Tag Archives: Cold War

For Those Who Forget

tax-the-tea“But until 1950, when our ramshackle world empire was institutionalized as the national security state, we were improving ourselves, and the generality took part in government while Opinion was not so cynically and totally manipulated as now. Since we cannot pay for the empire any longer, we shall soon be coming home–but to what?” -Gore Vidal, 1992

“The ‘just war’ liberal Left made plain that it did not want to hear from ‘excuseniks.’ This coinage, rehabilitating the Cold War rhetoric about Soviet Russia, suggests that those who seek to understand how the global map arrived at this juncture through asking how, in part, the United States has contributed to the making of this map, are themselves, through the style of their inquiry, and the shape of their questions, complicitous with an assumed enemy.” -Judith Butler, 2004


-1992-

Francis Fukuyama wrote that the end of the Cold War signaled the “end of history” in his book The End of History and the Last Man. His argument was not that history would stop after the Cold War, but was instead an effort to draw a universal historical narrative, a “directional history” that, for Fukuyama, was driven by a “logic of a progressive modern natural science” which “predisposes human societies toward capitalism only to the extent that men can see their own economic self-interest clearly” (108). This logic, according to Fukuyama, creates a historical narrative of “progress” toward liberal democracy in which everyone can easily participate in capitalism. The rest of history, in this master narrative, would involve the “transformation” of all Second and Third World nations into Western-style liberal democracies. Note that Fukuyama seems to think that the experiences of those countries’ transformations do not count as history.

The same year, the polemicist Gore Vidal published a speech he delivered to the National Press Club in The Nation, titled “Time for a People’s Convention.” Vidal’s argument–that the empire is coming home–is effectively the opposite of Fukuyama’s. Both men watched the collapse of the USSR from their homes in the US and arrived at different conclusions. But they both agreed that the event was momentous, that is said more about America than Soviet Russia, that it was ultimately part of a longer historical process. The end of history, or the end of the empire. Meanwhile, America ran victory laps through Iraq and Bosnia.

A third American historian, Howard Zinn, wrote on the aftermath of the Cold War three years later in a new edition of A People’s History of the United States. In the afterward, titled “On the Clinton Presidency,” Zinn critiques the way Clinton sought to resolve the aftermath of the Cold War, arguing that that a “concern for ‘stability’ over morality seemed to motivate the Clinton administration in its relations with Russia. It insisted on on firm support for the regime of Boris Yeltsin” despite the new Russian leader’s invasion and occupation of neighboring territories such as Chechnya (631).

For Zinn, an attention to ‘morality’ would amount to supporting “the rights of working people, here and abroad” (631), which Clinton neglected in favor of corporate interests. The Clinton/Yeltsin consensus brought to fruition Fukuyama’s prediction that liberal democracy (configured as more participation in capitalism) would spread, but as Zinn and Vidal both recognized, this “spread” was a result of Clinton’s opportunism with Yeltsin rather than the natural alignment of the Eastern Bloc with the US. Zinn saw the end of the Cold War was a lost opportunity, a predictable turn back toward Cold War priorities.

-2005-

One of my most distinct memories from childhood in the twenty-first century was all the propaganda, though this word was not available to me then. In my seventh grade social studies class, our teacher had us learn about the Middle East by “playing Arabia.” He had us divide into small groups to represent “Bedouin caravans,” and then to learn about the culture, we “started fatwa”s against each other’s groups.

The narrative we received in seventh grade social studies reflects Edward Said’s assessment that in the twentieth century West, “Islam, if it is ‘Islam’ that is being studied, is not an interlocutor but in a sense a commodity” (150). In this way we were made to believe that the Middle East was an abstract object and that Islam indefinably encompassed everything between Europe and China, between Russia and central Africa. I didn’t understand the war, but I was taught to be afraid of the places we sent the troops, and by extension to worship the troops as an abstraction, an object even. And then yellow “Support the Troops” stickers appeared everywhere. And then the TV shows all made at least one preachy 9/11 episode, from The West Wing to The Sopranos. And then the military started paying the NFL to do stunts at games. And then we started arguing about flag pins.

Judith Butler begins her collection of post-9/11 essays, Precarious Life, with a critique of liberals who wholeheartedly supported military action against in Afghanistan, even if they critiqued the later invasion of Iraq. This critique provides a historically-minded framework for what I grew up with: A reiteration of the Cold War consensus that pitted the US against a distant but fast-encroaching enemy, with calls for unquestioning unity.

