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OpEdNews Op Eds    H3'ed 8/13/14

The Berlin Wall and Missed Opportunities

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Cross-posted from Consortium News

A portion of the Berlin Wall as photographed in 1975, toward the east.
Which President to believe on Ukraine: Obama or Putin? Which top diplomat: Kerry or Lavrov? Which country is more to be trusted: USA or Russia?

For the first half of my adult life, "USA" was the instinctive answer -- one that seemed undergirded by real-life evidence, not simply blind patriotism. Now, white hats and black hats have merged into a drab gray; in fact, at times the hats seem to have switched heads, as inconvenient reality shatters instincts and preconceptions. And, as Aldous Huxley once put it, "Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you mad."

To cite a small but telling example, is it really being "sanctimonious," as President Barack Obama would have us believe, to think that those who ordered and implemented torture in our name should be held accountable? It was not always thus.

I have lived through a lot of war and not enough peace in my 75 years. I was born on the day that Stalin and Hitler formally agreed to carve up Poland, a week before German tanks invaded that country. Yet, by far the saddest sequence of events during the second half of my adult life began 25 years ago, when the fall of the Berlin Wall brought with it a genuine opportunity for peace in a Europe "whole and free."

That is how then-President George H. W. Bush foresaw the implications of that epochal event. But, as has now become abundantly clear, that opportunity was squandered by those preferring a divided Europe and the perceived advantages of continuing to marginalize Russia as a preternatural, perpetual bete noire.

The current hysteria around Official Washington over Russia's reaction to hostile developments in neighboring Ukraine simply does not measure up to genuine concerns that existed during the Cold War.

On Aug. 13, 1961, the East Germans, with Moscow's blessing, began to build a wall separating Communist-controlled East Berlin from West Berlin, and sealing off the well-worn "escape route" from the East to West Berlin and ultimately freedom somewhere in the West.

What a graphic demonstration of the bankruptcy of Communism, that millions living in East Germany and other East European "satellites" of the USSR had already chosen to leave home for an uncertain but hopeful future in the West via Berlin. For skeptics who saw little difference between East and West, John Kennedy's famously advised, "Let them come to Berlin."

The Communist leaders running East Germany were so desperate to stem the flow of emigrants that they gave orders to shoot those attempting to climb over or chisel through the Wall. And how alarming was the week-long standoff between American and Soviet tanks just 100 meters apart at the Wall's Checkpoint Charlie in late October 1961.

In the fall of 1961, I had just completed a stint as "adjunct instructor" of Russian at Fordham University in a New York State-designed program to equip high school teachers to teach Russian. I was a year away from an M.A. in Russian Studies.

The building of the Berlin Wall was the second clear affirmation given me that I had chosen a field of study that enabled me easily to respond to Kennedy's inaugural challenge, fresh in my ears, to "ask what you can do for your country." The first affirmation had come on Oct. 4, 1957, when the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, the world's first artificial satellite, just three weeks after I had chosen, as a college freshman, to study Russian.

The strategic danger from Russia took ominous shape when, in the fall of 1962, the Soviets emplaced medium-range nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles in Cuba. (We learned only later that some of them were actually armed and ready to fire.)

Through a tough but flexible combination of public and private diplomacy seldom seen in Washington before or since, President John F. Kennedy got the Soviets to back down. A pivotal moment came when U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Adlai Stevenson unveiled high-altitude reconnaissance photos of the Soviet missile base in Cuba, top-secret information that convinced the world that the United States was telling the truth.

Soviet President Nikita Khrushchev eventually removed the missiles (as part of a negotiated arrangement with Kennedy), but Moscow's brazen attempt to steal a strategic march on the U.S. had brought the world very close to a nuclear exchange and left deep traumatic scars.

How close we came to war over Cuba became clear to me in a very personal way when I reported on active duty at Fort Benning, Georgia, on Nov. 3, 1962. The Infantry Officer Orientation Course in which I was enrolled had virtually no weapons for us to train with. Most had been swept up a few weeks earlier by an Army division headed south to Key West -- less than 100 miles from Cuba.

Later, while posted in West Germany I was not far from the border with Czechoslovakia when, on Aug. 21, 1968, the Soviets sent in tanks to crush the experiment in democracy called the "Prague Spring." A subsequent assignment as chief of CIA's Soviet Foreign Policy Branch left me in little doubt as to which country was America's "main enemy" -- or "glavniy vrag," the term used by the Soviets for the U.S.

There was widespread feeling that this Cold War could not basically change in any near future. But just two decades later, the Berlin Wall fell amid widespread unrest in the rest of Eastern Europe. And there was a real chance for lasting peace in a Europe "whole and free" -- from Portugal to the Urals.

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Ray McGovern works with Tell the Word, the publishing arm of the ecumenical Church of the Saviour in inner-city Washington. He was an Army infantry/intelligence officer and then a CIA analyst for 27 years, and is now on the Steering Group of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS). His (more...)
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