Mike Pride: 46 years later, my stint as a Cold Warrior feels relevant again
On a night in early August 1968, I started my midnight-to-8 a.m. shift on a hillside farm field a short walk from the Iron Curtain. The U.S. Army had converted the field into a surveillance site near the west bank of the Elbe River. On this night there was no shortage of radio signals on which to intercept Soviet military communications across the river in East Germany.
What I heard on my high-frequency radio that night was not routine traffic – Soviet surface-to-air missile sites tracking planes or army headquarters ordering supplies with encoded messages. What I heard, in voices so loud and clear I knew the speakers were close to our out-station, was Russian tank exercises on what was generally a high-level network.
When the exercises ended, two men I took to be sergeants kept talking. One asked the other why they were training in the middle of the night. The other hesitated, perplexed that his comrade didn’t know. Finally, he said in a slightly disguised way that they were on their way to invade Czechoslovakia.
I listened to the intercept again and again to be sure I had heard what I thought I heard. Then I called in my boss and other linguists and asked them to listen. They heard it, too.
The boss, whose rank was the equivalent of sergeant, called the lieutenant who ran our detachment and suggested we send the intercept to our headquarters as critical intelligence. For reasons I don’t know, this did not happen. Maybe the lieutenant, who was green and did not speak Russian, feared what would happen to him if we were wrong. The intercept was sent as routine and never made a plink in the sea of paper at our headquarters.
Later we heard that high-level intelligence officials had been criticized for failure to produce intercept affirming the invasion of Czechoslovakia. The military rumor mill being what it is, I don’t know if this is so.
For nearly a quarter century now, I’ve thought that this – my best war story – was obsolete. The Iron Curtain is long gone. Mr. Gorbachev tore down that wall. Communism fell. Occasionally with velvet calm, sometimes through strife, the Soviet satellite nations regained autonomy.
But now, along with the many more ominous historical precedents it conjures up, Russia’s invasion of Ukrainian territory in Crimea is a reminder of its four decades as puppet-master in Eastern Europe.
In 1968, when the Soviets swept Alexander Dubcek from power after the Prague Spring, President Lyndon B. Johnson was already a lame duck. In the New Hampshire primary the previous March, Johnson had defeated the peace Democrat Eugene McCarthy by a mere seven points. Nineteen days later, Johnson quit the race.
The country was already involved in an unpopular war in Vietnam. This limited Johnson’s ability to respond to the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, although what he could have done even in a time of peace is questionable.
For us young soldiers along the Iron Curtain the invasion meant a heightened state of alert and the departure of many of our voice intercept operators to out-stations closer to the Czechoslovak border. I worked midnight-to-noon every day well into the fall.
I felt no greater sense of danger than usual during this period. It was an exciting, if exhausting, time. Particularly in the early weeks we had intercept galore, some of it in the languages of non-Russian troops. I did not speak these languages, but we had been trained to recognize Polish or Ukrainian by learning to count to 10.
One reason I wasn’t afraid was that I did not expect a military response from the United States or NATO. Nor did I think the Soviet Union would broaden the conflict.
We all identified with Dubcek and his compatriots’ yearning for freedom. We all chuckled over reports of Czechoslovak resisters pointing Prague road signs in the mountains the wrong way to misdirect the Soviet tank drivers. But I didn’t see what our country could possibly do to stop the tanks on cobblestone without risking a war no one wanted.
When the Iron Curtain disappeared 21 years later, my personal history as a Cold Warrior seemed to vanish with it. But now, 25 more years later, it feels relevant again.
The border of the Russian sphere of control has receded, and communism is dead. What has endured is big-man rule in Russia – from the tsars to the commie dictators to Vladimir Putin – men who use brute power to seize what they think they need to maintain control.
President Obama is getting an earful of advice, some of it critical and partisan, as he tries to counter the Russian power grab in Ukraine. But it’s no easier now than it was in 1968 to deal with the ruthless regime in Moscow. Maybe it is even harder in this age of a weaker NATO and a global economy.
If history is any guide, Putin and the Russians will have their way. The best we can hope for is to limit the damage and move on.