by Robert Morrison
We are approaching the twentieth anniversary of the Fall of the Berlin Wall. That year, 1989, deserves to go down in history with 1648, the end of the Thirty Years’ War in Germany, 1815, the fall of Napoleon, 1914, the outbreak of the Cataclysm we know as World War I, and with 1945, the end of World War II that led to the tragic division of Europe. The Heritage Foundation this week presented an important conference on the Fall of the Wall and its meaning today.
I want to focus on just one portion of that vital conference: the Reunification of Germany.
Ambassador Klaus Scharioth. the urbane and witty diplomat assigned to Washington by the Federal Republic of Germany, paid fulsome tribute to the United States for helping his country achieve reunification. He thanked Americans for the 60 million young servicemen and women who had helped to protect Germany from Soviet aggression for forty-five years. I was stunned to hear that amazing figure. That heroic and generous contribution by America is not something we need to apologize to anyone for.
Ambassador Scharioth also noted how the Hungarians and Czechs helped greatly to bring down the Wall. The liberalizing communist regimes in those countries had opened their gates to East Germans desperate to escape the “Workers’ Paradise” in the Soviet puppet state behind the Iron Curtain. The ambassador recalled the important work of West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, who never wavered in his devotion to reuniting his beloved land. Most of all, Ambassador Scharioth credited President George H.W. Bush with steadfast support for bringing down the Wall and peacefully reuniting Germany.
The former President is famously modest, perhaps too modest. As a boy, his dad, Prescott Bush, used to quiz him on his report card. “How are we doing in ‘claims no more?’” The elder Bush, a U.S. Senator from Connecticut, was referring to the portion of his son’s prep school report that gave a high mark to any young lad who “claims no more than his share of attention.” Young George always scored high in “claims no more.”
Consider the world of the 1980s. For some of those years, millions of people in the U.S. and Western Europe really feared that Ronald Reagan would stumble into World War III. They watched films like “The Day After,” a made-for-TV, made-for-terrifying-us-all movie that purported to show the after-effects of a nuclear war in Kansas.
Yes, by 1989, when George H.W. Bush took office as President, the fears of nuclear war had largely abated, thanks to President Reagan’s steady strategy of “peace through strength.” But there were still tensions. The Berlin Wall symbolized those tensions.
It took infinite skill and tremendous presence of mind to manage the end of the East-West confrontation that had been a daily fact of life since 1945. George Bush had that skill, that courage, that much-lampooned “prudence.”
If, in 1988, candidate George Bush had said: “I’d like to preside over the Fall of the Berlin Wall, the peaceful reunification of Germany, her incorporation into NATO as a free and democratic state, and I propose to do all of this without firing a shot, without alienating our allies or breaking relations with the Soviets,” the reaction would have been one of stunned silence. The gray beards and chin strokers of the chattering classes would have pronounced Bush a madman. Alarmed, they would have said: “He’s even worse than Reagan!”
Yet, the magnitude of Bush’s achievement is there. He managed all that so calmly, so prudently, that it seemed the most natural and unavoidable of conclusions.
Britain’s staunch Margaret Thatcher did not want Germany reunified. Francois Mitterrand did not want a new great power to challenge France’s preeminence in Europe. The Soviets did not want it. The Poles did not want it. Even the West German Socialists did not want it.
So, how did it happen? America supported her stalwart ally. President Bush backed up with American resolve Chancellor Helmut Kohl’s yearning for unity. And he did so for the most American of reasons: We had given our word to the Germans and the world for forty years. When the time came to end the division of Germany, the United States would be there. The time came in 1989.
For this, President George H.W. Bush clearly deserves a Nobel Peace Prize. They have been given for far, far lesser achievements. As we celebrate twenty years of peace in the heart of Europe, as we recall that two world wars were fought in the heart of Europe, we can all be grateful to the skillful statecraft, the personal modesty, and the honoring of promises that characterized the brilliant diplomacy of this very American hero.