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Three years ago I stood in front of the Berlin Wall and urged Mikhail Gorbachev to tear it down. This was not a spur-of-the-moment idea. Rather, it reflected my belief that both my relationship with Gorbachev and the effects of his policy of glasnost at home had reached a point where I could publicly call for this act of East-West reconciliation.

Although the wall did not come down then, most of the elements for its demise were in place by 1987. Its destruction, beginning last December, has now become a symbol for the tide of democracy that has covered what had been the Soviet bloc.Glasnost had let the free speech genie out of the bottle in the Soviet Union; Gor-bachev's call for perestroika, or reform, held the promise of better times for his citizens. Democracy's stirrings were getting stronger in Poland and beginning to be felt in other parts of the Soviet bloc. West Germany's decision in 1983 to deploy cruise missiles and our decision to begin work on the Strategic Defense Initiative had signaled to the Soviet military that the West had not only the resources but also the political will to make any Kremlin effort at military superiority a fruitless one.

Today, the political map of Europe has changed utterly. The two Germanys will soon be unified, first with a common currency, then with an increasingly unified economy and political unification through an all-Germany election.

Little more than half a year has passed since the people of East Germany took to the streets of Berlin, Leipzig and other cities to demand their freedom. At first, the Communist leaders sought to mollify them with minor concessions. But the people wanted real freedom and they went back to the streets again and again until they got it.

Already, the market system is beginning to bring its positive lessons to East Germany. West German companies are providing needed capital and technology to joint ventures in the East.

Democracy and the market system are moving ahead full-speed in Poland where the government, backed by a popular mandate, is shifting the economy "cold turkey" to free enterprise. The Polish people have gone into this with their eyes open, knowing they will have to make initial sacrifices to reap greater rewards down the road.

Hungary and Czechoslovakia are close behind. While Romania's democracy seems more fragile than the rest, there is no question that its people cherish freedom.

Gorbachev was probably the immediate catalyst for the bursting forth of democracy throughout the former Soviet empire. He knew that the old ways did not work and that the old generation of hard-line leaders in the satellite countries needed to be replaced. In allowing this to happen (indeed, encouraging it), he expected to replace the Honneckers and Ceausescus with Gorbachevites. But, just as glasnost could not be confined to free speech about minor bureaucratic inefficiencies, so the dropping of support for satellite dictators unleashed a process Gorbachev could not control.

I am convinced Gorbachev is sincerely determined to convert the Soviet Union to a free-market democracy. In a country so large and complex, the transition from centralized control will inevitably involve some delays, errors and false starts. We are limited in the things we can do to help.

Basically, it must come from Gorba-chev's leadership and the will of his people. We certainly can and should provide encouragement to the Soviet people as they go through it. But we can do more than cheer them on.

Let us assume the Cold War is over, although that, in itself, does not mean we can afford to dismantle our defenses. Even though we see ourselves as the victors, we must not humiliate the other side. The Soviets still have raw memories of the millions of lives lost at Nazi hands in World War II. But one thing we and our Western allies must convince them of is that a newly united Germany's membership in NATO is Moscow's best bet for a Europe that is both stable and secure.

There are many products and much know-how the Soviet Union would like from us. We should use the American impulse for generosity with some caution.