by Karl Sommerlatte
The author was born in Indiana in 1923. He was a Soviet affairs specialist for many years in the U. S. Foreign Service. He reports on his career in the following memoir addressed to his fellow graduates of the U. S. Naval Academy at Annapolis, Maryland. Particularly interested are his comments on the complications of life in Moscow as an American diplomat. —Ed.
A member of the Class of ‘46, graduating in June 1945, my orders took me to the South Pacific in search of the Brock, APD-93—location unspecified.
After camping out on various islands in the Pacific, I found myself on Okinawa when the war ended. I flew to Atsugi airfield in Japan landing there three days after MacArthur. Brock was serving as Harbor Entrance Control Vessel in Tokyo Bay.
Returning to the States at the beginning of 1946, I volunteered for training in bomb and mine disposal. I ended up serving as an instructor in the Ordnance Disposal Unit at Indian Head, Maryland.
Early in the winter of 1947, I received a call from my commanding officer, ordering me to accompany him in driving to Portland, Maine. There we were taken by Coast Guard cutter to the island of Matinicus, Maine. Margaret Chase Smith, senator from Maine and the ranking Republican on the Armed Services Committee, said a mine had washed ashore and she wanted the Navy to deal with it. A similar mine had washed ashore a few weeks earlier, and one of her constituents had lost his arm.
Leaving about midnight, we drove straight through to Portland and found our Coast Guard cutter waiting to take us to Matinicus. In those choppy waters that cutter did things no ship should do. I experienced my first, and happily last, bout of seasickness. I kept away from my mustang [ex-enlisted] commanding officer since I felt he might take particular pleasure in seeing an Academy graduate seasick.
Locating the mine on the island, my commanding officer queried, “And what do we do now, Ensign Sommerlatte?” “Destroy in situ,” I responded. We had brought along explosives to do just that.
No way. Ensign Sommerlatte was ordered to carry that mine back to the cutter and place it in the trunk of the Plymouth we had driven from Indian Head. Back in Washington, my commanding officer marched me, still carrying the mine, into the old Navy Department building on 17th Street. There I deposited it on the desk of the officer whose duties included supervising our unit in Maryland. He was less than enthusiastic about receiving a deteriorating mine, particularly in that building.
At that point, I began to think I might make a better contribution to the U. S. government in the Foreign Service. I passed the competitive exam and turned in my resignation prior to entering the Foreign Service, having completed my mandatory Navy service.
Assigned to Singapore in 1949, I began to report on the communist insurgency then enveloping the Malaysian hinterland. I came to think that this movement could only be understood by studying its source. I volunteered for Russian language training, and after completion I was assigned to our embassy in Moscow. I arrived there a month before Stalin’s death and stayed at our embassy building on Mokhovaya Place, on Red Square facing the Kremlin.
When Stalin died, I was sent to stay in the Metropol Hotel on the other side of Red Square. I was directed to make frequent trips between the embassy and the Metropol, using my diplomatic card to facilitate travel between the embassy and the Metropol.
Moscow is laid out in concentric circles. The inner circle surrounding the Kremlin was completely sealed off from the rest of the city. Only carefully screened Russians were permitted to enter the inner circle and form the long line viewing Stalin’s remains—around the clock.
Troops and militia were everywhere. Except for them and the line viewing Stalin, it was a ghost town. Even embassy personnel movement was restricted, but since I was an embassy employee bedding down elsewhere, my passage between the two points was permitted, albeit reluctantly, and only after painstaking review of my documentation by all militia I encountered.
While doing just that, one trip I noticed unusual activity at Stalin’s coffin. A number of viewers were being escorted to the head of the line, and I was able to see Georgi Malenkov, Lavrentiya Beriya, and Nikita Khrushchev, in that order, at the head of the line. This was the first indication we had that Malenkov would succeed Stalin as head of the Politburo.
