Cold War Memories and the Apologist President

Now he’s gone and done it. I haven’t agreed with much of anything President Obama has said or done during his first nine months in office, but his decision to forego the 20th anniversary celebration of the fall of the Berlin Wall truly breaks my heart. He has confirmed, at least to me, that his apologies to the international community for America’s perceived sins, and his refusal to acknowledge America’s unique role in history and modern times as a force for good in the world aren’t just a matter of political calculation but of deeply held conviction.

I feel this slight by our President more deeply because I came of age during the years when President Ronald Reagan’s resolve to confront global communism and its source, namely the Soviet Union, resulted in its eventual collapse and the end of the Cold War.

I had a lifetime interest in politics and, after turning 18, I worked on the campaigns of two candidates for U.S. Congress in Texas, one a conservative Democrat named A.L. “Dusty” Rhodes (a paid gig, by the way; I was an 18-year old researcher and speechwriter!), the other a Republican and young newlywed named George W. Bush. At the time, however, I honestly didn’t grasp or process the differences between conservatism and liberalism. For me, politics was all about the process.

It wasn’t until 1980 that my political philosophy started to take shape. I worked for “W’s” father, George H. W. Bush, when he ran for President, and subsequently for the Reagan-Bush ticket that was victorious in that year’s general election. I was the executive vice-chairman of the College Republicans of Texas, a precinct chairman for the Lubbock County GOP, and a frequent contributor to my campus newspaper on Republican issues.

I realized the values instilled in me as a child were in conflict with the worldview promoted by the liberals and the Democratic Party, and I was on my way to becoming a conservative and a Republican, much to the chagrin of my parents. But that’s a topic for another day.

I received my commission in the U.S. Air Force after graduation from Texas Tech University and was assigned to duty as an air intelligence officer.  My military service exposed me to the grim reality of the Cold War and the threat to freedom represented by communism.

As a Soviet Navy analyst, I monitored their submarine-launched ballistic missile program; every day, they had submarines armed with nuclear missiles off both our coasts, ready to level our major cities should the order be issued.

I was on duty the night Soviet fighters shot down a civilian passenger plane, Korean Air Lines Flight 007, killing all 269 men, women and children aboard. I remember the tension of the days and months that followed, and I thought we were just a little closer to war than we’d ever been before.

The next month, the U.S. and some smaller forces from Jamaica and other Caribbean nations invaded the island of Grenada in the wake of a coup that resulted in the murder of the Prime Minister. The invasion was not only to ensure the safety of U.S. medical students on the island, but also to counter the construction of an airstrip, mostly by Cuban workers, which the Reagan Administration believed was the beginning of a Soviet-Cuban air base in a nation that had been flirting with Cuba and other communist nations for some time.

As an intelligence briefer at Strategic Air Command headquarters, I kept the four-star general and his staff apprised of worldwide events of importance to his command. I remember being called in to present an emergency briefing on Soviet shipments to the Sandinistas in Nicaragua which prompted concerns about the Soviets establishing another Communist beachhead in our hemisphere.

A few months before me and my new bride were to be transferred to The Federal Republic of Germany, more commonly known as West Germany, U.S. Army Major Arthur D. Nicholson was shot and killed by a Soviet sentry while on a monitoring mission in what was then the German Democratic Republic, or East Germany.

These missions were permitted under a 1947 U.S.-Soviet agreement that provided for the exchange of intelligence-gathering missions in East and West Germany, but not only was Maj. Nicholson shot, the Soviets refused him medical treatment and held his driver at gunpoint so he couldn’t render assistance, either. It was a reminder that the Cold War sometimes turned hot, and Maj. Nicholson was the last U.S. casualty of the Cold War.

Early in my tour of duty in Germany, selected members of my unit traveled to Berlin for a familiarization tour. Since West Berlin was an enclave of freedom in a sea of communist oppression, we had to travel by “duty train” through the heart of East Germany. We were forced to travel at night, and we made frequent stops so Soviet troops could board and inspect the train.

West Berlin was an embarrassment of riches; I’ve not seen such abundance of goods in one place before or since. The city was vibrant and alive; by contrast, East Berlin, which we toured for one afternoon, was drab and dreary.

The monuments throughout the city to the Soviet’s “rescue” of East Germany from the Nazis were foreboding and a mockery to the East Germans who, not of their own volition, exchanged one form of authoritarianism for another.

The Berlin Wall, which surrounded all of West Berlin, was ostensibly built to keep the “fascist” elements from the West out of East Germany, but the German people knew better. Around 5,000 people escaped to West Berlin from the East after the Wall was built, and the “no-man’s land” was a symbolic graveyard for the many who died in the attempt.

I remember seeing the Reichstag, the old German parliament building, and being told by our tour guide that it remained open in the hope that a unified Germany would one day hold a parliamentary session there. I thought at the time that was a pipe dream, and my heart went out to the German people.

