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Cold War Warriors

Was it Real?

Major Ted Streeter, USA Ret

In my previous article I mentioned standing in front of the Kremlin, gazing in awe at the huge red star that sat atop the building. It was almost a religious experience. There I was, at the center of international communism - our worldwide, monolithic enemy during the Cold War. The center of a nation bent on the subjugation of the western world and the transformation of its citizens into robotic figures in a socialist world. In thinking thusly, I was echoing the overwhelming opinion of western civilization – that the Soviet Union was a huge bear, ready to pounce and devour at the first sign of weakness. Always probing for soft spots in the West.

But then was then and now is now - and now….. I'm not so sure. Before I go farther, I must issue a caveat. I am neither a Sovietologist nor a trained historian. I was, from 1961 until 1995, merely a participant in the east-west conflict. Therefor, what I will offer in this article, is a Wikipedia of ideas. A series of questions and answers, compiled from my own observations as well as those of others. I will leave it to the reader to accept or reject them.

Was the USSR a monolithic Empire?

The first question I would ask is whether the Soviet empire really was as monolithic and unified in purpose as it was portrayed in the West. I would submit that it was not. The obvious example is the Peoples' Republic of China (PRC) which proclaimed its undying comradeship with the Soviets when Mao took power in 1949. But, as we saw, that lasted for about six years at which point a rupture took place and almost culminated in a nuclear exchange before an uneasy truce was achieved. But, the question applies more subtly I believe to the Soviet’s empire in Eastern Europe - commonly referred to as the "Soviet Bloc". Although the term implies monolithism, the reality in my opinion, was anything but.

Look at the means by which the Soviets gained dominance over Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Poland, East Germany, Hungary, Romania, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria, and Albania (I purposely do not include Yugoslavia). In the northern states, dominance occurred by outright military invasion and occupation during World War II. In the southern states, it resulted largely from a deal gone bad that was crafted by the Western Allies. A deal which granted the Soviets hegemony in the south, which allowed them to install their own puppet leaders. While these leaders remained loyal to the Kremlin, their people were anything but - as evidenced by the 1953 East German uprising, the 1956 Hungarian revolt, the 1968 "Prague Spring", and the continuous military occupation of Poland.

Was the Soviet Union Aggressive?

That situation impacts directly on the next issue, commonly referred to as "Soviet Aggression". Was the Soviet Union really as aggressive as it was portrayed by the west? Despite such statements as Nikita Khrushchev's, "We will bury you!", and other saber rattling by the Soviets, I would argue that it was not. But what about the supposed Soviet attempts to spread communism worldwide? Let's take a look at that picture.

Iron Curtain Descends over Europe

When, as Churchill famously declared that an Iron Curtain had descended over Europe "from Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic", the world became firmly divided into "two armed camps" - Washington vs. Moscow. An understanding was quickly reached, whereby each side was free to act as it pleased in its own sphere of influence without risk of significant or meaningful interference from the other. An unspoken protocol was established. Eisenhower, despite calls to do so, refrained from physical involvement in the 1956 Hungarian uprising. The battle between Socialism and Capitalism could take place in non-aligned countries, many of which (e.g. India and Egypt) exploited to their advantage. Washington could act overtly against Soviet incursions in the Western Hemisphere outside of Cuba (Nicaragua, Granada, etc.), but not in Afghanistan, which lay within the Soviet sphere of influence. Similarly, the Soviets recognized that they could not act overtly against the U.S. during our Southeast Asia involvement. Overall, a line was established which both sides understood, and could not be crossed. Khrushchev breached that understanding when he foolishly introduced Ballistics Missiles into Cuba in 1962, thereby bringing the world the closest it has ever been to nuclear war. Fortunately cooler heads prevailed. So, were these and other acts committed by the Soviets "aggression"? No more, I would say, than those committed by the U. S. Of course, the away-team is always labeled as "bandits" and the home-team "freedom fighters", but I would argue that the Moscow-Washington competition was just that – not aggression -, and was carefully calculated to avoid open conflict.

Imagine being in the Politburo in 1945, gazing westward out the window, and seeing (if you could) 1500 miles of flat, open terrain – nothing between Moscow and the German border except excellent country for armor and mechanized infantry operations. You would recall that in the previous 150 years alone (and before that as well), the motherland had been successfully invaded across that very same terrain, in 1812 by Napoleon, and in both World Wars by the Germans. In each instance, the only thing that saved Russia was its winter. Can you take the chance that it won't happen again? That would be unwise. But, obviously, although you can't change the terrain you can change the borders. By expanding them as much as possible - you can create a well fortified buffer zone through which an enemy must fight before reaching the Russian border. The question is how to do it?

