Sotheby’s in New York City has announced that, in May 2023, it will be auctioning off what it asserts to be “The Earliest Most Complete Hebrew Bible.” Some observers believe that this antique artifact might sell for as much as $50 million, which would make it the highest-priced book ever purchased.
Before we place our bid, however, let’s take a few moments to examine the book’s significance in terms of its impact on the Western tradition – and consider the auction house’s claim. After that, we can discuss price.
Codex Sassoon (shown in the above photo) is the “book version” of the Hebrew Bible (although, to be accurate, both the scroll and the page-bounded-codex formats are equally considered to be books). Most importantly, this artifact is an extraordinary example of the Masoretic Text – the classic Hebrew manuscript tradition that underlies all Hebrew Bibles and most Christian Old Testaments published today. More on this concept of the “Masoretic Text” a little later.
For now, we can say that this offering by Sotheby’s is a magnificent Tanakh – a 24-book “Hebrew Bible,” which except for missing a number of its original chapters, is equivalent to the 39 Old Testament books in today’s Protestant scriptures. It is among the top half-dozen of nearly 30 surviving manuscripts produced by Jewish scribes in the Near East between 900 and 1200 CE.
NOTE: Since we are discussing important Hebrew artifacts, let’s use the dating abbreviation “CE” for Common Era where necessary in lieu of the more familiar “AD” (in the year of Our Lord).
According to a tally provided by Harvard scholar David Stern, the examples of this important Jewish genre that have survived to today include 21 Masoretic codices with dates recorded in colophons (scribe-provided appendices), 8 or 9 codices without colophons, and hundreds of leaves orphaned from their original works.
Here’s the main takeaway: the Masoretic Text has served as the core foundation for virtually all Hebrew Bibles for the last 1,000 years. Equally significant, this text tradition has provided the primary Hebrew source for translating the Tanakh into vernacular languages for Old Testaments produced by Protestants since Pentateuchs first appeared in Luther’s and Zwingli’s Bibles in the 1520s.
Luther’s Pentateuch – Book of Genesis
Based Upon the Masoretic Text
Although Luther published his first edition of the New Testament in 1522, he would translate the Pentateuch into German one year later in 1523.
Luther would lead a small team of collaborators in completing the rest of the Old Testament in 1534, including the Apocrypha. Confirmed as deuterocanonical by Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox faiths, these works with names such as Tobit, Bel and the Dragon, and I & II Maccabees were not in the Hebrew Canon. As such, Luther and other Reformers would relocate them from their original placement in the Old Testament of the Latin Vulgate Bible to a separate section just before the New Testament.
For his German Pentateuch, Luther appears to have used one the earliest Masoretic Bibles ever printed – a Tanakh produced in 1494 by the Jewish Soncino family of publishers in Brescia, near modern-day Milano, Italy.
As Luther was working on his Bible to support the German Reformation north of the Alps, Huldrych Zwingli and his co-translator Leo Jud would advance the Reformed Movement by completing the Swiss-German translation of the entire Zurich Bible, including the Old Testament, in 1531.
Both Luther and Zwingli would take advantage of the Masoretic-based Rabbinic Bibles being produced at the dawn of the Reformation by Flemish printer Daniel Bomberg, a Christian newcomer to the Most Serene Republic of Venice — a wealthy city-state located at the northern end of the Adriatic, which had become a safe-haven for many European and Mediterranean Jews forced out of their homelands.
In 1517, one year after Erasmus of Rotterdam published in Basel, Switzerland, his revolutionary first edition of the Greek-Latin New Testament (Novum Instrumentum Omne), Bomberg would publish his First Rabbinic Bible, called the Mikra’ot Gedolot (“Large Scriptures” – referring to the size of the folio edition and the critical apparatus on each page). This first of many “reference/study Bibles” to emerge during in the 16th Century was edited by Felix Pratensis, a classical Jewish scholar, who had converted to Christianity and had become an Augustinian monk.
Bomberg’s next effort would represent a vast improvement over his earlier version of the Hebrew scriptures. It would have a similar effect on Old Testament scholarship as had Erasmus’s Greek-Latin editions on the New Testament: Bomberg’s Second Rabbinic Bible (and its derivatives) would dominate the market for Masoretic baseline documents – especially for Christian translators of the Old Testament – up until the 20th Century.
For his Second Edition published in 1524-25, Bomberg would make good use of the editorial acumen of Jacob ben Hayyim ibn Adoniyahu, a Jewish Sephardic scholar, who had emigrated from Tunisia to Venice. Ibn Adoniyahu re-organized the format for each page by expanding the critical apparatus employed for exegesis, study, and translation of the Hebrew into vernacular European tongues.
Virtually all of the Christian-published Hebrew editions used by Reformation-era translators would be Masoretic and based upon the Flemish printer’s productions.
Eight decades later, subsequent printings of Bomberg’s Second Rabbinic Bible, supplemented by other Masoretic-based scripture produced by Christian publishers, such as Sebastian Munster’s 1534-35 Hebraica Biblia (featuring a Latin translation), would serve as the primary Hebrew and Aramaic sources for the King James companies of translators working on the Old Testament (1604-1611).
By the mid-Twentieth Century, a Masoretic Bible that currently resides in the Russian Federation (read on) would finally overtake Bomberg’s Second Rabbinic edition as the go-to Hebrew language source for the majority of Bibles produced for the Judeo-Christian world.
Today, the Latin Vulgate remains authoritative for Roman Catholics – as does the Septuagint for the Greek Orthodox church – particularly when used in traditional liturgical settings. However, even these long-established Christian faiths often consult the Masoretic Text for their translations of the Old Testament into modern languages – especially for ecumenically developed Bibles, such as the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV). A slightly modified NRSV-UE (Updated Edition), factoring in several new sources (discussed below), was released in 2022.
The term “Masoretic Text” derives its name from Jewish scribes – the Masoretes – who, for over four centuries (from approximately 600 CE to 1000 CE) had been developing rather idiosyncratic methods for tracking the variations within and between the Bible manuscripts being produced by hand.
Although the origin of the appellation “Masorete” remains debated, most scholars believe the term to be associated with the concept of “one who counts” – which is similar to the meaning behind the term sofer, used to designate a qualified Hebrew scribe today. This makes perfect sense, as these Medieval copyists did keep count of the variations within and between manuscripts, particularly in spelling and word choice; and the Masoretes would often provide a tally of their findings.
Indeed, one of the important requirements of a Sofer sTaM – a modern Jewish scribe who performs the sacred duty of producing by hand a Sefer Torah (the scroll form of the Pentateuch) – is to count three times the number of letters in the Torah that he has painstakingly completed. (Today, that labor-intensive requirement for Torah proof-reading is often fulfilled by means of a computer scanning program.)
So how many letters are there supposed to be in a Sefer Torah? Answer: 304,805.
Today, when a member of an Orthodox Jewish congregation takes the lead in reading from the first five books of Moses during a worship service, that individual is expected to use a Sefer Torah (the scroll form) – one that has been faithfully produced through the efforts of a sofer scribe and thoroughly checked for errors.
Nevertheless, the printed codex (modern bounded-book) format of the Hebrew Bible is perfectly acceptable for personal study and reading in the pews.
Often, the preferred codex version of the Hebrew Bible is the Chumash – shorthand for “five-fifths” of the Torah – or the five parts of the Torah (e.g., the Pentateuch). However, Chumashim typically contain much more than just the five books of Moses.
The first section a modern Chumash (such as the Stone Edition of the “ArtScroll Series,” published by Mesorah Publications, Ltd., in New York City) provides the Torah passages in Hebrew; but each page also features a Targum in Aramaic – an authoritative translation recorded by First Century CE sage Onkelos. In English-speaking countries, an English translation of the reading is provided on the same page. Moreover, the Bible passages include extensive interpretive notes provided by eminent Jewish scholars from the past; most often, these are observations furnished by 11th Century French Rabbi “Rashi,” who Maimonides, writing about a century later, would proclaim as the “Father of Commentators.”
A Chumash also contains selected passages from the Nevi’im (“Prophets”), which is the second division of the tripartite Hebrew scriptures (the third division being the Ketuvim or “Writings”). The Nevi’im portion of the Chumash provides the Haftarot readings (or Haftaros) for the service. These are correlative passages that support the Torah readings, the highest authority of Jewish Scripture.
For example, during Shabbat services for Orthodox congregations who observe Ashkenazic traditions, a Kohen (a priestly function determined by genealogy) first reads the weekly Torah selection from a scroll. Next, a Levite (also a hereditary-honorific office) reads the corresponding Haftarah passage from a separate scroll. This rotation between Torah and Haftarot readings may take place several times over the course of the service. As the Kohen and Levite read from the scroll versions of the Bible, those in the congregation may follow along and participate in the oral blessings and responsive readings provided in their Chumashim.
Scholars are uncertain as to when the practice of linking passages from the Prophets to specific teachings in the Torah first began. According to one leading Rabbinic tradition, it started during the reign of Seleucid King Antiochus IV Epiphanes in the early part of the 2nd Century BCE (Before the Common Era). The king had implemented a series of draconian laws designed to “Hellenize” his Jewish subjects.
One such edict issued by this Greek-speaking tyrant was to ban all public readings of the Torah. Devout Jews responded by circumventing this decree: they read from the Prophets instead. This quiet protest continued until Judea was liberated during the Maccabean Revolt in the 160s BCE, when Jews could again read the “teachings of Moses” without fear. However, they would henceforth follow the Torah passages with corresponding readings from the Prophets.
According to the Gospel of Luke, Jesus began his ministry in Nazareth nearly two centuries later by reading from the book of Isaiah, which had been handed to him by the leader of the synagogue. In this regard, Jesus was perhaps performing the function that had begun to take root by then: the public reading on Shabbat of a corelative Haftarah passage that complemented the preceding Torah reading.
Much later, as the Mishnah (the oral elaboration of the written Mosaic law) and other Rabbinic writings were being codified (about 200 CE), specific Haftarot readings began to be liturgically linked up with their Torah counterparts.
No doubt, as Jesus was about to begin those Sabbath readings in that small Galilean meeting house, he would have been handed the scroll version of Isaiah.
The codex format – for which a scribe would write on both sides of the papyrus or parchment, sew the pages together, and then add some bark or leather for a spine and cover – had just been invented by the Romans and was in its infancy in the form of small wax-covered notepads.
As evidenced by Rylands P52 – a small papyrus fragment from the Gospel of John, which may be the oldest extant passage from the New Testament – Christians would begin transitioning from scrolls to the more user-friendly and less costly two-sided codex format roughly 100 years after Jesus’s ministry. It would take the rest of the Greco-Roman world several more centuries to follow suit. Jewish counterparts would adopt the codex much later, and this was most likely due to exterior cultural influences resulting from the historical reality that most Jewish scribes at the time were living in the Islamic world. (Muslims would adopt the codex format for the Quran early on.)
Often, early Masoretic codices featuring the Torah and Haftarot included a section called the Hamisch Megillot (the “Five Megillos” or “Scrolls”). This section consists of short books from the Ketuvim (Writings), the third division of the Tanakh (the complete Hebrew Bible). Passages from these works remain in modern Chumashim and are still read during festivals as follows:
Passover: Song of Songs
Shavuot (Pentecost): Ruth
Ninth of Av (the Destruction of the Temple): Lamentations
Sukkot (Tabernacles): Ecclesiastes
Regardless of the format – e.g., the scroll form or the two-sided page-bounded codex – today’s Hebrew Bibles and Christian Old Testaments are direct descendants of the manuscript tradition that became stabilized through the efforts of the Masoretes no later than the 10th Century CE.
The system of notations created by these Medieval scribes is called the Masorah. The term is in a sense a homonym for the similar-sounding Hebrew word for “tradition” (as in the song from “The Fiddler on the Roof”); however, the origins of the two terms are apparently distinct.
Indeed, today we can consider the Masoretic Text as the “traditional” version of the Hebrew Bible. However, to fully grasp the complexity of the process, we need to consider the etymological origins of the term “Masorah” in the context of the “counting scribes” and the system that gave birth to this enduring textual tradition.
The purposes of the Masorah can be summed up as follows: (a) to promote the technical accuracy of the written text, and (b) to ensure the correct reading of the text. However, the primary goal of the Masoretes was always to preserve for successive generations the most authoritative version of the written word.
Let’s take a glimpse into the inner workings of the “Masorah system” by examining the notations in the following photo of a leaf from the Aleppo Codex.
First, we’ll consider the “Masorah Parva.” The “Parva” is the series of often single-letter abbreviations inserted between the margins used to call out a variation, perhaps in spelling or the inconsistent use of a word. More often than not, the Parva abbreviation identifies an exception to the norm or an omission – and the notation informs the reader how many times that variation shows up in the codex.
The Masoretes did not use Arabic numerals. Instead they employed Aramaic “square-shaped” letters to identify the times that interesting variations appeared in the text (e.g., ב = 2 , ג = 3 , ד = 4). As this was five-hundred years before dictionaries would make their debut in Europe – and more than a thousand years before the invention of modern spell-checkers and text editors — these “counting scribes” seemed to fixate on unique spelling, grammatical choices, and omissions. The most common Parva symbol was the “lamed” (ל) – an abbreviation for the Aramaic word “none.” It was polite way of noting that this was the only place in the entire codex (or book) where that unique spelling (or other variation) appears.
For example, if the Masorete checking the copyist’s work noted the same unusual variation in spelling, word choice, or tense appearing in other places, the Parva notation would call out the number of times the feature occurred. The “Masorah Magna” – the micro-script written along the top or bottom of the pages – in turn would direct the reader to those other locations.
At times, the “Magna” notation might provide a brief elaboration regarding the issue and offer a comparison of an alternative spelling or word with a different meaning found elsewhere in the same text or even in other Bibles. In that sense, the Magna notations functioned similar to modern footnotes. Rarely, however, would a Magna comment offer an extensive exegetical analysis beyond the morphological or mechanical implications of the variation.
Lastly, the “Masorah Finalis,” which was written on a separate page placed at the end of the section or book, would provide a statistical recap of some the variations. The “Finalis” would often include interesting data, such as the total number of words in the section or book, the middle word, and the middle consonant. At times, Masorah Magna comments too long for inclusion on the relevant page would be added to the end of a section.
The artfully affixed Masorah Parva and Magna notations seem to beautifully decorate the pages, reflecting the styles of the individual scribes. Because the main purpose of these marginal flourishes was to moderate further variations by subsequent copyists, the Masorah is often referred to as “the Fence Around the Torah.”
This rather gentle but complex process – that of noting variations in the manuscript without directly criticizing or correcting the scribe who first copied the biblical text – resulted over time in the reduction of the types of mechanical deviations in the Hebrew scriptures that the Masoretes thought substantive enough to address up front. The Masoretes’ centuries-long efforts did reduce subsequent scribal errors. By contrast, Christian scribes working on Bibles in the scriptoria of Europe would continue to be plagued by compounded transcription problems through the introduction of the printing press.
It should be noted as well that, while the Masorah notations varied from scribe-to-scribe, the end result would be the same: the stabilization of the textual tradition of the Hebrew Bible more than four centuries before the dawn of the Reformation.
No later than 600 CE would the first Masorete scribes begin working semi-independently in three major Jewish centers in the Islamic world – “Babylonia” (Mesopotamia), Palestine, and the Galilee.
Eventually, the family of Masoretes headed by Aaron ben Moses ben Asher, who resided in the town of Tiberias on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, would produce the codex-formatted Bibles that would set the standard moving forward.
The suzerainty that these Tiberian Masoretes achieved in the craft of Bible transcription was facilitated in part by their refinement of one of the vocalization schemes for reading and chanting the verses. In effect, they achieved a happy marriage between a stable written text and a distinct but colorful oral tradition.
The Tiberian vocalization system perfected by the Ben Ashers featured vowel notations (dots and lines, called niqud), which were affixed to existing letters in order to help shape the sounds of the consonants. These “vowel points” were provided because the Hebrew alphabet, using the Aramaic square-shaped script, possesses virtually no vowels. The scribes placed these ingenious markings below, above, and sometimes inside the affected consonants as guides to readers.
Next, the Ben Asher scribes offered a highly popular system of cantillation tropes (te’amim), which served as musical guides to cantors for stressing syllables and chanting the Bible passages.
Often, one scribe would first perform the transcription of scripture using a vorlage (an authorized text placed “before the hand” and used as an example). Then a second Masorete would add the vocalization and cantillation markings, and perhaps the punctuation. According to colophons affixed at the end of some of the codices, scholars have determined that a third hand at times – in effect a “master Masorete” – would conduct the final review of the Bible and then painstakingly provide the critical and numerous Parva, Magna, and Finalis notations.
In summary, the centuries-long project of the Masoretes resolved three basic issues: (a) it eliminated inconsistencies and produced a reasonably fixed written version of the Hebrew Bible; (b) it preserved for readers one of the primary oral traditions for pronouncing the words while reading out-loud; and (c) it offered successive generations clues as to how the verses of the Bible might be chanted.
According to David Stern, the popularity of the Ben Asher clan’s Bibles was furthered by the visual aspects of each page of their products – and the practicality of providing notations addressing all three of these issues on each page.
It is important to note that, although the text of today’s Sefer Torah is indeed “Masoretic” and thus largely unchanged over the centuries, the Masorah and the Tiberian vocalization notations remain absent from this scroll version of the Torah. This was a requirement established much earlier by Rabbinic tradition. By comparison, a modern Chumash retains the vocalization markings but excludes the Masorah notations that were present in the earlier codices produced during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Lastly, the commentaries in a modern Chumash tend to be far less concerned than the Masoretic notations about technical variations in the text and focus instead on exegetical analysis.
Let’s return briefly to the final stage of the age of the Masoretes. The revered Jewish philosopher “Maimonides,” who had emigrated from Spain to Cairo in the 12th Century CE and created the famous treatise, the Mishnah Torah, declared one such Masoretic Bible produced by the Ben Asher family to be the most perfect representation of Scripture that he had ever seen. Subsequent Masoretic Bibles would trace their lineage to that earlier ideal.
