What Veterans Day and the Berlin Wall share

Both honor the end of war and oppression. But neither anniversary represents a true victory for peace.
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Marines march in New York in observance of Veterans Day.

Both honor the end of war and oppression. But neither anniversary represents a true victory for peace.

We observed this past week the 25th anniversary of the destruction of the Berlin Wall and then, the annual celebration of Veteran's Day, which marks the end of World War I — at 11 a.m. on Nov. 11, 1918, the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of that year.
The two, of course, are related. World War I, the so-called war to end all wars, did not truly end in 1918. It resumed in Europe in 1939 in a more virulent, hateful, and destructive form. In Asia, Japan had invaded and occupied neighboring countries and eventually joined the Axis powers in World War II. The United States entered both the European and Asian wars late and reluctantly. 
Since then we have been engaged in a Cold War with the Soviet Union, large-scale conflicts in Korea and Vietnam, three wars in Iraq, one in Afghanistan, a so-called war on terror, multiple military involvements in the Middle East, Africa, Asia and Latin America, and now face fresh challenges from Russia and China as they aspire to regional domination and global power. We have, in fact, been engaged in almost non-stop hostilities somewhere in the world since the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.
As many of my generation, I have a clear memory of this stream of history. We were kids during World War II and graduated from high school during the Korean War. Military service was obligatory. Most men (and a few women) saw time in the armed forces.  (Since abolition of the military draft in 1973, U.S. forces have been entirely volunteer and a far smaller percentage of Americans have had military experience).
I did active and reserve Army duty from the mid-1950s until April, 1962. During that time the Cold War was at its height. I was an intelligence analyst specializing in the Soviet Union. U.S. military doctrine during that period featured the use of nuclear weapons.  The Army was organized around the concept of a so-called Pentomic division, in which tactical nuclear weapons would be used in any ground war against Soviet and Warsaw Pact forces. Without such weapons, U.S. and NATO forces would be overwhelmed by far more numerous East Bloc forces. Nuclear weapons were seen as just like other weapons, only more powerful.
In October 1961 the Soviets erected a wall in the center of Berlin. It was intended mainly to stem the flow of East German citizens into the west. The wall could not go unchallenged. President Kennedy, as part of the U.S. response, recalled 150,000 reservists to active duty. My seven-man reserve intelligence unit, based in Boston, was recalled to duty at the Pentagon, where we had done previous two-week stints. The recall came only a few weeks before my Army obligation would have ended.
A month after our recall, I moved from Ft. Myer barracks and secured a small apartment for my small family within walking distance of the Pentagon. On Nov. 11, 1961, Veteran's Day, I drove with my wife and seven-month-old baby from Boston to our new apartment. It was a crisp, blue-sky day all the way down the eastern seaboard. On our car radio we heard President Kennedy give the traditional Veteran's Day address at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington National Cemetery, quite near the barracks where I had been living. As he spoke, nuclear war seemed a possibility and the occasion was particularly sober.
In the course of my Pentagon duty I learned that, if the U.S. did not employ tactical nukes against Soviet and Warsaw Pact ground forces, the eastern forces would reach the English channel within 10-12 days. There was no alternative strategy. In the end, both sides backed off. Both feared that use of tactical nuclear weapons would lead quickly to use of intercontinental strategic weapons, killing millions in both the U.S. and USSR.
In April 1962 I was released from military duty but I stayed in D.C. for a career I would not otherwise have pursued. In ensuing years no serious policymaker in the U.S. executive or legislative branches foresaw the destruction of the Berlin Wall, the reunification of Germany and the collapse, not only of Soviet puppet governments in eastern Europe, but of the Soviet regime itself.
I visited the Soviet Union in 1985 and saw the degree to which its domestic society was falling apart. New Soviet chairman Mikhail Gorbachev was wholly focused on domestic reform, both economic and political. But the collapse of the Communist system?   Surely that could not happen.
A few weeks before the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, I was in Germany meeting with Social Democratic, Christian Democrat and Green politicians there. All were concerned with evolving relations with East Germany but none of them foresaw the removal of the wall or the reunification of the country. When it happened, they were totally unprepared intellectually for the event. 
No one at the White House, Defense Department, State Department or in Congress would have predicted, when the wall was erected in 1961, that it would be gone in 1989 and that the entire threatening Soviet empire would crumble as well. Just like that, the Cold War appeared to be over. The nuclear threat had been lifted. Europe could be free.

But there are have been unforeseen after-effects. Leaders of the People's Republic of China drew a lesson from the Soviet collapse. They concluded that economic and political liberalization could not proceed simultaneously, as Gorbachev attempted in the USSR, lest the legitimacy of their regime be jeopardized. They opted for economic reform but kept tight Communist Party control of the political system. Now an economic powerhouse, China seeks regional hegemony is Asia and is making bullying claims on neighbors' territory.

Vladimir Putin, to the degree he can, is trying to reconstitute the borders and regional hegemony of the old USSR, even through military means if necessary. Only a few of the now independent former Soviet Republics, in any case, have established what we would regard as freely-elected democratic governments. Movements based in religion and ethnicity have taken the place of traditional nation states as dangerous disrupters of the international order.

And the nuclear threat, which some believed had ended after the Berlin Wall's removal and the Soviet Empire's dissolution, remains with us. Not only do the U.S., France and United Kingdom possess nuclear weapons. Russia, China, Israel, Pakistan, India and North Korea all have them and Iran may soon too. Nuclear weapons have not been used since the U.S. bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki in World War II. Do we believe they will never again be used? Rogue states — such as North Korea — and movements do not necessarily view nuclear weapons as we do.

Veteran's Day is a sober occasion which deserves our observance. The fall of the Berlin Wall is one of the most significant events of modern history, especially since it was so unanticipated. But neither represents a victory of peace over war.

They are benchmarks in recent history more often marked by war than by peace.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Ted Van Dyk

Ted Van Dyk

Ted Van Dyk has been active in national policy and politics since 1961, serving in the White House and State Department and as policy director of several Democratic presidential campaigns. He is author of Heroes, Hacks and Fools and numerous essays in national publications. You can reach him in care of editor@crosscut.com.