Basically, walls just never work

Congress is back in session, so our respite from them is over. Actually, you feel sorry for some of them, because even while they were back home fundraising, attending pig roasts, and fundraising, Donald Trump announced that he would shut the government down if they didn’t come up with money to pay for his Mexican Wall.

I’m sure that left many Congress people as confused as I was. I seem to remember candidate Trump promising us over and over that Mexico was going to pay for that wall. It isn’t clear when Trump added that project to our national tab. Maybe the answer to that is in his tax returns, which I’m sure he’ll release some day. He promised that, too.

It’s an old adage that good fences make good neighbors, but big walls between nations have a lousy track record as effective foreign policy. In 461 BCE the Greek general Themistocles started construction on the Athenian “long walls” to connect Athens with the port city of Piraeus. That construction antagonized Sparta and was a major cause of the First Peloponnesian War. The war lasted for 15 years, and wasn’t great for either side.

Trump’s wall will never be as huuuge as the construction we call the Great Wall of China. Actually, that wall was built over many centuries and in separate sections, but by the Ming period (1368-1644) it stretched roughly 5,500 miles. This massive defensive fortification did prove effective at regulating trade along the Silk Route and in collecting taxes from those traders.

But it didn’t do much to protect China from its restless neighbors to north, which was its primary rationale. Mongols and Manchus regularly hopped the wall and invaded. In fact, the Ming dynasty came to an end when China was conquered by the Manchus. The Great Wall didn’t get in their way too much.

When Dutch adventurers settled on Manhattan in the early 17th century, they built a wall to keep out the Native Americans who lived there already. The Dutch saw them as implacably hostile. The wall was taken down in 1699, because it wasn’t really necessary and it was getting in the way of trading activity. To this day a street in lower Manhattan preserves the memory of that wall, and trade is rumored to continue there still.

Perhaps the most infamous wall of the 20th century went up in 1961 when the government of communist East Germany, backed by the Soviet Union, cut Berlin in half. The official rationale the East Germans offered for the Berlin Wall was that it would protect East Germany from a western invasion. Of course, its real purpose was exactly the opposite. The wall was designed to keep desperate East Germans from fleeing to West Berlin. Undaunted, 5,000 of them tried between 1961 and 1989. As many as 200 may have died in the attempt.

Historically, then, walls have been built by leaders despotic and desperate. Regardless of their size or grandeur, these walls have reeked with the odor of fear and weakness. As physical barriers they simply challenge people to breach them; as political symbols they have almost always wound up on the wrong side of history. Walls signal a nation scared of its neighbors and too unimaginative to build a constructive relationship with them instead.

On June 12 1987, Ronald Reagan stood in front of the Berlin Wall. He didn’t ask Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to build it bigger and stronger. He demanded that it be torn down. Two years later that wall did come down. We can save ourselves a lot of time, money and historical embarrassment if we don’t build Trump’s wall in the first place.

Steven Conn, a regular contributor, is the W. E. Smith Professor of History at Miami University.

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