Copied by hand onto parchment circa 930 CE, that important Bible is known today as “The Crown of Aleppo” – or simply “The Aleppo Codex.” This extraordinary manuscript experienced considerable adventure traveling around the Near East before its surviving pages made their way to the “Shrine of the Book” at the Israel Museum in modern day Jerusalem.
Unfortunately, only about 60 percent of the Aleppo Codex survives today; and most of the Torah is missing. The official explanation for this tragic loss is that the codex, which had been safeguarded by Jews living in the Syrian city of Aleppo for over five centuries, suffered the ravages of a fire in 1947 resulting from Muslim riots protesting the United Nations’ recognition of the modern state of Israel.
However, investigative reporter Matti Friedman, in his 2012 book, The Aleppo Codex, presents a convincing alternative case – that after having been smuggled out of Syria in the late 1950s almost entirely intact, the famed Bible was judicially confiscated from the Aleppo Jews by the secular Israeli government, which sought to preserve the new nation’s cultural legacy.
In the course of the transfer of the Aleppo Codex, the pages mysteriously went missing while under the stewardship of the Ben-Zvi Institute in Jerusalem (named for Yitzhak Ben-Ziv, the President of Israel at the time, who had founded the academic institution years before). A well-respected scholar named Meir Benayahu was the managing director of the Ben-Zvi Institute while its founder was serving as Head of State.
In negotiating his way through sealed court records and partially destroyed documents, author Matti Friedman discovered that Benayahu had been quietly dismissed from the Institute in 1970 for having peddled a number of artifacts and manuscripts under his organization’s care to outside collectors – perhaps as religious talismans.
Friedman’s theory, which no one has vigorously challenged, is that much earlier, Benayahu had sadly sold off the critical portions of what is perhaps the most significant manuscript in the entire Judeo-Christian canon to its highest bidder.
To be frank, we may never know what exactly happened to the missing portions of the Aleppo Codex – undoubtedly the most influential Hebrew Bible of all time.
Of the remaining Masoretic Bibles that have survived, the most authoritative example of Hebrew scripture next to the Aleppo Codex is the Leningrad Codex – known by manuscript specialists as Firkovich MS. Hebrew I B19a.
Unlike the Aleppo Codex, the Leningrad Codex is virtually complete. Coupled with the fact that the Aleppo Codex had never been thoroughly examined by modern scholars before it was smuggled out of Syria and 40 percent of its pages had been lost, the Leningrad Codex has served since the early 20th Century as the primary source for most modern versions of the Hebrew Bible and recent translations of Christian Old Testaments.
Christian Bible translations produced in the 20th and 21st Centuries and their updates, such as the NRSV-UE, have undergone minor changes in response to Dead Sea Scroll finds published since the 1990s – modifications based in part on the few pre-Septuagint (LXX) fragments judged to be relevant. However, even these partial scraps of parchment do not dislodge the Masoretic Text exemplified in the Leningrad Codex from its position as the most influential source for scholars seeking to refine modern versions of the Tanakh and the Christian Old Testament.
The Leningrad Codex, which was produced in Cairo in 1008 CE, made its way to Ukraine in the 19th Century; and it eventually ended up in hands of the Russian National Library in St. Peterburg, where it resides today. Buttressing its authority as the most definitive and complete of the Masoretic Bibles is the conclusion held by many scholars that the scribe who created the Leningrad Codex over 1,000 years ago used the Aleppo Codex as his vorlage (template). To be sure, the surviving parts of the older Aleppo Codex are consulted in the rare instances where the Leningrad and Aleppo manuscripts diverge.
The Museum of the Bible (MOTB) in Washington, D.C., owns two of the finest examples of Medieval Masoretic Texts produced during that same era. To help conserve the artifacts, they are rotated from public viewing every few months.
The Washington Pentateuch, the first of two exquisite Masoretic codices under MOTB’s care is one of the oldest, nearly complete Hebrew Bibles. It features a Torah produced around 1000 CE, perhaps in Egypt.
During its initial sojourn in the Near East, a number of folios from the Washington Pentateuch were lost; but they were replaced in 1141 CE by a later scribe. Because of its Tiberian vocalization notations, modern scholars believe that most of the Washington Pentateuch can be associated with the same scribes who produced the Aleppo and Leningrad Codices.
The other beautiful Masoretic Bible at MOTB is the Codex Valmadonna I, which was completed in 1189 CE by Jews living in England during a perilous era of anti-Semitic persecution. This extraordinary artifact is currently on display on the 4th Floor of the Museum, located near a colorful video projection of Maimonides describing his philosophy and legacy.
“Codex Valmadonna I” (named after the trust that once owned it) is an early example of an annotated Bible with Masoretic notations. The codex features most of the Torah and the Haftorah readings from the Prophets, including Targum translations in Aramaic. It also contains the Targumim for Ruth and Esther, both books of the “Five Scrolls” from the Ketuvim/Writings. This beautifully crafted codex is an early forerunner of the modern Chumash used by Jews today.
The term “holocaust” was first introduced into the Western lexicon by chroniclers describing the murder of 150 Jews trapped inside “Clifford’s Tower” in the northern city of York in 1190 CE. Following a series of pogroms throughout England about the time of Richard the Lionheart’s coronation, the ink on the Codex Valmadonna I had barely dried before this horrible event took place.
One-hundred years later in 1290 CE, the Jews of England, who had been living in ever mounting fear – although supposedly protected as “wards of the Crown” – were expelled from Britain by King Edward I.
Thanks to the Mel Gibson film Braveheart, Edward “Longshanks” (Edward I) is recalled in popular culture as “The Hammer of the Scots.” What is less known is that, as Longshanks was finishing his hammering of both the Welsh and the Scots, this notorious Plantagenet villain stripped the Jews of England of their wealth and property, canceled the repayment of all loans owed to them (or made the balances payable to him), and crowded them onto boats (some derelict) for the perilous voyage across the choppy channel to the Continent. According to Holinshed’s Chronicles (1587), one English ship captain transporting expelled Jews to France via the Thames Estuary convinced his passengers to walk with him along the sandbank during low tide. After reaching some distance from the boat, the captain suddenly ran back to his vessel as the tide was advancing, turned his ship back to London with the Jews’ possessions on board, and left his bewildered human cargo stuck in the mudflats to drown in the rising waters.
After an absence of more than three-and-a-half centuries, in the 1650s, Jews began returning to the British Isles in relative safety. This was the result of a propitious convergence of interests shared by Puritan leader Oliver Cromwell and scholar-publisher Menasseh Ben Israel (a Portuguese-born Rabbi living in Amsterdam).
I am fortunate to have in my possession a first quarto edition of the first Masoretic Bible edited and printed by a Jewish publisher north of the Alps (below). The creator of that unique Tanakh was none other than Rabbi Ben Israel, who had negotiated with Cromwell the revocation of the expulsion order of King Edward I. While Ben Israel owned his own printing house in Amsterdam, many of his publications were underwritten by Henricus Laurentius, whose name appears on the title page. This rare Hebrew Bible was brought over to England by perhaps Ben Israel himself – or certainly by someone in the first wave of the returning Children of Israel.
Menasseh Ben Israel’s Biblia Hebraica (Amsterdam, 1631/1635)
(At one point during the latter half of the 17th century, this Hebrew Bible was owned by Thomas Neale: Groom-Porter to Charles II, James II, and William III; Member of Parliament; Master of the Mint; and first Postmaster-General of the American Colonies.)
Getting back to Codex Sassoon – which is coming up for auction in New York – the question remains: Considering its historical importance and superb example as an early Masoretic Text, can this book nevertheless challenge the status of the LeningradCodex as “the earliest, most complete Hebrew Bible,” as Sotheby’s is asserting?
First of all, Codex Sassoon is missing about 15 chapters, including much of the Book of Genesis. Second, the claim by Sotheby’s that it was produced before the Leningrad Codex is based upon handwriting analysis (often subject to opinion) and by Carbon-14 dating of the parchment (the results of which are usually presented in a plus-or-minus range of several decades or more).
By comparison, the date of the virtually intact Leningrad Codex can be established with far more precision as 1008 CE (plus or minus one year). This is because both the date and place of its completion were inscribed in the colophon at the end of the codex by the very hand of the Masorete who completed the job.
Therefore, aftercareful consideration of these relatively minor flaws in the characterization by Sotheby’s of Codex Sassoon, if anyone is still interested in partnering up and throwing a few million dollars into the mix, I suggest that we “low-ball it” and offer only $39M in our opening bid. 😉
You may be asking at this point, if not Codex Sassoon — then which is “the most valuable Bible in the world”?
The answer to that question is easy:
– Whether Jew or Christian, it is the Bible that each of us is currently reading.
* * * * *
Menasseh Ben Israel, Biblia Hebraica – Printed in Elegant Typeface: A New Edition from the Most Accurate Review of the Most Learned and Famous of Hebrews Menasseh Ben Israel. Amsterdam: Underwritten by Hendrick Laurensz, Amsterdam Bookseller, 1631/1635.
Marc Brettler, “The Masoretes at Work,” Bible Review 13/4, 1997.
Ellis Brotzman and Eric Tully, Old Testament Textual Criticism (Second Ed.). Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2016.
Michael D. Coogan, Ed., The Oxford History of the Biblical World. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.
Paul D. Wegner, The Journey from Texts to Translations: The Origin and Development of the Bible. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1999.
Matti Friedman, The Aleppo Codex: In Pursuit of One of the World’s Most Coveted, Sacred, and Mysterious Books. Chapel Hill: Algonquin Books, 2012.
Ben Outhwaite, “Samuel ben Jacob: the Leningrad Codex B19a,” Fragment of the Month. Cambridge: Cambridge University Library, January 2016.
Ben Outhwaite, “The First Owners of the Leningrad Codex,” Fragment of the Month. Cambridge: Cambridge University Library, November 2017.
Rabbi Nosson Scherman, The Chumash (The Stone Edition): The Torah, Haftaros and Five Megillos with a Commentary Anthologized from the Rabbinic Writings. Brooklyn: The ArtScroll Series, Mesorah Publications, Ltd., 2001.
David Stern, The Jewish Bible: A Material History. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2017.
Emanuel Tov, Textual Criticism of the Hebrew Bible (Third Ed.). Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2012.
Dance of the Desert – the theme I chose for this blog post – is a celebration of life; it’s not a dirge for the dead or a lament for barren, long-lost lives.
At least that’s my take from spending two weeks digging on top of a mountain in Israel during February with a happy group of young and “more senior” archaeologists, students, and international volunteers – all members of Masada Expedition 2020 (see the links to my videos and photos below).
Led by Dr. Guy Stiebel (Professor of Archaeology at Tel Aviv University), this season’s dig at Masada at first glance seemed less concerned than one might expect about discovering new evidence regarding what happened to the 967 men, women, and children, who Romano-Jewish historian Flavius Josephus (a contemporary living during the events) claimed were awaiting their fate at the hands of the Tenth Legion, as the Romans breached the citadel’s walls in the year 73 or 74 of the Common Era ((CE); (AD for Christians)).
(Spoiler alert: Josephus reported that all but a few of the rebels committed suicide rather than submit to the Romans.)
Given the symbolic importance of the mountain to the modern state of Israel – “Masada shall not fall again!” – the fate of nearly 1,000 Jews who sought an elusive state of independence from an outside power on top of that remote promontory nearly two-thousand years ago serves as the subtext for just about any scholarly or scientific investigation there. Moreover, because the so-called “Masada Myth” (a story disputed by some scholars) remains so indelibly intertwined with the creation narrative of the modern nation of Israel in 1948, the mountain’s popularity has grown to the point that it is now the most visited archaeological site in the entire country. Nearly 7,000 tourists from around the world make the pilgrimage to the top of this spectacular shrine to “freedom” every day.
With this in mind, expedition director Guy Stiebel’s mission for this round of Tel Aviv University-sponsored investigations (first initiated in 2017) is properly focused not so much on how the rebels and refugees died, but on who they were, and perhaps more importantly, how they livedand survived during those harrowing times of the Great Revolt (66-74 CE). By using a combination of the latest in scientific methods and old-fashioned physical labor (provided by archaeology students and history buffs like me), Guy’s teams have made a number of fascinating discoveries – not only about the diversity of those living on Masada during the revolt and the nature of their refugee-camp living conditions – but also about later inhabitants, such as Christian monks, who led monastic lives in long-forgotten caves serving as silent cells of devotion.
It was great fun to be working outdoors in a such a stunning setting with an enthusiastic group of professional scholars, students, and retired folks. A real international “geek-fest,” the participants (about 30 my first week and two dozen my second) represented the nations of Australia, the U.K., Ireland, Spain, Canada, the Netherlands, the U.S., and Israel.
I have to admit that it was the most physically demanding, sustained activity that I have participated in during the last 20 years. However, the extra time spent at the gym in the months leading up to my departure for Israel was well worth the investment and helped prepare me to accomplish my tasks without injury – and left me asking for more. The result is that the rigorous work, intellectual discourse, and fun on top of the mountain and below in the classroom were nothing short of exhilarating. In addition, I accomplished my personal goal of walking up both the “snake path” on the eastern side of the mountain (about 1,000 vertical feet) and the less challenging Roman siege ramp on the western side.
The days were long. Pottery washing (of the previous day’s finds) at 6:15 AM, followed by breakfast at 7 AM. After collecting personal gear and expedition equipment from the office at the base of the mountain, catch the first gondola at 7:50 AM. Back down off the mountain, with the equipment and the day’s pottery finds secured in the office, around 3:30 PM. Shower, rest; then coffee and chocolate at 5:45 PM, and a lecture by a visiting scholar at 6 PM. Dinner at 7 PM (every meal 100 percent Kosher). Archaeology class (mandatory for Tel Aviv University students) at 8 PM. Guy then conducts his nightly “pottery readings,” categorizing, and recording of “finds” from 8:30 PM until sometime before midnight (a bit blurry-eyed by then, I would attend only two of these late-night sessions).
I thoroughly enjoyed each of the evening lectures and the personal one-on-one conversations with Guy Stiebel, who is clearly the world’s leading scholar-archaeologist not only regarding Masada, but also with respect to the Roman military system and Judea during the Herodian and Roman periods. The personal interest he took during his busy schedule was a real treat – showing me for instance how to employ “sensory” archaeological techniques, such as “tasting” pottery to distinguish between rock and man-made items (hint: the real stuff is salty), ascertaining whether you’ve dug down to a dirt-packed floor or bedrock by listening while you tap on the surface with your trowel (although quite hard, dirt floors make a thud, whereas bedrock rings with a “ting”), and identifying imported terra sigillata by lightly grazing the pottery across your lips (e.g., the broken edge of the imported item is rather smooth and doesn’t cut your skin like a Judean-made object might).
These were learning experiences that I will never forget (although I expect that I will have little opportunity to put such skills to use back here in Northern Virginia).
Unfortunately, I failed miserably at Guy’s efforts to teach me how to identify pottery by period and culture (at least within any reasonable margin of error). It took me a couple of days just to get the hang of distinguishing between a rock and something other than a rock (no duh. . . that’s pretty important, Bruce!); and a few more days to recognize the difference between basic Byzantine pottery and stuff that wasn’t (which might have had something to do with the fact I was combing around in the Byzantine stratum at the time).
Then, I learned from my area supervisor that ancient Judean pottery-making techniques, while adequate for creating functional items, left an imperfect tell-tale black membrane between the outer and inner layers when the clay was fired in the kiln. During the second week, I got around to recognizing the difference between basic storage pottery and that used for cooking (the items used for cooking looked a bit chard . . . now you’re thinking I’m a bit slow on the uptake. . . and you would be right).
Finally, I came around to accepting the fact that a handle or a rim of a jar, because of their unique designs, were more useful in identifying items than a mere chunk from the side of some pot.
To be honest, watching Guy and the other experts quickly identify freshly dug-up “finds” during the day — or witnessing them sorting and recording mounds of pottery during the late-night “readings” — was akin to watching an alchemist turning lead into gold. At the time, I recalled the old farm-yard adage about the pig looking at a wristwatch: he knows something’s going on inside there; he just can’t figure out what. Now I know how the pig felt.
On a more serious note, I particularly valued the leadership, organizational skills, and mentoring provided by Angela Hodson, who, as both my area supervisor and the Expedition’s administrative officer, was privy to very little sleep during her month at Masada. Although I was a newcomer to archaeological field work and an unknown quantity as far as Tel Aviv University was concerned, “Angie” and her colleagues treated me with extraordinary kindness and generosity of spirit throughout. In addition, I learned a great deal from the young archaeology students, who tirelessly worked on their hands and knees alongside me.
In short, I had a blast during my time with Masada Expedition 2020!
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VIDEOS and PHOTO ALBUM
A Note on the Photos and Explanatory Comments
While the photos, captions, and videos will provide you with a sense of what it’s like to work on an archaeological site in Israel, I need to be circumspect about providing any cogent summary regarding the major “finds” and the functions of the individual areas. First of all, I’m obviously not an expert. More importantly, for reasons related to intellectual property rights and administrative restrictions vis-à-vis the governing Israeli authorities, the publishing of archaeological finds and making judgments about the function of specific areas on Masada fall under the purview of Dr. Guy Stiebel and Tel Aviv University. Guy will be publishing his reports in the months ahead; and he will be coming out with a new book on Masada later this year.
Due to these sensitivities, as you review my photos, I ask that you not download them or post them on social media. However, please feel free share a link to this blog post with friends and interested colleagues.
Clearly, I take full responsibility for the information, videos, photos, and comments in connection with this blog entry; and they do not necessarily reflect those views, perspectives, or conclusions of Dr. Stiebel, his staff, or Tel Aviv University.
When you are ready to experience Masada Expedition 2020, just click on the links that follow:
NOTE: In order the read the entire caption for each photo, I suggest that you click on the little “i” in the circle (“Info”), which is located on the top right-hand corner of your screen. In fact, it’s probably useful to keep that “Info” panel open as you advance through the photos.