The 1960 debate between Nixon and Kennedy exemplifies that consensus. At one point, someone asked Kennedy “just how serious a threat to our national security are these Communist subversive activities in the United States today?” to which Kennedy responded, “I think if the United States is maintaining a strong society here in the United States, I think that we can meet any internal threat. The major threat is external and will continue.” When asked to comment on his opponent’s response, Nixon began by saying, “I agree with Senator Kennedy’s appraisal generally in this respect.” Both men agreed that the threat was mostly external and that a strong internal state would help defeat that threat. This rhetorical move portrayed the threat as unified and the US as in need of unification, such that a protagonistic US is vulnerable while an antagonistic enemy, the Eastern Bloc, takes advantage of that vulnerability. But Kennedy and Nixon could not admit to such vulnerability. It was necessary to be the victim of a crime, of insidious espionage and conspiracy.

Likewise, the consensus in the 2000s was that the US had been the victim of a grave injustice, a terrorist attack, thus giving us permission to defend ourselves and our interests. The looming feature of my childhood and my generation is what Butler calls “our wounding,” which has shaped policy, culture, and literature. She observes that Americans “have to shore up the first-person point of view, and preclude from the telling accounts that might involve a decentering of the narrative ‘I’ within the international political domain. . . This decentering is precisely what we seek to rectify through a recentering. A narrative form emerges to compensate for the enormous narcissistic wound opened up by the public display of our physical vulnerability” (Butler 6-7).

Butler’s analysis here can be applied to the Nixon/Kennedy consensus that exemplified Cold War politics. To compensate for the vulnerability used as an excuse to interfere with world politics, the US must narrate itself into the center of the story. This comes down to how US history is told. By cutting out backstory, by cutting out context, the US becomes a justified vigilante on the world stage. By beginning with injustice rather than the years and decades before, historical narrative becomes a tool of empire.

Zinn also reaches for this use of history inadvertently when he writes that his “point is not to grieve for the victims and denounce the executioners. Those tears, that anger, cast into the past, deplete our moral energy for the present. And the lines are not always clear. In the long run, the oppressor is also a victim. In the short run (and so far, human history has consisted only of short runs), the victims, themselves desperate and tainted with the culture that oppresses them, turn on other victims” (10). Imagine, in other words, the implications of telling the story of the Civil War by starting with Sherman’s March. Imagine starting the story of Texas with the battle of the Alamo. Imagine explaining the Vietnam War by starting with the Gulf of Tonkin, or the American Revolution by starting with the Boston Massacre, or the Taliban without the CIA’s Operation Cyclone.

The narrative form that US history too often takes is a detective novel: The story begins with a crime, and will only end when the bad guys are arrested, but before the trial proceeds. The investigation, not the law, is what matters, and with investigation comes weaponry, expenditures, interrogations, false alarms.

-2010-

Gore Vidal reproduced this same narrative form in his writing. What sets his 1992 speech apart was its attention to what would finally happen after the long crime drama of the Cold War finally came to an end. Unlike Fukuyama, Vidal expected an end to the Kennedy/Nixon consensus and the “ramshackle empire” they helped create. His question is pertinent: What exactly will come after?

Vidal and Zinn both predicted massive protests against the system, but Vidal was more specific, writing “that we shall begin to see an organized resistance to so tyrannical a state” (Vidal 348), and proposed in 1992, as he had before the election of 1980, that “Article Five of the Constitution describes two methods whereby it may be amended or otherwise altered. . . The second procedure is very interesting indeed–in fact, one might almost call it democratic.” In his speech before the Press Club, Vidal called for a constitutional convention, writing that “Unlike us, the founders did not worship their handiwork. . . Thomas Jefferson wanted to hold a constitutional convention at least once a generation because, as he said, you cannot expect a man to wear a boy’s jacket” (348-349).

This method of changing the Constitution never came up in my high school AP Government and Economics class, which I took the same year that men dressed in colonial outfits and stood in the snow holding signs reading “Tea Party” and “Taxed Enough Already.” Instead, the classroom quickly became a space to openly fight the culture wars of the time. Unlike earlier classrooms, we were told to use the historical narrative we received. This narrative of America had internal mechanisms, and here we had a chance to tinker with them, as Vidal had done in his writing.

