Archive for category Cold War

Henry Kissinger in the 21st Century


Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger has spoken out about the challenges facing today’s world order.   It’s worth reading.   He notes that globalization and technology change are driving a break up of the old world order.  Kissinger contends that that the global environment is fundamentally different than it was in his heyday, and that efforts to get back the old order are doomed to fail.  New political structures and ideas are required.  I’ll blog more about his ideas soon, today I want to write about Kissinger’s general world view.

Kissinger earned his Ph.D. studying Austrian Foreign Minister Klemens von Metternich, who was in that role from 1809-48, also serving as Chancellor from 1821-48.   Kissinger’s academic work was rooted in studying the world between 1814 – 1914, when there seemed to be order and stability in Europe – and he took those principles to ones that should work anywhere, taking into account local idiosyncratic conditions.

Metternich presided over the Congress of Vienna in 1814-15, creating the European system realists like Kissinger admire

Metternich presided over the Congress of Vienna in 1814-15, creating the European system realists like Kissinger admire

In any system there will be competition for power.  That’s because resources are scarce, humans seem driven to compete, and humans are greedy.  In the international system, with no real rule of law or enforcement, is an anarchy.  In anarchy, brute force is the main principle, it’s survival of the fittest, domination by the strongest.

Luckily states can create stability despite anarchy through diplomacy, maintaining a balance of power, having leaders that recognize war ultimately is not in the best interest of any state, and stopping any “revolutionary” power hoping to alter the status quo.  If states can agree to respect each other’s right to exist, agree that war should be a last option, and share some common goals, diplomacy should be able to solve any problem.

It won’t – Kissinger and realists argue that it takes “statesmanship” or the ability of leaders to understand that maintaining the status quo is ultimately in the best interests of everyone, and who can negotiate effectively, and then be willing to strike early and strong against those who would upend the system (like a Hitler).  Realists admire how this seemed to work for 100 years, with only a few minor skirmishes intervening.

But there are flaws in Kissinger’s world view.  Perhaps the reason there was no major European war for so long is because the Europeans were conquering the planet, imposing their standards across the globe, destroying indigenous cultures and taking whatever resources they could get their grubby hands on.  Once the world was almost completely colonized the Europeans quickly turned on each other.

Ending the Vietnam war meant pressuring Hanoi by bombing supply lines in Cambodia.  It worked - but it radicalized the country side and led to the rise of the genocidal Khmer Rouge

Ending the Vietnam war meant pressuring Hanoi by bombing supply lines in Cambodia. It worked – but it radicalized the country side and led to the rise of the genocidal Khmer Rouge

Moreover, such a system relied on common shared cultural values.  The diplomats and leaders all spoke French had more in common with each other than the average citizens in their home states.   In an era of globalization, that’s not likely to be replicated.

Finally the focus on power and order inherently means ignoring those without power.  Kissinger’s most brilliant and successful policy was detente (a French word meaning a relaxation in tension), a policy that probably made a peaceful end of the Cold War possible.  But in that policy we can see the strengths and weaknesses of his approach.

Kissinger, a brilliant academic was snatched up by Nixon when he became President in 1969.  He started out as Nixon’s National Security Advisor and quickly became more powerful than the Secretary of State, William Rogers.  He gained Nixon’s trust and crafted policy – and when Rogers left in 1973, Kissinger took on the role of Secretary of State.

He was relatively young, very charming, spoke with a distinct German accent, Jewish, and something of a playboy.  He was known to cavort with a number of attractive women – I still remember a Mad Magazine set of song parodies that included “I wonder whose Kissinger now?”

He had a problem:  The US was bogged down in a pointless war in Vietnam.  The Soviets had achieved nuclear parity and  communism was at its peak – the disease and decay that were already slowly destroying its sustainability were hid behind the iron curtain and streams of propaganda.

They said only Nixon could go to China - but that was set up by a secret trip by Kissinger

They said only Nixon could go to China – but that was set up by a secret trip by Kissinger

Kissinger decided the US had to change the Soviet Union to a status quo power the US could deal with.  This include high level summits allowing Kissinger, Nixon and Soviet Leader Leonid Brezhnev to meet and “practice statesmanship.”  It included triangulation – opening to China.  China and the USSR hated each other, so the US getting friendly with one pressured the other.  It worked.  It led Moscow to pressure Hanoi to end the Vietnam war so the US could extricate itself (“Peace with Honor” was Nixon’s slogan).   And suddenly the Cold War didn’t seem quite as scary.

In exchange for recognizing the reality of Communist rule in East Europe, the Soviets allowed more trade, visits, and connections to the West.  The agreed that systemic order was more important than the US-Soviet rivalry, and thus could be dealt with.    Kissinger left office in January 1977.

But while detente was based on the notion the Soviets could be a status quo power, Kissinger knew there would be rivalries and conflicts.  So he also worked out a mostly unwritten agreement that proxy wars in the Third World were allowable, and that neither side would allow a third world conflict to lead to nuclear war.  Kissinger would say that yes, those wars could be bad, and sending arms and weapons to African or Asian proxies did mean there would be death and destruction.  But given the nature of world affairs, it’s the lesser of two evils.  It helps make sure the US and Soviets don’t blow each other up.

Nixon and Kissinger would change the world - and arguably set up the peaceful end of the Cold War

Nixon and Kissinger would change the world – and arguably set up the peaceful end of the Cold War

Detente’s success – the exchanges brought western ideas more quickly into the East bloc, the Soviets felt smug in their status as a recognized legitimate world power, and as the inevitable economic collapse began, there were enough links with the West to give Gorbachev time to make radical changes that could not be undone.  Some people credit Reagan and Gorbachev with the peaceful end of the Cold War, but Nixon and Kissinger set the stage.