I hope that you will enjoy the photos, videos, and music!
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One last observation about my experience in Israel:
Despite continued trials in the region, life goes on with gusto in the modern state of Israel – particularly on the part of the more youthful segments of its population. A nation of unexpected diversity, it’s amazing how the seemingly chaotic Israeli democracy continues to flourish in perhaps the most turbulent corner of the planet. I believe that this can be attributed in part to the thirst by its younger generation to live life to its fullest, despite whatever tomorrow may bring. However, the principal reason for the continued success of the Israeli nation remains the commitment held by a majority of its citizens to the central concept of “freedom” symbolized by Masada.
During my nearly three-week stay in Israel, I dodged the beginning stages of the Corona virus (some Korean tourists on Masada were later quarantined. . . but we had avoided them at the time); students conducted a mass rally near the Roman fortifications at the western foot of Masada, demonstrating for the return of Israeli soldiers captured by Palestinian terrorists; the nation held its most divisive but inconclusive election in years; and Hamas-supported militants fired several salvos of missiles from Gaza at targets in Israel located to the west of us (happily, all out of range).
At times, while working, I would look up and catch glimpses of Israeli F-16 fighter-bombers, having just taken off from airfields located in the nearby Negev Desert, flying on low-level routes through the Judean mountains to the west, or over the Dead Sea to the east. Several, no doubt, were en route to targets in Gaza and Syria.
One day, I noticed several of the pilots rocking their wings with typical Israeli military swagger, as they roared past the tourists and archaeologists a short distance away. As a retired USAF pilot, I watched with some envy as these Israeli combat aviators were obviously violating fairly common flight safety norms, I sensed, in order to provide a brief salute.
By performing their own Dance of the Desert in the brilliant blue sky, it’s as if these pilots were signaling to those of us standing atop this historic and sacred monument, “Don’t worry. . . we’ve got this. As far as we’re concerned, Masada shall NEVER fall again!”
I watched one such flight of fighters suddenly drop out of sight over the sun-drenched horizon, and I thought to myself: “Clearly, the Spirit of Masada lives on today.”
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Warmest regards and shalom!
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P.S.: You are always welcome to visit other blog entries on this site — BruceSlawter.com. They are usually listed to the right of your screen; but depending upon your device, you may have to scroll down to the bottom of the page before they appear. Cheers!
Missing the beautiful Alpine scenery, Suzanne and I decided to negotiate the bureaucratic roadblocks affecting travel during the pandemic and treat ourselves to a road trip in Europe during September. Astonishingly, we lived to tell the tale!
Although we had to keep abreast of ever-changing U.S. and European requirements before and during our 17-day trip – and we were persistent in uploading and re-uploading all the COVID-19-related documents onto the struggling airline website (the airlines were the main gatekeepers for the paperwork) – we found European road travel quite doable once we landed in Munich. If anyone is contemplating a trip to Europe and would like some more details regarding how we managed the pandemic-related travel requirements, please feel free to reach out to us.
A few weeks before our trip to Europe, we decided to fly in the opposite direction to Colorado; and this served as a “shake-down cruise” before our more complex trip abroad. We timed the visit in order to lead grandson Forrest and his Boy Scout troop on a tour of the USAF Academy (they were on their way to the Philmont camp in New Mexico); and the trip also coincided with Suzanne’s high school reunion in Denver a few days later. Between these two events, we managed to visit with friends and Suzanne’s brother Bob. We also spent several glorious days hiking and biking the “Alpine” heights of Vail. So I have inserted a few photos of gorgeous Colorado into this year’s travel album.
Our road trip in Germany, Austria, and Italy included several Alpine regions that we’ve visited before – Bavaria and the German-speaking region of the Italian Dolomites, known as the “Sudtirol” in German or the “Alto Adige” in Italian. Featuring beautiful scenery, outstanding food, endless outdoor activities, and some of the most gracious people on the earth, these two regions are our favorite haunts in Europe. After staying with a long-time German friend in Bavaria, we traveled to several places that we had never visited before: the incomparable lake-side Austrian village of Hallstatt and a significant World War II site on the way there. Both locations are located a short drive from Salzburg, Austria, where the famous musical, “The Sound of Music,” was filmed.
All the usual tidbits about the places we visited are attached to the pictures in the “Google Photos” album. You might have to hover your cursor over the left-bottom of your screen for the comments to appear. If they seem to cut off in mid-sentence (due to your viewing device), just click on the circled “i” (for Information), which is located on the top right-hand corner of your screen.
One of the locations that we had never visited before – Hitler’s mountain-top “Eagle’s Nest” retreat, located on the German side of the Austro-German border near Salzburg – merits a brief comment. Rather than serving as a shrine for contemporary neo-Nazis (Nazi symbols and political expression are outlawed in Germany), the Kehlsteinhaus is a towering reminder to visitors from all over the world about how members of a monstrous regime once came to believe that they could commit evil acts without consequence in an effort to dominate the rest of humanity. To glimpse into what the capture of Hitler’s Alpine redoubt meant to the American soldier, who was fighting world-wide totalitarianism back in 1945, I would recommend watching the final episode of Steven Spielberg’s outstanding mini-series produced for HBO, Band of Brothers.
When you are ready, just click on the following links:
Biking Bolzano – (3:49) a leisurely ride through Europe’s largest Alpine meadow, located in northeast Italy.
Biking Alta Badia – (4:35) a trail ride to the top of a ridge-line with more stunning panoramas of the beautiful Dolomite mountains. The skies are so blue, you will squint!
NOTE: Due to the bright skies and contrasts (and limitations of my GoPro camera . . . and of the photographer), if the video you are watching appears a little dark, you might try going to “Settings” on your device and de-select the automatic brightness control.
It is a bit presumptuous of me to suggest to anyone how to pray about the current world situation and the seeming chaos in Kabul. However, in this instance, since I know that we are all working to see a more peaceful outcome in Afghanistan with as few American and allied losses as possible, I thought I would venture sharing some of the concepts that have come to me.
As I think about our courageous U.S. military personnel and diplomats surrounded by hostile forces in Kabul – and consider in particular the plight of American civilians, our allies, and Afghani interpreters and advisers cut off from this relatively confined U.S. contingent – I keep returning to the story of Elisha and his young servant surrounded by Aramaean forces in Dothan – as related in II Kings 6.
The Bible is not specific as to the name of the vengeful Aramaean king in this story. However, by triangulating this episode in the prophet’s career with other accounts in II Kings and non-biblical sources, the most likely culprit was either Ben-Hadad of Damascus or his son Hazael, the latter who erected the monument known as the Tel Dan Stele sometime after 843 B.C.E, a facsimile of which we have on display at Museum of the Bible in Washington, DC. The fragments of this monument are significant, for they represent the earliest reference from a non-biblical source suggesting an Israelite king named David as a real historical figure.
The Tel Dan Stele is a typical Iron Age battlefield “war trophy” erected by a victor to boast of his defeat of an enemy, and it was installed in the extreme northern settlement of Dan (near the current Lebanese border) a little less than 100 years after David’s realm split into two kingdoms, following the reign of his son Solomon. The Prophet Elisha’s career probably took place during this turbulent period, when hostile neighbors, such as the Aramaeans, began encroaching upon the more fertile lands of the Galilee and Samaria, the bread-basket of the Northern Kingdom of Israel.
The King of Aram-Damascus was incensed with anger against Elisha and wanted him silenced one way or another, because this Aramaean monarch held the Israelite prophet responsible for thwarting his efforts to capture and kill the king of the northern Kingdom of Israel.
This foreign ruler dispatched a contingent of chariots – the most terrifying shock-and-awe weapon of the Iron Age – to compel the surrender of the lightly fortified hilltop town of Dothan and capture this meddlesome man of God.
The Bible tells us what happened next; and I’ll let the Bible speak for itself in describing the dramatic scene that unfolded (II Kings 6: 15-17, from the King James Bible):
And when the servant of the man of God was risen early, and gone forth, behold, an host compassed the city both with horses and chariots. And his servant said unto him, Alas, my master! how shall we do?
And he answered, Fear not: for they that be with us are more than they that be with them.
And Elisha prayed, and said, Lord, I pray thee, open his eyes, that he may see. And the Lord opened the eyes of the young man; and he saw: and, behold, the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire round about Elisha.
The Bible goes on to say that, through prayer, Elisha asked the Lord to temporarily blind the Aramaeans, allowing not only Elisha and his servant to escape from Dothan, but even to lead the now confounded enemy into Samaria, where it would be captured and then treated humanely as POWs. The Aramaean force never knew what hit it.
In a sense, this episode in the life of the prophet teaches us about “vision” and “revelation.”
The Bible doesn’t provide any more specifics about how Elisha prayed or how this resulted in God sending in the relief force of the “chariots of fire.” One thing was clear from Elisha’s calm response to his fearful servant’s exclamation, however. The prophet had complete confidence that God would come through for them. Elisha was simply unphased by the existential threat that the Aramaean force posed.
This tells me several things: First, Elisha refused to put limits on what God could do in this and any other situation. He didn’t outline what course God ought to take; and he had complete faith that God would reveal to both of them the right result – at the right time.
Second, I’d like to think that Elisha refused to give much countenance to the menacing physical evidence arrayed before him. He was not alarmed by the overwhelming force that the angry King from Damascus had sent to dispatch him. Elisha simply but firmly knew that spiritual power always triumphs over the physical obstacles that the world sometimes places before us.
Last, the story seems to suggest that Elisha either saw the relief force that God had provided before his servant did, or he knew that it had always been there.
The result – really a revelation from God – was that the “chariots of fire” appeared at the decisive moment.
During the siege of Dothan, Elisha never stopped to advise God which type of relief force to send in. He didn’t pray for infantry armed with spears and slings. . . for archers. . . even for chariots. It never occurred to him to release a carrier pigeon back to the capital in Samaria asking for authorization to negotiate with the enemy or for “rules of engagement” should the town’s security perimeter be breached.
Elisha simply prayed that God would open his servant’s eyes and accept the principle of God’s permanent protective presence – a truth that Elisha knew had been with them all along.
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Dear friends: I’ll leave this discussion for now with one of my favorite passages about God’s enduring protection:
Psalm 139If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea;Even there shall thy hand lead me, and thy right hand shall hold me.
May God bless each of you and our fellow Americans, friends, and allies currently serving in harm’s way.
I admit that I am transfixed by the events now unfolding in Afghanistan.
Seeking some elusive perspective, I just re-read Rudyard Kipling’s famous poem, “The Young British Soldier,” which was based on the English storyteller’s experiences reporting on failed British Army campaigns in Afghanistan during the latter part of the 19th Century. The gruesome ending to Kipling’s poetry — sad advice he gives to soldiers finding themselves isolated on the battlefield — tends to get most of the attention (you’ll have to Google the poem to read that part). However, I believe that the following verse captures more aptly how some U.S. military personnel might be feeling right now as they continue to serve our nation at the frayed end of a strategic tether, thousands of miles away from home:
If your officer’s dead and the sergeants look white,
Remember it’s ruin to run from a fight:
So take open order, lie down, and sit tight,
And wait for supports like a soldier.
Wait, wait, wait like a soldier.
Clearly, our U.S. soldiers, marines, and airmen, who have remained in Afghanistan or have just been redeployed to it, are doing their level best to extract their fellow Americans, NATO allies, and Afghanis during this crisis. Viewing yesterday’s YouTube footage from Kabul of the turbulent “fog of war” (as 19th Century military theorist Clausewitz would put it), I keep thinking that at least some of these Taliban-surrounded Americans may be experiencing the same sense of fear, disappointment, and lament as expressed in Kipling’s sobering poem from 130 years ago.
I couldn’t help but reflect as well upon my own experiences during an analogous air evacuation of U.S. personnel and allies decades before. Together with a subsequent stint as a combat support group commander, managing airlift operations from the tarmac, I’m sitting here imagining all the complex tasks and herculean strain that our people must be experiencing at this moment in time. The teams now working around the clock in Kabul are no doubt facing challenges exceeding those described below.
It seems like yesterday, but 46 years ago, I played a minor part in flying approximately 1,000 Vietnamese orphans & civilians and dozens of State Department personnel, in six plane loads out of Saigon. During an additional evacuation flight, we were forced by small-arms fire, surface-to-air missiles, and the enemy siege of the airport to abort our mission and return empty handed to our departure base back in the Philippines.
During the last few sorties flown into Saigon before North Vietnamese artillery chewed up the runway, we encountered thousands of civilians on the tarmac attempting to climb onto the aircraft as we started our engines and taxied out for take-off – just like the scene in the above photo taken at Kabul airport.
For the operation in Saigon in April 1975, we removed passenger seats from the aircraft in order to cram as many evacuees as we could into the cargo hold of our large C-141 transport. We secured these mostly unscreened passengers with tie-down straps pulled snugly across their legs, as the oft sandal-footed refugees sat down on the cold metal flooring. You could feel the uneasy mixture of their trepidation and relief.
To deal with the potential of uncontrolled Vietnamese rushing the aircraft — or with a terrorist attack by a lone Vietcong infiltrator — each crewmember was issued a Smith & Wesson revolver, which was loaded with three rubber bullets and three hard-point rounds. The weapons were to be used in the event that any individual posed a hazard to our departure. Clearly, the revolvers would have proved insignificant had we needed to repel a large angry mob or thwart an organized attack.
Fortunately, of the hundreds of flights flown by the Air Force, Marines, and Army to transport thousands of our Vietnamese allies out of harm’s way, I don’t recall hearing of any crew member having to discharge his sidearm at an unruly evacuee. Crowd control was accomplished through old-fashioned American persuasion, calmness, and confidence.
Improvised during a three-week period by those military and State Department personnel who remained in Vietnam during the late Spring of 1975, the much larger air evacuation of Saigon, for all its missteps and faults, seems to have been a far less chaotic operation than the one now taking place in Kabul.
I should pause here to say that the purpose of my sharing of these perspectives is not to assess which Administration bears the greater responsibility for the failure of U.S. policy in Afghanistan or which actions might have precipitated the events we are now witnessing. The finger-pointing has already begun and will continue until sober mainstream military historians sort it all out many decades from now. After 46 years, we still haven’t come to an agreement about the Vietnam War!
By comparison with the events of 1975, it seems safe to say that Washington was caught flat-footed by the swiftness of the Taliban’s victory in Afghanistan. As always, it is now up to U.S. aircrews, ground troops, and diplomats in the combat zone to react and improvise, as they always have done, in order to pull this chestnut of an unexpected “Dunkirk” out of the fire and return safely home to their families. I am certain they will make us proud.
May God protect our young, extraordinary American men and women, who are courageously hanging on in Afghanistan during this particularly hazardous moment in U.S. history. And Godspeed to our Afghan friends and allies – all too few now to whom we can extend wings of salvation.
The September-October time frame is often when Suzanne and I travel to Europe, usually to get in some Alpine hiking and sample the local culture and hearty cuisine. The weather is typically spectacular in late fall, and it’s nice to visit these spots just a few weeks before they close down, as the mountain resorts get ready for the ski season. Alas, due to the ongoing pandemic, we were unable to make the journey this time around.
However, just this week, I was able to retrieve, sort, and edit some of our video footage and photos from a fun trip that we made to the French Alps exactly three years ago this month (September 2017). Better late than never, eh?
Hopefully, you’ll be able to take some hikes on your own this fall. When you have the time, feel free also to travel with us back to this gorgeous part of the world — where modern mountaineering first began in the 19th Century. When hiking around, be careful of the ice, the paragliders, and the ferocious Alpine wildlife.
Click on the following links to begin your virtual Alpine journey:
As President George H.W. Bush was making his final flight home in December 2018 after the state funeral held for him in Washington, D.C., I recalled that he often considered death to be serious business – well sort of. By this, I mean that one of his primary duties as Ronald Reagan’s Vice President before himself being elected President in 1988 was to represent the United States at the funerals of foreign heads of state. In this capacity, he made dozens of trips abroad to pay our nation’s respects to world leaders – both friends and adversaries, alike.
Bush’s trips representing the U.S. during foreign funerals became so routine that he used to quip among his staff that his motto as Vice President had become “You die, I fly.”
In retrospect, Bush was doing a lot more during these trips than just attending ceremonies for the recently departed. He was making contacts, explaining U.S. policy, and seeking out the views of foreign leaders regarding the events unfolding at the time. These experiences would serve him well during his single term as President from 1989 to 1993, when he deftly managed one of the most critical periods in U.S. diplomatic history.
Most importantly, the insights he gained during his trips to the Soviet Union in the early 1980s, and the relationships he established with Russian counterparts – particularly with emerging newcomer Mikhail Gorbachev – would give Bush first-hand knowledge about the inside workings of Moscow’s changing political climate and the confidence to manage peacefully and constructively the end to the Cold War. Bush would play a key role in facilitating the peaceful unraveling of three Gordian knots during this period: (a) the re-integration of Eastern Europe into the West (including German reunification), (b) the dissolution of the Soviet Union, and (c) the safeguarding of Soviet loose nukes.
The tone that Bush set as President clearly paved the way for nearly two decades of U.S.-Russian cooperation in important areas, ranging from nuclear arms control and nonproliferation to combating nuclear terrorism – mission areas in which I would have the privilege to play a small role.
Bush would make three trips to the Soviet Union during the early 1980s to attend the funerals of Soviet leaders; and our paths would cross briefly in November 1982, during the first of these visits – which commemorated the passing of Leonid Brezhnev, the long-serving General Secretary of the Communist Party and Chairman of the Presidium of the USSR.
In 1982, I was serving at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow as the most junior attaché in the U.S. Defense Attaché Office. As a C-141 transport pilot, one of my responsibilities was to oversee the flight operations of U.S. Air Force aircraft transporting U.S. dignitaries to the Soviet Union. Therefore, after Brezhnev died, I became in effect a forward operating base commander in Moscow for planning and executing the arrivals, departures, and care & feeding of several aircraft and about 50 aircrew and support personnel about to descend upon us in the dead of winter. Vice President Bush, Secretary of State George Schulz, and Senator Bob Dole would each be flying in on their own aircraft, and this small fleet of VIP aircraft would be arriving at different times within the next 24 hours.
