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By Tom Tobin October 23, 2007

Sometimes walls do work

In an Oct. 5, 2007, interview on CNN, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson reiterated his stand against the 700-mile fence under construction along the U.S.-Mexico border to slow the influx of undocumented immigrants.

"Fences have not worked," he said. "The Great Wall of China, the Berlin Wall. That's not good among peoples, especially friends like the United States and Mexico." Whether fences are good or bad is a question for politicians, philosophers and policymakers. But history allows us to examine the world's epic fences and how they've performed.

As a physical barrier, the Berlin Wall worked pretty well for 28 years after the East German government acted in 1961 to halt the steady flow of its citizens to West Germany. Twelve feet high and made of concrete in most places, the Berlin Wall had more than 300 watch towers, a network of bunkers and 65 miles of trenches to impede tanks. It split Berlin down the middle and snaked around the western half of the city, enclosing it. Armed guards shot scores of would-be escapees at the wall; estimates of the dead range from 80 to more than 200.

Before the wall, some 2.6-million people had escaped East Germany since 1949. After that, the exodus slowed to a relative trickle. The wall helped hem in a nation of 17-million people for nearly three decades, doing what it was designed to do.

It also may have worked in a larger sense.

Ultimately, the wall only delayed the inevitable fall of East Germany, causing mass human suffering along the way, says Frederick Taylor, author of The Berlin Wall: A World Divided, 1961-1989 . But it also managed to stabilize a tense standoff between the Soviet bloc and the West over border issues, he says. When those two forces went toe to toe in those days, he said in an interview, "there was really very little alternative other than nuclear war."

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Richardson may have a point about the Great Wall of China, but not necessarily because it failed on any social and moral level. It was actually several walls of varying quality built over many dynasties — nothing close to the proud symbol and stalwart protector we often imagine. (You can't see it from the moon, for instance.)

The Great Wall has a "less than glorious past," writes Julia Lovell in her 2006 book, The Great Wall: China against the World, 1000 B.C.-A.D. 2000 .

"The forces that walls were designed to keep out — highly mobile nomadic tribes — tended to gallop along frontier walls until they found weaknesses in them or, less effortfully, simply bribe wavering Chinese generals to open key wall forts," Lovell said in an e-mail interview from Beijing.

In her book she quotes Genghis Khan, who said: "The strength of walls depends on the courage of those who guard them."

Sometimes walls have worked and sometimes they haven't, which is why we find Richardson's statement Half True.

Our Sources

The Berlin Wall: A World Divided, 1961-1989 , by Frederick Taylor, published 2006

The Great Wall: China Against the World, 1000 B.C.-A.D. 2000 , by Julia Lovell, published 2006

Times interviews with Frederick Taylor and Julia Lovell

Berlin Wall Online

MSN Encarta, Great Wall (China), by Arthur Waldron, professor of international relations, University of Pennsylvania; director of Asian studies, American Enterprise Institute; author of The Great Wall of China from History to Myth .

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