What's Tony Thinking

The Sad Irony of a U.S. Wall


The other evening we watched the 2015 movie Bridge of Spies. The story, based on actual events, is about a Cold War spy exchange. Remember Francis Gary Powers and “The U-2 Incident”?

The main character Jim Donovan (Tom Hanks) is, at one point, in Berlin as the Wall is being built. There’s a scene of mortar and cinder block being erected right through a neighborhood as the Wall goes up. At another point in the movie Donovan jumps up from his seat on a train as shots ring out.  Outside the windows people are trying to get over the wall and are shot as they do so. That too is based on actual events.

Those scenes brought back memories. We entered East Berlin in 1971, driving our 1962 VW Bug (purchased for $150). I remember the soldiers at the checkpoint, the machine guns slung around their shoulders, the German Shepherd dogs on leash, the extended mirrors passed under the car to see if we had anything there we shouldn’t.

And I remember East Berlin. We were there briefly. We had gone to see a production of the Bertold Brecht play “The Days of the Commune” (in German) about the Paris Commune of 1871. On the main street in East Berlin the buildings were all new and well-lit. But just behind them it was all rubble and dark, the remains of the Second World War. Haunting.

The Berlin Wall fell on November 11, 1989, marking the end of Cold War and the beginning of the end of the Soviet Union. Years later a pastor from the GDR, East Germany brought me a piece of the walk, pictured here. I’m saving it to pass on to my grandchildren someday.

The Berlin Wall was a powerful symbol of the Cold War and of the repression of the Iron Curtain. It was a figurative backdrop for Kennedy’s famous “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech, and for Reagan’s “Mr. Gorbachev, take down this wall.”

So it is painfully ironic that we, the United States, are now on the other side of the wall, so to speak. Trump is fixated on the idea of a wall between the U.S. and Mexico. (Never mind that illegal border crossings are down to a trickle.) Have we so soon forgotten that other wall, the Berlin Wall, and all that it symbolized?

Advocates of the new wall will point out that the Berlin Wall was built to keep people in, while a wall on the Mexican border is designed to keep people out. I’ll grant the difference, but it’s still a lousy symbol. I don’t care much for walled and gated communities, and I care even less for being a walled country. It is antithetical to the idea that is “America.”

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