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Phil-osophically Speaking - November 20, 2009

The single, most astonishing public event of my lifetime was the fall of the Berlin Wall and, in the next dizzying months, the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact and the collapse of the Soviet Union on Christmas Day.

It is hard to believe that earth-shaking, wall-shattering event was 20 years ago. It’s an anniversary to remember, to celebrate and reflect on. It marks not only what the United States as leader of the free world had overcome, but it also puts a spotlight on the qualities we will need to face the immense challenges ahead. History moves inexorably forward, there is no respite for the weary - for there is always a daunting mountain to climb, an unruly ocean to cross and a burning desert to endure. Yesterday it was Soviet Communism; today its Islamic terrorism and tomorrow it will surely be something else.

Our only defense is to know, in the light of our values and heritage, where our compass points, and in so knowing, take the necessary steps to meet each challenge with courage, patience and with an obligation to the unborn generations of Americans to whom we will pass the torch.

The fall of the Berlin Wall was so unexpected (the most famous wall to come tumbling down since the Walls of Jericho) it seemed surreal, dream-like, beyond the pale of reality. But the sledgehammers knocking the wall down were no hallucination; its blows mustered all the pent-up rage of a people who felt the lure of freedom but never possessed it until then.

Hundreds of millions in Eastern Europe were enslaved because of the Soviet Union. The U.S.S.R. had power; it had nuclear weapons. Keeping these countries sovereign had been the precipitate cause of World War II; but having emancipated them from Nazism they succumbed to Soviet tyranny. After a 45-year stalemate, the Cold War ended as quickly as it had started.

During this decades-long balance of terror, we lived under the shadow of a nuclear Armageddon. The idea that civilization could be consumed in a fiery pit of exploding atoms was never far from the surface of consciousness. The fact that this bitter harvest was avoided and American policy prevailed was not the result of a single person or act but, as James Madison said about the Constitution, the work of many hands and hearts. How it happened and why is a complex story, whose lineage goes back a long way.       

In the early 1830s Alexis De Tocqueville, a young French aristocrat, had a prescient sunburst: “There are at the present time, he wrote, two great nations in the world which seem to tend toward the same end, although they started from different points; I allude to the Russians and Americans … The principal instrument of the former is freedom; of the latter is servitude. Their starting point is different, and their courses are not the same; yet each of them seems to be marked out by the will of Heaven to sway the destinies of half the globe.”

By the middle of the 20th century, Tocqueville’s prophecy was a frightening reality. Yet, the United States was hardly equipped to deal with such a forbidding challenge. Swaying half the globe was not part of the American agenda after WWII. Within an amazingly brief interval, American armed forces were reduced from 15 million to several hundred thousand. Meanwhile, reneging on their promises at Potsdam and Yalta, the Soviet armies crushed any possibility of Eastern Europeans from conducting democratic elections. Instead of the deliverance they were promised, the yoke of Soviet totalitarianism was fastened onto their necks.

The vacuum created by Germany’s defeat was literally cavernous and Soviet power rushed in to fill it. Eastern European nations fell like grass before a scythe and the Soviet shadow hung ominously over countries just beyond its confines. Great Britain, its arms depleted and its treasury exhausted, stood by helplessly as all Western Europe was threatened.

Meanwhile, America drifted dangerously into the isolationism that had dominated its foreign policy in the 1920s and 30s. But the U.S. shook off its lethargy when it came to realize, not a moment too soon, that such a strategy could not be sustained in a two-superpower world whose ideologies were implacably at odds.

This was easier said than done, to say the least, as public opinion was wedded to the notion of a U.S.-Soviet post-wartime alliance. Moreover, the geopolitical challenges were daunting. The Soviet Union encompassed nine time zones, was geographically nearer the line of fire, had a population greater than the United States and would soon possess the atomic bomb.

How to counter this threat was the brainchild of George Kennan, a Foreign Service expert on the USSR, who would lay the foundation of U.S. strategy with one of the great insights in the history of statesmanship. He began by stating that the Soviets viewed Western powers with innate antagonism, which history compelled them to overthrow. However, if it encountered unassailable barriers the Soviets would not bulldoze ahead but resort to applying pressure to weak spots.

America had to become, in Kennan’s scenario, that unassailable barrier by employing “long term, patient but firm and vigilant containment.” Communism would not be forcibly rolled back, which would likely result in nuclear war but contained, like a cancer, that rots away the diseased limb but does not spread to vital organs. This patient perseverance would exploit the inner tensions and stresses all totalitarian societies feel when no outlets exist for foreign aggression thereby moderating ambitions and causing it, over time, to implode.

Theories, even those brilliantly conceived are one thing; but it took the backbone and determination of President Truman who provided the muscle in polices that came to be known as the Truman Doctrine, the Marshall Plan and the NATO military alliance that provided Western Europe with an impregnable shield.

This would basically be the hard line narrative from both Democratic and Republican administrations that would echo, over the decades, such a litany of defiance from Truman’s “The buck stops here” to Ronald Reagan’s challenge, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” Their efforts were mostly successful, with a few failures, in Cuba 90 miles off the coast of Florida and in the jungles of Vietnam 9,000 miles away in Southeast Asia. But in the end, victories went to the forces of freedom because of a focused, concentrated and deliberate effort to identify and then defeat our enemies.

Today our country faces different but similar trials. Every generation, I believe, lives in times, as Thomas Paine said, that try men’s souls. But our leaders, unlike those who preceded them were not sobered by two horrific World Wars, nor strengthened by a decade-long great Depression but were formed in an era of affluence and entitlement. Perhaps this is why the present administration has not come to terms with America’s avowed enemies and the dangers we face in confronting the nightmarish consequences of Islamic fascism.

The foolhardiness and ridiculous political posturing of trying the architect of 9/11 and four of his cohorts in civilian court is painfully obvious. Providing these mass murderers who orchestrated the worst attack on U.S. soil not only all the protections of our judicial system but also to mount a defense that would put America on trial before the world for supposed human right violations is an unspeakable outrage.

These prosecutorial tactics is not, as it is being advertised, a triumph of American idealism, but the worst form of political posturing in a desperate attempt to contrast their supposedly enlightened actions with the former Administration as well as pandering to the false hope that the world would think better of us because of it. Is this statesmanship or gamesmanship? Such a trial, unlike a military commission, would risk sensitive intelligence (to which the defendant’s attorneys would have access) of falling into the hands of those plotting against America.

This is no way to fight a war, which, the Administration would profit to remember, was brazenly and cold bloodily brought here to our shores in broad daylight leaving 3,000 of our fellow Americans dead and the vital nerve center of downtown New York in smoldering ruins. We deserve better and, more importantly, so do those who lost their lives, eight years ago, on September 11, 2001.