In retrospect, managing just three aircraft and Bush’s fairly small delegation doesn’t seem like such a big deal. By comparison, in the late 1990s, during my second posting to Moscow, one of President Bill Clinton’s summits with Russian President Boris Yeltsin featured 12 aircraft and an entourage of nearly 500 staff, cabinet heads, security personnel, and low-ranking advisors.
However, the Brezhnev funeral much earlier in 1982 took place during the darkest days of the Cold War; and due to the suspicious nature of the Soviet state, the U.S. delegation, by comparison with the Clinton era, kept to a relatively low profile. Moreover, our access to the Russians’ flight planning and ground support organizations was fairly limited. The White House Presidential Advance Team and Secret Service were already en route to Moscow on commercial aircraft – they were expecting concrete answers to a host of security and protocol questions on their arrival – and we really didn’t know what to expect by way of cooperation with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the airport authorities, or the KGB.
In short, it all worked out. Obviously pleased that the U.S. was paying tribute to their most long-serving leader since Josef Stalin, the Soviets opened doors and gave us unprecedented access to the necessary facilities and personnel, including the airport tarmac, refueling equipment, flight planning facilities, and even their historically closed security services. It was an amazing example of U.S.-Russian cooperation – if only for a brief moment before slamming our access shut after the last USAF aircraft took off several days later.
My personal encounter with Vice President Bush was so brief that it barely bears mentioning.
Air Force Two arrived in the middle of the night in a bone-chilling, snow-filled blizzard called a “Buran.” After helping the Russian marshaller (the guy with the orange paddles) park the aircraft (for some reason, the 89th Military Airlift Wing from Andrews AFB was so picky about such details), I helped guide the mobile stairs to the front door of the Boeing 707 – ensuring that the operator wouldn’t be disabling one of the aircraft’s wings in the process. I then quickly tested the integrity of each frozen step, as I negotiated my way up to the door near the cockpit.
Like clockwork, as I reached the top of the stairs, the front hatch opened. The lead agent for the White House Advance Team and I then slipped into the warm interior of the cabin, and we quickly briefed the Vice President about what to expect as he left the aircraft. Already bundled up in his warm overcoat and scarf, Bush took a breath, cracked half a smile, and said, “O.K., let’s do this.” He then deftly slipped pass me and eagerly bounced down the stairs to his limousine, now waiting below.
It was all over before I knew it. I didn’t even have time to advise him on the burning foreign policy issues of the moment. “Maybe next time,” I thought.
A few minutes later, as I was helping some White House Communications Agency personnel load up their gear into my Embassy-provided Suburban, we were approached by a gaggle of snow-covered “White-Walkers.” Several had AK-47s strapped to their shoulders. I thought: “Oh-oh, now it begins.”
To my relief, one of the gun-toting apparitions pulled off his hood. Noticing the logo on the hood of the Suburban, he then asked in Russian, rather sheepishly, “Is this automobile a Chevy?”
I replied in the affirmative; and two of the Soviets then proceeded to run their hands across the body of the car, mumbling the Russian equivalent of “Wow. . . . WOW!”
I asked why they were so interested in the van. They replied that they had served as automobile mechanics during World War II. They would always be grateful that the U.S had sent over so many Chevrolet trucks under Lend-Lease to support Soviet operations against the Nazis.
One of the Russians then confided, “I always believed that Chevrolet made the best engines. Gee, I had no idea they were still in business.”
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According to the Air Force Two flight crew, George H.W. Bush had a good sense of humor and treated everyone with legendary kindness.
Later on, when serving as President of the United States, Bush was absolutely beloved by his Air Force One aircrew (which then flew a specially modified Boeing 747 that had been built for Reagan). The crewmembers were so devoted to the President that they presented him with a special Bible on his last day in office in 1993. Today, that unique Air Force One Bible – together with the family Bible that Bush used when he took the Presidential Oath of Office in 1989 – resides on display in the Museum of the Bible in downtown Washington, D.C. Years later into my own retirement, I am currently serving as a volunteer tour docent at this amazing institution and monument to the religious faith shared by many of our Presidents, including the quiet but unwavering belief in Almighty God that served George H.W. Bush so well throughout his entire life.
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Back earlier in 1982, the Air Force Two aircrew transporting then Vice President Bush to Moscow for the Brezhnev funeral presented me with a small memento for this important occasion – a deck of cards. Bush enjoyed playing on his long flights, and the flight stewards always kept a few unopened decks for special occasions. The aircraft commander said that there was another deck somewhere, and the small package (which contained two decks of “official” Air Force Two playing cards) wouldn’t be missed.
At the time, I recall being so busy that I considered the event as being relatively minor. With little thought, I crammed the small package into the pocket of my winter coat as I exited the warm cabin to supervise the refueling of the aircraft from outside. Looking back years later, Brezhnev’s passing and Bush’s arrival was indeed noteworthy – for it clearly marked the beginning of the end of the Cold War. In retrospect, I’m so glad that I was given this small memento and managed to squirrel it away for safekeeping all these years.
* * * * *
After the funeral at the National Cathedral in December 2018, I prayed “God’s speed” for George H.W. Bush on his final flight home to Texas. I then decided to open up one of the sealed packs of Air Force Two playing cards, which had been laying untouched in a drawer of an antique buffet in our house for several decades.
Keeping with Bush’s love of a good-natured jest, I noticed several interesting cards in the deck. Each of the four “Aces” bears the seal of the Vice President of the United States. No surprise there.
And what of the two “Jokers” among the cards?
They are labeled “Congress,” of course: one for each House.
Looking back four centuries, no one would ever imagine that the authors of the two greatest literary achievements of the English Renaissance – the King James Bible and the collective works of William Shakespeare – nearly came to blows over their respective visions for the English language.
In 1604, 54 of England’s top scholars, divines, and clergymen were chosen by King James I (Queen Elizabeth’s successor) and Robert Bancroft (then Bishop of London) for the six companies of translators that would work diligently on their sovereign’s “New Translation” of Holy Scripture. The product would serve as the official revision to the Bishops’ Bible – a version which had been “authorized” for use in English churches by Queen Elizabeth I in 1568, but which no one really liked.
Forty-nine translators representing traditional church officials and the stricter “Godly” party (later called “Puritans”) would live long enough to see the project through to its completion in 1611. Several translators would be so dedicated to their work that they would ask to be carried into committee meetings on their death beds. The end result is that these saintly scholars produced one of the most extraordinary masterpieces ever written in the English language.
But weren’t the works of the Bard of Avon also in this category?
Well, these rather stuffy Bible scholars didn’t think so.
While we can’t ascertain what every King James Bible translator thought about contemporary literary giants like Shakespeare and Marlowe, most scholars today believe that it was uniformly negative. Moreover, we can conclude from the evidence that these single-minded creators of the KJB – authors of arguably the greatest collaborative literary work in English ever published – were. . . . err . . . fuddy-duddies when it came to the popular culture of their day. They simply did not believe it worth the time of any Christian of substance to read fiction, attend stage productions, or to indulge in English poetry.
Let me put it this way: Imagine three of the top minds among the Bible translators (one each from Oxford, Cambridge, and Westminster) playing Jacobean Jeopardy, and the Final Jeopardy Category before the commercial break turns out to be “Shakespearian Protagonists.” Each one of these learned contestants would be utterly stumped when Sir Alex Trebek revealed the answer as, “This emotionally depressed character, who bears the same name as the title of the play, poses the proposition, ‘To be or not to be. . . that is the question.’”
Hint, guys: The correct response isn’t “Who is the Apostle Paul?“
To conclude from their seeming lack of interest in the English Stage that these Bible scholars were geeky academics and not worldly men would be unfairly off the mark. Their universe was that of international scholarship and wide-ranging religious and political debate. They spoke, argued, and corresponded with English academics and colleagues throughout Europe in the Latin of Cicero. A number of them were fluent in the more modern languages of German, Italian, and Spanish, as well. Moreover, as true Humanist scholars – the latest trend in academic learning, which was responsible for the earlier birth of the Renaissance – they also possessed a detailed comprehension of the original languages of the Bible, such as Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek.
In short, these guys were world-class polymaths (translation: they knew a lot of different stuff). The problem was that they just weren’t comfortable reading lascivious novels and sonnets or going to seedy London theaters. Moreover, several of the KJB translators considered stage plays as direct moral threats to society.
While public libraries during the English Renaissance, which tended to be located at universities, possessed few but a growing numbers of books, each translator had his own private library of printed material, plus a number of ancient handwritten manuscripts.
David Norton, in The King James Bible: A Short History from Tyndale to Today, cites that, while college libraries typically possessed only 250 to 500 books at the turn of the 16th and 17th Centuries, some translators possessed many times that amount in their personal collections. George Abbot bequeathed over 2,000 books to Lambeth Palace at his death; and Robert Bancroft, the King’s “project manager” for the new Bible translation possessed three times as many books in his clerical library.
Norton provides a list of translator William Branthwaite’s books in his personal library. Of this respected Greek scholar’s numerous holdings – which run the gamut from the major religious treatises of the day to an exhaustive list of ancient Greek writers and the works of the early church fathers – only one category is conspicuously absent: English literature.
Modern researchers were excited when they first thought that they had discovered among Branthwaite’s collection a copy of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (BTW: Geoff’s stories are all fictional). But this book turned out to be a religious tract written in Middle English by one of Chaucer’s contemporaries. There was just a smidgen of poetry in Branthwaite’s library, but it was mainly of a religious nature.
But what about the wonderful plays and sonnets of the likes of Marlowe, Spencer, and Shakespeare? Weren’t any of their great works in these scholars’ libraries? As the Bard of Avon might have eloquently put it himself: Fuhgeddaboudit!
Perhaps the most famous of the King James Bible translators who was actually quite repulsed by the emerging English theater of Shakespeare’s day was Oxford don John Rainolds – the very man credited with putting the idea of a new Bible translation into the monarch’s head at the Hampton Court Conference in January 1604.
Although Rainolds was the titular leader of the Puritan party, which opposed both the episcopal polity of the Church of England and the Bishops’ Bible as a sloppy translation (the latter view shared by King James himself), there is no reason to suspect that high church officials and the other men of letters differed substantially from Rainolds in their “unappreciative attitude” toward the English stage. Rainolds was one of the King James Translators who virtually “died with his boots on” rather than abandon his post. His integrity was such that he was a highly respected academic leader, and he served as an example for all who worked on the New Translation.
In a 1599 treatise opposing dramas and comedies andall that otherrubbish brazenly being presented in the London theaters or peddled at the book stalls around St. Paul’s Cathedral, Rainolds complained that playwrights “. . . meditate how they may inflame a tender youth with love, entice him to dalliance, to whoredom, to incest, inure their minds and bodies to uncomely, dissolute, railing, boasting, knavish, foolish, brainsick, drunken conceits, words and gestures.”
So one can reasonably surmise from this that, had Rainolds reviewed A Midsummer Night’s Dream for his local Oxford PBS station for instance, he most likely would have given it a “two thumbs down!”
One of his chief objections seemed to be that male actors always played women’s roles (as this was about 50 or 60 years before women could legally appear as “players” on the English stage). Rainolds even cited the Book of Deuteronomy to buttress his argument: “The woman shall not wear that which pertaineth unto a man, neither shall a man put on a woman’s garment: for all that do so are abomination unto the LORD thy God.”
The Bible scholar never seemed to be impressed by the fact that Shakespeare often cited scripture in his works — usually based upon Rainolds’ beloved Geneva Bible — or that the subtext of his dramaturgy tended to feature Christian moral themes.
The strong views held by Rainolds and his like-minded colleagues as to what should be done with the English stage in general, and to Mr. Shakespeare in particular, can be aptly summed in the title of his 1599 diatribe.
Rainolds called his polemic, The Overthrow of Stage-Playes: Wherein [it] is manifestly proved that it is not only unlawful to be an actor, but a beholder of those vanities.
Thank goodness that this dedicated Oxford professor and the other King James Bible translators never had to contend with Renaissance ROKUs.
– Miguel de Unamuno, summing up Cervantes’ The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote
Several years ago, in 2016, Euro-America celebrated the 400th anniversary of the death of two of the most influential literary geniuses of Western Civilization. The first, William Shakespeare (1564-1616), the Bard of Avon, is well known throughout the world as the greatest playwright of the ages, the father of the modern English theater, and the quintessential poet of sonnets. The second literary giant, Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra (1547-1616), is perhaps less recognizable by English-speakers; although he is, in many respects, Shakespeare’s literary equal. Also a playwright (although a far less prolific one than Shakespeare), Cervantes excelled in writing great tales – whether in short-story format or in full-length books; and he is credited with creating the modern European novel in the early 1600s, after which many novels since then have been patterned.
Traditionally, the death of both writers is commemorated on 23 April. However, the two writers did not die on the same day. The confusion over the dates has unfortunately been perpetuated by many wishing to believe for sentimental reasons that these two literary giants passed on at the same time, just like our second and third presidents, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson (4 July 1826).
Part of the confusion over their dates of death can attributed to the fact that, in the early 17th Century, churches recorded dates of burial, not dates of death. Historians therefore have had to adjust the burial dates by one or two days to provide for greater accuracy. Spanish historians now believe that Cervantes was the first to pass on, and the date was 22 April 1616. English historians believe that Shakespeare probably died on the then calendar date of 23 April 1616. However, the Spanish and the English used different systems for charting the passage of the year. By 1616, Spain, a Catholic country, had adopted the new-style Gregorian Calendar, which is used throughout the modern world today. England, however, was in the middle of the throws of the Protestant Reformation, and the nation was still using the old-style Julian method for keeping track of dates, which was 10 days off of the Gregorian version. Thus, by converting the date of Shakespeare’s passing to our current calendar system, Shakespeare actually died on 3 May 1616, a full 11 days after Cervantes.
While these are interesting issues worthy of “Final Jeopardy” answers, the two literary geniuses themselves would probably sum up this foregone discussion of their deaths by one word: “folly.”
Shakespeare and Cervantes shared a lot more in common than just dying about the same time – namely their love of a good story and their uncanny ability to take some basic yarn and mold it into an amazing new creation. However, they differed in how they first happened upon the stories that inspired their creativity.
Both writers emerged into greatness from humble families, who were engaged in “the trades.” Shakespeare’s father was a glove-maker, wool-speculator, and small-town mayor. Cervantes’ father was a barber-surgeon. Despite their non-aristocratic origins, both Shakespeare and Cervantes received arguably the best education one could get in 16th Century, short of having a private tutor or attending university. This included a mastery of Latin and at least an introduction to ancient Greek – both hallmarks of the Humanist educational systems in vogue in both nations at the time.
Shakespeare, it should be noted, was first and foremost a “player” (actor); and over time, he became an affluent “gentleman” in English society from the proceeds of his published works and from his occupation as part-owner, full-time actor, and chief playwright for the premier English theater company, the “Lord Chamberlain’s Men.” Like Cervantes, Shakespeare’s chief source of inspiration was the amazing modern world emerging all around him. The epicenter of Shakespeare’s existence was the hustle and bustle of London, the most rapidly growing mercantile city in the world. However, Shakespeare never traveled abroad. Much of the grist for his plays therefore was derived from the ancient Latin poets he loved from the days of his youth and from the books of tales and histories that he bought from the bookseller stalls located around St. Paul’s Cathedral, or that he borrowed from the libraries of his aristocratic patrons. By all accounts, Shakespeare was almost as voracious a reader as he was a writer.
Although Cervantes also wrote plays and acted in a few of them, he could never seem to make a living from his literary talents alone. Equally ambitious as Shakespeare in his determination to rise above his humble beginnings, Cervantes tried repeatedly to break into the higher rungs of Spanish society by pursuing various careers as a soldier, accountant, purchasing agent for the Spanish Armada, and tax collector. Of the two writers, Cervantes perhaps led the more interesting life, although he never achieved either Shakespeare’s wealth or renown in his own lifetime. As a soldier, Cervantes fought in the wars of the Eastern Mediterranean against the Turks, distinguishing himself with heroism on several occasions as a naval marine. He was wounded three times and lost the use of his left hand at the pivotal Battle of Lepanto in 1571. After a long convalescence on the island of Sicily, Cervantes was captured by the Turks while sailing for home; and he was made a slave for five years in Algiers, until ransomed. Years later, back in Spain, Cervantes was thrown into prison several times because of false accusations advanced by banking colleagues. Moreover, he survived several close calls with the Spanish Inquisition.
No doubt, Cervantes’ inspiration for his imaginative tales can be found in his world experience, his exposure to different cultures, and from the many stories that he collected during his travels and imprisonment. He claimed to have begun the first part of his most acclaimed work, The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha, while serving one of his sentences in a Spanish dungeon.
The one notable trait that Shakespeare and Cervantes held in common was that, while each man was proud of his literary accomplishments, neither took himself all that seriously. Each writer could see elements of irony or comedy in each tragedy or drama he composed. . . and even in his own life. This may be explained by the notion that both Shakespeare and Cervantes held their true religious and philosophical views close to their chests, and they may have carried throughout their lives an inner conflict with the prevailing religious order of their respective homelands.
Most historians give at least some substance to the theory that John Shakespeare, Will’s father, was a secret Roman Catholic living in a Protestant society. The evidence of John Shakespeare’s “recussancy” is twofold: first, a “spiritual testament” was discovered in the rafters of the family home in Stratford-Upon-Avon, which was issued by the notorious Jesuit Priest Edmund Campion and signed by Shakespeare’s father affirming his allegiance to the “true Catholic faith”; and second, researchers have discovered an impressive record of fines paid by John Shakespeare for his repeated failures to attend Protestant church services, which was required by law.
