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The Fall of the Berlin Wall Almost Ended in War

Here’s What the United States Did to Prevent It

The Berlin Wall and Brandenburg Gate as viewed from West Berlin, November 1989 Stringer / Reuters

Thirty years ago this month, the opening of the Berlin Wall ushered in the last great diplomatic struggle of the Cold War. As cheering crowds danced atop what was left of the Iron Curtain, the fate of Germany hung in the balance. In retrospect, it is easy to see that triumphal moment as part of an inevitable march toward German reunification. At the time, however, the future felt anything but certain. 

Germany was the most important strategic prize in Europe. Debates over its reunification and geopolitical alignment had nearly sparked a war on several occasions in the 1950s and 1960s. And as late as October 1989, U.S. officials warned that if Soviet influence in East Germany were threatened, the Soviet Union would “use force to prevent the collapse of a Communist East German State.” When the wall opened just one month later, no one knew how the Kremlin would interpret the end of travel restrictions and the broader challenge this posed to Soviet influence; after all, the higher-ups in Berlin had announced the decision to open the border without Moscow’s explicit approval. A crackdown—perhaps even a war—was a real possibility.

Why, then, did the events in Europe end with a whimper and not a bang? One must give credit where credit is due: after coming to power in the mid-1980s, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev did much to ease tensions with the United States and improve the East-West relationship. But dozens of recently declassified documents reveal that a large part of the story was the care and caution shown by U.S. policymakers. Their restraint created space for the events in East Germany to unfold and enabled the United States to capitalize on the weakness of communist authorities in a remarkable strategic coup: peaceful German reunification within NATO.

THE CROWN JEWEL FALLS

Fear of a violent Soviet reaction did not emerge from the ether. The Soviet Union had crushed previous uprisings in Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968. Those states were less geopolitically

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