The failure?  Proxy wars and disregard for the third world.   Looking only at power politics rather than the broad array of global problems allowed many former colonies to decay into corrupt, brutal regimes.   African states were very young in the sixties – a supportive US might have allowed a transition to viable political and economic systems.  Instead the super powers simply used those states as powerless puppets in a geopolitical struggle.

In maintaining proxies, the US supported brutal dictators in world hot spots like the Mideast.  This helped assure that dictators would be able to hold power, not allowing real opportunity to their people, and setting up the anger and frustration young Arabs experience today.

The problems today ranging from Ebola to ISIS to terrorism have their roots in that neglect of the third world.  Kissinger’s policies were brilliant in dealing with short term geopolitical crises, but failed by creating conditions which would lead to problems that threaten the very nature of world order.



Nelson Mandela – the Radical Hero

mandela prison

Nelson Mandela (1918-2013) emerged as one of the true heroes of the late 20th Century.    He’s inspired young people, helped his country avoid a blood bath which many thought was inevitable, and demonstrated the power of forgiveness and truth over vengeance and anger.

The path Mandela took to this position was interesting.  He started out inspired by Gandhi, who had initially been active in South Africa, committed to non-violent resistance.    His activism against the South African apartheid regime began in earnest after apartheid was put in place as an official policy in 1948 by the openly racist National Party.   But Mandela’s commitment to non-violence changed on March 21, 1960, the day of the Sharpeville massacre.   69 protesters were killed by police, and it became clear that the government would use all means to support apartheid.

The March 1960 Sharpeville Massacre would radicalize Mandela

The March 1960 Sharpeville Massacre would radicalize Mandela

Mandela then gave up non-violence and helped form the violent “Spear of the Nation” or MK.  Drawing inspiration from Castro, Che Guevara, and Nasser, Mandela took a more radical stance.  He never openly advocated communism, but there were clearly connections between the MK and communist radicals.   Moreover, he went to Ethiopia to study guerrilla warfare, as the ANC saw the only option against the National Party to be violence.

On August 5, 1962 he was arrested and sentenced to life imprisonment.  Even in prison he refused to renounce violence; he said the ANC should renounce violence only when the government would renounce violence against the ANC.   He would remain in prison until 1990, becoming a symbol of the anti-apartheid movement.   Yet Cold War politics muddied the waters.

While most people were sympathetic to the ANC’s willingness to use violence against the racist South African regime, it also provided cover for those willing to forgive racist oppression due to the National Party’s embrace of anti-Communism.   With the Cold War intense, the US wanted a strong ally in Africa, and South Africa was a perfect choice.   They had gold, minerals, wealth and a strategic location.   When people complained about the racism of apartheid, the US and UK could either say they refuse to infringe on South African sovereignty, or argue that they also opposed apartheid, but Mandela and the ANC were not the answer.   Moving from apartheid to communism would be to go from one form of oppression to another.   With such rationalizations, support for the apartheid regime remained consistent until near the end.

Up until his release, Mandela was considered a pro-Communist terrorist to many in the West.

Up until his release, Mandela was considered a pro-Communist terrorist to many in the West.

For many on the right, it was far better to support institutionalized racism that dehumanized millions than risk the possibility that a majority black government in South Africa might be friendly to communism.  Indeed, the coziness the West showed to the racist government did nothing but push the ANC towards anti-American regimes.

In the eighties the tide started to turn.   While the Reagan Administration gamely tried to pretend that it was not supportive of apartheid, embracing the “Sullivan Principles” regarding rules for investment in South Africa (principles designed to benefit blacks and put conditions on investment), the apartheid regime was becoming untenable.   Congress overrode Reagan vetos of sanctions against South Africa.  Not only was global pressure mounting, making South Africa a pariah state, but young people in South Africa were increasingly opposed to the racist philosophy that defined apartheid and the National Party.

The young Mandela was a fighter

The young Mandela was a fighter

Ironically both Communism and apartheid were undone by the same force – globalization.   The inability of South Africa to compete in a globalized world economy along with the isolation of dysfunctional communist economies led both systems to collapse almost simultaneously.   That also meant that the apartheid regime had lost its last defense – if there was no Cold War, there was absolutely no reason for the West to support the National Party in South Africa.

Still, the conventional wisdom in the West was that the 1990s would see a South African bloodbath.  The Nationalists would hold on to power, the ANC would grow violent and aggressive, as the blacks would rise up in a mass revolt.  In this context the last Nationalist President, F.W. DeKlerk, who took power in September 1989, advocated to end apartheid and official racism.  To symbolize the significance of this move, he ordered the release of Nelson Mandela.

Mandela chose forgiveness and reconciliation - something some on the right still do not accept

Mandela chose forgiveness and reconciliation – something some on the right still do not accept

Nelson Mandela had been in prison for nearly 28 years.   He could have been bitter, angry and seeking revenge.   Many of the whites in South Africa opposed the ending of apartheid, it could have all gone badly.   However, Mandela embraced reconciliation — truth commissions instead of revenge seeking.  An embrace of a South Africa where the majority would now rule, but without reverse racism or a desire to avenge the past.

The result has not been a perfect shift towards a new society.   South Africa managed to make the transition smoothly, but still faces a myriad of problems.   Mandela helped avoid a blood bath and put South Africa on the right path; that was all he could do – the future will have to be made by South Africans together.

President Obama and Michelle visit Mandela's former prison

President Obama and Michelle visit Mandela’s former prison

Yet it’s sad to see that the far right still harbors hatred for Mandela due to abstract accusations.  When Texas Senator Ted Cruz posted something kind about Mandela on his website, he was inundated with negative comments.   True, Cruz’s constituents are farther right than most, but that kind if vitriol in ignorance of what Mandela accomplished is simply sad.