Some historians believe that the non-Conformist sentiments of the elder Shakespeare rubbed off on the son; and a few have gone so far as to assert that the playwright was a “crypto-Catholic,” seeing evidence in his compositions. That may be reading too much into all this. What is clear, however, is that Will Shakespeare felt comfortable in the presence of known Catholics in late Elizabethan Protestant England. He may even have gotten his his start in the theater while working as a tutor for a Catholic family residing in the north of England, and several of his wealthiest patrons were prominent Catholics loyal to the Protestant Queen.
While Shakespeare often pushed the limits of Elizabeth’s censors, he was smart enough to steer clear of religious and political controversy (often seen as one and the same in Tudor and Jacobean England). Several of his histories – such as Henry IV Parts I & II, Richard III, and Henry VIII – were even overtly propagandistic in supporting the claims of the Tudor Dynasty.
The one time that Shakespeare and his company of players almost lost their heads was when they were influenced by aristocratic conspirators, including the noted Catholic Earl of Southampton (Shakespeare’s most wealthy and loyal patron), to stage one of Will’s earlier plays, Richard II, in the Globe Theater, as a symbolic kick-off to Essex’s failed insurrection against Elizabeth in 1601. The play happened to feature the disposing of a properly anointed king – not a particularly wise plot line to be highlighting just as a poorly planned coup was about to go awry. Shakespeare and his colleagues managed to escape the dungeon and scaffold. The players were a rather entertaining bunch (no Netflix back then), and this factor evidently worked in their favor.
Several years later, after the failed Gunpowder Plot of November 1605 – the 9/11 of the reign of King James I perpetrated by Papist-terrorists – Shakespeare would over-compensate for his earlier lapse of judgment during the Essex rebellion by quickly writing Macbeth, a play which supported James’s legitimacy as the Protestant King of England & Scotland and, at the same time, clearly promoted the theme that bad things tend to happen to murderers who attempt to assassinate divinely appointed monarchs. James came to the throne in 1603 favorably inclined toward the London theater. He even took over the patronage of Shakespeare’s company, The Lord Chamberlain’s Men, and renamed it The King’s Men. James liked the English theater infinitely more after Shakespeare and his company of players performed Macbeth for him in 1606.
The evidence for Cervantes’ inner religious conflict is far more circumstantial. The most interesting theory among a growing group of scholars is that Cervantes was a descendant of a Conversos, a Spanish Jew forced by Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand to convert to Roman Catholicism in 1492.
The notion is that Cervantes, as a “New Christian,” had rediscovered his Jewish roots during his journeys abroad and imprisonment in North Africa and Spain; and this voyage of self-discovery influenced the vision expressed in his writings about a future Spanish society in which differing religious views – Christian, Muslim, and Jewish – could be accommodated, as they had been under Moorish rule back during the Medieval period. Some Jewish scholars go so far as to assert the claim that Cervantes was a “crypto-Jew,” and that his writings often reflect themes featured in the mystic strains of Judaism found in the Kabbalah.
While proclaiming Cervantes as a clandestine Jew is perhaps more of a stretch than asserting Shakespeare was a secret Catholic, there are some patterns to the trajectory of Cervantes’ life and themes in his writings that indicate he might have been aware of family connections to the Jewish world of pre-1492 Spain. First, there were thousands of Conversos living in Spain during his lifetime, and one of the most common professions permitted of former Jews was that of Barber-Surgeon, the trade that Cervantes’ father was evidently quite successful at. Next, Cervantes may have been forced to seek a profession abroad as a soldier, because he could not advance in Spanish society as a “New Christian.” Lastly, while Cervantes was a noted war hero and was moderately successful as a bureaucrat in Spain, he was denied several prestigious positions as an adjutant in Spain’s overseas outposts because of an apparent stain in his background. Reminiscent of later Nazi race-based criteria in the 1930s and 1940s, possessing such a “stain” in 16th Century Spain usually meant that one of your grandparents was a Jew, and that aspect of one’s background was disqualifying.
Even the name used in Cervantes’ fabulous novel, Don Quixote of La Mancha, is postulated as a secret joke that Cervantes played on himself – one related to his suspected Sephardic DNA. Scholars searching for such a link in Cervantes’ ancestry believe that he invented the word Quixote based upon the Aramaic term for “Truth” often used in Jewish literature; and La Mancha, rather than being a region in Spain as most of his readers surmised, signified the “stain” of his Jewish blood. Therefore the hidden title of Cervantes’ work could be interpreted as The Ingenious Gentleman, Sir Truth of the Blood Stain – referring to the albatross that the author had to bear throughout his life, although he always remained loyal to the Roman Catholic faith in which he was raised.
Several other instances in Cervantes’ great novel support this interesting speculation about the writer’s self-recognition of being a descendant of a Jewish Conversos. The first is a lengthy discussion of religion between the would-be knight-errant and his “squire” Sancho Panza, in which Panza proudly proclaims his family roots as “Old Christian.” His master responds to this proclamation with deafening silence – signifying that he himself is a “New Christian” or descendant of a Jewish Conversos. The second instance is a comic passage in which Don Quixote’s ideal of womanhood, the prostitute he calls “Dulcinea,” is described as preparing pork for a meal. All readers in early 17th Century Spain would have recognized this practice of preparing and eating pork as a stereotypical caricature of a Conversos overcompensating in order to publicly prove his or her bona fides as a “New Christian.”
Perhaps the most convincing evidence of possible Jewish influence on Cervantes’ writings in general, and on Don Quixote of la Mancha in particular, is the use of the Old Testament genre of the epic journey made by the protagonist, who first appears as a flawed anti-hero, but who grows in grace over time. This central character often ends up where he first started, although he has been transformed for the better by the challenges he has faced.
Regardless of whether or not one accepts the various theories regarding Cervantes’ possible Jewish origins, anyone considering the tale of the author’s tragicomic hero recognizes in Don Quixote the Biblical stories of Old Testament patriarchs, such as Abraham, Jacob, Joseph, and Moses. Each character faces the rejection of friends and family, and years of self-imposed exile and wandering in the dessert. Each man experiences exhilaration in his “quest” for an ideal . . . and each shares a common desire with Cervantes’ unlikely hero to reach out to the cosmos.
* * * *
Commenting on Cervantes’ Don Quixote, 20th Century Spanish philosopher Miguel de Unamuno wrote, “Only he who attempts the absurd is capable of achieving the impossible.” Clearly this observation applies to Cervantes and Shakespeare alike – writers who lived amazing lives, often took risks, and possessed an extraordinary capacity to bring to life both serious and ridiculous characters, who often embarked on impossible quests that audiences over the last four centuries would never have imagined for themselves. Some of us happily went along for the ride; and by doing so, we were inspired to seek out our own improbable adventures.
To commemorate the achievements of these two giants of modern European literature, please consider treating yourself to a live performance of one of Shakespeare’s plays, or watching a movie version on Netflix, or ordering one of the many translations of Cervantes’ pivotal novel about the “Man of La Mancha” from Amazon.
If you don’t feel like sitting through an entire Shakespearean production or wading through Don Quixote’s adventures, you might try watching one of my favorite feature films, Shakespeare in Love. Another outstanding drama about the early English threater, Anonymous, promotes the interesting but easily debunked theory that the writer of Shakespeare’s plays was not Shakespeare at all, but the Earl of Oxford. Lastly, you might consider streaming to your flat-screen TV Kenneth Branaugh’s recently produced bio-pic about Shakespeare’s final years, “All Is True.” The title of the film is aptly taken from the subtitle for one of the Bard’s last plays, “Henry VIII.” During one fateful performance of the play in 1613, a cannon used for special effects sparked a fire in the thatched rafters overhead, and Shakespeare’s beloved Globe Theater burnt to the ground. Shakespeare went into retirement shortly thereafter.
If you are fortunate enough to live in the Washington, D.C., area, please give consideration to attending in April one of the annual birthday celebrations of William Shakespeare at the Folger Shakespeare Library, located near the U.S. Supreme Court. Or better yet, get yourself a ticket for one of the great performances staged year around by DC’s Shakespeare Theater Company.
As far as Cervantes goes – if a revival of the 1964 musical Man of La Mancha ever comes to your region, sell everything you own and take the family to see it. In my view, it is the perfect Broadway musical of all time. You will come away from the performance singing and soaring!
Lastly, I invite you to click on the links indicated in this paragraph to view YouTube videos of two of the most impressive performances related to Shakespeare and Cervantes ever recorded. The first is the St. Crispin’s Day “Band of Brothers” Speech delivered by Kenneth Branaugh in his 1989 remake of Henry V. The second video features the performance by the incomparable Brian Stokes Mitchell of “The Impossible Dream” during the 2003 Tony Awards.
Whether or not you take me up on any of these suggestions, the most important advice that these two inventors of the modern imagination would probably have given to any of us living today would be “to remain inspired.”
To this imagined counsel, I would add the following:
Never forget that the world is your stage
Achieve the impossible by pursuing the absurd
And with your last ounce of courage, keep reaching for those stars!
In 2005, congressional staffers, in their ignorance of what it took to get the job done in the Russian Federation, griped about all the “vacation travel” my Energy Department teams were taking as we set out to secure Russia’s “loose nukes” during the post-Cold War period. At the Secretary of Energy’s prompting, I sent an earlier version of this piece — a collection of travel vignettes — to the House Appropriations Committee, based upon my most recent business trip to Russia. This rather sarcastic account of what it was really like to travel in post-Soviet Russia became a must-read on the Hill; and after the piece circulated among interested members of Congress, we never received complaints about expending travel funds again. Enjoy traveling with me one more time to the “people’s paradise”!
Sometimes, just getting there is the hardest part of doing business in Russia.
During my four-year stint as director of the U.S. Department of Energy’s warhead security program for the Russian Ministry of Defense, I completed 30 round trips to the Russian Federation (including dozens of internal trips). In March and April of 2005, in order to jump-start the process of upgrading the security of warhead storage facilities under the control of the Strategic Rocket Forces (SRF), I led a small group of technical experts to nine sites in just eight days. Many of the travel hiccups that I have tended to experience during my 25 years traveling across the former Soviet Union somehow occurred during this concentrated eight-day period.
The purpose of these historically significant visits in early 2005 was to verify the eligibility of the sites for security upgrades under the Department of Energy’s Material Protection, Control, and Accounting Program – and to begin designing the required security enhancements.
During this particular trip, we and our SRF escorts crisscrossed thousands of miles and seven time zones, often in antiquated commercial aircraft, between cities such as Moscow, Yekaterinburg, Irkutsk, Krasnoyarsk, and Kazan. We also made one day-trip from Moscow to a site located near the city of Kostroma by mini-van.
In most cases, after flying to the nearest city, the journey required additional transit time in a rented bus or mini-van along roads in various conditions in order to get to the site. With one exception (the lengthy trip across Tatarstan described below), this additional transit portion took between one and four hours each way. (Seven hours’ travel by bus was required to get to other sites that I had visited on other occasions.) For two of the nine site visits completed in the early spring of 2005, we ended up traveling overnight without stopping at a hotel until the following day in order to make our observations during the strictly controlled window for our observations.
With this background in mind, here are the top seven rather humorous but all-too-true travel incidents that we experienced during this relatively short period.
The Major Loved His Cognac
Several times during this eight-day trip, the flights were “open seating,” and it was every man for himself after waiting in the arctic wind at the bottom of the stairs.
As usual, the flight attendants took their time before allowing the passengers to board. I chose my seat on the rather grungy, dimly lit Tupolev-154 (a transport similar to the Boeing 727) for a four-hour flight from Yekaterinburg to Irkutsk, which took off at midnight.
After settling down in my seat for about five minutes, I noticed some liquid seeping up through the bottom of my coat. I stood up and saw that my seat was oozing with beer. I moved to another seat, which seemed to be dry. My neighbor was a Russian army major. After take-off, he offered me some chocolate. We struck up a friendly conversation in Russian.
The major then bought a bottle of cognac from a stewardess and immediately drank half of it before offering me some, which I refused. After a while, he got sick and threw up. I watched with detached amazement as a robust chunk of vomit bounced off the sleeve of my winter jacket, ricocheted through the opening between the seats in front of us, and then landed on the one piece of edible food — a biscuit-that one of my fellow U.S. team members was just about to feast on.
Fifteen minutes later, despite my feeble protests, the stewardess sold the Russian major yet another bottle of cognac. Rather than deal with my now obnoxiously drunken companion, the stewardess directed me to take a seat at the back of the plane, next to the people’s toilet.
The major continued to raise a drunken commotion in the cabin until descent — when he suddenly and mercifully passed out.
The Saga of the Carry-On
Due to its size, the wide-body Illushin-86 offers a more comfortable flying experience than the Tupolev-154; however, the aircraft does offer “quirky” cultural experiences of its own.
Passing through the boarding gate at the airport near Krasnoyarsk in Siberia for an early flight on “Krasno Air” (of course), I walked about 300 meters across the ramp in the middle of a gaggle of about 200 passengers struggling with their carry-on bags. After waiting alongside the aircraft in the bone-chilling breeze for about 10 minutes, a matronly stewardess finally waddled down a few steps of the stairs, scowled at the passengers, and then, with a reluctant sweep of a hand as if she were swatting Siberian mosquitoes, signaled to the shivering masses that the race to the seats had begun.
At that point, the drill was for everyone to quickly climb up a set of stairs to a special cargo hold located at the rear of the aircraft, drop off one’s carry-on bag, and then ascend another set of stairs to the main cabin. This seemed simple enough for departure. The problem, however, was deplaning at the end of the flight.
Upon landing in Moscow, the passengers were directed to exit via a narrow jet-way connected to the front of the airplane at the passenger level. You guessed it: Complete gridlock leaving the aircraft, as those passengers with carry-on luggage stowed down in the cargo hold (e.g., most of us) had to first fight their way toward the aft stairs, descend into the bowels of the jumbo jet to retrieve their bags, and then cycle back up the stairs, fighting their way along the aisle in the cabin against the other salmon swimming against the stream, before exiting the aircraft at the forward jet-way.
The Tempest in the Teacup
Earlier, while the Il-86 was cruising along, I was taken to task by a stewardess because, when she came by to retrieve my dinner tray after the meal service, I had wanted to retain my teacup. I hadn’t yet been served a hot beverage (Russians tend to wait until the end of the meal before serving tea or coffee). Nelzya! Mustn’t separate cheap plastic cup from cheap plastic tray!
My Russian seat mate laughed as the stewardess abruptly thrust the tray back into my hands with its trash and leftovers. As she stormed off, he whispered to me as if we were involved in a conspiracy: “You see, the technique is to give up everything, and then later ask the girl carrying the teapot to provide you with a new cup, some sugar, and something to stir it with.”
About five minutes later, right on cue, the stewardess with the hot beverages came strolling down the aisle juggling a scalding pot of tea just as we hit some turbulence. She skillfully poured me some tea, and she also poured my Russian neighbor some — yes, into a newly minted plastic cup, each item provided without hesitation, including a plastic fork.
As he was stirring in his sugar, my seatmate leaned over to me, grinned, and with a twinkle in his eye said, “That’s how you beat the system in Russia!”
A few moments later, my neighbor with the inside track on stewardess etiquette suddenly began to giggle uncontrollably as he pulled the fork out of his piping hot tea. He looked at me, then pointed down to his cup. The teeth of his fork had just melted off and were in the process of dissolving in his gurgling beverage.
The Refrigerator with Wheels
The large bus that the Russians rented for our seven-hour round trip between Krasnoyarsk and a strategic rocket forces site seemed adequate — that is, until our return journey later that evening, when the sun set and the temperature dropped to well-below freezing.
As we attempted to bury ourselves in our winter coats and hats, the driver revealed to us that the bus could only travel faster than 40 kilometers per hour if the heater was turned off. It was a choice of either adding several hours to our return journey while remaining warm — or continuing to travel at max warp-speed across the bumpy highway in what now seemed to be a meat-packer’s refrigerator. Evidently, the old bus had been relying on solar radiation for internal heat, and now that the sun was no longer available. . . . well, life in Siberia is sometimes difficult.
Our Russian military escorts insisted on going faster, so we hunkered down and pretended to be stalwart icemen. My toes were saved from frostbite by a team-mate who handed me a set of chemical glove warmers, which I placed into my boots. When I got back to D.C. several weeks later, I went to the nearest REI outlet and relieved them of most of their stock of foot warmers. Except for the months of June, July, and August, I never again traveled to Russia without these life-saving essentials.
The Speeding Mini-Van
During our long road trip between Moscow and Teykovo (located north of the city of Vladimir), we spent 11 hours (round trip) dodging trucks and potholes in order to get about an hour’s time on site. On the way back, all of our Russian escorts abandoned us by jumping into the lead van with the intent of speeding back to Moscow ahead of us.
About two hours later, as our own driver carefully negotiated the obstacles, we approached the disabled mini-van of our Russian companions, who, in the dark, foggy conditions of the evening, had managed to blow two tires on the same side of their auto, as it ran over one of hundreds of large unmarked craters in the highway.
To show our solidarity with our obviously chastened hosts, we stood watch with them on the edge of the highway for another hour, observing trucks with marginally functioning headlights hurling pass us, until our drivers finished changing their tires.
The Grand Caravan
My favorite: As we were about to exit the plane after completing another late-night flight — this time to Tatarstan — our stewardess casually informed us that we weren’t exactly where we thought we should be. The plane had diverted to a field located in the eastern part of the “republic,” about 300 kilometers away, due to some accident at our intended airport near the city of Kazan.
After exiting the plane, we were directed to walk across the ramp to a dimly lit terminal, where we were kept in the dark about what was happening. After about two hours (around 1 AM) the passenger hall literally went dark. One remaining airport employee told our military escorts that the aircrew had gone to bed and would probably return at 11 AM the next day. No one made any attempt to find a hotel for the stranded passengers or to provide food.
Realizing that we would probably miss both our window for visiting the SRF base and our return flight later that evening, we decided to hire some local taxis.
