The Cold War Revisited

Michael Kurth Friday, March 4, 2022 Comments Off on The Cold War Revisited
The Cold War Revisited

With Russian troops massed along the border with Ukraine ready to pounce, some political pundits are suggesting that NATO is provoking the crisis by trying to expand into Ukraine and Putin is just defending Russia’s boarder as we should be defending our southern border instead of worrying about Ukraine.   

I served in the Army during the Vietnam era, but I was also in the other war … the “Cold War.” I received my draft notice shortly after graduating from high school in 1964. If I were drafted, it would mean a two-year stint with a high probability of being sent to Vietnam, as that war was escalating.  Instead, I chose to enlist for four years in the Army Security Agency with the promise of being sent to the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, Calif., for a year to learn Russian.

Why did I choose Russian?  Growing up in Saginaw, Mich., many of my neighbors and the families of my classmates were refugees from Eastern Europe. They had fled to the west as the Red Army occupied their native countries after defeating the German army, forcing millions to live under Soviet domination, locked behind barbed wire fences, mine fields, and towers manned by guards with machine guns.

After graduating from language school, I could have been sent to monitoring posts in the Aleutian Islands, Japan, Turkey, or along the southern border of Germany. Instead, I was asked to go to West Berlin. I say “asked” rather than “ordered” because it was made clear to me and the others that by going to Berlin we were volunteering for a mission that violated international law and, if we fell into Russian hands, we would be considered spies and not covered under the Geneva convention. (This became a reality for some when the USS Pueblo was captured by the North Koreans in 1968 and the entire crew was imprisoned for over a year. For an interesting account of this episode, see “USS-pueblo-captured.”)

I arrived in Berlin in March, 1966, four years after the Berlin Wall was built, completely sealing off the western zones of the city. The East German government claimed it was to keep Western “fascists” from entering East Germany and undermining their socialist state. But the world knew the real purpose was to keep East Europeans from fleeing Soviet oppression. I worked alongside German linguists whose job it was to monitor the “vol-pos” (“Volkspolizei”) who manned the guard towers along the wall. They kept an informal count of the number of people killed trying to cross the wall, and it far exceeded the official count of 140. It always aggravated me that the record was not set straight. But the first rule of espionage is never to let the enemy know what you know or how you know it.

My job was to monitor the Warsaw Pact forces. And Berlin, which was located 110 miles inside the border of what was then East Germany, was the best place to do it.

The Warsaw Pact included the Soviet Union, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Bulgaria, Romania, and East Germany. It was created in 1956 after West Germany was admitted to NATO. 

Russia lost more than 20 million people to German aggression during World War II — far more than the other allies. (The US lost 400,000 soldiers in Europe.) Many Russians feared a resurgent German military: a fear that was constantly reinforced by Soviet propaganda. 

But the reality was far different.  The U.S. maintained a large military presence in West Germany, so the Germans did not need to rebuild a powerful military — not because we intended to invade the Soviet bloc nations or drive the Red Army back to Russia’s borders. The real purpose of the Warsaw Pact was to put down domestic rebellions and keep the Soviet puppets in power, as it did in Hungary in 1956, in Czechoslovakia in 1968, and in Poland in 1981.

But words and ideas can sometimes be more powerful that bullets and bombs. When Ronald Reagan stood next to the Berlin wall in 1987 and challenged the Soviet Premier: “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall,” it exposed the weakness of a government that must lock its citizens in. Two years later, on Nov. 9, 1989, protestors tore down the Berlin wall.  It was a turning point in history that was followed rapidly by the liberation of Eastern Europe, the reunification of Germany, and the collapse of the Soviet Union.  

We remember our military failures — Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq — and want to stop shedding American blood to play “policeman of the world.” Yet we tend to forget our greatest victory — the Cold War and the liberation of Eastern Europe — which was achieved without launching any missiles or dropping any bombs. 

I believe Russia does have a legitimate defense concern with the Crimean Peninsula. The Soviet Union was essentially an extension of the Russian Empire of the Czars, but with the theology of the Eastern Orthodox church replaced by the ideology of Marx. It was a massive empire that stretched from the artic to the Himalayas and from the Danube River to the Pacific Ocean. Yet it had no warm-water port until Russia wrested the Crimean Peninsula from the Ottoman Empire in the 1790s and built a huge naval base at Sevastopol. 

This gave Russia access to the Black Sea, the Mediterranean, and the Atlantic; all Russia’s other ports, and there are not many, are ice-bound in the winter.  Russia is no more going to allow NATO forces to control the Crimean Peninsula than President Kennedy was going to allow the Soviet Union to put missiles in Cuba.

Aside from Crimea and the nearby Donetsk region where most of the people are ethnic Russian, speak Russian, and would like to be part of Russia, the problem between Russia and Ukraine more closely resembles the Cold War in the 1960s and ‘70s. 

Most Ukrainians want to be free of Russian domination, join the European Union, and become economically, socially, and culturally a part of Europe. 

Putin does not want this to happen — partly because “the” Ukraine has significant natural gas reserves and rich farmland, partly because it has historically been considered part of Russia and only became an independent nation in 1991 when the Soviet Union fell apart. (The use of “the” when referring to Ukraine was once common, but it is now disparaged because it implies Ukraine is a region of Russia, as “the Midwest” is a region of the United States.)

Thus, our dilemma: do we stand with Ukraine as an independent nation with the right of self-determination, or do we shrug our shoulders as Putin reclaims Russia’s lost sheep?

In Memoria: another of my long-time friends, Judge David Painter, has passed away. 

Judge Painter was a great asset to our community. Our families were somewhat intertwined. 

His son-in-law, J.D. Allen, introduced me to my wife, Cathy; stood as best man at our wedding; and is the godfather of our daughter, Tracy. And I was a groom’s man when J.D. married the judge’s daughter, Amy. 

For many years, the Painters’ annual Christmas party was part of our Christmas tradition. The judge will be missed by many.

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