Mandela danced with radicals and extremists because he was fighting a cause and they were willing to be his allies.   Though he fought evil with violence — he was not a Gandhi nor a Martin Luther King Jr. — the American revolution was also violent.   British rule was arguably much less evil than the apartheid regime.

What matters is that when Mandela’s side won, he did it with grace, forgiveness and a sense of dignity that most of his opponents lacked.  Mandela is remembered as one of the historical giants – a hero, an inspiration and a great man.   The haters will never take that away from him.    He was radical when it was necessary, but moderated when the evil he was fighting ceased to be.   That is part of his greatness.




Berlin Bunker

The “Berlin Story” Museum traces the history of Berlin since its grounding in the 1200s to the present. It includes a tour of one of the remaining bunkers.

One fascinating museum in Berlin is the “Berlin Story” Museum on the Ku’damm.   It traces Berlin’s history back to the 1200s, sketching out how the city became one of the most open and tolerant cities in Europe — a rather ironic distinction given the reputation it has for being the capital of Nazi Germany.   But even the Nazis never really had Berlin under their control until the war started and they could impose martial law.  It’s a fascinating story, and the descent into the Nazi era is symbolized by climbing down four flights of stairs into a cellar with a dark atmosphere as we follow the Nazi seizure of power.

That quickly morphs into the Cold War and the divided city, looking at everyday life in each “side” of Berlin as well as politics and culture.    This includes stories of how East German agents managed to sneak into the West, whether through a secret “hole” in the wall or a hidden entrance to the Friedrichstrasse train station.    A highlight is a tour of of one of the four remaining bunkers designed to protect Berliners in case of nuclear war.

During the Cold War Berliners knew that they’d be at risk if war broke out.   Recognizing that neither side would likely bomb the city directly, they worried primarily about fallout and radiation.    They decided to set up a series of bunkers to house as much of the population as possible for two weeks, betting (hoping) that after the initial launch people would find a way to quickly end the war.   Almost all of those bunkers have been decommissioned, only four remain.

When I first visited Germany NATO was divided by the decision to modernize NATO’s nuclear force — installing Cruise and Pershing II intermediate range missiles in Europe to counter the Soviet introduction of the SS-20 in the late seventies.  This led to the rise of the Green party in Germany and a massive peace movement with protests sometimes in the hundreds of thousands against the missile plan.

Although supported by the German government, the modernization was opposed by average Germans across the political spectrum.    The reason was obvious.   In the US the Reagan Administration was talking about a “winnable” nuclear war, one that could be limited to the European continent.   US Defense Secretary Casper Weinberger stated the US was no longer in a post-war era but a “pre-war era.”

The rationale for this was to make extended deterrence credible.   In order to provide a nuclear deterrent against a Soviet attack on Western Europe the Soviets had to believe the US would actually escalate to a nuclear war to defend Europe.   Since a nuclear war meant the destruction of the entire planet, the rational US response would have been to let Europe go.   As Charles DeGaulle asked, would the US sacrifice Chicago for Paris?

To convince the Soviets that was not the case the US had to act as though it believed a war could be both won and limited in scope.   Even in the US almost nobody believed that was the case.    But it was a bluff the Soviets couldn’t call since if they were wrong, it would lead to their destruction.   So under this Damocles sword the Cold War balance of power was maintained.

A Trabi – the main automobile of East Germany – on display at the Berlin Story Museum

The problem with that is if you were European it seemed the US was saying “we can limit the nuclear holocaust to Europe” and come out on top.   The Germans saw Ronald Reagan as an anti-Communist Cowboy who wanted to destroy the Soviets and feared that the US could drag them into a war that would assure the destruction of Germany.  The crisis could have torn apart NATO, had not Gorbachev come to power in 1985 and then negotiate with Ronald Reagan a removal of both the SS-20s and the new NATO missiles with the 1987 INF Treaty.

Once numerous bunkers dotted West Berlin; now only four remain

The bunker we visited was below ground and the first 3600 to arrive after the war broke out would be admitted.  They’d each have a bunk and would eat dry food, barely enough to survive.   Water was stored, but there would also be a pump.   Air filters would keep the air breathable, but would be less than 1/20th as fresh as air in a modern office building.  It would be damp and stale — but would sustain life.

The lack of privacy would be immense, there would be no showers, little water for personal hygiene, and toilets had curtains instead of doors to prevent people from seeking refuge in the toilet — a bit of space all alone.     There would only be 8 people who “worked” there, they would rely on self-governance.   Any medical help would be provided voluntarily by doctors who happened to be among the 3600 admitted.   They’d have minimal medical supplies on hand — the most plentiful drug would be valium.

To be kept constantly dark, the bunker seems roomy until one considers sharing it with 3600 people!

Their fear was that if people got aggressive and panicked it would be over — mass hysteria could lead to violence and horror.    They even had tasks, some unnecessary, to try to provide a sense of community.   Although it wasn’t necessary to pump up water from the well, people would be assigned to do that — or if someone was starting to panic, that activity might give them a release.   The goal would be to strive for a sense of community to trump fear and panic.

After two weeks the supplies would be gone and they’d be forced to leave the bunker, hoping that radiation levels had gone down and that those on top would have a plan to save the population.

Besides a water pump and storage, the bunker had air filters and its own generator for electricity.

Leaving the bunker and breathing the fresh, open, tolerant atmosphere of Berlin today, it’s easy to forget how different things were before 1989.   It was a divided city and travel from West Berlin to anywhere else was difficult — though the city compensated with lots of immense parks to give its population an escape.   To keep West Berlin populated required incentives, including the fact that males in West Berlin could avoid mandatory conscription.