After about 90 minutes, one of our escorts and an interpreter returned from the nearby town with one bona fide taxi and two “Gypsy cabs.” We jammed ourselves and our bags into the tiny Russian sedans, and the cars took off as we were forced to ride sideways, our arms and legs overlapping like contortionists from the Moscow Circus.
Twenty minutes later, we realized that this wouldn’t do; so we commandeered with a “tax-free incentive” another car and driver, the vehicle having been selected on the narrow criteria that it was the only one parked at the dark intersection of Sadsack Shossee and Barren-abad Bulivar. No worries, though; no breathalyzer test required!
With our newfound Russian-deluxe comfort afforded by the additional vehicle, our unlikely caravan, like a herd of camels bobbing their way to some distant watering hole, galloped off on a four-hour night-time journey across the breadth of the autonomous Tatar Republic.
Our goal during this Mr. Toad’s Ride across the hilly steppe was to link up with a bus — allegedly waiting for us at Kazan (our intended arrival airport) — before that dubious form of vehicular conveyance had wandered off. We still had several hundred kilometers to go before then. During most of the journey, I struggled, mostly in vain, to keep one blurry eye on my fearless but anonymous driver, just in case he decided to take an alcohol-induced snooze while driving in the middle of the two-lane roadway.
Arriving at Kazan airport right after sun-up, we thankfully transferred to our awaiting bus for another two-hour drive to the SRF site. We managed to return to the airport at Kazan just in time to make our evening flight back to Moscow. We were back at the Marriott Grand in the big city 36 sleepless hours after we had arisen the day before.
The Luggage Militsia
Not to worry. Back at Moscow’s Domodedevo Airport, when it’s time to leave the baggage claim area inside the terminal, the professional “luggage police” are always at your service to prevent passengers from making the critical mistake of retrieving someone else’s precious items. (Russian women are usually chosen for the really tough jobs like this one, as they never take any crap from anyone.) Shame on you if your baggage tag happens to get separated from your checked luggage! Which is what happened to one of my U.S. team mates.
Unfortunately, my American colleague was “caught” trying to exit the baggage area without a tag on his luggage; and his punishment was being forced to open his suitcase and, with 100 other passengers jammed in the exit queue behind him, to verbally confess to all present that the contents indeed belonged to him.
“Whose clothes are these? Yours? Are you sure? O.K., fine – zip it up! You are free to go.”
Really, what was he supposed to say? “Oh my goodness. . . some saboteur has gotten into my luggage. The bag is mine; but the dirty underwear belongs to somebody else!”
. . . So what happened with the Russian nuclear storage sites?
Well, the time we spent at each of the nine nuclear weapon storage sites was indeed sufficient to make our observations and begin designing the security upgrades.
Two years later, having built up considerable trust with our Russian partners, and having improved and institutionalized our methodologies, we had added dozens of nuclear sites to the list of cooperative projects. We were well on our way to installing modern security systems at 84 storage facilities in Russia, securing thousands of otherwise “loose nukes” – until such time that they could be properly dismantled.
Unfortunately, years later in 2019, one has to conclude that all of this effort is a thing of the past. Well, at least I’ll always have the distinct smell of cognac-barf to remember!
A Remembrance of Boot Polish, a Father, and Armstrong’s “Giant Leap”
Bruce D. Slawter, Colonel, USAF (Ret.)
Veterans Day 2019
I will never forget the moment when man first stepped on the moon. It was shortly after one military call-to-formation that was equally memorable. Approaching 2100 hours, it was time to hit the showers after the evening lecture on Air Force Heritage, and the “uniform-of-the-day” (or evening I should say) was nothing more than cotton briefs, flip-flops, soap in a plastic dish held in the left hand, and a small white cotton towel draped over the left arm like a waiter.
* * * *
I was about halfway through Basic Cadet Training (BCT) at the Air Force Academy; and I have to admit that, looking back five decades, my initiation into cadet life seems a bit of a blur. Known by Academy grads simply as “Beast” (for BCT), I can recall just a few “happy” details about my “summer vacation” in 1969, which began a mere 10 days after I graduated from high school. I remember, though, the experience as punctuated by all of that constant shouting by angry strangers – those upperclassmen ostensibly masquerading as modern training officers, but who seemed better suited to have served under the likes of General Torquemada during the Spanish Inquisition.
For some reason that I couldn’t understand at the time, I could never do anything to please them. “You worthless smack, get down on all fours.” Holding a variation of the basic push-up position until one was about to pass out was the preferred form of “inducement to learning” back then. Since all basic cadets were by definition dehumanized smacks, any new cadet was subject to a command to “hit it” at any arbitrary moment. In this respect, you can say that the corporate culture for the entering class of 1973 was one of equal opportunity.
Moreover, there was the constant running everywhere on the 7,300-foot-high Rocky Mountain plateau.
By this I mean that, as a stubby, short-legged fellow, one of my greatest challenges seemed to be all that incessant running, whether it was done in formation transiting the hard “terrazzo” of the Cadet Area (main campus), wading through the muddy creeks of the obstacle course at Jack’s Valley, or just being forced to scale one of those sloping Colorado embankments with an M-1 rifle held high overhead as punishment for failing to keep one’s chin locked in place and eyes fixed straight ahead. “Slawter, you dumb wad! I warned you before about gazing,” remarked one upperclassman with what I thought was uncharitable hostility. “Do you want to buy this place?”
Not sharing my tormentor’s enthusiasm about developing my peripheral vision – or his humor, for that matter – I remember being more concerned about being sent home in disgrace, because I hadn’t yet discovered the technique for making the toes of my ravaged combat boots shine like mirrors made from ebony.
* * * *
I’m sure that every American man or woman who has ever gone through a form of basic military training has considered his or her particular experience far worse than anyone else’s. However, Beast in the summer of 1969 occurred mid-point in the Vietnam war, not too far removed from the Tet Offensive; and reports were flooding in about the North Vietnamese torture of downed U.S. Navy and Air Force airmen. Most of us would become pilots, if we didn’t wash out over the next four years; and there was no end to the war in sight. Our trainers thus believed that they had special sanction to make the next 12 months as “challenging” as possible, including the capstone Survival, Escape, Resistance, and Evasion (SERE) training, which was designed to prepare us for the POW experience that everyone hoped to avoid. Over the years, cadets have lost their physical qualification for pilot training as a result of the “realism” encountered during Academy SERE training. Moreover, it was always considered best to weed out those who were perceived as not possessing “the right stuff” during the first few weeks of Basic Cadet Training.
* * * *
I can’t recall exactly why we had returned from field training to the main campus the night before. Maybe it was because we were so filthy, and we just needed to refresh and get our muddy uniforms cleaned up.
I was so distraught about being incessantly hazed for not having shinny boots that, on the march back to our dormitory, I whispered to a fellow classmate, Gary Clemente, “What did you do to get your boots looking so good?” Unlike most of us, Gary had several years’ experience in the Air Force as an enlisted man. Identified as a promising future leader, although he had been a lackluster student in high school, Gary had spent the previous year at the Academy’s Prep School, honing his academic skills. The prep school guys always seemed to have the inside track on how to survive that first year.
Although Gary was as exhausted as I, that night he risked cadet purgatory by sneaking into my room after taps, with a flashlight and a small bag. He asked for my boots. Trusting this more experienced fellow, I felt around for my boots in the dark, and handed them to him.
I then watched in silent wonderment as Gary pulled out a can of Kiwi boot polish, two cotton balls, a small vial of rubbing alcohol, and a cigarette lighter. My jaw dropped as this wizard skillfully poured the alcohol over the toe piece of one boot, and then lit it with his cigarette lighter.
Poof! The boot fired up in the dark like some amazing flambé dessert. I remember the bright blue and yellow flame shoot up like a Saturn booster about to be launched from its pad at Cape Kennedy. And I can recall that mystical aroma akin to Cherries Jubilee – except that the cherries were replaced by the pungent smell of caramelized leather.
Holding his flashlight in one hand and using a cotton ball smothered in boot polish with the other, Gary quickly started making tiny little circles on the toe, gradually expanding his motion like a practiced surgeon to cover the rest of my boot. After about half-an-hour, he applied his alchemy to my other boot.
In the morning, my boots looked spectacular; and thanks to Gary, the expected abuse from upperclassmen – at least on that front – ceased.
* * * *
Another issue – this one external – continued to weigh on me: My father had stopped talking to me about six months earlier – after I had accepted my appointment to the Academy. As a World War II veteran, he had been blown nearly in two by a mine while attacking entrenched Japanese positions in the Philippines. Although he was severely wounded and had initially been left for dead, the piece of shrapnel aimed at his heart was caught by his breast-pocket Bible; and this miracle gave him a few more decades with us.
Typical of many soldiers who had experienced traumatic wartime experiences, my father seldom spoke about his time in the Service, except to say, “It’s not like in the movies. War is no fun.”
Dad was clearly disappointed with my decision to enter the Academy, although he never mentioned anything one way or the other about it. Just the silent treatment. I could tell. A gentle being, Dad would never utter a word to hurt another person’s feelings; and he would never tell even a white lie just to make you feel good. The most honest man I ever knew, it wasn’t in his DNA to lie.
Whether it was in silent protest – or just to maintain his solid record about never attending any school event during my entire growing up years – Dad did not attend my high school graduation.
That summer, the only training officer who did not engage in the collective harassment – at least not directed at me – was a Cadet First Class Bjorklund. A tall, handsome Swede that looked like Steve Canyon, he always seemed to glance down at my nametag as he passed by for morning inspection, never stopping to berate me for some fabricated infraction, like the others. He was the chief training officer for my flight of new cadets. No doubt, he already knew everything about me in advance.
One day, during one of the inspections, Bjorklund decided to quiz me on some trivia. . . seemingly another mind-game played by the upperclassmen. However, in this instance, Bjorklund started to ask random questions about the landmarks of my home neighborhood in Venice, California. Of course, he always knew the answers in advance.
Then one day, right after we had gathered for morning formation, Bjorklund asked me if I knew what business was located at a particular intersection in neighboring Santa Monica. It was my dad’s automobile repair business! A light then came on in my head, as I gave him his expected reply. “Right answer, Cadet Slawter,” he said.
My morale first soared to new heights – and then took a brief nosedive – as Bjorklund walked slowly around to the rear of my rigid frame, my chin-locked head facing forward. I instinctively waited for the blow. Then, he circled once more to my front. With his nose now less than six inches from mine, I could see a brotherly grin form on his boyish face. Astonished, I couldn’t help smiling back. I recognized that Cadet First Class Bjorklund had just informed me in his own nonverbal way, “Don’t worry, your dad is now O.K. with all of this.”
Much later, I learned from my mom that Bjorklund, a cadet who had also hailed from southern California, had stopped off at Dad’s repair business for a tune-up of his new Corvette. It happened just as I was being processed in at the Academy in Colorado. Bjorklund was about to head back after taking some leave back home. Evidently, Dad struck up a friendly conversation with the self-possessed senior cadet; and he spent 2-3 hours learning first-hand what the Academy was all about. Sensitive to my dad’s fears, Bjorklund re-assured him that I would be receiving the best preparation imaginable for anyone entering the military – plus a first-class college education. That did the trick. After basic training, when I could make calls home, Dad started talking to me again.
Because Fourth Class Cadets (freshmen) weren’t allowed any vacation time before Christmas break, Dad overcame his fears about flying to join me for Thanksgiving dinner in the Cadet dining hall. And what a wonderful Thanksgiving it was! Dad had never been on a plane before, except for the C-47 that had transported him home on a stretcher after he was severely wounded 25 years before.
In June 1973, Dad was so happy that he bought tickets for the whole family, including his brother and my grandmother, to attend my Academy graduation – and my marriage to a beautiful young woman named Suzanne the very next day.
. . . And one year later, he even made it down to Del Rio, Texas, on the Rio Grande, to attend my graduation from Pilot Training. Dad bought himself a ten-gallon hat to celebrate.
* * * *
During that night in the summer of 1969, I have to admit that it was a comical sight: several dozen cadets, each with shaved heads, lined up on both sides of the long hallway, standing in a ridged brace in flip-flops, skimpy USAF-issued briefs, soap, and towel. I thought, “Why are they having us wait so long before marching off to the showers?”
Then, Cadet First Class Bjorklund announced, “Change of plans, gents. You’ll get your showers a little later. Now, we have a little surprise for you.”
Bjorklund then commanded “At ease,” and he asked each of us to file one-by-one into the Squadron Ready Room, a small lounge used only by upperclassmen. The TV was on, and you could see a poor but clearly identifiable black and white video feed from the “Eagle,” the Apollo 11 Lunar Module, sitting on the surface of the moon.
Jammed shoulder-to-shoulder into the small room, Bjorklund told us to relax, sit on the floor, and watch history being made. As we sat down mostly naked in our collective scent of sweat-laced dust and bar soap, he said, “Cadets, this is what your training here is all about.”
After an interminable 15 minutes, the Squadron Ready Room suddenly went from muted conversations to complete silence. It was approaching 9 PM at the Academy, 20 July 1969. Neil Armstrong opened up the door of his spacecraft, and after a few minutes, we watched him descend down the stairs carefully but boldly. I think each of us held our breath as Armstrong stepped onto the surface of the moon and uttered the immortal words, “That’s one small step for man. . . . one giant leap for mankind.”
* * * *
Years later, a number of graduates of the Class of 1973 (those of us who entered the Academy that summer of 1969) would be inspired to become test pilots, and several would fly to the fringes of space. Two would rise to the ranks of America’s Astronauts and pilot the Space Shuttle. Another classmate would never make it into space, but he would save 155 lives by landing U.S. Airways Flight 1549 safely in the Hudson. His name is Sully Sullenberger.
Several decades before then, several of us from the Class of ’73 would be thrown into the chaos of real-world military operations. It was during the period of America’s “strategic retreat” – a byproduct of our failure in Southeast Asia and self-doubt as a nation during the post-Watergate years.
In April 1975, in an effort to save some of our South Vietnamese allies from Communist death camps as enemy forces surrounded Saigon, President Gerald Ford, with little backing from Congress, ordered into operation the greatest wartime evacuation since the British miracle at Dunkirk in 1940. Several hundred thousand refugees would escape the North Vietnamese noose in a major air-sea campaign led by U.S. forces; and over 50,000 would be flown out by U.S. fixed-wing aircraft in just three weeks’ time, during two seamless phases – Operation: Babylift and Operation: New Life.
Dave Cleland, a close friend and classmate was on his “dollar ride” – his first-ever operational flight after qualifying as a C-130 “Hercules” copilot. Taxiing the tactical transport aircraft towards the terminal after landing at Saigon’s Tan Son Nhut airport as the North Vietnamese Army closed in, one of the C-130’s engines was hit by a mortar. Dave and his crewmates barely escaped with their lives as they egressed from their fiery cauldron and ran to another C-130 about to take off. Dave explained to me later that, although he had always been in perfect health, he started experiencing heart palpitations and began failing flight physicals right after that experience. Several years later, I sadly learned that my friend had suffered a fatal heart attack, and I could understand why.
About a week before Dave’s dramatic introduction to combat, another ’73 grad, a recently qualified co-pilot on the larger C-141 strategic transport (known as the “Starlifter”), was on his second of eight evacuation flights into Vietnam (two had to be aborted due to the intensity of the battle being fought below). Flying bigger targets than the smaller Hercules, C-141 pilots were instructed to enter Vietnamese airspace at the aircraft’s maximum ceiling (39,000 feet) to avoid the deadly shoulder-mounted surface-to-air missiles issued to enemy grunts below. Upon reaching the confines of Saigon’s Tan Son Nhut Airport, aircraft commanders were to then perform an improvised maneuver not found in the flight manuals: to pirouette their 150-ton behemoths into a tight downward corkscrew, spiraling like a rock racing down to the surface, with engines at idle and spoilers fully deployed, hoping to pull out of the curling dive at the precise point on short final, just in time to drop the flaps and landing gear before touching down. This air-show stunt worked fine during the crew’s first flight to Saigon.
It didn’t go so well the second time.
The C-141 was about to coast into Vietnamese airspace on the next day’s run from Clark Air Base in the Philippines. When it was his turn, this newly minted C-141 co-pilot jumped out of his seat to make his way down to the small latrine located under the cockpit in the avionics bay. Just then, the navigator siting above him in the cockpit alerted the aircraft commander that the acquisition radar of a high-altitude SA-2 surface-to-missile system, just deployed by the North Vietnamese as part of their noose tightening around Saigon, had locked onto the aircraft.
Without warning, the pilot banked the aircraft nearly 90 degrees and began a rapid nose-dive down toward the Mekong Delta to get below enemy radar. As the pilot began his violent maneuver, the unsuspecting co-pilot, just shutting the door to the latrine below in habitual modesty, noticed the handle suddenly break in the fully-locked mode. He was stuck in the coffin-sized toilet for the duration of the flight.
The co-pilot then began pounding on the ceiling of his confined space for rescue, but there was no reaction from the cockpit above. For a second, he wondered if someone even noticed him missing . . . whether a co-pilot was as redundant as an extra cargo tie-down strap on crashing airplane.
No longer was this co-pilot concerned about keeping his boots as shiny as Gary Clemente had taught him. Instead, his passing thoughts were: “What will they tell my family? Will I go down in history as the first aviator to be killed in combat in a commode?”
Suddenly, he heard a shout, “Sir, stand back!” Splinters flew as he bore witness to his savior, a quick-acting loadmaster, hacking the door into pieces with an emergency ax, as if he were fighting back an advancing Birnam Wood of Vietcong.
The co-pilot managed to jump back into his seat just in time to lower the flaps and landing gear on final approach. Right before he touched down in a picture-perfect landing, the aircraft commander, who had been Bob Hope’s pilot during his many USO tours to Southeast Asia, leaned across the console, and with his characteristic coolness, asked, “What were you doing down there, co-pilot? Looking for a new Road to Saigon?”
* * * *
Five years later, that co-pilot, now the chief pilot of his squadron and a flight examiner aircraft commander, led a two-ship mission across the Pacific and Indian Oceans to Pakistan. By then, I had learned to always keep the latrine door of the C-141 slightly ajar.
