Building Berlin’s Wall Helped Avoid a Nuclear Confrontation

Twenty-five years ago Sunday, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev refused to use force when thousands of people from East and West converged to pull down the Berlin Wall. He taught us all a great lesson: No wall can hold back democracy. Since then, however, Russian President Vladimir Putin has taught another lesson: If a country’s people don’t want democracy enough, no Berlin Wall is needed to keep it out.

The Russian public strongly supports Putin’s argument that the West is to blame for the current hostility between Moscow and the North American Treaty Organization. He has undermined the rule of law in Russia, attacked the country’s free press, annexed Crimea and destabilized eastern Ukraine while insisting that NATO’s unwelcome expansion forced his confrontational policies.

Never mind that the Cold War’s ideological divide is long gone. Putin may be resolute on the West’s animosity toward Russia, but the ill will he talks about is largely imaginary — or even hypocritical. It reflects a hurt pride that the Soviet Union lost the Cold War rather than any real danger to his rule.

“Russia strived to engage in dialogue with our colleagues in the West,” Putin complained in his March 17 Crimea annexation speech, “… and for our relations to be equal, open and fair. But… they have lied to us many times, making decisions behind our backs.”

This is far from the situation that Soviet Premier Nikita S. Khrushchev faced in 1961, when he built the Berlin Wall at the height of the Cold War. Then, the Soviet leader faced off against a genuinely hostile West.

Khrushchev, my great-grandfather, had seriously hoped that the Soviet Union could build more positive relations with the United States and Western Europe. He was not deterred even when relations were poisoned after Moscow shot down a U-2 spy plane over Soviet territory, and President Dwight D. Eisenhower lied about the affair. Khrushchev and President John F. Kennedy, Eisenhower’s successor, still held a summit in Vienna to bridge the nations’ differences.

My great-grandfather sought to protect the Soviet Union from the serious military threat he believed Washington posed. At home I was told (unofficially) that Khrushchev was afraid the German region closest to the Soviet border might gain access to nuclear weapons. So he pushed for a peace treaty signed by the four powers that had occupied Berlin since the war — France, Great Britain, the United States and the Soviet Union — to give the city international legitimacy.

Washington could not accept his plan, however, fearing that if Berlin became a free demilitarized zone, the Soviets might later swallow it whole. Therefore, building a wall seemed a lesser risk to both sides — even if Kennedy was “officially” against it.

Yet Khrushchev was in fact reluctant to divide Berlin. He saw it as a defensive act — not as a show of force. He feared it would destroy his goal of ultimately improving relations with Western Europe — that instead of averting nuclear war, Kennedy might respond with a confrontation that could lead to it.

In addition, as a leader of world communism, Khrushchev had to support his East German counterpart, Walter Ulbricht, in his effort to save face. East Germany had already lost 4 million people who had fled to the West. Hundreds more were leaving Soviet Berlin every day.

Though improving relations with the capitalist West was Khrushchev’s aspiration, defense of international communism turned out to be his primary foreign-policy goal.

Years later, Gorbachev told me he learned a great deal from Khrushchev’s contradictions — since he was both a reformer and an enforcer. What he learned helped Gorbachev avoid taking harsh countermeasures as the Berlin Wall fell. He considered my great-grandfather a role model because he had pressed for reform. But Gorbachev also said he’d learned a vital lesson from Khrushchev’s harsh actions in Berlin — Moscow couldn’t maintain the Soviet empire at the barrel of a gun.

Just as Ulbricht had pushed Khrushchev for military support, Gorbachev explained to me, Nicolai Ceausecu, Romania’s hardline communist leader, had asked Moscow to send tanks into Berlin to preserve the wall in 1989. “But,” Gorbachev recalled, “I already promised George [H.W. Bush] that the Kremlin wouldn’t intervene.”

Soon after Gorbachev assumed power in 1985, with the Cold War still raging, he spoke with Time magazine about the possibilities of creating alliances even in difficult times. “There was the Caribbean crisis [Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962], yet in 1963 we saw the partial test-ban treaty. Even though that was again a time of crisis, the two sides and their leaders [Kennedy and Khrushchev] had enough wisdom and the boldness to take some very important decisions.”

Today, Putin’s “important decisions” are a complete contradiction to the efforts of his predecessors. On Nov. 4, Russia announced it would boycott the 2016 Nuclear Security Summit, citing the “changed political atmosphere.” Never mind that this petty move to punish the West for imposing sanctions on Russia endangers the world.

For trying to fit into a civilized world order, Gorbachev is now branded an American spy by many in Russia. Khrushchev fares even worse — Putin now charges that the former Soviet premier “robbed” Russia by handing Crimea over to Ukraine in 1954. (At the time, this was an administrative move that had little ideological significance because both were republics in the Soviet Union.)

Putin’s Russia looks like the definition of a historical paradox: Though the physical Berlin Wall was torn down 25 years ago, the psychological wall remains intact. Stronger than ever.