The Berlin story is one that meanders from Prussian militarism, enlightenment rationality, the interwar Cabaret scene and the post-war division.   The Berlin Story museum is worth a visit – it captures the essence of that story with fun and informative displays.   The bunker tour reminds us that during the Cold War West Berlin was the front line – a piece of the West 300 kilometers behind the Iron Curtain.

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Pan Am: Surreal yet Compelling

This post contains spoilers from the first three episodes of Pan Am (ABC – Sunday 10:00 PM EST)

I’ve broken from my usual writing about politics and world affairs to comment on music, today I’ll wade into the territory of network television.

Set in the early 1960s, the new ABC series Pan Am follows the lives of a group of stewardesses (not flight attendants yet) traveling the globe on one of Pan Am’s top of the line international jets.   But the story gets complicated, one stewardess, Kate, works for the CIA.  She’s not a full blown agent, but recruited to run errands — make deliveries, exchange messages and the like.   Yet she is a vehicle for a lot of cold war intrigue, bringing politics and the Cold War at its height back into American living rooms.

So you have gorgeous women (each with their own personality quirks), hot shot pilots, jealousy, romance, rivalry and espionage set in the early sixties.  Isn’t that enough to get you to check it out!?   But it’s more than that.   The series does something that is very difficult to pull off — it uses a kind of soft surrealism to blend together an unlikely mix of characters and situations into a compelling and very entertaining show.

Two of the women, Kate and Laura, are sisters.  Laura left her would be husband at the alter to ultimately join Kate in her career, with her drop dead beauty earning her a cover of Life magazine.    Their mom, who has already appeared (bringing the would be groom to Paris to try to win Laura back) finds this life style dangerous and strange.    Done wrong, that kind of story line would be corny — oh yeah, she leaves the groom at the alter, becomes a stewardess with her sister and gets on Time?   But within the surreal framework of the show it’s perfect.   It works.

Collette, from France, is an intriguing and very likable woman seems to have a kind of ‘old world’ wisdom and perspective that plays off the brimming optimism and idealism of the Americans.    She already was confronted by the wife of a man she had slept with (without knowing he was married), in episode three we learn of her past.    Set in Berlin Germany as the crew took reporters to see John F. Kennedy’s Ich bin ein Berliner speech, it’s revealed her parents were killed in the war and she can’t get over her hatred of the Germans.    In a surreal scene at an embassy party for the President (who had left by then) she starts making accusatory statements to Germans she meets.   She then apologizes, says she’ll make up for it and asks to the pianist to play the German national anthem and sings in perfect German “Deutschland, Deutschland ueber alles.”    She isn’t trying to honor the Germans by doing this!

Maggie and Kate

It’s surreal because a pianist would not have played it, especially once the words of the “forbidden” first verse were sung.  She would have been stopped and kicked out.   Yet somehow they pull it off; in the context of this show, it works.   Another stewardess, Maggie (a free thinking woman with drive and courage), has a crush on the President and spends the whole show trying to get to meet him.  She finally sees Air Force One and tells Laura that she can’t make the return flight and to tell the crew she’s sick.    She gets to the tarmac and when stopped she pleads for a chance to shake the President’s hand.   When that doesn’t work she informs the Secret Service that she has a box of Cuban cigars as a gift for Kennedy.

Impressed by the cigars the agent tells her to wait, and heads to the plane.   The President appears atop the plane’s entrance, somewhat in the distance (it’s dark we can’t see features) and waves at her — close to what she wanted, and she’s enthralled.

Gender issues of the early 60s (before ‘women’s lib’) will clearly be covered by this show.  Maggie’s already gotten in trouble for mocking the “weigh ins” required of stewardesses  (can’t have any chubby unattractive women serving Pan Am!) and even stabbing with a fork a first class passenger who tried to assault her.   He backs off, but it’s clear that if he complains Maggie will lose her job (while he risked nothing for what would now be considered a crime).    The pilot settles him down with some expensive scotch and an apology, but instead of being thankful that her job is not in danger, Maggie steams over the injustice of it all.

Dean (the captain of the airplane) and Collette as he notices she's not herself at the embassy party.

The show is only three episodes old.  So far more emphasis is placed on the women — who are the stars — but the Captain (Dean) and first officer (Ted) are integral parts of the story lines as well.   We’ll see how it develops, but at this point it’s got me hooked.

Pan Am started regular transatlantic flights in 1958, and the show is set in that golden era of flight when service was a premium, especially on international flights.   Given the historical allusions — we’ve already had the Bay of Pigs and JFK’s Berlin speech — those of us who enjoy Cold War history will find that part of the show interesting.   This week Maggie helped an East German spy defect, though it got her in some trouble.   It also clearly shows the Machiavellian nature of Cold War intrigue — the key is to combat the Soviets without risking a ‘hot’ war.  One reviewer suggests that this is “TV for old people,” and being 50 it might well be that there is a nostalgic allure to it.   I’m OK with that!  Anyway, I’ve always liked airline movies (I keep waiting for George Kennedy to show up to do mechanical work).

Another complaint is that it’s “too happy.”  So far the dramas are not the kind of tragedies that hit shows like “Desperate Housewives” (another rather surreal hit that preceeds it on ABC), but that’s OK.  It’s a fun show, and it captures the optimism of the era just before Kennedy’s assassination and the subsequent horrors of Vietnam.    So for the first time in a long time I’ve found an hour long network drama that I plan to watch regularly!

Pan Am suffered financial collapse in early December, 1991 — the same month that the Cold War would end with Mikhail Gorbachev’s announcement that the Soviet Union was breaking up.   In that sense the subject matter is doubly fitting: the Cold War era was Pan Am’s era.