It was three weeks into the Iranian Hostage Crisis, and our mission was to pre-position in the desert several Delta Force helicopters for a possible rescue mission inside Iran.
The last leg of our journey called for a circuitous route from the Philippines through the Strait of Malacca and around Sri Lanka. In using that longer flight plan, we had hoped to avoid detection by the Soviet navy and land-based Indian radar sites.
I had previously made two flights into Tehran transporting Americans out of Iran before the Ayatollahs returned and shut things down for good. During my first mission, flown at night, the Iranians ordered that the approach, landing, and airfield lights be turned off on our final approach, tempting us to land at a parallel military strip, where our aircraft and crew could be impounded. Departing on my second flight from Tehran in a blizzard with little visibility, Iranian air traffic controllers deliberately tried to vector us into the granite of the 13,000-foot-high Alborz mountains located just to the north of the city.
Therefore, as our two C-141s departed from our home base in southern California for our trip half-way around the world, I was highly doubtful that our aircraft with our sensitive cargo would be receiving a warm welcome when we touched down near Karachi.
My fears were realized when I learned from the sole American meeting our C-141s upon landing in Pakistan that militants had just burned down the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad, and another group was rioting at the U.S. Consulate in Karachi, just a few miles away.
Before we offloaded the helicopters and bedded down for a sleepless night, we repositioned our two aircraft – now painted in camouflage livery and looking like giant lizards – behind a decrepit hangar that only partially masked our presence.
I looked back as we drove off toward our dingy hotel, located on the edge of nearby Karachi. The dark green noses and towering whale-like “T-tails” of our two C-141s stuck out like sore thumbs from behind the small beige-colored hangar. I thought of a riddle circulating when I was a kid: “How do you hide an elephant in a cherry tree? Answer: You paint his toenails red.”
Lockheed C-141B “Starlifter”
* * * *
Several months later, I began a four-year sabbatical from aviator duties, which featured my first of two postings to U.S. Embassy Moscow. While studying Russian with the State Department, I learned of the dramatic news of the failed attempt to free the U.S. hostages in Tehran.
Disaster struck at a place called “Desert One,” which was located inside Iran, several hundred miles away from where my team had previously dropped off the Delta Force helicopters. In the confusion of a windstorm, one special forces helicopter (not one of those flown in earlier), careened into a EC-130 Hercules, which was specially equipped with bladders containing jet fuel for the final assault team.
The rescue mission, Operation: Eagle Claw, was aborted, as eight U.S. servicemen became engulfed in flames. Their chard remains, including that of close friend Charles McMillan, another ’73 Grad, were released by the Iranians several months later.
There was no King Harry to give a rousing Saint Crispin’s Day speech on that lonely desert in Iran. . . and there are few from that band of brothers who care to remember America’s dystopic Agincourt.
Most pilots and navigators of that era had already bailed out of the Service due to force cuts, and more would leave to seek a better life for their families after that low point in our collective morale.
Still, a few of us who lived through those events would remain . . . we dazed and disenchanted few. . . for no apparent reason other than we had become accustomed to a larger sense of family – our military family – and perhaps because of that false sense of adventure and illusive concept of American patriotism. We would “bugger on” (as the Brits would eloquently put it) until America’s first military-aviator President, George H.W. Bush, redeemed our souls and refreshed our spirits by leading us to a swift and limited victory in 1991, called “Desert Storm.”
But that would be more than 20 years after America’s astronauts, backed by the best minds and the best technology of the age, would first conquer a more distant and desolate desert.
* * * *
Back in 1969, after the shadows of the Rampart Range had blanketed the Cadet Area in summer dusk and scent of pine, the morale of the Class of ’73 buoyed upward as we watched those amazing pictures from the Lunar landscape.
Looking back 50 years, I am convinced that those images of that first walk by Neil Armstrong carried many of us through the rest of Beast and well into our careers. I give credit as well for my survival during that demanding first year at the Academy to the many acts of kindness shown to me by classmates, upperclassmen, and faculty members.
But I will never forget those lifelines tossed to me that summer by Basic Cadet Clemente and Cadet First Class Bjorklund.
And yes, we all made it to the showers after watching that astonishing historical event on the distant Lunar surface.
Marching out of the Squadron Ready Room in our flip-flops – wearing our skivvies and our American pride as our only spacesuits; and bearing our soap dishes and towels as our navigation aids to the stars – I am certain that each of us felt that we, too, were walking on the surface of the moon.
Several months after I first circulated this story, my wife and I attended a book talk by noted Evangelical author Max Lucado at DC’s Museum of the Bible, where I volunteer as a tour docent. My wife had read several of his children’s books to her students; and I was interested in what Pastor Lucado had to say, although I had known little about the author beforehand. While I am not an Evangelical myself, I do share many of the beliefs and values common to most Christians – most notably a love of the Bible. In addition, I believe that one should always be open to new ways of becoming closer to God.
Briefly introducing the premise of his latest book, How Happiness Happens, Lucado remarked that one of the many ways in which the Bible teaches us to be happy is to reach out to others. There is always someone whose need is greater than our own. Sure, in some instances, we can offer something tangible. However, more often than not, it’s just a matter of listening – and encouraging.
While most of us have heard this message before, I found Lucado’s talk to be both inspiring and a gentle reminder of this important Biblical principle; and the book talk caused me to consider this message in a new light – and to remember the example of someone I had the privilege of knowing two decades earlier.
Driving home that night from the Museum of the Bible, I suppose that I wasn’t very good companion for my wife; for I was deep in thought recalling a young friend, who I had left out of the foregone essay. His name is Jonathan Briese, and Jonathan was an Eagle Scout along with our son Andrew in our local Boy Scout troop. Let me tell you about him now.
Jonathan had dreamed of becoming a U.S. Coast Guard Officer.
In the summer of 1995, while sitting on a rocky promontory in the middle of a lake during a canoeing trip in the Adirondacks, Jonathan asked me, as a serving officer at the time, to write a recommendation for him to attend the U.S. Coast Guard Academy in New London, Connecticut. Without hesitation, I replied that it would be my honor to do so.
As the sun was setting over the calm waters of Lake Saranac, I then asked Jonathan if, in return, he could remember to do something for me – if it turns out that he was indeed offered an appointment to the Academy. He responded immediately, “Sure, Colonel Slawter.”
Jonathan listened intently as I told him the story about Cadet Clemente and Cadet Bjorklund – what their help had meant to me; how I learned the essential cadet survival skill of shining my combat boots. I asked him, when he entered basic training at the Academy, to try seeking out the kid in his unit who was struggling more than he was. He should do this although he was about to collapse with fatigue – or he was ready to give up, due to his own discouragement. This would help give himself the strength to persevere.
Jonathan said he would try his best.
As Jonathan returned to camp, I remember feeling somewhat hypocritical having given him such advice. Looking back on my own lengthy military career, I realized that despite all of my excuses – the stressful command environment, the priority always given to “mission accomplishment,” the overseas assignments, the managing of egos, or just the blatant career “coup-counting” – in practice, it was advice that I had only honored in the breach. I was ashamed that I hadn’t tried harder to find the extra moments in each day to be a better listener and to provide encouragement, particularly to those who served under me and looked to me for leadership.
In any event, that evening would be the last time that I would have a conversation with my young friend.
Several years later, just a few months after I had retired from the Air Force, I received the devastating news that Coast Guard Cadet Second Class Jonathan Briese had suddenly died due to a reaction from a sedative used in an elective medical procedure.
Although I had already separated from the Air Force, I put on my “Class-A Blues” for Jonathan’s funeral – and that would be the very last time I would wear the nation’s uniform.
I sat dazed in the pews of the synagogue until the eulogy got to the part about my young friend’s achievements at the Coast Guard Academy; and then my eyes welled up with tears.
Evidently, a number of Jonathan’s classmates had written tributes to the young man, and the theme was always the same: Beginning with his basic training, Jonathan had indeed made a consistent effort to reach out to the weakest cadet in his unit, offering practical support and encouragement, no matter what the circumstance. Because of his reputation of always being willing to lend a hand to others while struggling with his own challenges, he had just been elected “company morale officer.”
Jonathan had been looking forward to training incoming cadets that following summer during a cruise on the famed “Eagle,” one of two sailing ships still in service in the U.S. military. It was his chance to teach them everything he knew.
My young friend, however, had already set sail on a voyage of a different nature.
Wrapping up the eulogy, the Rabbi noted that Jonathan seemed to have developed a particular specialty during his brief time at the Coast Guard Academy: It was teaching new cadets how to make their boots shine like mirrors made from ebony.
First posted in May 2015, during commemorations marking the 70th anniversary of the end of WWII in the European Theater, this blog essay features first-hand accounts from veterans and family members of the “greatest generation” who participated in the historic events, most notably the link-up between U.S. and Soviet forces on the Elbe River near a charming Medieval German town called Torgau. The piece also includes my thoughts about my closest relatives, who fought in in the Pacific Theater, plus an aside about my own brief experience in another conflict several decades later.
The concept of “patriotism” is often hard to define; and most service men and women do not consider themselves to be more worthy patriots than any other U.S. citizen. Still, I hope that this piece will convey some sense of what it means to be an American, either in a combat zone or busy on the home front, who experiences war close up. . . and of our pride for having served the greatest country that has ever been.
After reading the essay, you are invited to visit a photo album featuring photos of the veterans who returned to the Elbe River for a reunion back in 2015 by clicking on the link located at the very bottom of this page.
Bruce D. Slawter
Colonel, USAF (Ret.)
September 2, 2020
America‘s “Aprils of the Fives” and the End of World War II in Europe
Every history buff carries in his hip pocket a list of important dates in American history – or even what he considers to be a particularly noteworthy month. For me, the month that holds the most significance will always be April . . . not every April . . . just the “Aprils of the Fives” – those Aprils running from 1775 to 1975, for which the accompanying year ends with the digit “5.”
One might ask, “O.K., how did you come up with this Fibonacci-like formulation of America’s Aprils of the Fives? What’s the big deal?” I’ll try to explain.
* * * * *
Earlier this month (May 2015), millions across the globe commemorated the 70th anniversary of the end of the Second World War in the European Theater. On Friday, May 8th, thousands of Americans and Europeans – along with the rapidly diminishing numbers of veterans of that terrible conflict – attended events marking the surrender of Nazi Germany and the end of Europe’s most devastating war. In nearby Washington, D.C., the ever security-conscious FAA even permitted an aerial parade of 56 WWII fighters and bombers over the Mall near the Washington Monument and down the Potomac. And on Saturday, May 9th, the Russians and the other nationalities of the post-Soviet states staged huge parades and solemn ceremonies marking their victory over Fascist Germany. (They do it on the 9th of May of each year, because the final German instrument of surrender wasn’t actually signed until after midnight, Moscow-time.)
While the importance of this month’s commemorative events cannot be overstated, it’s interesting to note that the war for most American GIs serving in Europe effectively ended on April 25, 1945, when the lead elements of the U.S. Army’s 69th Infantry Division, having just defeated stubborn German resistance in the nearby city of Leipzig, linked up with the USSR’s 58th Guards Division at various points along the Elbe River. Centered on the picturesque town of Torgau in the German state of Saxony (situated within the Moscow-dominated German Democratic Republic throughout the Cold War), this historic 40 kilometer-long bridge-head, which linked U.S. and Soviet forces during the last weeks of the war, effectively sliced the remnants of the Third Reich into two parts. Moreover, it sealed the ring of Allied forces closing in on Berlin.
More soldiers would die before the official surrender of Nazi Germany would take place on the evening of May 8/9 – mainly Soviets. Relatively few Americans would lose their lives after the link up on the Elbe – thanks to the good sense of General Dwight D. Eisenhower, who acquiesced to the Soviets in their expectation that the honor of storming Berlin go to them. Eisenhower also realized that, in accordance with the London Protocols signed in the fall of 1944, which specified the zones of occupation after Germany’s defeat, he would be compelled to cede back to the Soviets most of the territory that U.S. and British forces would have had to fight across in order to reach Berlin. Nevertheless, Hitler would commit suicide five days after the historic meeting of Allied forces on the Elbe; and the Nazi capital would capitulate after only seven more days of resistance.
Several years earlier, in a speech given after the Battle of El Alamein in November 1942, Winston Churchill cautioned the Allies that this early British victory in the Egyptian desert was ” . . . not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.” During the decades after the end of World War II, veterans of the famed 69th Infantry Division and their children would fight over bragging rights as to which small group of American soldiers was the first to make contact with the Soviets along the Elbe – and the debate is still not settled. However, back then on the evening of April 25, 1945, as word about the link-up spread throughout the 69th like wildfire, every “grunt” could agree that the surrender of Nazi Germany was close at hand. Members of the division had been in a state of near-continuous combat since the Battle of the Bulge in December 1944; and most soldiers were bone-tired of the futile but still deadly German resistance. However, as U.S. soldiers became aware of the link-up with the Soviets, morale shot up to Alpine heights. Each battle-weary G.I. in the 69th – from the top of his unshaven head down to his mud-caked boots – believed that he had actually made it through the terrible furnace of war. He knew that, not only was this the beginning of the end, it was indeed the end of the end; and soon, he would be heading home.
* * * * *
I have always believed that the “Spirit of the Elbe” fostered by American and Soviet soldiers back in April 1945 was the penultimate example of what could be achieved when Americans focused on “converging interests” rather than divergent political differences.
While I always possessed an understanding of the broad contours of the U.S. and Soviet campaigns in the European Theater, I had never visited the area of the historic conversion of forces, nor had I ever met any of the participants. Last month’s 70th Anniversary of “Elbe Day” (as it has been called in east Germany for decades) appeared to be the last opportunity I would have to visit the actual scenes of these initial meetings and talk with the last surviving veterans who participated in the operation. Thanks to the gracious efforts of Tom Slopek, the President of the 69th Infantry Division’s “Next Generation Group” (whose principal members include the sons and daughters of the GIs who have since passed), my wife and I made the pilgrimage to Torgau in April and were included in the handful of American representatives attending this solemn but upbeat 70th Anniversary of the end of the war Europe.
* * * * *
In retrospect, I suppose that I had mixed motives for attending this year’s event. As a long-time student of Russian military history, I of course had a particular interest in the subject matter; moreover, I felt that I needed to honor both the American GIs and their Soviet counterparts who served and bled in Europe. However, deep down, I suppose that I traveled to Torgau to honor my own family members as well – those members of “the Greatest Generation,” who served in other theaters of the war and on the home front, and who have long since passed on.
Two of my closest male relatives saw the horrors of war up close. My father, Sgt Bernard Slawter of the U.S. Army’s 23rd Infantry Division (known as the AmericalDivision, because it was formed on the island of New Caledonia in the South Pacific ), survived the conflict; but he was severely wounded in early 1945 and initially left for dead on a lonely battlefield in the Philippines. When mortuary crews were about to bag up his unconscious body, they noticed that a large chunk of shrapnel intended for his heart had been lodged in the torn remains of his breast-pocket Bible. My closest uncle, Sgt Claud Lewis, was a member of an elite U.S. Marine commando squad. Having just been awarded the Bronze Star for heroism on Iwo Jima, Uncle Claud was busy rooting out suicidal Japanese soldiers savagely defending their fortified caves on Okinawa, just as the war in Europe was winding down along the Elbe. Both men bore the physical and mental scars of that war throughout the rest of their lives.
Given the complexities of the Pacific Theater during World War II and current regional political sensitivities, I felt that there was little likelihood that a similar commemoration would be held on the obscure battlefields where my father and uncle fought and bled. So I held one for them privately at Torgau.
Lastly, I thought that I would also go to the now serene countryside of Saxony and Brandenburg to honor my late mother, Bernice Lewis Slawter, a Boeing riveter and descendant of a grandmother who was born in a village located just to the east of Torgau. Mom’s job was attaching tail sections to B-17 bombers in Washington state, before the aircraft were flown to Europe; and she performed this task with her usual Teutonic dedication and attention to detail. She rightly believed that she also had a hand in winning the war against the Axis.
* * * * *
We met a number of outstanding people during our visit to Torgau – and they all had fascinating stories to tell. Accomplished men and women in their own right, these folks are doing their best to preserve the “Spirit of the Elbe” and to honor the contributions of the wartime veterans.
First and foremost among the superstars we met in Torgau was Chester A. Yastrzemski, the sole American veteran of the 69th Infantry Division able to make this year’s trek to Germany. An active 89-year-young ex-baseball player (like his hall-of-fame nephew Carl Yastrzemski), “Chet” eventually went into law-enforcement after playing semi-pro baseball; and he retired a few years back as the Police Chief of Southampton Village on Long Island. Chet was only 18 when first went into combat. With his characteristic straight-forward frankness, Chet told me that, as a young army private, he was just doing his best to follow orders. “The officers had all the maps,” he said. “The battle lines were a bit confused.” He said that he never knew his exact location, until his unit ran into the Red Army. A modest man, I’m sure Chet did much more than he let on. We’ll have to pry some more stories out of him on another, less emotional occasion.
Next on the list of notables was Tom Slopek, the aforementioned President of the 69th‘s Next Generation Group. A Ford Motor Company Executive and Engineer from Akron, Ohio, Tom is doing a terrific job preserving the heritage of the 69th through the children of the original veterans of the unit. Tom’s father was a member of a tank destroyer battalion, when American soldiers made contact with the Soviets near the medieval town of Torgau. According to Tom, this initial “meeting” wasn’t particularly friendly, because the Soviets were too busy lobbing artillery rounds from the other side of the river into the quaint walled town to notice that U.S. soldiers had just entered it. Realizing that the shelling was being conducted by their Soviet “allies” and not by the Germans, fast-thinking GIs searched the town for some linen and eventually found some iodine in a local apothecary with which to fashion a large U.S. flag. The Soviets only stopped their shelling when the GIs managed to scramble up the highest turret of the castle and drape the makeshift “Stars and Stripes” over the walls.
