As I write, the crisis in Ukraine continues unabated. At the time this article is published, it is impossible to say where it will have led. I hope it works out well, but as always with events like this, anyone can guess. Even the key players can’t say for sure – not even those who initiated them.
But perhaps it is useful to put these events in context. I’ve been through a few of them, and although I’m not a historian, diplomat, or military professional, I’ve come into contact with them a bit more than many others. I would like to offer some ideas. British writer Rudyard Kipling spoke about “The Great Game”. He was talking specifically about the rivalry between the British Empire and Russia under the Czars at the end of the 19th century. But the game, the rivalry, has been going on for millennia. Egypt against the Hittites, Athens against Troy, Alexander the Great against the Persians, Rome against Carthage, England against France, England against the Spaniards, etc. the same. We have participated in it for most of human history. Sometimes it seems like that’s what we do best, often to the exclusion of real progress.
By a quirk of fate, I found myself serving in the Air Force in Berlin in the early 1960s. At that time, Germany was divided between East and West. Berlin, the capital of Germany before World War II, was deeply rooted in the eastern part of Germany, and it too was divided between East and West. Allied forces, Britain, France and the United States occupied sectors in West Berlin, while the Soviets occupied East Berlin. The agreement for such a division was decided at the Potsdam conference in 1945 after the capitulation of Germany. President Harry Truman represented the United States, Prime Minister Clement Atlee represented the United Kingdom, and Joseph Stalin represented the Soviet Union. The French refused to participate.
West Berlin was a thorn in the side of the Soviets and the communist East German state. From the start, there were tensions between the two sides: the Soviets resented the Allied presence so deep in their area of control, and the contrast between living in the east and west was a constant reminder differences between the two competing systems.
In June 1948, Stalin decided it was time to drive the Allies out of Berlin. The Soviets closed all rail, road, and sea access to Allied-controlled areas of Berlin. The only access the Allies had left was by air, and for 11 months they delivered food, coal, and other supplies, even candy for children, to Berlin by transport plane. It was probably not the first provocation by the Soviets, but it was the first to reach a crisis point. Eventually the Soviets gave up and opened the roads, rivers and canals to traffic from the West.
An interesting side note to this incident: when the Soviets blockaded Berlin, President Truman sent a squadron of B-29 bombers to England. B-29s were the type of aircraft that dropped atomic bombs on Japan. Now only a few B-29s were capable of carrying A-bombs – but Stalin could not say which could and could not deliver nukes. This may or may not have been helpful in convincing Stalin to back down, but it was a clear message that the United States was determined to protect its interests in Berlin.
Other clashes followed. They have become a regular occurrence in Berlin. The city was, as the writers put it, “a hotbed of intrigue and conspiracy”. When I arrived in Berlin in November 1962, the Wall had been in place for over a year. It aimed to stop the exodus of skilled workers which was seriously affecting the East German economy. I was assigned to an intelligence squadron at Tempelhof airport. When I arrived, many people were in Berlin when the Soviet tanks rolled to the dividing line between East and West Berlin and the workers started building the Wall. No one on our side knew exactly what the Soviets would do and where they would stop. I was told that when the incident began, our squadron received arms and ammunition in case Soviet forces moved on Allied military installations. By the way, while I was on my way to Berlin, the Cuban Missile Crisis took place. The United States and the USSR clashed on the precipice of nuclear Armageddon. Fortunately, cooler heads prevailed and the world moved on. My squadron in Berlin was responsible for monitoring the communications of the Soviet, East German and Polish air forces. Our technicians and language specialists were on duty 24/7, constantly monitoring and listening to every electronic signal coming from these forces. Our task was to create a picture of the disposition and strengths of these forces, to watch for signs of impending action, and to alert higher authorities to our findings. Thus, we have witnessed incidents involving aircraft in the skies around Berlin and beyond. On January 28, 1964, an unarmed USAF T-39 aircraft was shot down while on a training mission over Erfurt, East Germany, by a Soviet MiG-19 jet fighter. Because Erfurt was closer to one of our sister squadrons in West Germany, the incident happened in their coverage area, but our people in Berlin could hear the Soviet pilots as well. This incident made a deep impression on those of us in our Berlin squadron, as the wreckage of the T-39 was brought to a hangar at Tempelhof Airport on flatbed trucks. For about a week we saw this wreckage on our way to and from our squadron location. This shooting was not an isolated incident. Since the end of World War II, the Soviets had taken to shooting down planes that violated what they considered to be their airspace. A Google search for “Soviet shootdowns” lists various incidents in which Soviet fighters fired on and destroyed planes, many of which were unarmed. On September 2, 1958, a US Air Force C-130 reconnaissance aircraft strayed over Soviet Armenia. Soviet MiG-17 pilots shot down the aircraft and all 17 crew on board apparently perished. A transcript and recording of the Soviet pilots in this shootout is available in this Google search.
Perhaps the worst such incident was the shooting down of Korean Airlines Flight KAL 007 on September 1, 1983. In this incident, a Soviet fighter pilot shot down a Korean civilian airliner that had strayed into the above Soviet territory and had been mistaken for a US Air Force reconnaissance aircraft. who is in the area at the time. It was dark and the Soviet pilot could not see the details of his target. However, a general on the ground insisted that the aircraft be shot down. All aboard were lost.
The worst incident during my stay in Berlin was when the Soviets decided to prevent a US Army convoy from entering Berlin. Tensions became very high and our squadron commanders considered activating the squadron defense team and distributing arms and ammunition again. Years later, here in Newberry, I met a man who had been in that army convoy.
He said, “I was a captain in an artillery company in that convoy. Our tubes were unhooked and aimed directly at the Soviet tanks. All we had to do was load a cartridge and pull the tether, and that would have been the start of God knows what.
This incident and others never made the headlines here in the United States. They have become so common that they have often been overshadowed by other events. Other hotspots, like the 38th parallel dividing South Korea and North Korea, also have incidents so often they go unreported unless really serious. My point in reporting these incidents is that such confrontations and provocations were all part of Kipling’s “The Great Game.” Again, he was talking specifically about the rivalry between the British Empire and Russia under the Czars in the late 19th century. These two rivals are gone, but the game continues, as it has for millennia. This time we are at the table, China too, and there are reports that Putin’s problem is that he feels left out and wants to be recognized as a player. Lately though the stakes involve nukes if things get really bad.
You would think that after about 5,000 years of civilization, we would have learned better.
John Sukovich is a Newberry County resident and a retired professor of business and other computer science courses at Midlands Technical College.