by Bob Baker
Part of my job at U.S. Embassy, London, was to persuade British student leaders that despite our war in Vietnam, we were still necessary and reliable partners in Britain’s most important alliance, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. That was also our bulwark against communist expansionism.
In 1973 I asked the American guys at NATO headquarters in Brussels to pay annually for a dozen British student leaders to get NATO briefings in Berlin and Mons ( NATO headquarters) near Brussels. Terry, my British assistant, and I went along on the trips, which lasted a week. They were a great way to talk in depth about politics and military realities in Europe with the students.
Later on in their adult careers the students who had been on the trips included an editor-in-chief (The Sunday Times), a major figure in the Anglo-American Corporation, members of the Special Air Service, and of the U.K. and EU Parliaments. I hope their NATO trips influenced them in later life to support U.S. interests.
British and American military officers gave excellent briefings on Europe’s military situation at NATO HQ in Mons. In Berlin, German city officials also gave outstanding briefings on the city and its problems. At the time, West Berlin was surrounded by communist power and shut off from the rest of Germany by the Berlin Wall. That kept all East Germans inside the Peoples Paradise. Escape was almost impossible. (A couple brave East Germans were killed each year as they tried to escape over, under or around the Wall).
The British (and American) publics were rarely aware of the massive Soviet military power in Europe. The briefings showed the future leaders of Britain in detail that the Soviets hugely outgunned NATO in troops, troop carriers, tanks, artillery, etc. NATO had better air forces thanks to the U.S. which also kept 300,000 ground troops in Europe. Germany voluntarily spent about $5 billion a year to help pay for our troops there. The final guarantor of West European security was our nuclear weapons shield, but our other armed forces were very important militarily and as evidence of US resolve to keep Europe free.
Berlin was the most emotionally striking part of our NATO tour. The highlight was when we got out of our British Army jeeps in the wooded part of the Berlin Wall in the British sector. The Brits, Americans and French still occupied their sectors of Berlin as agreed by the Soviet communists at the end of WW II. Soviet Moscow had set up a puppet East German state that surrounded Berlin and included the Soviet occupied sector of the city.
We looked down from the dirt road in the middle of the Berlin woods onto the massive Wall. It was weird to be in the big city, but in an entirely wooded section, no houses in sight, just the road looking down onto the East German sector. The wall was topped by huge rollers so no grappling hook could take hold of the top. Beyond the Wall, stood a high barbed wire fence, then came a smoothly swept dirt field that would show any foot prints. The last barrier to escape was a long wire along which big German shepherd guard dogs ran on very long leads. When the dogs looked up and spotted us, they ran back and forth barking and snarling. This array of obstacles helped keep East Germans inside the people‘s paradise. Every fifty yards there was an East German guard tower to stop Germans attempting to escape over the Wall.
Until the Wall was put up, hundreds of thousands of the best educated East Germans fled from East to West Berlin and then flew to freedom in West Germany. The rest of the border was already sealed by East German troops and wire. The exodus of the best educated East Germans through Berlin was ruining East Germany’s economy.
When they saw us, the two East German watch tower guards ran out of their little cabin and excitedly screwed a telephoto lens onto a camera to take close up pictures of the students, Terry and and me. (Every tower always had two guards, one to shoot the other in case he tried to escape). Those photos also found their way, no doubt, to the secret police in Moscow.
Some of the British students, often those most leftist in politics, raised their arms to hide their faces from the camera’s eye. The right wing Tory students stared defiantly at the camera or made angry hand signs. That East German camera session, I thought, was the most effective moment of the entire trip. The communist regime showed its face clearly as the watchful camera clicked for the communist secret police to record whoever came to stare at their Wall.
We also took the student leaders on a hired bus sightseeing tour of East Berlin. On the bus at the U.S. Army Checkpoint Charlie, you left the American Sector to pass through the Berlin Wall and enter East Berlin. East German guards raised a barrier pole, let the bus advance thirty feet, then lowered the pole behind the bus, but kept down a barrier pole in front of the bus, trapping it. The poles were heavy metal and not to be crashed through. Then an East German guard would board the bus to collect passports and to check on them.