But we didn’t. We never talked seriously about economics or justice. Instead, we argued about things like whether or not America is a Christian nation. In fact, I began this post series with that very debate, when President John Adams declared that “the government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian Religion” while numerous state legislatures simultaneously passed laws discriminating against Jews, atheists, and sometimes Catholics. In high school, we never talked about exceptions to the rule because we spent so much time trying to agree upon what the rules themselves were. By then, the Cold War had thoroughly been replaced with a War on Terror. The empire was not coming home after all. The Obama/McCain consensus had determined as much.

I admire Vidal’s continued call for a constitutional convention during his career, but it surprises me that he seems to have put so much confidence in the potential impact of such a convention. Here, Charles Beard continues to be useful for his observation, along with so many others, that “The Constitution was essentially an economic document based upon the concept that the fundamental private rights of property are anterior to the government and morally beyond the reach of the popular majorities” (Beard 13). Vidal would have been wise to remember this fact. I’m often surprised by its absence in his constitutional diagnosis.

Vidal favored, or perhaps feared, “the fury of those who have been deprived for too long of decent lives. It takes no unusual power of prophecy to remark they will not be apathetic forever” (Vidal 350). It is worrying to consider a constitutional convention as a means of appeasement rather than something close to Howard Zinn’s conceptualization of morality, as a collective movement made up of those “who have been deprived for too long of decent lives” in dialogue with similar movements across history.

A long memory, a historical consciousness, means recognizing that the propaganda that dominated my childhood is not unique. It is an evolved sequel to the propaganda my parents grew up with during the Cold War, which can be tied to the wartime propaganda of the First World War. While Zinn had his limits, what I admire most in him and his work is the longevity of the connective threads he seeks to narrate, which begins to decenter America and instead highlight the different communities that are part of the empire, by choice or by force. He (perhaps incidentally) encourages Americans to think long-term, to actively remember that we, our conflicts, do not come from a vacuum. If the empire is not coming home anytime soon, the least we can do, to use Butler’s analysis, is more actively decenter the narrative ‘I’ and begin working on a history of the empire that stretches before, around, and beyond its ever-narrowing scope.


Butler, Judith. Precarious Life. Verso, 2006.

Fukuyama, Francis. The End of History and the Last Man. Free Press books, 1992

Said, Edward. Covering Islam. Vintage Books, 1997.

Vidal, Gore. The Last Empire: Essays 1992-2000. Vintage International, 2002.

Zinn, Howard. A People’s History of the United States. Harper Perennial, 1995.

Findings, Purpose, and Apology

Plumbbob Los Alamos National Laboratory Archives

View of Atomic Test During Operation Plumbbob, Courtesy of the Los Alamos National Laboratory Archives

“The fear and inability to question authority that ultimately killed rural communities in Utah during atmospheric testing of atomic weapons was the same fear I saw being held in my mother’s body. Sheep. Dead sheep. The evidence is buried.” -Terry Tempest Williams, 1991


On October 5, 1990, President Bush signed into law the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act, or RECA. According to Section 2 of the bill, Congress finds that “fallout emitted during the Government’s above-ground nuclear tests in Nevada exposed individuals who lived in the downwind affected area in Nevada, Utah, and Arizona to radiation that is presumed to have generated an excess of cancers among these individuals.”

During the 1950s and 1960s, as the United States military conducted nuclear tests in the Nevada desert, northeastward winds swept radioactive fallout into the mountain West, carrying fallout over the Southwest. The federal government spent decades telling citizens that the tests were harmless. First, sheep and cattle died, and soon people showed signs of radiation-related sickness. And the illness took its toll.

During the 1980s, there had been numerous efforts to introduce legislation such as RECA, but these efforts never made it through committee, in addition to several legal battles. Irene Allen v. United States, for instance, was an initial victory for downwinders in 1984, when District Judge Bruce Jenkins of Utah ruled in favor of ten plaintiffs, though the case initially “represented 1,200 individuals who were deceased or living victims of leukemia, cancer, or other radiation-caused illnesses” (Utah Historical Quarterly). Unfortunately, when the federal government appealed in 1986, the Tenth Circuit Court reversed the decision, and the Supreme Court refused to take the case in 1988. A year later, as the Cold War began to wind down and the USSR faced greater scrutiny for its mishandling of the Chernobyl disaster, Congress began debating compensatory legislation.

