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Cold War Warriors

A Diplomat’s Cold War

Tom Wajda
Willow Pond Farm, Fairfield, PA.

"A diplomat is an honest gentleman sent abroad to lie for his country"
          Sir Henry Wotton, English ambassador to Venice, 1612 –1621


The Cold War was fought on many fronts: from the deck of ships in the North Atlantic, guard posts along the Iron Curtin, ICBM silos in North Dakota, mud holes in Vietnam, and B-52 cockpits worldwide. Many of the more visible elements of the Cold War and tools our nation used to win it are burned into the minds of those who lived it. While some had upfront seats to the military side of the Cold War, I had a front and center seat to the diplomatic game of the century—a game we could not afford to lose. I was a State Department Foreign Service Officer.

From 1962 to the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990s. I served in such places as Kabul, Afghanistan, Dakar, Senegal, South Vietnam, Berlin, Paris and Washington D.C. I saw the Cold War through the eyes and ears of a diplomat for the United States in the best and worst of places, and times.

I was a career Foreign Service Officer, not a "spook" who was using an Embassy assignment for cover. I did not fly super secret missions over the Soviet Union or work at Checkpoint Charlie in Berlin. I was a working diplomat of the United States – I was just doing my job to represent U.S. national interests – wherever I was assigned - to the best of my ability, be it working on mundane issues such as union activities in a developing country or high tech issues that tied to weapons control and development in the 1980s.

Youth and Education

As a boy growing up on a farm in Johnston, Ohio I can recall becoming interested in foreign affairs. I think it came from listening to Lowell Thomas and Gabriel Heater on the radio; they described a world that was being shaped by a Cold War, which wad happening as I moved from my farm home away to college.

I attended Youngstown State University and graduated in 1962 with a B.S. in Political Science. In my senior year I took every aptitude exam possible in a search for employment. I must have done pretty well, because I came through with a scholarship to Vanderbilt University’s Masters Degree program in Political Science and Foreign Affairs.

I was still deciding what to do when the State Department contacted me and offered me an opportunity in the diplomatic corps. I took their written and oral exams and the next thing I knew I was sitting in a room with three State Department interviewers who grilled me for three hours. They would ask me questions such as "what would you do if you were a senior U.S. Diplomat in this scenario" or "OK, you’re working for Adlai Stevenson (the then US Secretary of State) in the U.S. Mission at the United Nations and dealing with the China and Taiwan issue. " What are your recommendations to Ambassador Stevenson as to how the U.S. should deal with the Taiwan issue?"

The oral ‘exam’ lasted for three hours and when it was done, I was asked to leave the room and sit in the hallway. I did as told and was not comforted when I heard my interviewers roaring with laughter as they reviewed the session. I guess I misunderstood them because shortly afterwards the door opened and I was told that I had passed and was accepted for employment as a U.S. Foreign Service Officer. I was told to report immediately for orientation and training at State Dept. Headquarters in Washington. I was on my way. The year was 1963 and the tensions from the Cold War were at their peak.

I should mention that I met my wife Madeline in 1960 while she was a student at Akron University and we were married the following year (1961). She shared in my life-long career in the State Department from the very beginning.

1963 - 1967: Tehran and Kabul

My first assignment was to the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, Iran in 1964. At the time, Iran, under the leadership of the Shah, was a staunch ally of the West and a major impediment to Soviet expansion into the Indian Ocean. This was a training assignment to prepare me for my first real assignment in Kabul, Afghanistan.

I was assigned to the embassy in Tehran where I was initiated into the American embassy and began learning the various roles. My first assignment was in the commercial office, which was responsible for helping American businesses seeking to work in the country cut through Iranian red tape. After this, I was moved to the consular office, which was responsible for the issuance of visas and for dealing with local officials when Americans ran afoul of local laws. My last assignment was in the embassy’s administration office, whose responsibilities included day-today functions like obtaining food, water, and housing for staff and security. Yes, little old me used to oversee some mighty tough Marines!

Upon completion of my last rotation at the Tehran embassy, I was sent to my first real job – Kabul, Afghanistan.

