Chapter 29 From the Past to the Future: 1968-2000

After periods of relaxation and renewed struggle, the Cold War ended with the dissolution of the Soviet empire in Eastern Europe and the breakup of the Soviet Union itself. Many, but not all, communist nations began evolving toward democratic political structures and capitalist economies. Technological changes provided both benefits and problems to much of the world. Environmental challenges reminded the world’s nations that they shared a common, and increasingly smaller, world—for good or ill.


1969            Neil Armstrong becomes the first man to walk on the moon.

1972            Richard Nixon and Leonid Brezhnev inaugurate a period of détente.

1986            The world’s worst nuclear disaster occurs at the Chernobyl power plant.

1989            Communist governments fall in Eastern Europe.

1990            Germany reunites.

1991            A coalition of nations under the authority of the United Nations wins the Gulf War against Iraq.

1991            The Soviet Union dissolves into 12 independent states.

1991            Yugoslavia begins to break apart, and civil war erupts.

1994            Nelson Mandela becomes South Africa’s first black president.


In 1989 the unthinkable happened. The Berlin Wall opened. For 28 years the wall had stood as the very symbol of the Cold War, dividing East from West. For Berliners, the wall had been an ugly scar across their city, a daily reminder of the separation of families and friends.

            On November 9, an East German official announced that at midnight, East Germans would be able to leave the country at any point along the nation’s borders, including the crossing points through the Berlin Wall. Word spread like wildfire, and hours before midnight, huge crowds had gathered on both sides of the wall, chanting “Tor auf!” (Open the gate!).[1]

            At the stroke of midnight, the gates opened, and thousands of East Berliners streamed into the West, into a part of the city that many had never seen. “I just can’t believe it!” cried Angelika Wache, the first to enter West Berlin through the famous crosspoint Checkpoint Charlie.[2] A young man, Torsten Ryl, remarked that “Finally, we can really visit other states instead of just seeing them on television or hearing about them.”[3]

            Throughout the night, joyous Berliners celebrated. Later, Germany would face many problems as it reunited, but for this one evening, there was nothing but unbridled joy. As the headline read in a major Berlin newspaper the next day, “Berlin is Berlin again.”[4]