortar mixed with brick about the size of a mandarin orange. A length of rusted over barbed wire runs from one end of the plastic case to the other — for effect, I think. A small typed notice advertises this as a piece of what used to be the Berlin Wall.
William F. Buckley’s new book is intended as a history of that wall, from its conception as a way for the Soviet Union to staunch the flow of East German refugees and East Europeans generally, who preferred freedom over purges and famines, to its audacious construction in the late summer of 1961 to its collapse, at the hands of thousands of ordinary Germans on both sides of the divide, in 1989. It was the last Great Moment in European history.
But of course some truly dark moments preceded its dismantling. On the evening of August 12, 1961, officers of the East German army sealed off what had been lenient, almost Canadian-like check points, and began stringing the barbed wire. Over the next several days, they finished the outline of what would be built into a wall 13 feet high with dogs, guard towers, and a “dead zone,” the space in which many a person was shot and left to bleed to death while making a break for it.
We know now that the East German forces were under strict orders from the Kremlin: (a) by all means, lay down the wire; but (b) if the Western forces advance, cease construction and fall back — under no circumstances were they to fire the first shot. But the three other Western nations in charge of Berlin after the Second World War (the U.S., England, and France) didn’t know of these orders, were caught entirely off guard by the closure, and, in the confusion, didn’t wish to risk a hot war with the cold-blooded, shoe-pounding Nikita Khrushchev.
As a consequence, the wall was bluffed into existence by madmen holding a pair of two’s. Buckley relates the story of the nightclubbers in West Berlin who filed out onto the streets to see “militiamen with jackhammers and crowbars [tearing] up the paving stones on major streets, making them impassable by ordinary vehicles,” while others unrolled the wires, guarded by officers with tommy guns. Wait till the Americans get here! taunted some of the braver bar hoppers, who were soon to be disappointed.
The U.S. did indeed dispatch Gen. Lucius Clay, the man who had engineered the Berlin airlift in 1948 and saved the city from being swallowed whole by the Soviet Union, and he began to live up to his reputation. Clay walked into East Germany himself and, on a few occasions, marched troops and civilians in and out of the border stations, in effect taunting the Soviets and the East German satellite government. This defiant spirit was not, alas, the decisive one. For reasons of expedience and geopolitics, the U.S. government soon accepted the wall as an unbreachable barrier, the Iron Curtain set in stone.
John F. Kennedy comes off particularly bad in this tale of woe. The youthful president might have cut a dashing figure and wowed the Europeans with his style and rhetoric, but he proved to be weak, distracted, and ultimately a poor decision maker. In foreign policy, his administration seems almost an inversion of what should have been. The hawks won the fights that they should’ve lost (send armed insurgents into Cuba, start feeling out Vietnam) and the doves had a habit of yanking defeat out of an easy victory’s jaws (don’t provide air support, accept a Soviet presence in Cuba so long as they don’t have nukes, don’t risk a confrontation over the partition of Berlin).
A man of faith in a godless age is hitting Americans where it hurts.
Mr. and Mrs. American Spectator Reader, let P.J. O’Rourke talk sense to your kids.
In Britain, defending your property can get you life.
The debacle of this president’s administration is both a cause and a symptom of the decline of American values. Unless Congress impeaches him, that decline will go on unchecked. An eminent jurist surveys the damage and assesses the chances for the recovery of our culture.
It won’t take long for conservatives to scratch this presidential wannabe off their 2008 scorecard.
The American Christmas, like the songs that celebrate it, makes room for everybody under the rainbow. Is that why so many people seem to be hostile to it?
Was the President done in by the economy, or by the politics of the economy?