2009 is a good year for anniversaries. 200 years since the birth of Abraham Lincoln; 20 years since the Berlin Wall came down. In a strange way, I think, Abe and the Wall are linked.
In 1858 Lincoln picked up the biblical injunction that “a house divided against itself cannot stand” and warned that “this government cannot endure, permanently, half slave and half free.” Either slavery would be contained and eventually extinguished, Lincoln predicted, or it would expand to cover the Union, North as well as South.
Slavery was extinguished, at terrible cost, in the Civil War but the dichotomy of liberty and slavery became part of American political discourse. During the Cold War U.S. policymakers regularly cast the world in a bipolar moral divide between “liberty” and “slavery.” In the Pentagon planning document of 1950, NSC-68, Paul Nitze spoke of a “basic conflict between the idea of freedom under a government of laws, and the idea of slavery under the grim oligarchy of the Kremlin.”
In the 1970s Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger sought to reduce tension with the Soviets – the policy of “détente.” But hawkish Cold Warriors elevated Lincoln’s view of America onto the global plane, insisting that the Cold War world could not remain indefinitely in its half-and-half state. One side or the other would eventually triumph.
When the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, it was largely a tribute to Mikhail Gorbachev’s refusal to use force to hold the Soviet bloc together. But it also reflected the American commitment to Lincoln’s vision of liberty as an all-or-nothing ideology.
That same faith, of course, animated George W. Bush. Inspired by the democratic revolutions of 1989, he insisted that “liberty” was nothing less than “the plan of Heaven for humanity.” The Iraq War reminds us of the pitfalls of “liberty”.
But that’s not what we recall in November 2009. As Germans celebrate the twenty years since the fall of the Wall, maybe, somewhere, Honest Abe is cracking a broad, knowing smile.
David Reynolds is the Professor of International History at Cambridge University and winner of the Wolfson Prize, Britain’s premier award for historical writing. His book, America, Empire of Liberty, is published by Basic Books.
IMAGE: Allan Pinkerton of the secret service, President Abraham Lincoln, and Major General John McClernand, Circa 1862