Early into what would become a three-decade career in government service, I was completing an escape-and-evasion training exercise in the woods on Nov. 9, 1989, when, after weeks of unrest, the East German government announced that its citizens could visit West Berlin.
Upon entering the community room at our base, one of my fellow trainees, his fatigues covered in mud, saw the rest of us glued to the television. Watching the news coverage, he exclaimed, “What were we doing, training in the woods, when we should have been overseas helping to win the Cold War?”
Construction of the Berlin Wall began at the height of the Cold War in 1961. The wall was a physical and ideological divide between East and West, its role immortalized in John le Carre’s 1963 best-seller, “The Spy Who Came In from the Cold.”
The Berlin Wall, a Soviet effort to prevent its own citizens from witnessing the basic freedoms they were denied, was what Churchill presciently warned about in his Iron Curtain speech more than 15 years earlier.
During his 1987 speech at the Brandenburg Gate, President Reagan eloquently issued a clarion call for freedom, declaring that “the advance of human liberty can only strengthen the cause of world peace.”
Reagan then famously declared: “General Secretary Gorbachev, if you seek peace, if you seek prosperity, if you seek liberalization, come here to this gate. Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”
At our training exercise two years later, my colleagues and I watched with mounting excitement and admiration as crowds of East Germans climbed over the wall and joined West Germans in celebration.
The Brandenburg Gate was opened just 21/2 years after Reagan’s powerful speech. The Wall, once almost 90 miles long, was fully demolished by 1992.
The West did not bring down the Berlin Wall kinetically. The ideas of liberty, freedom, and democracy exposed the hypocrisy of the corrupt Soviet regime and its satellites, which trampled on human rights at home and abroad. Soft power, not hard steel, tore down the wall.
Almost 30 years later, people from Beijing to Moscow, from Tehran to Pyongyang, are still denied basic human rights. The Berlin Wall has been gone longer than it stood. But is it really gone?
KGB operative-in-the-Kremlin Vladimir Putin once called the collapse of the Soviet Union the greatest geopolitical tragedy of the 20th century. Mr. Putin once served in East Germany and understands that democracy is an existential threat to dictatorships. Mr. Putin knows he cannot build a new Berlin Wall, but one of his first steps upon becoming president was to take control of Russian television media so that he could control the news and its interpretation.
China is trying to create a Soviet Big Brother-style “Great Firewall” to deny its own citizens freedom of expression and access to the truth.
Democracy protests in Hong Kong have been ongoing since March. On August 23, over 200,000 city residents formed a human chain over 30 miles long to demand their rights.
Hong Kongers chose that date with a keen sense of history. August 23 is the anniversary of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, the infamous 1939 neutrality treaty which secretly divided Poland, the Baltic nations and Romania between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union.
In 1983, President Reagan famously called the Soviet Union an “evil empire.” News of his speech spread behind the Iron Curtain and demonstrated U.S. resolve to Soviet citizens who derived inspiration from the U.S. as a beacon of democracy.
As we remember the legacy of the Berlin Wall, we should renew our commitment to standing in solidarity with those who are denied the freedoms we enjoy. President Kennedy famously stood with Berliners in June 1963 when he proclaimed himself and all other free men, wherever they may live, citizens of Berlin.
Today, we are all Hong Kongers.
• Daniel N. Hoffman is a retired clandestine services officer and former chief of station with the Central Intelligence Agency. His combined 30 years of government service included high-level overseas and domestic positions at the CIA. He has been a Fox News contributor since May 2018. Follow him on Twitter @DanielHoffmanDC.
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