In 1989, I was the proud father of my first child, a son. It was also the year my wife and I bought our first house. And that year, I, along with much of America, watched the fall of the Berlin Wall on television. That’s also where I heard about the execution of Nicolae and Elena Ceauşescu, and the arrest of Erich Honecker. For me, it was like seeing Allied soldiers shaking hands at the Elbe River. The Cold War was over, and we won.
Later the next year, my mother gave me a small cardboard box. Inside the box was a tiny chip of concrete, which the box claimed had been part of the Berlin Wall. I doubted the authenticity of the “relic” almost immediately, but I cherished it anyway. Not because of its monetary value, or even its supposed historic significance. I kept that box because to me it represented the day we gave communism the final beatdown it had so long deserved. For me, a child of the Cold War who had grown up with Third World War nightmare scenarios, that box represented the day the good guys won, and the oppressed people of Europe took back their countries. The box didn’t hold a fragment of dusty concrete; it held the self-righteous vindication of my entire worldview.
Of course, I was a lot more idealistic in 1989. (To give you a sense of my naiveté, it hadn’t even occurred to me that nature didn’t make humans with the body types of Jose Canseco and Mark McGuire.) I can distinctly remember thinking that the people who had lived behind the Iron Curtain were going to join us in repudiating their pasts and that before too long, the entire industrialized world would be (relatively) friendly bastions of pro-Western capitalism and democracy. I assumed that Cuba would fall to revolution within weeks and that China couldn’t stand alone forever. Once China had “converted,” of course, their North Korean dependents would beg their cousins in the South to reunify. Vietnam would finally come to its senses, demonstrating that we had known what was best for them all along. President George H.W. Bush spoke of a “New World Order.” At the time, there was little doubt which nation would be directing this “New World Order.” In my view, the new boss had arrived.
As it turned out, Communism hung tough in a few small pockets of the globe, and one really big pocket. The euphoria of the young democracy protesters in Tiananmen Square, with their cardboard Statue of Liberty and willingness to stand before tanks, couldn’t bring freedom to China. Tyranny dies hard, I suppose. Russia’s path to democracy has been filled with stops and starts, and some there remember the old Soviet Union with a whitewashed fondness, because those were the days when Russians felt powerful. Rather than being our democratic partners, the Russians have opted to be the loyal opposition. So have the reunified Germany and France, for that matter. Cuba continues to poke a stick at us from across the Straits of Florida and Vietnam hasn’t admitted to the error of its ways.
November of 1989 seems like so long ago now. The United States, knowing what was best for everyone else, tried to direct the “New World Order,” with mixed results. Nowadays, I wonder whether world leadership is really worth all of the grief. I suspect many others wonder, too. I guess people just don’t like to be led, even if it is by the “good guys.” But, you know what? I am the father of teenagers, so, I understand. I didn’t understand much in 1989, but in 2009, I understand more. Maybe not a lot, but more than I did then.
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