In Berlin, Hope for the Fall of Other Walls

'Let us remember this history," Barack Obama said in the peroration of his speech in Berlin last week, "and answer our destiny, and remake the world once again." The progression in that sequence is exactly right. Remaking the world requires a reckoning with history, and Berlin, perhaps more than any other city, is the place where that must happen. On the eve of World War I, 94 years ago today, Berlin was the site of Germany's last antiwar demonstration, routed by police. The failure of Weimar, the torchlight parades of brown shirts, Kristallnacht, the Fuehrer bunker, mass rape, the occupation zones, the death strip, the Wall - "this history." Nikita Khrushchev declared, "Berlin is the testicles of the West . . . When I want to make the West scream, I squeeze on Berlin."

Obama built his speech around the noble history of the Berlin Airlift, when, for a year, the US Air Force defied that squeeze by flying food and coal into the western half of the city, trumping a Soviet blockade. American support, symbolized by NATO and the Marshall Plan, both of which Obama acknowledged, was key to the new identity that Europe then embraced. But it was the nonviolent reinvention of the former belligerents, with Germany, especially, becoming a pacifist nation, that made the final difference. Unlike other American politicians who routinely claim that the United States "won" the Cold War, Obama credited the crowd to whom he was speaking near the former site of the Berlin Wall. "When you, the German people, tore down that wall . . . walls came tumbling down around the world." At last, an American leader was crediting the world-historic outbreak of non-violence in 1989 as the political force it was.

The Cold War is long over, but Obama defined its remaining unfinished business - which is "seeking the peace of a world without nuclear weapons." In naming this and other "walls" that must be brought down now, he invoked again the humane "spirit that led airlift planes to appear in the sky above our heads." But does the airlift saga, perhaps, contain its own contradictory implication?

When John F. Kennedy declared himself a citizen of Berlin, he was deflecting attention from his earlier refusal to act against the erection of the Berlin Wall. When Ronald Reagan cried, "Mister Gorbachev, tear down this wall," he was ignoring the drastic actions that Gorbachev was already taking that led exactly to that. When Obama honored the Berlin Airlift - "the planes that flew over Berlin did not drop bombs" - he made apparent the need for a much fuller reckoning with the other history of American air power that expressly involves Berlin.

Early in February 1945, the British Bomber Command presented a plan for a massive escalation of strategic bombing. Dubbed "Operation Thunderclap," the idea was to obliterate one solid square mile of downtown Berlin, making no pretense of distinguishing military and civilian targets. The Americans balked, with one senior Army Air Forces general saying such a "baby-killing scheme" would be "a blot on the history of the Air Forces and of the United States." But that general was overruled, and Thunderclap was ordered. The Allied attack on Berlin was so successful that it was followed quickly by similar raids throughout Germany, climaxing two weeks later in Dresden. The mile-square strategy was tried a week later in Tokyo. That success led to the March 9 Tokyo raid in which 16 square miles were obliterated, killing more than 100,000 civilians. The strongest rationale for use of the atomic bomb against Hiroshima was that America had already crossed the threshold into mass murder from the air. We crossed it in Berlin.

"I know my country has not perfected itself . . ." Obama said. "There are times when our actions around the world have not lived up to our best intentions." America is at its best not just when our noblest ideals are realized, but also when our betrayals of those ideals are acknowledged. There is the Berlin Airlift. There is the terror bombing of Berlin. There is the unfinished business of nuclear abolition, the burden of which belongs more to the United States than any nation. "I love America," Obama told Berlin, having just proved it both with his words, and with what his words implied.

James Carroll's column appears regularly in the Globe.

(c) Copyright 2008 Globe Newspaper Company

© 2023 Boston Globe