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Border Wars

​The most infamous border ever constructed collapsed by accident. The Berlin Wall was felled not by decisive action but by a complex set of misunderstandings, mistranslations, and maneuvering. These missteps resulted in a bungled press conference in front of a gaggle of western journalists, including Tom Brokaw, who was covering the event live for NBC’s Nightly News.

The Collapse: The Accidental Opening of the Berlin Wall, by Mary Elise Sarotte, dean's professor of history and professor of international relations at the University of Southern California, recounts the story. Tensions had been rising in the Eastern Bloc in the late 1980s. East Germans had been fleeing to the West in droves by way of Czechoslovakia. More than 30,000 had emigrated in early November 1989 alone.

The East German government decided to appease the Czech government and antsy East Germans by opening up emigration rules on November 9, 1989. However, restrictions were significant—the policy was temporary and required multiple forms of permission. No Soviet leaders could be reached to approve the policy, but swift action was required. The announcement to be read at the press conference noted that the rules would take effect “right away.”

East German spokesman Gunter Schabowski had not been present that morning when the policy was drafted and then modified, nor had he read the document before the press conference started. When he reached the section about the new emigration rules, Schabowski read: “Private trips to foreign countries may, without presenting justifications—reasons for trip, connections to relatives—be applied for. Approvals will be distributed in a short time frame.”

A stunned audience asked when this new policy, which appeared to grant unfettered travel of all kinds, would take effect. Schabowski looked down at his notes and read: “right away.”

The source of the faulty information is still unclear, perhaps the result of last-minute changes or Schabowski’s lack of preparation. East Germany tried to amend the statements later that evening, but the damage was done. Before the day was over, jubilant celebrations erupted and East German citizens began crossing into West Berlin. The guards stood down.

No wall spans the entire boundary between the United States and Mexico, and the border’s complex problems cannot be solved by a single policy change. The 1,954-mile border is the busiest and most frequently crossed in the world. The approximately 230,000 people who cross the border each day are crucial to the economic success of the region. Many of those people say that this prosperity is threatened by outmoded checkpoints and insufficient staff. 

The tension this daily migration creates is explored in this month’s cover story, “Bottleneck at the Border,” by Assistant Editor Lilly Chapa. What happens when you have a border that must be both secure and porous? How do governments balance national security and economic prosperity?