The Great Wall of the United States

In the current flap over building a wall between Mexico and the United States, it would be well to keep in mind Robert Frost’s injunction: “something there is that doesn’t love a wall.” That “something” is that a wall is a barrier.

In the case of a “wall” between the United States and Mexico, a wall is a manifestation of conflict, just as the Berlin Wall was a manifestation of conflict. A wall between the United States and Mexico will only escalate the enmity between the two countries.

Ronald Reagan’s plea to Mikhail Gorbachev to “tear down this wall,” referring to the Berlin Wall, is not what brought down the wall. It was Gorbachev’s response that brought down the wall. Instead of escalating the cycle of conflict, the Soviet leader chose to ignore the rhetoric of conflict and for whatever reasons took the first step in repairing U.S.-Soviet relations.

When asked about the U.S.-Mexico wall in a 2006 visit to the United States, Gorbachev responded that the United States seemed to be building the Great Wall of China between itself and Mexico.

In the current rhetoric about controlling the nation’s borders, the question looms large: Why on the one hand did the United States want the Berlin Wall torn down and, on the other hand, want to build a wall between the United States and Mexico?

Between the eighth and fifth centuries B.C., the northern states of China built a wall along their northern border to stave off Mongol penetration. In places, the 4,000-mile-long wall was 25 feet high and 30 feet wide.

In 122 A.D., the Roman emperor Hadrian built a wall across Britain to keep Romans safe from the hostile Picts. The wall stretched from the North Sea to the Irish Sea.

In like fashion, in the 20th century the French built the Maginot Line as a walled fortification against German incursions. With the use of airplanes, the Germans simply flew over the Maginot Line. Gen. George Patton called the Maginot Line a monument to man’s stupidity.

Even the Berlin Wall was not impenetrable.

A U.S. wall on its border with Mexico has as its objective keeping out those deemed anathema to the incontestable values of the United States.

Why not a wall between the United States and Canada? Or a wall along the Florida coast to keep out Cubans? The inference is that Canadians and fleeing Cubans are good neighbors but that Mexicans are not.

A wall between the United States and Mexico is intended to keep Mongol hordes of Mexicans at bay.

Will a wall help the United States in controlling its border with Mexico? What is that lesson here? That walls are no substitute for diplomacy.

According to the International Boundary and Water Commission, the U.S.-Mexico border, 1,951 miles long, is the most frequently crossed international border in the world.

In a article last summer, Luis Alberto Urrea quoted the Mexican consul in Tucson, Ariz., as calling the U.S.-Mexico wall “the politics of stupidity.”

Yes, there are many Mexicans coming north into the United States. Struggling to shake off its repressive colonial past, Mexico is like most developing nations, charting a course for its people across rocks and shoals difficult to navigate. Democracy is a process, not a product. That’s why we can’t just hand off “democracy” to the Iraqis and say, “Make it work.” Democracy takes time. After 231 years, in the United States we are still struggling with the democratic process.

(Felipe Ortego y Gasca is a professor emeritus of English, Texas State University System-Sul Ross. E-mail him at ortegop(at) This commentary is adapted from a lengthier, soon-to-be-published essay the author has prepared for a university publication. Readers may find it at