At the time of Tom's assignment to Kabul, women embraced
 western style clothing and norms

We tend to think of Afghanistan as a small, backward country. In fact, with a population of 28 million in an area of 600,000 square miles it is the 42nd most populous nation in the world. The country has a rich and significant history. In ancient times the Silk Road, which was a major pathway for trade and human migration, passed through the country. It was also the military conquest of men like Alexander the Great and Ghengis Khan. Later, in the 19th century, the country became a buffer state in the "Great Game" between the Russian and British empires.

I served in Afghanistan in a relative period of calm. I arrived in Kabul in 1965 to become Head of the U.S. Embassy’s Consular Section, an impressive title for an office of one. As the Consular Officer involved in issuing visas to the United States, I became particularly involved with Polish citizens who were working on Soviet projects in Afghanistan. The Soviets were building low cost housing units for the Afghanis - and many of these Polish workers sought visas to come to the U.S. in hopes of escaping the communist government that ruled their country.

About this time we had 40,000 Poles with visa applications that had been submitted to the State Department in Washington. One thousand (at best) might actually receive a visa, very low odds. The average Polish worker could remain on the list forever, but if they had a good, technical background they moved up on the list.

Their applications could move more quickly if they had some help, but most were terrified to approach the American Embassy because of possible trouble with the Polish or Soviet Security services. So the Poles came to me for help. They approached me at home—not at the Embassy. Through my "home office" of the Consular Section –I managed to get dozens of Poles safely through to America in the 1960s.

My wife Madeline was with me on the Afghanistan assignment (and all others during my career - except Vietnam.) You could say she was managing my Kabul "home office". She recently commented to me that she thinks "Afghanistan was much safer back then." She was right.

Since the late 1970s Afghanistan has been in a constant state of war. A victim you might say of the proxy wars that resulted from the Cold War. The Afghan government, backed by the Soviets, encountered trouble with the rise of a resistance movement, the Mujhideen. The Soviets were called in for support in 1979. Eventually, the Mujahideen overthrew the established monarchy of Afghanistan and the Soviets were forced out of Afghanistan after a long, resource draining fight. The success of the Mujahideen was largely due to US support in training and supply of weapons. With the collapse of the Marxist Afghan government, the country fell into shambles. In the late 1990s Pakistan intervened in support of the Taliban, which unfortunately lead to the rise of Al-Qaeda and the attacks on 9/11, which led to the U.S. military operations in 2001 to overthrow the Taliban government.

But back in 1960, Afghanistan was still neutral and very much in the eye of the major players in the Cold War. If Afghanistan could be won over to the Soviet cause it would serve as a wedge between Iran and Pakistan, another key US ally, and in so doing, buttress India, then a key Soviet ally which had only recently offered the Soviet Navy port facilities, and allowed its navy to challenge the US Navy worldwide.

So Afghanistan was a lynch pin that no-one could afford to lose. Major nations that were in Afghanistan in the 1960s included Great Britain, the U.S., the Soviets and the Germans. All had some particular project they were working on that was important to them. Most of these were "highway projects". For example, the U.S. was building a highway from Kabul to Kandahar, the Soviets, one from Herat to Kandahar, and the Germans were building one from Jalalabad to the Pakistan border, known as the Khyber Pass.

My encounters with the diplomats from other nations were restricted pretty much to local cultural events such as the "buzkashi". This game was a Central Asian team sport where the player’s goal was to grab the carcass of a headless goat or calf and then get it clear of the other players and pitch it across a goal line or into a target zone. It was here that we would gather with diplomats from China, the USSR, Great Britain, and Germany.

I was the unofficial photographer for our diplomats and can recall one time when the Ambassador asked me to take a shot of his party at a buzkashi with the Chinese delegation standing in the background. Of course his intention was to get a shot of the entire Chinese delegation all in one bright, sunlit place. We had strict instructions to avoid getting into any conversations with the Chinese, so this was about as close as I got to them

The Soviets were another matter. We dealt with them from time to time in official and unofficial settings. In the ‘60s you could usually spot the Soviets that were non-diplomats - or spies. I thought of them as the ex-Soviet Army Tank Drivers: boorish, crude, poorly dressed and in need of a shave. This was quite a contrast with the very sophisticated Soviet "spies" that I would encounter in the 1970s while serving in the Dakar region of Senegal. These Soviets were suave, sophisticated, and fluent in French.

