Foreign Affairs

The Unnecessary Peace: The Fall of the Berlin Wall, 30 Years Later

November 9, 2019
Featured Image
Thousands of young East Berliners crowd atop the Berlin Wall, near the Brandenburg Gate on November 11, 1989. Two days before, Gunter Schabowski, the East Berlin Communist party boss, declared that starting from midnight, East Germans would be free to leave the country, without permission, at any point along the border, including the crossing-points through the Wall in Berlin. (GERARD MALIE/AFP via Getty Images)

A great historical anomaly came to pass 30 years ago with the collapse of the Berlin Wall: the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union effectively ended without going hot—even if it was not quite, as Margaret Thatcher liked to say, without a shot being fired.

The historical record, to say nothing of international relations theory, suggested that this long twilight struggle was likely to end not with a relative whimper, but with a deafening bang—a debilitating, global war that would ravage the earth until one of the rival empires emerged triumphant.

Today we do not ritually mark the end of the Cold War, the way we do—or used to—mark V-E Day. We do not even much recall our good fortune—and by “our,” I mean the good fortune of everyone on the planet, who was not only spared a third world war in 70 years, but who also saw the collapse of authoritarian socialism and the triumph of western liberalism.

This is a shame, because the peaceful dissolution of the Soviet empire was not preordained. The inherent flaws of the Soviet model certainly played a large part in its demise. But so too did the far-sighted statecraft, martial exertion, liberal prestige, and multilateral cooperation of the Atlantic alliance that imperfectly, but successfully, contained it for nearly half a century.

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“There never was a war in all history easier to prevent by timely action than the one which has just desolated such great areas of the globe.”

Winston Churchill wrote those words in 1946, reflecting on the ferocious conflict that had just concluded. “It could have been prevented in my belief without the firing of a single shot .  .  . but no one would listen and one by one we were all sucked into the awful whirlpool.”

Churchill’s indictment was aimed primarily at those members of the British (and French) establishment responsible for formulating and executing the policy of appeasing Adolf Hitler throughout the 1930s, when prime ministers Stanley Baldwin and Neville Chamberlain, in league with their French counterparts, brought on World War II precisely through their sincere, well-meaning, and foolish efforts to avoid it.

But Churchill also believed that, had the United States not isolated itself and derogated its global responsibilities after the First World War, that the bloody reprise a quarter of a century later might also have been prevented.

Even before the end of the Second World War, American statesmen were beginning to realize the profound and appalling truth of this view, even if they did not yet grasp its full implications. There was no doubt that the untrammeled rise of the Axis powers and the ensuing calamity of total war made the American devotion to “normalcy” in the interwar years look terribly naive. President Truman would later declare that the calamitous march of totalitarianism during the preceding low, dishonest decade was a function of America not having accepted “our responsibility as a world power.”

It is often forgotten that America’s postwar embrace of global leadership was not at first a response to the emerging specter of Soviet aggression. Rather it was a delayed response to the fresh memory of Axis aggression. Arthur Vandenberg, the Michigan Republican who helped inject a dose of muscular internationalism into his party’s bloodstream after decades of provincialism and passivity, said that the experience of war impressed on Americans the stark new reality that “the oceans are no longer moats around our ramparts.”

This unsettling fact convinced stewards of American power to save the world from any breakdown in global order. Before long, a vast array of America’s governing class saw that undertaking this task would impose an awesome responsibility on the United States. After the British government notified the State Department in February 1947 that it had reached the limit of its capacity in preventing the march of the Red Army and the spread of Communist ideology in the eastern Mediterranean, Truman clarified the stakes. “We are faced,” he said, “with the most terrible responsibility that any nation ever faced. From Darius I’s Persia, Alexander’s Greece, Hadrian’s Rome, Victoria’s Britain, no nation or group of nations has had our responsibilities.”


With half the world’s gross domestic product in 1945, the United States was the only nation in existence with the ability to preserve the peace of the world. The only question was whether it would muster the will. The American government soon committed itself, reluctantly but firmly, to building and sustaining a liberal order that would prevent the worst from befalling humanity, again.

This Pax Americana stood a good chance of forging a modicum of peace and progress around the world, but it would end forever the old dreams (or, in the minds of these wise men, the delusions) of “splendid isolation.” Although by war’s end many Americans hoped that the soldiers could return home and the immense exertions of war would yield a peace dividend, the emergence of a formidable ideological and geopolitical adversary in the form of the Soviet Union dispelled these illusions.

This expansive (and expensive) reading of the national interest was a controversial fusion of politics and principle, of realism and idealism.

And so it remains. It entailed not trivial sums in foreign aid, but the expenditure of billions of dollars to help foreign economies recover and enter the global marketplace. It entailed not merely high levels of defense spending, but a robust alliance system, under U.S. auspices, that would seek to bolster America’s own security by guaranteeing the security of others. The United States thus kept its military forces garrisoned in Europe and Asia not to protect itself from attack—such a forward deployment actually increased the risk to American soldiers in the near term—but to burnish its reputation as an empire of trust in order to protect our nation and its way of life in the long term.

The burst of prosperity, democracy, and great-power peace that characterized the postwar order—conditioned by an open economic system of free trade and capital mobility, the broadly liberal character of the American regime, and its preponderance of power—would have been unthinkable if Washington had not imbibed the lessons that Churchill elucidated.

In November 1945, Winston Churchill recalled how, years earlier,

President Roosevelt one day asked what this war should be called. My answer was, “The Unnecessary War.” If the United States had taken an active part in the League of Nations, and if the League of Nations had been prepared to use concerted force, even had it only been European force, to prevent the rearmament of Germany, there was no need for further serious bloodshed. If the Allies had resisted Hitler strongly in his early stages, even up to his seizure of the Rhineland in 1936, he would have been forced to recoil, and a chance would have been given to the sane elements in German life, which were very powerful, especially in the High Command, to free Germany of the maniacal government and system into the grip of which she was falling.

This unforgiving assessment was, of course, depressingly true. Not despite the serious bloodshed that resulted, but because of it, we continue to mark V-E and V-J day in honor of how much is owed by so many to so few. This is, to borrow from Lincoln at Gettysburg, altogether fitting and proper.

What should not be neglected, however, is the grateful acknowledgment of a similar debt—not to those who bore the heat of battle, but to those who, by a supreme combination of strategic foresight, martial resolve, and moral courage, prevented another war.

The free world’s victory in the Cold War was won in Berlin 30 years ago. And so, comrades: Happy V-CW day!

Brian Stewart

Brian Stewart is a New York-based political writer. Follow him on Twitter @bstewart1776.