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My German and Italian Politics class has been finishing the semester with an intense look at the year 1989, the most important year since the end of the Second World War.    We’re reading the book 1989: A Year that Changed the World by Michael Meyer.   Beyond that I found the film The Lives of Others (Das Leben der Anderen) to be worth taking class time to show.

For me 1989 is a milestone year.   I finished my prelim exams so I could start teaching college courses and work on my Ph.D.   I spent the summer in Germany researching East-West German relations, visiting East Berlin for the first time (and last time as a divided city), and following the unbelievable events as Communism started its quick and in retrospect inevitable collapse.  I also broke up with a woman I’d been with for five years, which marks it as a turning point in my personal life as well.

Sometime I’ll blog about my experiences that summer — I feel very lucky to have been in Germany and Berlin in the last days of Cold War normalcy, heading back to the states just as the stories of East Germans escaping via Hungary hit the news.   I’ve already written about the joy I felt when the wall came down; for most of my generation 9-11-01 is the most pivotal historic day in their lives, for me it remains 11-09-89.

The Meyers book is fascinating.  It goes into detail about the behind the scenes maneuvering that he as a Newsweekcorrespondent was able to see.  I could empathize with how he felt in the summer of 1989.  I didn’t travel East Europe interviewing leaders and dissidents as he did, but I do recall the sense that something big was building.   Until reading this book I hadn’t realized just how much of what happened was plotted by Hungarian leaders Miklos Nemeth (a true unknown hero) and Imre Pozsgay to plan opening the borders and entice the East Germans to leave.   They plotted from within to bring down communism; that they could succeed is amazing.

The film The Lives of Others is a must see for anyone wanting to understand the evil of totalitarian bureaucratic socialism.   It also shows how sick it is to try to compare American “liberals” or President Obama with socialism or communism.    That minimizes the evil of “real existing socialism,” as it was called.

The complete and utter control exercised in Communist states is shocking.  They used intense surveillance, would convince people to give secret information about friends and even family, and were able to control lives and careers.   What is most frightening is how their methods were both efficient and mundane.   They would imprison, but didn’t torture, kill or brutalize opponents.   They would mix carrots and sticks, use threats and promises to compel people to “do their duty for the state.”   Faced with the prospect of losing a career, having a child lose a place at the university, or being put in jail, most people choose the easy way: give them the information they wanted.

Your identity as an informant could be kept secret.  The state would show its gratitude.  Often your friends wouldn’t be arrested either, sometimes the secret police (in East Germany the Stasi) simply wanted to keep tabs on peace and human rights activists, dissidents, and artists.    That choice was made easier by the fact there apparently was no choice but to give in.   Those who stood on principle suffered — and the system churned on, with the Communists fully in control.    The best and the brightest went into making sure they knew how to control people and society; creative thought was distrusted.

The people were provided a deal they had to accept:  material security in exchange for not rocking the boat.  You could have an apartment, medical care, pensions, a guaranteed job and physical safety.   In exchange, you simply had to refuse to oppose the system.   Resistance took place in the form of jokes and discussion in private circles where people truly trusted each other.   Occasionally an artist would speak out, a priest would protest, a church would be known as being too rebellious, but through intimidation, threats and surveillance, most people were compelled to keep their end of the non-negotiated agreement.

In the film the characters show the impact of that brutality — betrayal is rational, lives are ruined, people are broken, and ambitious bureaucrats have the power to arbitrarily shape or destroy lives.   The film helps those of us who have never had to endure such a system get a sense of what it felt like, the human oppression inherent in a system where a bureaucrat’s pen was as piercing to the soul as a soldier’s knife could be to the body.   I will not try to recount the story line, it is however a film no one will regret seeing (it is in German, with subtitles).

But 1989 changed that.   The anger and resentment of 40 years of oppression and persecution meant that as soon as there was a chance to change the people grabbed it.  Once it became clear something could be done, that those in power were clueless on how to respond to real resistance, the entire edifice collapsed.   To be sure, it took the system reaching economic disaster to do so.   Poland and Hungary could only embrace their early 1989 reforms because the economy was so horrific that the hardliners had no choice but to allow reformers power.   Mikhail Gorbachev could only implement glasnost and perestroika because Soviet leaders saw that the system was unsustainble.

In the US it was interesting that in early 1989 the Bush Administration had a skeptical view of the likelihood of change.  Some in the administration, such as Dick Cheney and Paul Wolfowitz, urged a hard line against Gorbachev, convinced he was a fraud.   After President Bush visited Poland in mid-1989, his view changed.   Folk like Cheney weren’t listened to as much as the President realized something meaningful was building.   As change went through the region the US was criticized for not doing much to promote it or support it.   But that was the right move — this was out of the hands of the Americans, and intervening would have done more harm than good.

It is still hard to believe that 1989 was 22 years ago.  Graduating seniors were born in the year that for me represents dramatic change (and thanks to my musical choices that summer, gives me the title of this blog).   I can still recall sensing the weight of the oppression while walking around East Berlin that summer, or the tears running down my face watching coverage of the wall coming down on a 13 inch color TV with antenna reception in my apartment that November.   Then came the exhilaration of watching the rest of East European communism fall in the two short months after 11-09-89.   Most importantly, I remember how few saw it coming, including the German experts I interviewed in both academia and politics that summer.   1989.  It was a very good year.

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November 9, 1989: The Fall of the Wall

In a panel discussion last week I said that November 9, 1989 may be the second most important day of the 20th century.   (I put June 22, 1941 as the most important, since that’s the day I think Germany’s defeat in WWII became inevitable).   It is the day that the Berlin Wall became irrelevant, as citizens of East Germany were allowed to cross into the West, and started physically chipping away at the wall.   The Cold War was ending.