The closest I came to any real action was while in Afghanistan was the 1965 war between Pakistan and India. The second of what would be three wars fought between the two countries, and one more proxy war in the Cold War between the East and the West.

As Afghanistan was a land locked country, all the supplies for the Kabul embassy had to come via the Pakistan port of Karachi, which was in the thick of the fighting. For fear that our supplies would be destroyed, I went to Karachi to round up anything belonging to our embassy and bring it back. It was a stressful and hectic few days and I did not get to rest until I crossed the Khyber pass, the main mountain passageway into and out of Afghanistan, where I ate a kabob and took a well-deserved nap.

1967 – 1970: Adapting to the Changing Times

After my tour in Afghanistan I was transferred to Washington D.C. and State Department Headquarters where I was assigned to the Operations Center which controlled the diplomatic mission of the United States worldwide and handled the day-to-day implementation of foreign policy. A stone’s throw from the White House in the Foggy Bottom area of Washington D.C., home to the CIA, this was quite a change from a one-man consular office in Kabul. It provided me a wonderful chance to see the big picture of the Cold War in all its glory.

Dean Rusk

The operations center was the nerve center of the State Department. All communications, or ‘cables’ as they were then called, were routed through the center. If the Soviets made a move anywhere in the world, news of it would soon make its way to the operations center. As one of the operations staff it was my responsibility to read all incoming cables and route them to the appropriate offices for action. In addition, twice a day we would draft a briefing paper for then Secretary of State, Dean Rusk, on key events of the day. It was not uncommon for me to find myself working alone on a weekend and getting called by Secretary Rusk, who was just checking in to see if anything was ‘afoot’ somewhere in the world.

How many of my weekend conversations with Secretary Rusk went directly to his boss, the President, I’ll never know. But it was a challenging time.

This was an era of super diplomacy where the NATO and Warsaw Pact alliances challenged each other worldwide. A time when fear of a major Soviet attack on Western Europe was waning, but when fear of a serious crisis in Europe would rise, resulting from miscalculation or mismanagement. In the plush offices of the State department we wrestled with the Cold War consequences of France’s Charles de Gaulle removing his forces from under NATO command; of a Vietnam War growing day-by-day; and of a Soviets led an invasion of Czechoslovakia to stop proposed anti-communist reforms.

Two of the more memorable events I can recall while working in the Operations center was the 1967 Arab-Israeli war and the capturing of the USS Pueblo by North Korea.

While not a true proxy war in the Cold war between the Soviets and the US, the 1967 Arab-Israeli war was nevertheless an opportunity for both sides to see how their military equipment would stand up against the other. Unfortunately for the Arabs, they quickly discovered that American tanks and French planes could out shoot and out fly anything the Soviets could build – resulting in the war lasting only six short days with the complete defeat of the Arab forces. While this complete victory was easy for our department to handle, the USS Pueblo incident posed a much greater challenge.

In 1968, North Korea took possession of the USS Pueblo while is sat in waters off the North Korean coast. North Korea claimed that the ship had strayed into their territory, validating their capture of the ship, the boat was really in international waters. This case caused things in our situation room to become complicated quite quickly. As we didn’t have diplomatic relations with either North Korea or Mainland China, we had to route all our ‘cable’ through third party neutral embassies, such as the Swiss. All the while we were in ‘damage control mode’ trying to come up with a plausible story for the President to tell the American public as to how we let this puny, backwater country capture one of our super secret spy ships. To say it was an interesting time would be an understatement!

Shortly after the Pueblo fiasco I received a new assignment. This was one assignment where Madeline and the family would stay home; I was going to Vietnam.

1968: Tay Ninh Province, Vietnam

NBC newsman Tom Brokaw in a 2007- two hour TV documentary, called 1968 "The Most Turbulent Year". For a lot of reasons that he admitted were too difficult to cover in a two hour period.

