And the wall came tumbling down

''There are some who say that communism is the wave of the future. Let them come to Berlin.'' -- President John F. Kennedy, Berlin, June 26, 1963

''Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.'' -- President Ronald Reagan, Berlin, June 12, 1987

For four decades, the Soviet Union and United States waged a ''cold war,'' from Stalin to Khrushchev to Brezhnev to Gorbachev, from Truman to Kennedy to Reagan to Bush.

Ten years ago the Cold War came to an unofficial end. It was on Nov. 9, 1989 that the Berlin Wall -- 12 kilometers of concrete and barbed wire that symbolized the struggle between communism and democracy -- came tumbling down.

The stage was actually set in May of that year when Mikhail Gorbachev made his first official visit to West Germany, during which he informed Chancellor Helmut Kohl that the Soviet Union had abandoned the so-called ''Brezhnev doctrine.''

What that meant was that Moscow was no longer willing to use force to prevent the democratic transformation of East Germany and other Soviet satellite states.

This repudiation of the Brezhnev doctrine hastened the fall of the Soviet empire. For in only a few years' time, one repressive regime after another toppled in Eastern Europe, like so many Marxist-Leninist dominoes.

Now there are some historians (and journalists) who suggest that the collapse of communism, the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the end of the Cold War (in favor of the United States and its Western allies) just happened.

They see no strategy by Western leaders -- including the various presidents who occupied the White House during the Cold War -- that brought down the Soviet Union. To the extent they acknowledge that any leader affected the outcome of the Cold War, they bestow credit upon Gorbachev.

But the reality is that the fall of the Soviet empire and the consignment of communism to the ash heap of history were the successful culmination of a 40-year war of attrition waged by the United States and its Western allies against the Eastern Bloc.

And much credit -- and gratitude -- is owed such American presidents as Truman and Kennedy and Reagan for recognizing the threat posed by the Soviet Union, for committing this nation to winning the arms race with its Cold War adversary, and for having the courage and willingness to challenge Soviet expansionism.

Indeed, it was Truman who first supported a ''containment'' policy toward the Soviet Union. He was informed by the writings of George Kennan, who depicted communism as a ''malignant parasite'' that had to be contained by any and every means possible. One of those means was the creation of NATO, which was charged with the common defense of the North Atlantic.

One of the most pivotal episodes in the entire history of the Cold War occurred during the Kennedy presidency, when he demanded that the Soviet Union remove nuclear missiles from Cuba. For 14 days in October 1962, the two superpowers were on the brink of nuclear war. But Kennedy would not back down. And, finally, Nikita Khrushchev removed the missiles.

Then there was Reagan, who undertook a massive military buildup during the 1980s, while also proposing to build and deploy a national missile defense system. His Soviet policy amounted to the straw that broke the back of the Soviet bear.

Indeed, Gorbachev recognized that four decades of keeping pace with the United States had taken a devastating toll on his country. For while the Soviet Union had developed itself into a military superpower, it boasted only a Third World economy. Matching the military buildup that Reagan initiated would have meant even more economic hardship for the restive Soviet people.

So Gorbachev set out to save his sclerotic republic from collapsing under the weight of 40 years of social and economic deprivation -- thus his policies of perestroika (restructuring) and glasnost (openess). But his ''reforms'' spun out of his control.

By December 1991, he had relinquished his presidency and the Soviet Union was no more.

As they stood in the shadow of the Berlin Wall, a quarter-century apart, Presidents Kennedy and Reagan could only hope that their children -- if not their children's children -- would live to see the monstrosity come down.

Well, the wall did come down 10 years ago. And the anniversary is cause for celebration not only for the reunited German people, but the entire free world.


Joseph Perkins is a columnist for The San Diego Union-Tribune.


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