My former boss Mike Tomasky will have written this article before the Iranian political crisis broke out, but that only makes the relevance all the more clear:
On June 27, 11 days after Nagy’s rehabilitation, Foreign Minister Gyula Horn met his Austrian counterpart, Alois Mock, at the border. Each official held large clipping shears and made ceremonial cuts in the barbed-wire border fence. Soon thereafter, an annual ritual, by which East and West German families divided by the Iron Curtain reunited for a short vacation in Hungary, started again. But this year, for some reason, Hungarian border guards began letting some East Germans slip through to the West. By summer’s end, there was a full-fledged refugee crisis at the border. It’s a shame that the date September 11 now carries the solemn historical weight attached to it, because it was on that date in 1989–after a brave decision by Horn to abrogate a treaty with East Germany forbidding Hungary from permitting East Germans to cross into the West–that East Germans started streaming by the thousands through Hungary into Austria.
The tumult spread quickly to Leipzig and eventually Berlin. George H.W. Bush and James Baker chose, correctly, to do and say little. Mikhail Gorbachev, more importantly and impressively, chose not to roll tanks into Budapest or Berlin. On November 9, with pressure mounting, East German official Gunter Schabowski announced–hastily and incorrectly, in fact, but, since the announcement was aired live across much of the world, irrevocably–that all rules for travel abroad would be lifted “immediately.” East Germans rushed to the Wall and overwhelmed the guards. They danced atop it and chipped away souvenirs.
In a way, these were important events in American history. Certainly, they proved to have important—and positive—consequences for American foreign policy. But ultimately the events were made by people in the Communist bloc. The heroes were a mix of brave dissidents who dared the powers that be to suppress them brutally, and holders of power who ultimately flinched away from doing so. Inserting the strategic priorities of the West directly into the situation in a heavy-handed way would not, ultimately, have helped improve the outcome in any clear way.