Communism did not fall because of what happened November 9th.  It fell mostly due to internal collapse.  Bureaucratic socialism didn’t work, was inflexible, denied personal initiative, and led to a system that from the late sixties onward was in constant decay.   By the mid-seventies the Soviet KGB knew that they would face a major economic crisis in the eighties, but the political leaders didn’t believe them.  Aging Politburo members were oblivious to reality, caught up in their own world of jargon and superpower ambitions.

By the mid-eighties the crisis was acute.  Though the West vastly over-estimated the strength of the Soviet economy and political system, the Soviet government was becoming aware that things were starting to fall apart and they had no way to deal with it.   Thus they chose a leader from a new generation, relatively young Mikhail Gorbachev, who argued that the system had to be opened (glasnost) and restructured (perestroika).   He hoped to turn Communism from a system of the bureaucrats to one that took the needs of citizens seriously, and gave people the right to speak up and participate openly.   It would ultimately fail — the system was incapable of such dramatic reform.  Yet his efforts opened the way for real change in Eastern Europe.   By 1989 Poland and Hungary were making dramatic changes, with Gorbachev signaling acceptance of even those changes with which he disagreed.

In East Germany, the leader Erich Honecker was from the old guard, aloof and convinced by his own ideology.   He ignored or didn’t even understand how weak the East German economy was, and he dismissed dissidents as “immoral” for rejecting the state.  Even as East Germans fled to the West through Hungary and Czechoslovakia in September and October of 1989, he thought the problem minor.   As protests within East Germany mounted, he decided to end them with the “Chinese solution,” refering to the June 4, 1989 Chinese crackdown on their protesters.

But Gorbachev had convinced Honecker’s subordinates to torpedo such efforts and remove the aging leader from power.   Honecker’s orders were ignored, and on October 17th he stepped down.  The new government then tried to convince the public it would reform the system, yet protests continued to grow.  By November 4th a half a million filled East Berlin’s Alexanderplatz to demand change.   Then, on the evening of November 9th, it got surreal.

Gunter Schabowski, a member of the Politburo and East German press spokesman, was giving a press conference.  It was to end at 7:00, but at 6:53 an Italian journalist asked about travel between East and West Berlin.   Schabowski had papers about travel between East and West Germany (not internal Berlin), which was an issue to be decided at a Politburo meeting later that evening.  He thought, however, that the paper was part of what the journalists had been given, and was already in effect.  He read that travel would be allowed.   When asked when it starts, he looked at his paper and read ‘immediately’ (unverzueglich).    The journalists weren’t sure what to make of this, and a slightly confused Schabowski headed towards his next meeting.   That Politburo meeting was to determine next steps at winning public support, and they left strict instructions not be disturbed.

West Berlin TV praised Schabowski’s unintended announcement and invited East Germans to come over.   East German protest leaders rounded people up to go to the border crossings.  Yet, since no decision to allow travel between the two parts of the city had actually been made, the border guards had their usual complement and orders — kill anyone who tries to cross.  The crowds grew.  East German radio reported Schabowski’s statements.   The border guards called to get orders on what to do, but their calls went unreturned — the man who had to make the decision was a member of the Politburo, in a meeting that could not be disturbed.   As time passed, frustrated guards decided to go ahead and make the decision to open the gates.  East Berliners poured into the West.   Soon they stood atop the wall, chipping away at the structure which symbolized communism — a wall was needed to lock people in, people desperate to escape the “workers and farmers paradise.”

When the Politburo meeting ended and they realized what happened, they knew there was no going back.   Back in 1961 when the wall was built, President Kennedy came to the wall and gave his historic Ich bin ein Berliner speech (and yes, his phrase was gramatically correct), where he made the wall the symbol of communism:  A repressive system that walls their people in, in contrast to the freedom of the West.   When that symbol was breached on November 9th, East Europeans realized that the power to change their countries was in their own hands, and within two months Eastern Europe was transformed — mostly in a peaceful manner.

What is also striking about the fall of the wall is how it emphasizes the power of the people, not the governments.  It was average East German citizens trying to escape through Hungary who started the crisis, and by October East Germans were willing to endure Stasi beatings, arrests and pressure to keep protesting and demanding change.   They left the leaders speechless, they had no idea what to do to fix things.   It is especially fitting and a bit ironic that a mistake made by a press secretary would lead to the wall’s demise — it shows how little control the government has when the people are willing to take charge.

Many people down play that day.   Perhaps I magnify its importance because of my emotional connection to Germany and Berlin.  I had been in Berlin in August of 1989, and visited the East.  I recall the vast differences between the two parts of the city, and how sad I felt as I truly understood the meaning of the Cold War division.  I talked to Germans who had tragic stories of families and loved ones divided by the wall, sometimes never seeing each other again. 

I heard about the news driving in to the University of Minnesota on November 9, 1989.  I took the elevator to the Poli-Sci offices on the 12th floor and started telling people what was happening.   There was no internet news yet.  A number of us went to the Lippincott room which happened to have a television.   We tuned in and watched the scenes as people now were atop the wall.   I realized I had to go home.   The emotion was sweeping me thinking about the drama of the change and how totally unexpected it was.   Experts on East Germany from all major political parties and some major research institutes had told me that summer that this kind of scene was impossible.   The experts were caught off guard as well as the politicians.

I got home to my basement efficiency apartment on Lyndale, Avenue, and watched the scenes and interviews on my small portable TV with rabbit ears, letting tears roll down my checks as I was amazed at the meaning of these events, so glad I’d taken the chance to see East Berlin a few months earlier, just before things started to unravel.  I was there literally in the final days of the “old order,” a week before events in Hungary and protests at home began.    Watching history being made I felt a deep and immense sense of joy.