A Soviet Buffer Zone - the Warsaw Pact

Warsaw Pact Countries

I briefly discussed this previously, but will now indulge myself in a short review. Gaining control in northern Europe was not much of a problem. Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia really didn't count. They were occupied by the Russians with little objection from the West. Likewise, occupation of Germany by the Soviets was also a fait accompli and was legitimized when Germany was divided into four zones of occupation. Poland, however, was another problem. Not only did it have a history of democracy, but during World War II, ex-expatriate Polish divisions had fought with the Allies and there was a legitimate government (the London Poles) resident in England. To get around this sticky point, the Soviets simply set up their own government (the Lublin Poles), that they claimed truly represented the interests of the Polish people. That government conducted elections which, of course, the Communists won, and that was that. Parenthetically, I worked in NATO with a German officer who, as a child, walked 400 miles from Danzig to Germany during the summer of 1945 to avoid being subjected to Soviet rule. He was certainly not alone.

In the south - Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Romania, etc. - presented a different, but not insurmountable problem. They had not been occupied by Allied forces but had, in fact, been virtually ceded to the Soviet sphere of influence by Churchill in accordance with his "balance of power" theory.

Rather than use overt military occupation as they had in the north, which occurred during active hostilities and couldn't really be justified now that the war was over, the Soviets resorted to "agitprop" (a Russian acronym for Agitation and Propaganda) and other means of organizing small, dedicated, cadres of true believers, along with a series of mysterious disappearances and "suicides" of pro-western government officials. By 1949 all of Eastern Europe lay behind the Iron Curtain and within the "Soviet Bloc".

A couple of interesting asides. First, while the leadership of the Soviet Bloc was decidedly Communist - the people were not, as previously noted by the uprisings that took place in East Germany, Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Poland. The exception to this pattern was Bulgaria, which placidly accepted Soviet domination. Why the exception? There had always been a "big brother – little brother" relationship between the two slavic peoples. The Bulgarians, for instance were the only country outside of Russia to use the Cyrillic alphabet. But, another example is, I believe, more telling. You will recall that the election in 1981 of John Paul II as the first Polish Pope presented a serious threat to Soviet domination of overwhelmingly Catholic Poland. And, you will recall that his would-be assassin was Bulgarian. A Soviet connection? I'd bet on it!

Secondly, there was Yugoslavia. The Soviets never occupied Yugoslavia because Marshal Tito, a dedicated Communist, threatened open resistance if it were attempted. And, as the Germans learned, the Yugoslavs were excellent guerrilla fighters. So, the Soviets wisely thought better of provoking that conflict and left the Yugoslavs alone. Again, parenthetically, the Yugoslavs had one of the best intelligence services of the Soviet Bloc.

So, by 1949 the Soviets had their buffer zone - Eastern Europe - firmly in their grasp, and insured it by constructing a physical barrier, culminating in the Berlin Wall, from north to south. Although the barrier was ostensibly to prevent socialism from being tainted by capitalism - in reality it served to stop the hemorrhage of eastern citizens who were deserting the socialist paradise.

The Warsaw Pact – Alliance for Aggression?

Military consolidation occurred in 1955 with the establishment of the Warsaw Pact. Again, like the term "world communism", "Warsaw Pact" assumes a monolithic force of Russians, Poles, Czechs, and Hungarians. Dedicated Communists poised to strike as one at Western Europe given the slightest opportunity. But, is this assumption valid? Was the Warsaw Pact an organization of aggression? For that matter - could it be?

I think not for the following reasons.

First, personnel. We all remember the U.S. "hollow army" of the '70s. After Vietnam was concluded and the draft was stopped, the U.S. Army Europe consisted largely of half-filled units, rife with racial tension and drugs. But, it is not widely known that the Russians suffered from similar problems. A study of photographs of Russian military units from the '60s through the '80s will show a gradual demographic shift from purely Caucasian faces – Great Russians and White Russians – to the infusion of more and more Asiatic faces – Tajiks, Azerbaijanis, etc. World War II had killed off many Caucasian Russian, potential parents. When the '70s and '80s arrived and those who might have been born would have reached the age of military service - there were not enough Russians to fill the draft quotas. Consequently, other sources had to be tapped. This situation resulted in racial tension and unrest in the Soviet ranks, at least equal to that in US units, as evidenced by the many reports we received. Obviously a detracting factor to unit cohesiveness and fighting ability.

Soviet Military Mission License Plate

There was also the issue of maps - an indication, I believe was one of trust placed in the troops. Each side had Military Liaison Missions on the other's territory. These units were essentially intelligence collection units although they were officially deemed to monitor the activities of the opponent. The Soviet Military Liaison Mission (SMLM) (known as the "Smell-ums") in the German Federal Republic, were based in Frankfurt. Each morning the Soviet Sergeant Major would go to the American PX to pick up a copy of "Stars and Stripes" and, when published, copies of the Army, Navy and Air Force Times to glean information on troop movements, personnel transfers, and other items of interest to the Soviets. At any rate, the Soviets also monitored US and allied field exercises, and were amazed to find that maps were issued to squad leaders, i.e. Corporals and buck Sergeants. In the Soviet system, no one below the grade of Colonel was entrusted with a map. Imagine the difficulties this would produce in maneuvering troops in combat.