The level of Western intelligence in Stalin’s post-war Russia was roughly equivalent to the intelligence available to our government about Arab terrorism on 11 September 2001. In fairness to our intelligence agencies, humint or human intelligence, which is the primary means of gathering information of this sort, is probably the most difficult to acquire. When restrictions are placed on means of acquisition, as has recently been the case, it may be well nigh impossible to obtain.
So it is not surprising that we first found the announcement in Pravda that the wily Khrushchev had conspired with Beriya to have Malenkov removed and sent to a minor administrative post in Siberia. Later, Khrushchev again conspired with other members of the Politburo to have Beriya declared an “enemy of the state” and executed. Khrushchev then was clearly able to assume the reins of power.
Prior to his death, Stalin tired of looking out from the Kremlin to see the American flag flying on Red Square. The Mokhovaya building had been offered to the U. S. government in the halcyon days when Roosevelt recognized the Soviet Union in 1933.
We had been ordered to move to a new location, a few kilometers distant, on the second of the concentric circles that surround the Kremlin, and had been preparing for the move prior to Stalin’s death. As general services officer, a major portion of this task fell on my shoulders. The attempt to organize the ensuring chaos of such a move resulted in a Russian language officer being assigned, for security reasons, to ride on each truck moving embassy effects.
This did give the officers one of the rare chances to meet and converse with Russians who were also assigned to the trucks. At the conclusion of the move, we were able to give a party in the new embassy for those laborers. A party in Russia means vodka — and massive amounts were consumed. It fell to me the responsibility of getting out of the embassy the significant number of Russians who could not, after imbibing, make it out on their own.
There are—or were at the time—a significant number of “sobering up stations” where Russians may wear off their hangovers. I took the laborers to one, paid their fines that are more of a clean up fee, until they were able to make it home on their own.
After the move was completed, I was assigned to the political section. Along with the ClA station chief, I was able to make one of the first post-war trips to Siberia on the Trans-Siberian Railway. We were able to overnight in Kurgan, one of the few cities in Siberia not closed to foreigners. Again, our level of intelligence was so limited that we spent our time walking the city, attempting to locate significant buildings and make a rough map of the city.
On the return trip to Moscow, we counted boxcars as we had on the trip out, noting the times of trains as they passed. Those were our instructions from the CIA since they had little information on the extent of traffic on the rail system In the Soviet Union at the time.
In October 1954 near the end of my tour in the Soviet Union, my then-wife, Betty, asked a friend, Billie Stiff, to take a walk around the embassy simply to get some outside air. Billie was the wife of the Marine Corps attaché. A few blocks into their walk they came across an adorable small Russian child. Billie carried a camera and asked the mother’s permission to take a picture. At that point, two plainclothes men who had been following them appeared and herded them into a nearby building. When they saw there was nothing of interest there as had been suggested, they were accused of attempting to photograph trash which apparently had been in the background. As Betty attempted to leave the building she was manhandled by one of the plainclothes men. Billie then courageously slapped the agent, and he dropped his hold on her. They were then permitted to make one call to the embassy.
When I received the information, I grabbed an embassy driver and scoured the surrounding area until I found them. I engaged in vigorous exchange with their Russian captors. I pointed out they were being held in violation of their diplomatic status. They were then released, and we returned to the embassy.
Despite strong embassy protests the Soviets adhered to their version of the incident. They stated my wife, who had no camera, had attempted to photograph trash in the street and declared her persona non grata. She was ordered to leave the country. I, of course, departed with her and nearing the end of my tour of duty did not return.
Returning to Washington, I learned that Kenneth Landon, whose wife was Ann Landon and author of Anna and the King of Siam, had requested my assignment to Thailand. He had followed my reporting on the communist insurgency in Malaysia, and wanted me posted as consul in the northern city of Chiengmai, a city closer to the border of Communist China than its capital, Bangkok.
At that time, little could be learned about developments in Communist China where borders were virtually sealed to most Westerners. The hill tribes, however, knew no boundaries. They traveled freely from Yunnan in southern China through Burma, Laos, and northern Vietnam and Thailand. From and through them we were able to gain information about some developments in southern China.
|Zagreb, Yugoslavia, 1964. U. S. Consul General Sommerlatte (at left) and his former wife, Betty Jane, in a receiving line for Marshal Tito (right).