It was truly one of the great stories of the 20th century.   The people take control and overthrow a regime that had oppressed them for half a century.   A system in economic collapse falls peacefully.  And though there would be problems in the transition to something new, and many in the East still believe western style capitalism goes too far the other way, nothing can diminish the meaning and drama of that day.

November 9th is an odd day in German history.   On November 9, 1918 Philipp Scheidemann proclaimed that the Kaiser had abdicated and Germany would have a Republic.  On November 9, 1923, in the midst of the great inflation, Adolf Hitler failed in his attempted Beer hall Putsch.  On November 9, 1938, the Nazis started the wave of violence with the famous Kristallnacht, attacking Jewish shops and buildings.    In a way, November 9, 1989 symbolically ends that story.   The birth of Democracy in Germany, followed by the rise of Hitler, the violence of the holocaust, and the subsequent division of the country and Europe.  That chapter of German (and European) history finally ended twenty years ago today.


Good Night and Good Luck

Monday was the first day of “May term,” and I’m teaching American Foreign Policy.  Since each day of class is three hours long, on the first day we watched the film Good Night and Good Luck, starring David Strathairn as Edward R. Murrow and George Clooney as Fred Friendly.    It details the way in which Murrow helped start the downfall of Joe McCarthy and his witch hunts by using the power of the media to make clear to the public what was going on.  It’s fascinating both how many of the issues concerning the media and foreign policy still exist, and how much has changed.

At that time (early 50s) there were three big television networks, and they relied completely on corporate sponsors.   There were also a plethora of newspapers, as the print media thrived.    Newspapers and especially TV news self-censored, and as Murrow’s 1958 speech to the Radio and Television News Directors Association (reproduced in part in the film) made clear, concern about the media focusing only on entertainment at the neglect of serious issues was as real then as it is today.

It is hard to imagine the government having the power to terrorize now at a McCarthy level.   Sure, there was a lot of self-censorship and various forms of pressure — the Dixie Chicks not getting played by some stations after they criticized President Bush, Attorney General Ashcroft saying people should ‘watch what they say,’ Chris Hedges being heckled at a 2003 commencement address, and the weird and brief renaming of French fries as ‘freedom fries.

Yet if you didn’t care about public pressure, you could blog to your heart’s content, read news from around the world, and join protests against US policy.   Although the paranoia level post 9-11 was similar to the red scare days of McCarthy, there was more freedom, and abundant media outlets.  While CNN may be overly sensationalized, FOX leans to the right and MSNBC apparently a bit to the left, they still provide more variety than the half hour nightly news shows of the “big 3” in an earlier era.

I admit I have a strong pro-journalism bias.  I am convinced that the freedom of a country, as well as its ability to avoid corruption, relies on a free and open media.    Those who join the legions of reporters to bring us the news play just as important of a role, if not more important, than soldiers who defend the country or government officials who run the bureaucracies.   It is up to them to keep us informed, to take seriously the importance of public discourse on the issues of the day, and to recognize multiple perspectives and the fact that it is impossible to completely avoid bias.

However, by its nature the news media is independent of government and thus has to support itself and pay for the resources it uses.   Even public radio and television increasingly rely on grants and donations.   This also means they are beholden to the market — a market that exists on the basis of what sells, not what is important to know.

Emotion sells.   Glenn Beck scaring people about ‘coming tyranny’ sells, or Rush Limbaugh ranting about the ‘evil liberals,’ cherry picking outlandish statements to make it seem like all on the left are kookie extremists gets noticed.   Sean Hannity takes quotes and statements out of context to weave an utterly dishonest storyline designed to get his listeners mad, or to mock the left.  On the left, Keith Olbermann lists the “world’s worst person,” choosing a ill chosen statement or action to focus upon — riling up his viewers.   Jon Stewart uses humor, and left-wing talk radio demonizes Bush and the Republicans.   We’ve had yellow journalism for over a century, so this is nothing new (remember the Hurst legacy), and slanted humor is no big deal (Stewart admits his is ‘fake news.’)

But the Becks, Olbermanns, and Hannitys blur the line between pundit and journalist, and the general growth of emotion-laden media sources bleeds over into ‘serious’ news, which feels an increasing need to entertain in order to maintain ratings.   Moreover, following the lead of the ‘left vs. right’ politics from the gut, the media starts to paint it as simply ‘two different perspectives,’ with the idea you need to show ‘both sides’ to be fair.  In this kind of bipolar relativism the result is to silence views that don’t easy fit into ‘left vs. right,’ and magnify the importance of the extremes.    Instead of trying to dig for truth, explore multiple perspectives, or work things out through discussion, you’re given two sides, and it’s hinted that you have to choose which to believe.   Truth is pre-packaged into different interpretive vessels, you don’t have to do any work, it’s either A or B.

Of course, the choice of “left” or “right” as defined by political junkies is a false choice  requiring citizens to sacrifice logic and go with whatever side sells its product more effectively.

Great journalists like Murrow or Walter Cronkite were not without bias — but they also had a sense of wanting to tell things as they are, and cut through the BS.  That’s what we need from journalists — to decipher the political rhetoric and explain what is really being said, rather than just giving us the words of the different participants.   We need them to dig out the facts of the story, explain reasonable interpretations of those facts, and fairly assess the meaning.   They will have bias; total objectivity is impossible.  But if they put their duty to our democratic republic ahead of any political bias or personal whim, they can play a positive role.   Murrow was accused of bias in going after McCarthy — but it was a bias that reflected his honest assessment that McCarthy was acting against all that this country stands for, and that being silent on that would be to be complicate in the crime.