For example, there were the Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King assassinations; the bloodiest year in Vietnam combat; the emergence of a drug culture in America; the Poor People’s Campaign in Washington D.C.; anti-war protests; the USS Pueblo seizure; the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, and the bloody anti-Vietnam riots at the Democratic Convention in Chicago … just to name a few.

Proxy wars had become the front lines of the Cold War. A place where the prime adversaries could test each other’s will and capabilities in a conventional war setting. Of course there was always the chance that things could "go nuclear" - by accident. Our nation’s worst fear when well armed enemies interacted on land, sea and in the air. Vietnam was our nation’s flashpoint in the late 1960s. Matters really came to a head in 1968 – the year I received orders to serve with the Agency for International Development in Vietnam’s Tay Ninh province.

A lovely place if you were not involved in combat operations. I had served in other garden spots such as Dakar, Iran, and Afghanistan – as part of a formal U.S. legation. The nice part about these assignments – no matter how miserable – is that you got to go home to the wife and kids at the end of a busy day. Such was not the case in Vietnam. This was an "unaccompanied tour".

I arrived in Vietnam shortly after the major Tet Offensive of January, 1968. A major military campaign by the People’s Army of Vietnam against the Republic of Vietnam and the U.S. Tet was an event that forever changed the American public’s perception of the war. This was real warfare. Regular North Vietnamese army forces with irregular forces known as the Viet Cong (National Liberation Front). A rarity in the Vietnam war.

In Tay Ninh I was assigned as a State Department liaison officer to the Agency for International Development (AID). AID had been set up by President Kennedy to provide long-range economic and social development assistance efforts to developing nations of the world. It had a twofold purpose of furthering America's foreign policy interests in expanding democracy and free markets while improving the lives of the citizens of the developing world. It reflected the economic theories of Kennedy staffer Walter W. Rostow. It sought to combat the spread of communist ideology and instability that resulted from poverty.

The range of support we were providing was broad and closely tied to military efforts to "pacify" regions formerly controlled by the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong. While the principal concept in Pacification programs arsenal was to isolate villages from the Viet Cong by strengthening village defenses- we never forgot that we also had to win the hearts and minds of the Vietnamese people.

One program that was created across Vietnam to do just that was called the Civil Operations and Rural Development Support program. This was a joint civilian and military organization to develop and strengthen local, grassroots opposition to Viet Cong.

My job title was ‘Refugee Advisor.’ My role was to visit villages that had recently been attacked by the Viet Cong and assess what they needed to help the villagers get back on their feet. Things such as rice, pigs, pots and pans, not to mention help in the rebuilding of huts and community buildings. Once I had completed my assessment, I then had to negotiate – or lobby – with American and South Vietnamese offices who supplied the material. In short, I was a middleman. While it was always sad to see villages after they had been attacked, it was always fulfilling rewarding to be able to help get the villagers back on their feet. And while I myself never came under fire, a colleague of mine in a neighboring province was killed in a Viet Cong ambush while I was ‘in country.’

The pacification program did help reduce the ability of the Viet Cong to recruit from the rural population, but it was too little and too late. When the war weary U.S. pulled out of Vietnam in 1975, the South Vietnamese government collapsed and the ‘pacification’ program I worked on became a footnote in history.

1969 – 1978: Life as a Labor Attaché’

I returned from Vietnam in 1969 and was assigned to a Harvard University Business School program relating to labor and labor unions in developing countries. This related to the "Three Legged Stool" concept where most developing countries were run by three elements of their society - a single political party, the military and a Trade Union.

By now, leaders on both sides of the Cold War had come to understand that the Cold War could not be won on the battlefield, but in the minds of people in the third world. The Communists were pushing hard to convince the poor and downtrodden that their lives would be better under communism, so we had to convince them of the fallacy of that claim. The best way to do this was to help the country’s educated elite because we found that local populations tended to believe the word of one of their own over that of a foreigner.

After the Harvard Program, my diplomatic career had a whole new focus - I was a Labor Attaché and would serve at the U.S. Embassies in Senegal and New Zealand.

