The Fall of the Wall, JFK’s Assassination, and Two Birthdays
Krista Tippett, host
I was born on the night John F. Kennedy was elected president: November 9, 1960. To be more precise, the election itself was on November 8, but I was born in the wee hours of the night, in a long ago age before computerized returns, as his slim victory became apparent. My father paced the halls of the hospital with a transistor radio at his ear. He was a member of our local Oklahoma chapter of Young Democrats. He told me that I was the handsome president’s personal good luck charm. And so the Camelot president’s assassination is the earliest memory I recall — too early, some say, for me to really remember it, but I know I do. I can still feel the panic of the adults around me and the terrible sense that somehow I had failed.
Two decades later, I ended up spending most of the 1980s, most of my 20s, in a city that kept Kennedy’s memory alive like no other. He remained the unparalleled icon of the charismatic America that had rushed to Berlin’s side as the barbed wire beginnings of the Wall closed around it on August 13, 1961. I wrote an op-ed piece for The New York Times when the Berlin Wall hit the quarter-century mark in 1986. By that time, it was 12-feet high — and two walls actually, with a no man’s land in between, scattered with tank traps, its every inch monitored by men with binoculars and guns. It wouldn’t be right to say that the Wall had gained acceptance in either of the German worlds it sliced apart. But it had become part of the fabric of reality, of life and imagination. And what really kept it standing was a rock-solid, ingrown fear — a faith, if you will — that the mighty Soviet Union would send in its tanks if those men with guns ever fell down on the job.
Gorbachev inspired a completely different kind of faith, one which evaporated that fear and revealed the Wall for what it was — slabs of concrete and asbestos manned by border guards, who were human beings, after all, and could not possibly resist the peaceful crush of the entire city of East Berlin moving towards them, unafraid, on the night of November 9, 1989. And so it was on my 29th birthday that I learned, stepping off an airplane in Oklahoma, that the wall had opened up.
The suddenness of the Wall’s fall utterly defied the imagination of everyone living closest to it. Even with Gorbachev, and the political changes that rolled across Eastern Europe in the mid-80s, no one really believed it could open up from one day to the next. I recently learned that one of my great friends and colleagues from those years, John Tagliabue of The New York Times, spent the evening of November 9 watching television in a hotel room in Warsaw with the West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, who was as stupefied by the turn of events as anyone else. I could never have imagined that I would one day walk across a bridge that had separated me by less than a mile from an East German family I loved, but had been an impassable border zone throughout our friendship.
Or that I would stroll through the inner wall and the outer wall minus the tank traps, as people chiseled and hammered out pieces to sell or to save for posterity. Nor could I have anticipated the magical reunion I would have with some East German artist friends in Austria for the Christmas of 1989. I would be there as they and their children saw mountains for the first time.
I hold these memories as a reminder that there is at any given moment much we don’t see, and more change possible than we can begin to imagine. I recently had a lovely conversation, that will air on our show in early December, with Bill McKibben. He and I are exact contemporaries; we were both born in 1960 and in college for the same four years. In 1989, he was publishing The End of Nature — the first book about the then-obscure subject of climate change. As I learned from him, though, the science of climate change had begun to emerge at the height of the Cold War. Already in 1957, two scientists at the Scripps Institution described their findings that humanity had initiated an unprecedented “geophysical experiment” that it might not survive. And if humanity is around to write history in a century or two, what was happening with the climate in 1960 and 1989 may dwarf what we perceived as the great dramas we were living through.
I draw caution as well as hope from the fact that history tends to surprise us. And I think I’ve had enough historically momentous birthdays for one lifetime.