The version of RECA that landed on Bush’s desk in 1990 was introduced a year earlier by Congressman Wayne Owens, who briefly represented Utah’s 2nd congressional district. Owens, a member of the Latter-Day Saints, was born in Panguitch, UT, directly in the downwind path of radioactive fallout from Nevada’s testing sites. Owens became one of the last environmentalists to represent Utah, and was a dedicated advocate for those who lived in radioactive fallout zones northeast of the Nevada testing sites, people known colloquially as downwinders. RECA Covered Areas

RECA-covered areas, according to the United States Department of Justice.

Representative Owens himself was not in southern Utah during the peak years of atomic testing. During the infamous Operation Plumbbob in 1957, which included 29 atomic detonations in Nevada, Owens was serving his Mission for the LDS Church in France, fulfilling the expectation that all Mormon men spend two years as a missionary. His time abroad may have spared him the radioactive exposure that many of his constituents would gradually begin to suffer from.

Among those constituents was Terry Tempest Williams, who writes about her memories of growing up in southern Utah during the atomic tests of the 1950s and ’60s. Her essay “The Clan of One-Breasted Women” is a poignant family narrative, reflecting on the renowned health of Utah’s Mormon families who grew up avoiding caffeine, alcohol, and tobacco, and the outlying frequency of cancer in her own family, which she connects directly to growing up downwind of atomic tests, including Operation Plumbbob and numerous others.

The problem with compensation is the longstanding notion that the government’s sovereignty is infallible–that the king can do no wrong. But after World War II, it was the military, not the government, that reigned supreme. In the 1950s, President Eisenhower inherited a problem that Truman allowed to fester, specifically the military’s domination over scientific developments. In his 1961 farewell address, Eisenhower himself decried what he called the “military-industrial complex,” though he made no concrete gestures during his presidency to return atomic research to civilian hands.

The military, rather than the legislature, had seemingly indefinite control of the nation’s nuclear program. Civilians had no power to vote out generals whose finger was on the bomb–and historically, it was the generals, not the Truman, who made the decision to use atomic weapons in war. General Leslie Groves drafted the order to use nukes during WWII, showed the memo to Truman for approval, and proceeded to bomb Japan twice. Truman only intervened to prevent a third scheduled bombing on August 10, 1945. As Commerce Secretary Henry Wallace wrote, Truman worried that massacring “another 100,000 people was too horrible.”

Decades later, cancer in the West was an undeniable concern, and in the wake of such tragedies as the 1986 Chernobyl incident in the waning USSR, the consequences of atomic weapons testing returned to the foreground of public discourse. RECA may have been the most important piece of legislation that Congressman Owens passed. The bill includes a short subsection titled “Apology,” in addition to its attention funds for affected families, reading “The Congress apologizes on behalf of the Nation to individuals described in subsection (a) and their families for the hardships they have endured.”

RECA continues to provide monetary compensation for individuals who can prove that they are downwinders. The bill goes to great lengths to explain how individuals can prove mistreatment from the nuclear program, and this method has been regularly updated to accommodate new research and understandings of the effects of radiation.

The United States military has a long, painful history of using and abusing the Southwest, first in military conquest in the Mexican-American War, then for resource extraction, internment camps, and lastly as a place to test nuclear weapons. The military-industrial complex fundamentally altered the climate of the Southwest, literally changing the chemical compounds that the high desert winds pushed outward across the plateaus and canyonlands.

There is now a clear precedent for federal apology and compensation for the damage it does to the ecosystem, something worth noting as a group of young people are now close to successfully suing the federal government for failing to respond to human-caused climate change. But precedent doesn’t really matter. For Congressman Owens, there had been no precedent for RECA. For Irene Allen, there had been no precedent her own lawsuit. RECA has its limits, and Allen’s lawsuit was easily overturned. Using the rules of a system that allowed for injustice to try to correct that injustice is a deeply limited strategy, but RECA provides evidence for at least one thing: that the government is not only fallible, but can be forced to admit as much to the public.

 

Congratulations to Russia for Finally Winning the Cold War

oneway“We’re satisfied to be able to finish off the United States the first time round. Once is quite enough. What good does it do to annihilate a country twice? We’re not a bloodthirsty people.” -Nikita Khrushchev, comparing American and Soviet nuclear capability.