Further assignments continued to focus on areas where the communist threat was perceived. Returning from Chiengmai I was first assigned to Intelligence and Research and then as the Department’s desk officer for Czechoslovakia, the Soviet Union’s most docile satellite. After that tour of duty I was sent to Munich where I served in the consulate general as the Departments liaison with Radio Liberty and Radio Free Europe, the CIA sponsored organs broadcasting to the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe.This tour was interrupted to fill a vacancy as first secretary of our embassy in Prague, Czechoslovakia, now known as the Czech Republic after separating peacefully from Slovakia. Following that, I was assigned as consul general in Zagreb, now Croatia, then in Marshal Tito’s Yugoslavia, a Communist state that had broken away from Soviet domination.
After returning for a tour in Washington, I had remarried and the Department decided that since it was not I who had been declared persona non grata I should return to Moscow as counselor of embassy. There I was the second ranking officer during the extended period between Ambassador Beam’s departure and Ambassador Stoessel’s arrival.
When Minister Counselor Dubs was absent, I served as chargé d’affaires. During the Nixon visit to Moscow in 1974, just prior to his departure from office, I attended a reception in the Kremlin given when chiefs of state visit. There I observed Secretary of State Kissinger standing alone in the middle of the large reception room. Early in training in the diplomatic service, junior officers were instructed not to allow senior officers, much less the secretary of state, left standing alone at receptions. After introducing myself to the secretary, I found him fuming “he [Nixon] should not be up there along with Brezhnev. Especially in his situation.”
Seeking to defuse the matter by switching topics, I said “Mr. Secretary, I want to thank you for the confidence you reposed in having me serve as chargé during Minister Counselor Dub’s absence from the embassy.” His reply came “But Dubs, Dubs. . . ,” trailing off in his heavy accent. That response told me he had not himself read any reporting [cable] traffic from Moscow during the sometimes-extended period that the minister counselor was absent. The secretary undoubtedly felt he did not need information from the embassy since he was getting all the information he required from the Soviet Ambassador in Washington. That, however, might not necessarily be the case. Developments contrary to Soviet interest would certainly not be relayed by Ambassador Dobrynin to the secretary. A further consequence of not reading cable traffic is not knowing who is in charge of an embassy. That is certainly not a requirement for the many, many missions abroad. But Moscow was and is a bit different. No other country had nuclear weapons at that point, and a man In charge of the mission there had, if nothing else, a capacity for mischief.
More than a quarter century has passed since my last departure from Moscow. I have not returned but cannot help but follow developments there closely. Since the breakup of the Red Empire just ten years ago, we have warmly embraced the unstable Yeltsin, the man formerly known as the Butcher of Ekaterinburg. That was the city where the Czar and his family were murdered and interred. Yeltsin ordered their remains dug up and destroyed so that no communist government would be able to recover the bodies and give them a decent burial. And the man who “manned the ramparts” as the Gorbachev regime tumbled was the same one who sent Russian troops to destroy the building housing a democratically elected parliament only two years after assuming the presidency.
And this same man ceded power to Vladimir Putin, undoubtedly more stable than Yeltsin. Putin, however, is a former KGB officer who served as station chief in East Berlin. And Putin is the man who has permitted export of strategic arms materiels to such countries as North Korea and Japan. In the light of 11 September, however, we have no option but to accept whatever support Russia will lend to the anti-terrorism war.
So when we are told that the Cold War is over, I certainly hope this is the case. I cannot fail to note, however, that Russia retains its missiles and refuses reasonable—and reciprocal—offers of inspection of nuclear sites and arsenals.
First printed in the U. S. Naval Academy Alumni Association publication Shipmates, Dec. 2001, in slightly different form. Republished by permission of the author and Shipmates.
January 17, 2002