Strangely enough, at the time, the trade unions were mostly made up of white collar professionals. Being educated, they had a firmer grasp on as to the benefits of democracy and free market economies, and were willing to espouse it, but often lacked the means to do so. My job was to reach out to the leaders of the trade unions and help them obtain the supplies they needed, be it a simple mimeograph or fax machine to allow them to print flyers.

In this new phase of the Cold War, a simple mimeograph machine was often more powerful that an aircraft carrier, not to mention, significantly cheaper!

I completed this phase of my diplomatic career with a two-year stint at the State Department’s Foggy Bottom headquarters as the Desk Officer for New Zealand and Australia.

The role of a Desk Officer was a simple one; know more about your assigned country then anyone in the US. Simple right? Being assigned to worth with two stalwart allies in the Cold War, my life was much easier then than those my colleagues who were assigned to follow monitor our Cold War adversaries. But it still allowed me time to work one-on-one, and even occasionally down a few beers, with the leaders of those countries.

1979 – 1986: Cold War Science & Technology

By the end of my headquarters tour in 1978 I decided it was time to get back into the mainstream of State Department Cold War activities. One avenue was to become focused on the world of science and technology.

I was assigned to George Washington University’s Masters Degree program in Science & Technology Policy. This was a real "career changer" for me. I returned to State Department headquarters in 1979 and became the Director of International Energy Technology. At the time, the US and its western partners were still recovering from the 1973 oil crisis.

The crisis started in October 1973 and lasted till until March of 1974, when the Organization of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) imposed an oil embargo in response to the U.S. decision to re-supply the Israeli military during the Yom Kippur war. Realizing that the security of the west could be held hostage to countries that nominally supported the Soviets, the US and it’s western partners began coordinated efforts to free their economies from their dependence on Middle East Oil.

The principal purpose of my office was promote the sharing of ideas and advancements with our partners on new energy technologies, such as nuclear Power, clean coal and fusion energy.

I served in this capacity for two years and then received the assignment every diplomat dreams of - Paris! My years of purgatory in Iran, Afghanistan, Senegal and Dakar had paid off.

I was assigned to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), which was created in the early 60s with the lofty goal of keeping the peace following WWII through cooperation and reconstruction. OECD was made up of representatives from 24 nations. Today this number has expanded to 36.

I was labeled as the U.S. "Science and environmental guy." OECD was all about how governments could support science and technology (i.e. research and development) and use that technology to advance the cause of democracy and free markets around the world.

This was a confusing and busy time in the Cold War. And we little realized that the events of this decade would lead to the demise of the Soviet empire. The decade began with Ronald Reagan becoming our President on a platform of opposition to détente. Instead, Reagan announced our new Star Wars (SDI or Strategic Defense Initiative) program in 1983 which would eventually be a factor in pricing the Soviets out of the Cold War race.

In 1984 Britain’s Margaret Thatcher met with a new Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev (1984) and the following year he became the leader of the Soviet Union. In 1985 Reagan and Gorbachev began a series of Super Power summits. In 1986 they negotiated a major breakthrough in nuclear arms control at the Reykavik Summit.

1986 – 1991: Return to Washington & the State Department Headquarters

After four challenging years in Paris it was time to return to Washington and the life of a senior staffer at Foggy Bottom.

It was clear major changes were going on in the Soviet Union at this time. They had begun removing their troops from Afghanistan. By ’88 Reagan and Gorbachev had ratified the INF Treaty in Moscow. In ’89 the Soviets left Afghanistan; Poland had held free elections; the Hungarians modified their constitution to allow free elections There were revolutions throughout Eastern Europe. The scene was set for the collapse of the Soviet empire and the end of the Cold War.

From ‘86 to ‘88 I worked on science and technology issues for Secretary of State George Schultz. My principle task at the time was to prepare daily briefing notes (i.e. point papers) on the fast moving, complex issues of the day for Secretary of State George Schultz.

Interesting enough, one of the major issues the US wrestled with at that time was on how much technology, and by technology I mean computers, we would allow to be exported to communist countries. The US Military was staunchly opposed to allowing any transfer to occur, even the selling a single IBM PC, which at the time were making their appearance in almost every office in every business in the US.