I’d like to extend my warmest congratulations to Mother Russia for finally winning the Cold War. Some say it’s too early to call, and that the popular majority of Americans (by 1.5 million at this point) who still think we have a leg in the race might suggest otherwise, but as it is, I think it’s safe to say that America concedes defeat. Congratulations, Russia. You win. Freedom and democracy, as it turns out, really don’t work after all. You’ve proven that much, Russia.

I’ll admit, you fooled us with that whole “collapse of your very way of life” trick back in 1990. I can’t believe we fell for the oldest trick in the book, and didn’t even notice when, out of nowhere, you elect a former KGB agent to take over for Boris Yeltsin. Smooth move. We also didn’t think trolling could be a successful war tactic. In the end, your trolls really knew how to rig an election. I’m just glad Reagan isn’t alive to see this day. He would have been sorely disappointed.

So, Russia, what’s next? What’s your end game? Warming the oceans and melting Greenland’s ice sheets enough to get our Cold War nuclear base? Our new president will ensure that happens. Spreading misinformation? Reducing our language to double plus good and double plus ungood? We’re already limiting our words to great or nasty.

I’m sorry, Russia, but when you come for the spoils of war, you won’t find anything worth taking. By the time you reach us, we’ll have run the continent into the ground with oil spills in our largest rivers, Midwestern earthquakes from fracking, dust bowls, forest fires, and uranium mining accidents. By the end of the Cold War, we killed off 93 percent of our varieties of fruits and vegetables, and who knows how many we’ve gotten rid of since then.

Do you want our healthcare? It’ll be cut. Do you want our Space program? We’ve been defunding it for a while now. Do you want our agriculture? One blight and our corn will be gone in a few months. Dearest Russian overlords, we are now ready for your conquest, but I will not say we are ripe for the taking, because as a nation we are actually rotten to the core, entrenched in racism, misogyny, anti-intellectualism, Evangelical opposition to science, the comfortable idea that we can actually survive the catastrophe of ourselves if we just buy the necessary tools.

America’s value has depreciated so much that you won’t find anything worth conquering. Keep in mind that we’re taking you with us, in the end. Mutually Assured Destruction never looked so appealing. So congratulations, Russia. I await your rule.

-jk

Boots on the Ground

Civil War Soldiers

Statue Commemorating Civil War Veterans

Some of the best advice I received about historical research is that oftentimes the surest way to find sources is to have boots on the ground and look for sources in person. This usually involves going into public archives or getting access to private ones, but I’ve heard tales of finding rare documents forgotten in the trunk of a car or simply on display in a book fair. This week, while visiting family in Appleton, Wisconsin, I decided to experiment with boots-on-the-ground-history.

March to SocialismI discovered that historical research is more than just skimming through a few letters. It’s detective work, a methodological investigation, and I did not rise to the challenge. As I prepare to go to graduate school to study creative writing, I worry that I may leave history behind. History is close to my heart, but requires a patient diligence.

McCarthy

Statue of Senator Joseph McCarthy

The challenge of in-person research yielded a few interesting results. Appleton’s public history emphasizes its positive qualities, such as the fact that magician Harry Houdini claimed it as his hometown, though he was born in Hungary. There is a museum with an entire floor devoted to Houdini’s life and work. However, another famous man claimed Appleton as his hometown, Senator Joseph McCarthy, who engaged in congressional witch hunts during the early 1950s to remove suspected communists. Popular opinion has since turned against McCarthy, but as journalist Edward R. Murrow said in an open challenge to the Senator’s unethical methods, “He did not create this situation of fear, he merely exploited it.” Now that Red SpiesMcCarthy is remembered as an aggressive demagogue, his hometown has taken a statue of him that once stood in public view and placed it in a museum’s bottom floor, under the stairs.

Apart from some obscure anti-communist propaganda, one from 1950 and the other from 1967, a World War One Dough Boy memorial statue and a Civil War memorial statue, I could not find any major historical documents in Appleton’s history, simply because I did not look that hard. It is not surprising that they hide McCarthy’s image and highlight a still-popular celebrity. Any research on the Cold War in Wisconsin daily life would require interviews with those who remember it, access to radio and news archives, local newspapers, and other hidden sources. Perhaps I might be able to dig up a few rare pieces of propaganda if I looked deeper, or uncover a story of Cold War espionage, but such research requires more time and energy than I can offer. I’m not a specialist, or a driven detective. I am, for the time being, only an interested amateur.

