Tucson CitizenTucson Citizen

Where were you when the wall fell?

There are events in the human saga so extraordinary that they become celebrated or commemorated for decades, even generations.

Some are so exceptional that after they happen, those who were alive at the time remember where they were, what they were doing and whom they were with for the rest of their lives.

Tragically, most of those events are tragedies. Depending on your age, many Americans can recall what they were doing the exact moment they learned of the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the death of President Roosevelt, the assassinations of President Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr and the attacks of Sept. 11.

Recalling the exact moment of the triumphs of our greatest struggles in the past 70 years are far fewer, perhaps because the triumphs are rarely as sudden as the tragedies. Few of us know exactly when Jim Crow died, we just know he did.

But every American who is old enough can recall the moment they learned of the end of the war in Europe and Japan or when Neil Armstrong stepped on the moon.

And every American should recall the events of Nov. 9, 1989, 20 years ago today, a day that may go down in history as the greatest of the 20th century – the symbolic end of soviet Russia’s domination of Eastern Europe and the collapse of communism.

In October 1989, communist Hungary allowed a few of its captive citizens entry into Austria. Soon thousands of Hungarians rushed to the border crossing. They were supposed to be on holiday, but their overflowing luggage and frightened looks weren’t fooling anyone; everyone knew they weren’t coming back.

The world looked to Moscow wondering when the tanks would roll like they had in 1956 in Hungary and in 1968 in Czechoslovakia. But Soviet Union leader Mikhail Gorbachev, for reasons few understood at the time, kept the tanks in their bases.

Czechoslovakia followed Hungary’s lead and opened its borders. Tens of thousands of East Europeans, crushed under the totalitarian boot of Soviet imperialism for five decades, poured into the two cracks of the Iron Curtain yearning to be free.

Emboldened East Germans flooded into Hungary to crossover to freedom. The entire Warsaw Pact was in crisis. The only way to stop the exodus was with force. Many in the West speculated that this could be the beginning of World War III, perhaps the end of civilization as we knew it. Tension grew around the world. NATO was on full alert.

In early November East and West Germans began to congregate on either side of the Berlin Wall near the Brandenburg Gate protesting the right to freely cross. The paranoid East Germans looked to Gorbachev and he told them to open the gate.

On Nov. 9, East Germany announced it would allow East Berliners to “visit” West Berlin if they wanted and opened all the border crossings.

And that was it, the end of the Cold War. We, the democratic West, had won.

Fittingly, it ended with a party atop the very symbol of communist repression, the Berlin Wall.

We had spent trillions of dollars to fight the spread of communism on every continent on the planet (yes, even Antarctica). Millions died, including nearly 100,000 Americans.

It was worth every penny and, perhaps, every life. The future of freedom and democracy had depended on it.

Today is a great day and we should commemorate it and celebrate it every year, not every decade like it’s some high school reunion.

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