I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.
U.S. President Donald Trump is so deeply invested politically in building a wall on the border with Mexico that he seems willing to risk everything to get it done. But, If history is a guide, and it usually is, building walls to keep unwanted people out doesn’t work.
Walls Have Ends
Pretty much the oldest civilization of recorded history was that of Sumer. Sited in the Tigris-Euphrates River valleys, it dates from about 4500 BCE.
For a couple of thousand years the Sumerian civilization jogged along but ran into troubles with a bothersome bunch of nomadic tribesmen called the Amorites. So, it was decided to build a wall to keep the nuisances out. The wall is thought to have been about 100 miles long but it only worked for a few years.
History.com reports that “Hostile invaders either penetrated the wall or simply walked around it … After the destruction of the city of Ur around 2000 BCE, Sumerian culture began to vanish from history.”
The same fate befell the Maginot Line four and a half thousand years later. This was a 300-mile concrete and steel defensive line of gun emplacements that ran along the border between France and Germany. It was supposed to be an impregnable fortress stretching to the North Sea that would stop Germany from invading France as it had done in 1914. However, along the border with Belgium the fortifications were much weaker.
Months into the Second World War, Germany simply drove its tanks around the lightly defended eastern end of the Maginot Line and occupied France.
The Great Wall of China
The world’s biggest man-made structure of the time stretched eastwards for 13,000 miles from the border with North Korea. Construction took about 1,000 years, although it was not a continuous wall; there were stretches of earthen and wooden barricades.
The purpose of the wall was to stop pesky Mongolians from the north from plundering the high-quality textiles, food supplies, and other goods that China had. But, the barriers didn’t stop the raids.
Although numerically vastly outnumbered by the Chinese, the Mongols rode nimble horses and were very skilled with bows and arrows. The defences didn’t seem to deter them much as noted by National Geographic: “Instead of ceasing their attacks, the northerners learned that not only could their incursions gain them quick access to goods, but they could also be used as a threat to request even more aid from the Chinese.”
As history professor Pamela Kyle Crossley notes in Foreign Policy magazine, the Great Wall of China “did not amount to much in the way of security, but it certainly created an interesting obstacle course for anybody invading from the north.”
In the 13th century, Genghis Khan crossed the Great Wall and occupied the Chinese capital. His grandson, Kublai Khan, even established a new dynasty over all of China. That didn’t last long but the border skirmishes continued.
Eventually, in the 16th century, the Chinese gave up seeing the wall as a security asset and turned it into a customs and trading facility. However, over the next couple of hundred years massive stone and brick walls were built and those are mostly what we see today.
University of Pennsylvania historian Arthur Waldron is the author of The Great Wall of China: From History to Myth. He is quoted by Mother Jones as saying the structure “didn’t do what it was supposed to do, it was enormously costly, and there’s no question that it caused great suffering among the people who built it.”
The Berlin Wall
More recently, the poobahs running the Soviet Union ordered the building of a wall separating East and West Berlin. The official reason for building the wall in 1961 was to keep Western fascists from infiltrating the Communist paradise in the East. The real reason was to stop civilians from leaving East Germany for what they believed was a better life in the West.
In addition to the 12-foot high concrete barrier, there was barbed wire, a minefield, spike belts, and vicious attack dogs to deter people unhappy about life in the Utopian wonderland that was East Germany.
Nevertheless, brave and desperate citizens tried to scale the wall and about 100 were killed by border guards. Others successfully tunnelled under the concrete or flew over it in ultra-light aircraft or homemade hot-air balloons.
The wall was a dismal failure and became an ugly symbol of the dark repression practiced by Communist governments all over Eastern Europe. As these governments began to collapse in 1989, the citizens of West Berlin began joyously smashing the wall with hammers and chisels.
The Communist leaders learned what history could have told them - walls don't do a very good job of keeping people in or out.
There are estimates that the building of the Great Wall of China cost the lives of 400,000 people giving it the ghoulish nickname of “the longest cemetery on Earth.”
According to The Economist “Inmates at Oakwood prison in Staffordshire say drugs are easier to obtain than soap.” It is, it seems, not a problem to acquire drugs inside all prisons no matter how high the walls surrounding them.
In 1653, Dutch settlers built a wall across the width of an island they called New Amsterdam. They did so to keep out anticipated invaders and pirates. The wall didn’t work and, in 1664, four British frigates sailed into the New Amsterdam harbour and took over the Dutch colony, renaming it New York. The British dismantled the wall and the street that followed the line of the barrier became known as Wall Street.
- “The Maginot Line – 11 Fascinating Facts About France’s Great Wall.” Military History Now, May 7, 2017.
- “7 Famous Border Walls.” Evan Andrews, History.com, February 1, 2016.
- “The Great Wall of China’s Long Legacy.” Borja Pelegero Alcaide, National Geographic, December 31, 2018.
- “Donald Trump Loves the Great Wall of China. Too Bad It Was a Complete Disaster.” James West, Mother Jones, March 3, 2016.
- “The World Is Full of Walls That Don’t Work.” Michael Dear, Politico, August 16, 2016.
- “Walls Don’t Work.” Pamela Kyle Crossley, Foreign Policy, January 3, 2019.
© 2019 Rupert Taylor
Miebakagh Fiberesima from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA. on February 16, 2019:
Hello, Rupert, as a student of history, I appreciated all the historical interests you brought into the article. Building a wall over the Mexico border is just politics. It does no one any good. It is a lost of public or tax payers money. Better invest such big fund into education and health in the Unitd State.
Because of ISIS intrution into Nigeria via the Niger Republic, and other nations of West Africa, some politicians or never-to-do-wells are calling for President Muhammadu Buhari to build a wall as a border security. The problem with Nigeria at present is education, health, and poverty, which the President and his henchmen has not got answer for four years!
Sir, your articles are always historical and interesting and I remain loyal in reading them. Thanks and happy Sunday.
Liz Westwood from UK on February 16, 2019:
You make some interesting and timely points. I guess history will also be the judge over the Trump wall too.
Mr. Happy from Toronto, Canada on February 15, 2019:
"No Borders No Walls". That's where I stand. "Nobody is Illegal".
And You would think that people would learn from history but no. There are indeed many misguided people promoting the idea of building more useless walls between countries, on this planet. Sigh ...
Well, thank You for your piece of writing here. Maybe some will learn from it. I certainly wish that some will.
All the best!