Far superior to anything the Soviets had, the US military was afraid the PCs would be put to use in improving the guidance systems of Soviet ICBMs and by ground commanders to improve their command and control systems.

Secretary of State George Schultz, for whom I worked, had a different view. He believed that the PC would lead to the downfall of the Soviet Union because with its their ability to store information on ‘floppy disks’ - would allow Soviet citizens to more easily share information this would break the control the Kremlin had on internal communications.

Because of their stranglehold control, the Soviet Union and its allies had for years been able to delude deceive their people into thinking that conditions in the west were deplorable, and that life behind the Iron Curtain was paradise. It was Secretary Schultz’s opinion that once the people behind the Iron Curtain got a true look at the real conditions in the West, one of prosperity and freedom, they would rise up and overthrow their governments. Secretary Schultz’s arguments eventually won the day, and as history now notes, he was proven right.

In many ways, the introduction of the western made PCs into Warsaw Pack Pact countries played the same roll that Facebook and Twitter is now playing in the uprisings that have occurred throughout the Arab world.

In the end, the Cold War was not won by planes, ships or guns, but by western technology that that allowed the principles of Democracy and market economics to penetrate an a once impregnable Iron Current Curtain that had enslaved hundreds of millions. And like anything built of iron, once rust had set in, the wall was doomed.

1991 – 1995: "Sunset Tour" in Canada

My final tour as a diplomat was in Canada and I got to watch, in leisure, as the Cold War was won. Germany had reunited, the Warsaw Pact dissolved, the Soviet coup attempt against Gorbachev had failed; Boris Yeltsin’s rise to power and finally Gorbachev’s resignation as the President of the USSR and the formal dissolution of the Soviet Union. The Cold War was over! On Christmas Day, 1991. Yeltsin called President George. H.W. Bush and told him the Cold War was over!

At the U.S. Embassy in Ottawa where I was the "Officer in Charge of Science and Technology". My biggest concerns shifted from nuclear warfare and the Space Race to more mundane (but important issues such as "acid rain", agricultural pollution of streams and rivers (by chicken farms).

There was enough blame to go around on both sides of the Border. Canadian factories sending their waste materials into Lake Ontario and then to the U.S. to Alcoa Plants in Messina, N.Y. polluting both nations. It was a far cry from the Cold War confrontations in Berlin, Afghanistan and Vietnam.

With the Cold War now over, the US found itself working hand in hand with its former adversaries. During the Cold War, adversaries eyed space as the next field of battle, suddenly it because the showcase of cooperation. In 1993 the US invited its former Cold War enemy Russia, along with Brittan, France, Canada and Japan, to help build the International Space Station. The cooperation of these former adversaries in such a huge undertaking would serve as a clear single to the world that a new era of cooperation had begun.

But many members in the US Congress had doubts about the space program, and wanted to spend the ‘peace dividend’ on other projects. Congress approved the Space Station, but by only one vote, and that slim majority was only achieved with promises that other nations would help fund its construction. Including Candia, where I was currently assigned.

Like their US counterparts, Canadian members of Parliament were dubious about the benefits of the space station, and began to make indicate that they would withdraw from the agreement. Had they done so, this would have resulted in the US cancelling the station. So once again I was called in to use my ‘diplomatic skills’ honed from years of Cold War events, to save the symbol of our victory. After a lot of back room negotiating, the Canadians reversed their decisions and the rest is history.

With this one final victory under my belt, I decided to retire. When I entered the Foreign Service, American children were being taught how to ‘duck and cover’ from Nuclear weapons launched by Soviet missiles. Now we witnesses American astronauts sitting side by side with Russians atop Russian missiles headed towards an international space station aboard Russian missiles.

The world had clearly changed for the better. I had done my job, and it was now time for me to move on. …. In the French tradition, I chose a quiet place called Fairfield, Pennsylvania where I opened up an herb farm. A place where my biggest concern was too rain and its impact on my fragrant lavender.

Read other Cold War Warrior Articles

Read other articles by Tom Wajda