A short aside. A German officer told me that on one occasion a SMLM vehicle pulled into the middle of a Bundeswehr (German Federal Defense Force) exercise in which he was participating. A German NCO then pulled two vehicles up tightly on either side of the Soviet car, so they could not get out, and placed a tarpaulin over the vehicle so they could not see. I asked the officer whether the NCO had received a medal for his actions. "No.", he replied. "He was just doing his job."

Secondly, equipment. No doubt the Soviets produced some fine equipment. The AK-47 is still considered one of the world's best assault weapons. But, the Soviet weapon philosophy contained two flaws - one in design and the other in its maintenance. As for the first, during my tenure in NATO - I spoke to many German officers who had attended the Indian Defense College. You'll recall that during the '60s and '70s India played both sides of the fence, accepting what it could - from both the U.S. and the Soviets. From the latter it received a great deal of military equipment – tanks, armored personnel carriers, etc., - which my acquaintances had the chance to try out. To a person - they told me that the Soviet armor was cramped, poorly organized in terms of controls, awkward, not air-conditioned, etc. This is not to say that armor should have had the amenities of a Greyhound bus, but crew comfort accounts for a lot in sustained combat as I'm sure any tanker will tell you. In addition, the Soviet Hind helicopter, pictured and feared as a giant flying battleship, could not hover when fully armed. Unlike the US Apache or Cobra helicopters, the Hind had to keep moving at all times, which severely affected its ability to spot, aim, and shoot at targets.

Thirdly, maintenance. The Soviet philosophy on maintenance was directly opposed to that of the U.S., in that they believed that the less equipment was used, the better shape it would be in when needed. Anyone who has stored a car in a garage for months, let alone years, knows the fallacy of that thinking. But the Soviets had huge tank storage barns in which their equipment sat unused. Again, imagine jumping in the vehicle when needed and expecting it to fire up right away. Additionally, in the Soviet T-54/55 tanks at least - the turret had to be removed to service the engine – not an easy thing to do under combat conditions.

Curiously, this "no use" philosophy seemed to extend to the Soviet Navy as well. While I was on the intelligence watch at the Pacific Command headquarters in Hawaii, we used to watch the Soviets transfer their fleet every six months from Vladivostok, back and forth to Socotra, a spot in the Indian Ocean off the horn of Africa. On each occasion, half the fleet towed the other half. They would then sit for half a year at Socotra, and be towed back to Vlad. Very strange.

Lastly, and in my opinion most importantly, Soviet fears. We've recounted how the Soviets came to occupy and subject eastern Europe, and how, as demonstrated in riots and uprisings, the people resented Soviet domination. The Russian political and military commands must have known that the moment the Warsaw Pact forces crossed the border into western Europe, they would have a two-front war on their hands. Who would follow the Russians? The Czechs? The Hungarians? The Poles? While there were undoubtedly loyal Communist officers, what about the average troop? Men who had been inducted against their will to defend a cause they didn't believe in? To fight for a nation that had subdued their own? I have no doubt that there would have been immediate anti-Soviet uprisings in most, if not all, eastern bloc countries, as evidenced by the fact that they all broke away from the Soviet Union as soon as Gorbachev said he would permit it. And, NATO, by the way, had maps for their pilots - showing safe areas where they could bail out in the east and be protected from capture.

All of the above is a hodgepodge of bits and pieces of information drawn from memory and opinion. But, I believe that, in sum, they dispel the notion that the Soviet Union was an aggressive force capable of and bent on destruction of the West. They had severe limitations and I believe they knew it.

The Soviet Empire Collapses

Beatlemania in the USSR

By the 1980s, for a number of reasons, the Soviet Union was spent. The Old Bolsheviks had died off; the World War II siege mentality was gone and the command economy had failed. Finally, technology and modern communications had improved to the point where the younger generation could tune in on the Western media - despite government attempts at jamming. Also, U.S. space and other technical achievements (e.g. moon landing, space shuttle) had far outpaced the Soviet ability to keep up. The telling blow, in my opinion, was Ronald Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), known as "Star Wars", which I believe to have been a monumental bluff. I just don't believe that we had the necessary technology to do what SDI said it could, but through hype (I remember seeing a film of a laser punching a hole in a rocket shell) and the Soviets' knowledge of our past achievements, they became convinced that we could do it and that it would break their bank if they even tried to counter it.

And so, in 1991 the Soviet Empire ended. And a much safer world was created. Was it all a misunderstanding? Was Eisenhower right in warning us of the "military-industrial complex" that allowed defense contractors to make billions? I'll leave it to somebody else to address those questions. I don't know.

The final question to me is, "Will it happen again?" Obviously eastern Europe won't be occupied again, but Russia seems to be heading back toward an authoritarian, dictatorial form of government. A government that chooses to be confrontational with the west. My own answer to the question was voiced by the Beatles - "Let It Be."

I enjoyed my 35 years in the Cold War intelligence and security business. I would do it again in a heartbeat. Truth be known, I kind of miss it.

Ted Streeter is a retired U.S. Army Major with 22 years service and an additional 13 years service with the federal government, all in the field of intelligence and national security. He retired from the Gettysburg Borough Council on December 31, 2011, after 14 years service: seven as Council President.

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