Patriotic WWI Statue

Doughboy Statue Commemorating World War One Veterans

Perhaps I can one day conduct better historical research. Perhaps I will one day dare to dig deeper, open doors that should not be opened, find people who have answers. I was inspired by a year-old article about Amor Masovic, who has been looking for burial sites from the Srebrenica massacre in Bosnia-Herzegovina, in 1995. That massacre, part of the Bosnian Genocide, was the first act of genocide on European soil since the Holocaust, and one that the world ignored for years. Today, the perpetrators still live side-by-side with the families of the victims, and reconciliation is a great challenge. But Masovic pursues burial grounds, is still looking for the missing victims to piece together the community of Bosniak Muslims that existed before the massacre. He’s been working for nearly twenty years and there are still bodies unaccounted for.

Will I ever be such a researcher? Will I ever contribute to as admirable an effort as Masovic? It’s unlikely, but I do not want to leave history behind. I’m too compelled and too haunted by its ghosts to allow myself to give it up completely. History truly is obsessive, and maybe the only way to make a difference is to simply embrace that obsession, dig my boots into the ground, and dig as deep as the past will allow.

-jk

 

The Berlin Wall and Kristallnacht

Twenty-five years ago today, in 1989, on an East German news conference Politburo Günter Schabowski of the ruling Socialist Unity Party of Germany (SED) announced that East Germans would be allowed to cross over into West Germany that evening. The Berlin Wall had divided the city since 1961, and crossing from one side to the other was strictly enforced. Schabowski had, in fact, made a mistake; he was not supposed to announce to the public that they could cross the border immediately. The border guards were supposed to have been informed first so they could prepare. Instead, an enormous crowd gathered at the Berlin Wall. The guards, not knowing what to do, first prevented them from crossing, but eventually gave in opened the gates.

Berlin Berlin

The Berlin Wall coming down, piece by piece.

Toward the end of the Cold War, the Berlin Wall became a popular symbol for the war itself: it divided an otherwise united people, an otherwise united city, along arbitrary lines. It represented the division of people because of politics, though in reality it divided families, friends, and colleagues. Its fall only illustrates the futility of the Cold War, the unneeded division of society between the communists and capitalists with nothing between. Some see its fall as miraculous; others attribute it to the political efforts of western leaders such as President Reagan and Soviet reforms from Mikhail Gorbachev. For many Germans, it was a sign of positive change.

Synagogue

Photo of a burned synagogue in Munich, November 1938.

On this same day, in 1938, the Nazi SA Paramilitary force and numerous German citizens instigated a massive pogrom against Jews in Germany and Austria. Known today as Kristallnacht, Reichskristallnacht, or the Night of Broken Glass, it was a collective assault against Jewish communities. Citizens and paramilitary members burned and destroyed synagogues and businesses owned by Jews, and attacked, arrested, and in some cases killed Jews. German police and military authorities did nothing to prevent, mitigate, or bring justice to the event. As World War Two broke out the following year, Nazi atrocities only grew and became worse.

Commemoration is an important part of history, but it can also be one of the trickiest parts. Public history plays an important role in commemorating twentieth century German history not only for German historians but for world historians as well. For many Americans, remembering the fall of the Berlin Wall is both easy and popular. Americans can look to President Reagan’s famous challenge to Gorbachev to “tear down this wall,” and can look to President Kennedy’s declaration of unity with the German people when he said “Ich bin ein Berliner.” The US had direct political connections to the Berlin Wall, namely an interest in seeing it collapse. Americans do not have a similar connection to Kristallnacht. The US did not have an invested interest in protecting the Jews of Europe or in preventing the Nazis from committing ruthless persecution and extermination of minorities in Europe. That itself is the problem. The US government did not make a concerted effort to stop the Holocaust until Allied forces stumbled upon concentration camps in 1945, so for many Americans, remembering the Holocaust also forces them to remember that the US government, at one point in its history, was firmly silent.

Berlin Wall

A piece of the Berlin Wall on public display at Northern Arizona University.

While today, many Americans will feel good about the collapse of the Berlin Wall and think fondly of Reagan and Kennedy, very few Americans will think of the Holocaust at all. It is important to remember the advances toward justice in human history, and the collapse of the Berlin Wall represents the literal and figurative destruction of barriers separating nations and peoples. However, it is also critical to remember the moments in history when humanity failed, moments when people created divisions rather than dismantle them. November 9 marks both kinds of events, and they deserve equal commemoration in public spheres and private meditations.

-jk