I was on watch duty when the Red Army Faction, a communist-inspired German terrorist group, bombed a U.S. Army surface-to-air missile site not far from where we lived. That same year, they murdered a U.S. serviceman and used his identification card to sneak a car filled with explosives onto Rhein Main Air Base and park it near the headquarters building. Two Americans were killed in the subsequent explosion.

One of my critical duties was to monitor our aircraft flights on the border between West Germany and East Germany, and West Germany and Czechoslovakia, to ensure their safety from Soviet and Warsaw Pact fighters. I was on duty when a Czech fighter fired two missiles at one of our helicopters; fortunately, they missed. We reported the attempted shootdown to the authorities in Washington, and the episode became an international incident.

When President Reagan shouted, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” during his historic speech at the ceremonies commemorating the 750th anniversary of the founding of the city of Berlin, I was proud of my President for his unwavering defense of liberty for all. I was months away from becoming a father, and the world into which we brought our daughter was already showing signs of change.

Mikhail Gorbachev was the Soviet premier and he was attempting to reform the Soviet Union within the parameters of communism – a step forward but still not enough since he presumed communism could be reformed when it needed to be replaced.

Shortly after we left Germany to return home, the Warsaw Pact began to disintegrate. Hungary opened its border with Austria, prompting more than 13,000 East German tourists to flee to the West. Similar episodes throughout Europe and East Germany’s inability to quell the rising tide of people wanting to leave led to a peaceful revolution where millions of East Germans protested for their freedom.

When East German authorities prematurely announced that citizens would be allowed to cross freely into West Germany and West Berlin, tens of thousands overwhelmed border guards at the Wall who were unprepared for the onslaught. Stepping aside and allowing the people to flow into West Berlin unimpeded, to be met by their countrymen in the West, the guards unwittingly signaled the fall of the Berlin Wall on November 9, 1989.

Watching from my new duty station in Florida, my emotions were overwhelming. The reunification of Germany that I thought would never happen in my or my daughter’s lifetime was beginning, and I felt great joy as I watched the throngs of jubilant people climbing the Wall and taking sledgehammers to it.

I was proud of my country because I knew if we hadn’t resisted communism for more than four decades, and if President Reagan hadn’t stood firm against liberal critics at home and abroad who thought him dangerous for promoting and defending freedom, the world woudn’t have been witnessing the happy pandemonium in Berlin that day.

My only regret was we were no longer in Germany to celebrate with our American and German friends and colleagues there. It would have been a glorious time to have been there. I haven’t been back to Europe since, although my wife, a French immigrant, has traveled back a few times to visit her parents.

Another signature moment was when the unified Germany held a ceremonial session of the Bundestag, the German legislature, in the Reichstag the day after Germany held its official reunification celebration in the same building. Never before was I so happy to be wrong. Germany has had its struggles with reunification since then, but at the time it was an historic and emotionally charged moment for the German people.

The 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall is a cause for remembrance and celebration for millions of people, and commemorates what is probably the greatest victory for freedom in our lifetimes. One project being carried out as part of the commemoration is particularly poignant:

“An international project called ‘Mauerreise’ – Journey of the Wall takes place in various countries. Twenty symbolic wall bricks are being sent from Berlin starting in May 2009. Their destination: Korea, Cyprus, Yemen and other places where everyday life is characterised by division and border experience. In these places the bricks will become a blank canvas for artists, intellectuals and young people to tackle the ‘wall’ phenomenon.”

The Germans are even coordinating a public diplomacy campaign in America to promote awareness of the fall of the Berlin Wall at over 20 U.S. college campuses. Given the nature of instruction on today’s college campuses, such a campaign is sorely needed.

Chancellor Angela Merkel, Germany’s chief executive, personally extended an invitation to President Obama during his visit to Germany last summer to participate in the 20th anniversary ceremonies to be held in Berlin.

It was appropriate and magnanimous for Germany to offer a place of honor to the nation that kept West Germany and West Berlin free from the Soviets for decades, the nation whose youngest elected President, John F. Kennedy, stood in the shadow of the Wall and declared, “Ich bin ein Berliner!” and whose oldest President, Ronald Reagan, stood before that foreboding barrier and thundered “Tear down this wall!

By declining to attend and sending the Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, in his place, President Obama is sending the wrong message to the German people, the Americans who sacrificed for decades to achieve that great moment in history, and all people around the world who look to America to defend freedom because that has been her history and her charge as a nation that is as powerful as it is free.

I wish he would reconsider but I don’t expect it. Nothing in his background, or his associations, or his statements and actions to this point suggest he is capable of acknowledging America as a blessed nation, not because she is powerful but because she strives to be a force for good in a world of evil. My recollections are a reflection of America’s struggles and triumphs in the cause of freedom.

Nothing Obama says or does going forward will dissuade me from the belief that the man we elected as our President is profoundly ashamed of America and wishes to see it diminished on the world stage. I am deeply disillusioned.