Ultimately, the media will do this for us if we reward it with higher ratings and more support than we reward the ‘discourse from the gut’ – the emotion talk radio and partisan rhetoric.   At this point we as a culture aren’t yet able to do this as well as we should.  But yet our media is free, we are able to access sources we never could before, and somehow I find myself optimistic.  Compared to the ideal we have a long way to go, and the prominence of manipulative emotional appeals in the media creates real dangers.  Compared to where we’ve been, however, there has been progress.   And that’s what democracy is all about — improvements over time.


Cuba’s Future

One thing that students for the past twenty years have asked is why we continue to have sanctions on Cuba.  The official reason was that we want to pressure them to move towards democracy and improve human rights.  Yet when a policy fails to achieve it’s goals after a half century, it’s pretty clear you have a failed policy.   Indeed, while almost all the rest of the Communist world reformed, Cuba has remained a hold out.   To be sure, it does, along with Europe, thumb its nose at US sanctions, cutting deals and promoting tourism with EU countries.   The US ends up looking like the stubborn child who refuses to admit being wrong out of fear of looking bad.

Of course, the real reason the sanctions weren’t removed is Florida.  Before the year 2000 students were skeptical that the state could be so important in electoral politics.  After the Gore-Bush fight over Florida, they understood.  Yes, it’s more complex than that, tied up in Cold War ideology and right wing causes, but the power of the Cuban exile community in Florida, which until recently was almost universally opposed to opening ties, was key to Presidential timerity on the issue.

President Obama and the new Democratic Congress have finally dropped that failed policy, at least in part, allowing travel and more openings with Cuba.   In response Cuban President Raul Castro announced that Cuba is willing to enter into talks for major human rights reform,  freedom of the press, and anything the US wants to talk about.  It appears that wanting positive change in Cuba was best served by relaxing restrictions rather than maintaining them!

To be sure, Cuba today stands in a different position than during the Cold War, when its Soviet ally bought sugar and supported the island as Castro undertook his socialist experiment.  Since then, despite connections to Europe, Russia and other parts of Latin America — including help from Venzeuelan leader Hugo Chavez — the country has clearly not had sustainable economic policies.   Perhaps driven by the same kind of pride and bravado that led American conservatives to stick to the sanctions so hard over the years, the Cubans were reluctant to make the first move.  Now that Obama has made a gesture of friendship, they have responded positively.

I doubt that this whole conflict with Cuba was necessary.   When Castro overthrew mafia controlled dictator Fulgencio Batista in 1959, most of the world celebrated.  Castro was young, charismatic, and arguably had the interests of the Cuban people in his heart.   He correctly realized that Latin America needed land reform — it was intolerable that a tiny percentage could control most of the land, with farmers working as illiterate peasants with no health care or education in many places.  This was a remnant of colonialism, and US corporations were more than willing to buy off the corrupt elite to further their profits.

For his part, Castro hoped that the US might tolerate, or even support his calls for reform.  He did not declare himself a Communist originally, nor did he embrace the Soviets.  The Cubans and Americans had discussions, but it became clear there was one thing the US could not tolerate: Castro trying to spread his revolution elsewhere.   Even though the Americans knew that Castro was right about the injustices and inequities throughout Latin America, they feared that revolts against pro-American dictators would both undercut the profitability of American corporations doing business in Latin America, and offer the Soviets opportunities to expand their influence.  Castro refused to accept his movement being limited to Cuba, and that was enough for the US to decide Castro had to go.

The US tried to overthrow the regime in 1961, which led Castro to embrace the Soviets.  The next year that brought us the closest we ever came to a nuclear war.   The Soviets started to place nuclear missiles in Cuba, trying to match US missiles in Turkey.  At one point, the Kennedy White House was willing to use the provocation as an excuse to invade Cuba and take out Castro.  Thanks especially to the objections of Bobby Kennedy, who felt that the US couldn’t be seen as a bully state that overthrew regimes just because we didn’t like them (‘my brother cannot be another Tojo,’ he said, warning against a surprise invasion akin to Pearl Harbor), this was rejected.  Good thing too — turns out that the Soviets already had functioning missiles ready to go, and the commander in the field had already decided that if Cuba were attacked, he’d launch.  If we had followed the original plan, we’d have had WWIII back in 1962.  The Soviets took that power away from field commanders afterwards (they weren’t ready for all out war), and luckily both sides stepped away from the crisis.  The US promised to remove the missiles from Turkey and not invade Cuba, the Soviets promised to remove the missiles from Cuba, and remain silent on the connection with removal of the Turkish missiles (which would be a year later).

After that, the US still tried to get rid of Castro, but failed.  Ultimately, after fifty years in power, Castro’s health caused him to relinquish power to his brother.   Castro’s regime was not all bad either — he expanded health care and education to the masses, and arguably made Cubans much better off than they were under Batista, who cared not a wit for the people.  But Castro’s embrace of socialist ideology blinded him to the need for freedom, and ultimately the need to move towards democracy.   He justified human rights abuses in the name of both ideology and fear of American aggression.

Hence the stalemate.  Castro was successful enough that the Cuban people did not revolt — his regime is relatively popular.  But he is repressive enough that many wish to escape, and even those sympathetic to Fidel believe Cuba needs to change.   The time is right for an opening, Barack Obama took the first move, and now it looks like Cuba is reciprocating.

The US need not demand Cuba become an overnight pro-western democratic republic.   As we learned in Eastern Europe, change from communism to democracy is slow and often needs to be gradual.  But both countries can benefit immensely from an improved relationship, and if they treat each other with mutual respect and patience, we may finally be seeing the oddest and once the most dangerous aspect of the Cold War finally fade.

To those who yearn for the victory of Cuban socialism, this will be disappointing.  To those on the right who want to see Castro defeated and disgraced, a gradual, successful transition will be unsatisfying.  To most Cubans, however, it could be the start of a bright future.