Most visitors had to surrender their passports briefly to the East German guards who took them into their guardhouse. They checked their files to see if the passports were of suspicious people, then photocopied and filed them. On the way out of East Berlin, they checked to make sure the same people left who had gone in.
America did not diplomatically recognize the existence of the East German government in Berlin. Its unilateral creation by Moscow violated our treaty on Berlin with Moscow.
American diplomatic rules permitted me to show the East German guard my diplomatic passport, but not let it out of my hand. I had told my students about that over beers the night before.
A big, tough looking, East German woman guard with a Kalishnikov machine gun slung over her long, grey, greatcoat climbed heavily onto our bus. She began to examine passports. The British students readily handed over their passports. I sat in the back of the bus.
The guard came to me last. I showed her my distinctive black diplomatic passport and my picture inside it, but kept it in my hand. She tried to tug my passport out of my hand. She looked very angry. The British students were delighted at the scene and shouted, “See you in a couple years, Bob.”
Finally, she gave up the tug of war. Looking down at me, she pointed to my passport photo, and yelled, “Dot iss not you.” I replied, “Yes, it is.” The students,listening intently, loved this. Then she said, “Show me your ear!” I replied, “What?” “Show me your ear!” Since having had my passport photo taken a couple years earlier, I had grown longish hair in the London style. I pushed back my hair to show her my ear. She scrutinized it carefully and said, “Dot iss you,” and turned away from me. I put my passport back into my coat.
As she climbed off the bus with the student passports, I yelped loudly, , “James Bond !” She glanced back, then got off the bus. I looked at my mob of students and said, “It’s in James Bond. The human ear is very difficult to disguise. That must be why German ID cards always show the ear exposed.” The passports were returned to the students. (Mug shots in the U.S. also show the ear.)
Our bus drove off around the grim, still rubble-strewn streets of East Berlin, but also to its magnificent old museums. The trip gave the students a picture of the prosperous West Berliners contrasted with the grim lives of those in communist East Berlin. Ruins were everywhere in East Berlin. The truly great National Museum housed in giant rooms, an entire Roman town center, plus the thirty foot high gates of Babylon, and other wonders. It was so poorly maintained that there was a six foot tree growing out of its roof. It was dusty and had peeling paint inside and out. Since German unification, it has been fixed along with much infrastucture by West German tax money.
East German poverty in the communist system was also shown by their strict currency control. The students hated that. Because the East needed hard currency (dollars, pounds, West German Marks) so badly, every visitor had to exchange at least fifty West German Marks for an equal number of East German Marks to enter East Berlin. The real exchange rate valued the East Mark at half that. You had to spend the East German Marks before you left East Berlin and show receipts from East German shops to the border guard as you left to prove you had spent all your West German money. Otherwise, you had to just hand over your unspent East German marks to the guard.
East Germany was so desperate to get West German currency that the regime even sold large numbers of East German political prisoners into freedom for millions of dollars each year. The ransom for them was paid by relatives in the West and by the Bonn government. It was a communist economic enterprise, turning political prisoners into hard cash. In fairness, the communist system did give workers pensions, disability pay, medical care, education and supported cultural life.
The students had lots of arguments and discussions among themselves and with me about the value of NATO and our war in Vietnam, and about communism versus capitalism. The talk went on at meals and over beer every evening in some German or Brussels pub. I gave my replies to student arguments but the most telling pro-NATO and pro-freedom arguments came from the Tory students. They debated with the Labour and Liberal students, just as their party leaders did in Parliament over the same kinds of issues.
A young Labour guy from Transport House, Labour headquarters, helped me to recruit Labour student leaders He ruefully asked one day if it really was necessary to include Tories with the NATO tour groups. However, on the trip though they debated sharply, some became friendly. That lasted into their later political life thanks to mixing on an American Embassy tour. On the last bus to the airport for our flight to London, the Tories on the bus sang Land of Hope and Glory. The Labourites responded by singing The Red Flag. It was a very useful program and fun. Public support for NATO played a significant role in helping to bring down the Berlin Wall peacefully, well worth showing my ear.