Ted Agne, president of The Communications Strategy Group, Inc., of Marblehead, Massachusetts, also traveled to Torgau with his wife Paulette to represent his father, a rifleman in the 273rd Regiment of the 69th Infantry Division, the unit that sent out three separate patrols on the 25th of April to probe for German resistance and find the Soviets. Among his many interests, Ted is a fellow admirer of Winston Churchill. Working with Churchill’s granddaughter Celia Sandys, Ted was the principal American fundraiser for the WWII museum in Whitehall, London, known as the “Churchill War Rooms.”
During our visit to Torgau, Suzanne and I also had the pleasure of meeting American screenwriter and filmmaker Nancy Ruff. Nancy’s father was the driver for First Lieutenant Albert Kotzebue, whose American patrol near the town of Strehla (located about 30 kilometers southeast of Torgau) was cited in U.S. Army reports as the first unit to make contact with the Soviets. Nancy’s late father was the first U.S. soldier to shoot up a green flare into the sky over the Elbe, as a pre-arranged signal to the Soviets that the Americans had arrived. Nancy hopes to retrace her father’s wartime movements across Europe and to make a documentary about it. Having a rent-a-car at our disposal, and Nancy arriving in Torgau by train, Suzanne and I took the opportunity of driving her down to Strehla to experience the very spot on the Elbe where her father sent up the green flare, and where his patrol commandeered a wooden skiff and paddled across the river with the butts of their riffles to greet the Soviets. Tom Slopek performed faithful service as our guide, showing us the location where Nancy’s father launched the flare and crossed the river. Tom also found the small village museum where we could see the famous little boat that the soldiers used in crossing the Elbe.
Key to the success of the relatively small American participation in the 70th anniversary – a festive occasion overwhelmed by Russian, Ukrainian, Kazakhstani, and German participants – was Marian Wendt, a Member of the Bundestag (German Parliament), who was elected from the town of Torgau. Barely 30 years old and yet the equivalent of an American congressman, Marian is a major advocate for a strong trans-Atlantic alliance; moreover, he is an essential supporter of the efforts of the 69th Next Generation Group to preserve the Spirit of the Elbe and the memory of the U.S. soldiers who fought to liberate his county from the Nazi regime. A busy man dealing with thorny emigration and national security issues back in Berlin, Marian graciously took the time to chauffeur our small group of Americans to several historical venues around the town. The Americans joked, “What’s wrong with this picture?”
While there were hundreds of post-Soviet nationals at this year’s event, a good number were re-enactors wearing WWII-style uniforms, who were there just for the fun; and others were academics or nonprofit reps, each with his own agenda. However, there were also several Soviet veterans and currently serving officers from the former Soviet states in attendance. Just like the Americans, these individuals came solely to commemorate the event and honor those who served.
The ranking Russian general in attendance was the commander of DOSAAF, a quasi-military organization from the old Soviet period, whose function is to train “weekend warriors,” who might someday be called to serve in the Russian armed forces. Long considered a “club” for such military sports as skydiving and marksmanship, think “Sea Scouts Meet Rambo,” and you’ll get the picture about what this organization is all about. Lower-ranking active duty military personnel from Russia, Ukraine, and Kazakhstan were also in attendance.
Perhaps the most enthusiastic and numerous group in Torgau for the festivities were everyday German citizens. The pastor of the Protestant church in Torgau, where Martin Luther gave one of his very first sermons during the Reformation, presented the benediction; and local schoolchildren serenaded the large crowd with several sweet-sounding songs that they had learned for the occasion.
Due to U.S. differences with Mr. Putin over his invasion of Ukraine, official U.S. government presence was kept to a minimum. The senior U.S. official in attendance was the U.S. ambassador in Berlin, John Emerson. The highest-ranking U.S. military officer was a colonel, the army attaché; and he was supported by a small color guard. While I was glad to see the ambassador and the handful of U.S. soldiers in uniform, I thought to myself that the U.S. government could have used this opportunity to mend some fences if it had provided more senior diplomatic and military representation.
As is the case with American GIs from that era, the number of living Soviet WWII veterans able to attend such commemorative events is rapidly diminishing. I found just three former Soviet soldiers who were anywhere near the front at the time of the historic link up. The Soviet counterpart to American Chet Yastrzemski during most of the ceremonial events was one Nikolai Mikhailovich Belyaev, who is featured in the photo standing next to Chet. I asked Nikolai Mikhailovich why he was wearing a black uniform of a Navy Commander. He said that, after taking part in the storming of the Reichstag in Berlin, he was offered an appointment to one of the naval academies; and he decided to make a career of the Soviet Navy after the war.
Another terrific person that I met at Torgau – and perhaps the one with the most interesting family story – was Jeff Thau, a fellow retired U.S. Air Force colonel, now living in Dayton, Ohio. Jeff’s father, Chaim Thau, was also a participant at the famous meeting on the Elbe. He is even featured in the iconic photograph often seen in the history books (which was actually staged for the press, the day after the first actual series of contacts took place). However, in this famous photo, Jeff’s father is not wearing an American uniform but a Soviet one.
Chaim Thau, you see, was a Polish Jew; and he fought in the Polish resistance against the Nazis after the Wehrmacht overran his country in 1941. Later in the war, when the Soviets retook parts of Poland and captured Thau, they were about to execute him (as they routinely did with most Polish partisans). However, the Soviets soon discovered that Thau was not only fluent in Polish, but in Russian and in German as well. Accepting an offer he couldn’t refuse, Thau was given a Soviet uniform and served as the unit’s interpreter for the remainder of the war. Given his instincts for survival, Thau was obviously a resourceful individual. Making his way to the West after the war, Thau eventually emigrated to the United States, where he became a U.S. citizen and raised a family. As I compared notes with Jeff Thau (Chaim’s U.S.-born son), we realized that we both had served at the same U.S. Air Force base in southern California during the 1980s.
During our visit to Torgau, I also learned of the unusual story of Joseph Polowsky, a veteran of the 69th Infantry Division, who is the sole American veteran buried in the local cemetery. A member of Lt. Kotzebue’s patrol when it linked up with the Soviets at Strehla, Joe would survive the war. However, his life as a civilian would become a controversial footnote in the history of the Cold War, as Joe would enthusiastically embrace the “Spirit of the Elbe” as a clarion call for “world disarmament.” Falling under the scrutiny of Senator Joe McCarthy for “Un-American Activities,” Polowsky was eventually befriended by Nikita Khrushchev and GDR leader Walter Ulbricht, who cynically used his idealism as grist for Moscow’s propaganda mill. However, Polowsky would remain true to his vision of world peace. After he died in 1983, at his request, the troubled anti-war activist was buried in his beloved Torgau. Polowsky was further honored when the local gymnasium (high school) was named after him. Among the small group of Americans visiting the cemetery was Polowsky’s son (also named “Joe”), who had never known his father and was visiting Torgau for the first time.
After paying our respects to Joe Polowsky, we then wandered over to a section of the cemetery where several dozen wooden crosses marked the resting places of some of the last German soldiers to die in the war. Most were killed resisting the pincer movements made by U.S. and Soviet forces converging on Torgau. We were accompanied on our stroll by an elderly German. He said that he had been forced to fight in the German army at the age of 15, as youngsters and pensioners were hastily rounded up, issued weapons and uniforms, and sent into the fray. As we walked through this sad section of the cemetery, someone pointed out a marker for a particularly young German soldier. The inscription on the cross indicated that he was a line “rifleman,” and that he had died on April 25, 1945 – in effect the last day of the war for any combatant fighting in that part of Germany.
The German soldier, Private Joachim Wesner, had not yet reached his 12th birthday.
* * * * *
So the end of WWII in Europe in April 1945 was perhaps one of the most salient examples of this concept of “America’s Aprils of the Fives.” What other noteworthy events in American military history also took place during an “April xxx5”? Several come to mind:
First, every schoolchild knows about Paul Revere’s Ride; and many Americans can recite the fact that “The Shot Heard ‘Round the World,” which launched American colonists into their long War for Independence, occurred in April 1775, at Lexington and Concord (take you pick).
Not every American Patriot back in the early years of the Revolution had been inspired by (or even read) Cicero or the writers of the enlightenment, as it is often suggested in the textbooks. American rebels, however, were all deeply conscious of their heritage as free Englishmen – loyal subjects of a legally constrained monarch, whose forefathers, during the English Civil Wars and the Glorious Revolution of the previous century, had achieved a form of limited self-government and legislative representation. Few American citizen-soldiers were inspired by lofty philosophical ideals – at least at first. However, every farmer, lawyer, and store clerk who took part in this initial action in April 1775 was motivated by the conviction that he could not permit the actions of a tone-deaf government located in a distant capital to roll back those laws that guarded his freedom and protected his independence.
Next on the list of notable “Aprils of the Fives” is the end of the American Civil War and the assassination of our most revered president, Abraham Lincoln, both occurring in April 1865. Those of us who have been participating in the Sesquicentennial of the American Civil War here in the “Old Dominion” are conscious of the fact that the surrender of General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia to General Ulysses S. Grant’s forces took place in an idyllic little village located in south-central Virginia, called Appomattox Courthouse. Several days later (also in April 1865), Confederate General Joe Johnston surrendered another sizable Southern army to William Tecumseh Sherman in North Carolina. Sporadic fighting would continue for several more weeks. The very last land battle of the war was the Confederate victory at Palmito Ranch in Texas, occurring on May 13, 1865, after the failure of a truce brokered by Union General Lew Wallace (the future author of Ben Hur) and Confederate General James E. Slaughter (possibly a distant ancestor). However, for all intents and purposes, the American Civil War came to a close in April 1865.
Lincoln’s “Let ‘Em Up Easy” policy and the magnanimous terms of surrender offered by Grant to the defeated Southern armies in April 1865 facilitated the relatively peaceful reconciliation between North and South. Some historians would argue that the Lincoln-Grant formula for managing the surrender of those Southern forces remaining in the field had prevented years of guerilla warfare on the part of hard-core Confederates, who otherwise might never have laid down their arms. While post-war reconstruction of the South would prove extremely difficult — and African Americans would suffer dearly for this for many decades to come — the end of the organized fighting bought time for the nation to pass the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments, which established the legal framework for furthering Lincoln’s vision for formerly enslaved Americans.
Returning to the European Theater during World War II, it’s important to remember that it was in April 1945 when the U.S. army “liberated” the huge German concentration camp at Buchenwald. While intrepid Jews, working with underground networks, had been passing information to the Allies about what was going on in the camps for several years, it wasn’t until Buchenwald was opened for shocking visitation by battle-hardened GIs and the international press that the world would learn about the full extent of the Nazi atrocities committed against the Jews, Gypsies, Slavs, and homosexuals of Europe.
It was also in the early part of April 1945 when U.S. forces landed on the island of Okinawa and thus initiated the last battle of World War II. Lasting for three more months, the horrific fighting on Okinawa would become the bloodiest battle ever fought in the Pacific. U.S. forces would incur 82,000 casualties, including over 12,000 battle deaths. The Japanese would lose over 100,000 soldiers in battle deaths, mainly because they refused to surrender. Between 30,000 and 100,000 civilians would also die on Okinawa – many by committing suicide at the urging of the Japanese propaganda machine.
* * * * *
The last of the Aprils of the Fives on my list of historic happenings marks the end of the Vietnam War, which occurred on April 30, 1975, with the fall of Saigon. This event holds particular significance for several million Americans who served during that time frame, including this writer.
58,000 Americans had died by the time that U.S. military involvement officially ended in Vietnam on August 15, 1973. The U.S. withdrawal was completed seven months after the signing of the Paris Peace Accords. In the agreement, the parties agreed to a cease fire, the return of POWs, the withdrawal of U.S. forces from South, and a peaceful political process – including free elections – whereby the South Vietnamese would be able to determine their own political future. It would not take long before the North Vietnamese began violating this agreement.
President Richard Nixon provided guarantees to the leaders of South Vietnam that the U.S. would come to their aid with American air power if the North violated the accords. However, shortly after the last U.S. soldiers had departed in the summer of 1973, the North Vietnamese started moving forces south of the demilitarized zone; and within the year, Nixon had resigned as president, because of Watergate. Newly installed President Gerald Ford, with no Congressional support whatsoever for U.S. re-engagement in Vietnam, could do nothing but watch the North Vietnamese gradually tighten the noose around the South. The final battle in Vietnam would take place as North Vietnamese forces completed their encirclement of the Republic of Vietnam’s capital city of Saigon, in April 1975.
I was a newly minted C-141 Starlifter copilot at the time. One morning, sitting in the cockpit of our long-range jet transport at Kadena Air Base in Okinawa, the pilot and I were just about to start our engines for our flight to Hawaii and then to California. The Command Post radioed that we needed to re-file our flight plan, as we were now heading to Saigon’s Tan Son Nhut Airport. A large C-5 Galaxy carrying a group of orphans for adoption in the U.S. had crash-landed several days earlier. We were flying to Saigon in order to evacuate the survivors.
What we didn’t know at the time was that “Operation Baby Lift” – while it involved at least some orphans – was also President Ford’s pretext for quietly beginning the full-scale evacuation of Americans and allies (including key South Vietnamese personnel), before they were captured by the Communist North Vietnamese. Our aircrew was one of the first to be used in this sustained effort.
Events moved rapidly. Just as we had taken off from Saigon with our first load of evacuees for our flight to Clark Air Base in the Philippines later that evening, we learned that President Ford had announced that a maximum effort would be made by all available U.S. fixed-winged transport in the Pacific to evacuate as many Americans and Vietnamese as possible.
Our relatively brief eight-day cargo mission from California to Japan would turn into a month-long deployment to Southeast Asia and the Pacific. My aircrew would fly a total of six round-trip missions into Saigon as North Vietnamese forces closed in on the kill, and we evacuated over 1,000 American and Vietnamese civilians. During most of the flights, we had to use tie-down straps to secure the mass of passengers to the bare cargo floor. Several days before the fall of Saigon on April 30, as the runway became too chewed up by artillery rounds to land safely, our mission changed from emergency extraction of civilians from war-torn Saigon to transporting refugees from the Philippines to relocation centers situated throughout the Pacific.
I was a fairly naive “brown-bar,” at the time. Like Chet Yastrzemski fighting with the 69th Infantry Division in Germany during WWII, I was just following orders. I was trying my best not to screw up.
The complete narrative of the fixed-wing airlift portion of the evacuation of Saigon in April 1975 needs to be told – but let’s save that for another occasion. (See the blog post, Walking on the Moon . . . in Your Skivvies, for details about my one combat “screw-up.”)
* * * * *
After attending this year’s Elbe Day events in Torgau, my wife and I eventually made our way to Dresden, from where we took a two-hour train ride to Prague. Our second-class compartment companions included a very friendly German family from Hamburg. They were dressed in the jerseys of the German national hockey champions; and they were headed to Prague to cheer on their team during the international playoffs.
After exchanging the usual pleasantries and joking about who would win the hockey tournament, the father of this very amicable German family said that, yes, he knew Americans quite well. He had been to our shores several times. In fact, just last month, he had taken his family to Disney World and to the Gulf Coast of Florida . . . to ride the dolphins. His wife, with her eight-year old son asleep in her lap chimed in: “Yes, we really loved the dolphins.”
I thought, “O.K., I get it about the dolphins.” But what struck me as significant about this exchange came next: The Dad in the family repeated that he believed he understood Americans quite well. But –
“Why,” he asked, “are Americans so patriotic?” He said he couldn’t really understand that part of our culture.
Americans, he began lecturing me, are so strict these days about preventing people from entering the country. It’s such a head-ache filling out all those forms in order to come to Florida. Your government wants to know everything, even about my parents and grandparents. And how about those long lines at your passport control?
Most importantly, why do you always feel that you need to have your flags flying everywhere? All of your schools have them, your government buildings, sports arenas, even your homes. I don’t understand it. And you Americans are always singing your national anthem. . . at sporting events, speeches, in your schools, you name it. Everywhere you go, one hears it. And why do you always have to say, “God bless America. . . God bless America.” It’s crazy!
My frank and friendly interlocutor continued by saying that, although he was born in Germany and lived in Hamburg, he really didn’t consider himself a German, but more as a European, perhaps even a “citizen of the world.” Again, yes, he knows America well, but he just can’t fathom all of that patriotism . . . all that “God bless America” stuff.
Before changing the subject, I thought to myself, “Nope, you probably never will.”
* * * * *
My wife and I returned to the Washington, D.C., area a few days before the Victory in Europe commemorations began. On Friday, 8 May 2015, on the way back from our three-year-old grandson’s preschool musical program in Warrenton, Virginia, we decided drop by the Manassas Airport to see several vintage WWII bombers take off – a B-24, a B-29, and two B-17s – and we watched the aircraft join up with the formation from other airports in the area and head toward downtown Washington, D.C.
During this solemn weekend, we also visited Arlington National Cemetery to lay some flowers on the grave of my wife’s mom and dad (her mom served in a munitions factory during WWII; and my wife’s father died upon returning home from Vietnam in 1967).
I also got up early one morning to hang my American flag out on our front porch.
As I placed the flag in its holder, I took a few moments to think about some of the extraordinary stories that I heard this past April of the Fives – those about the veterans of the 69th Infantry Division, who had linked up with the Soviets along the Elbe.
I imagined Chet throwing around a baseball in camp during a lull in the fighting, and his boyish surprise upon learning that his division had linked up with the Soviets . . . and then his sudden realization that he might be heading back home to Long Island before he knew it.
I imagined Tom’s dad and Ted’s dad wondering when the Soviets might quit lobbing mortar shells at them . . . and whether seeing the makeshift Stars and Stripes on the castle wall would indeed make them stop.
I imagined a wide grin forming on the face of Nancy’s father, as he observed that green flare accelerate into the sky over the hamlet of Strehla . . . saw it hang in midair for a brief moment, then watched it drift down to the surface of the Elbe like a colorful melting snowflake.
And I thought I saw the wheels turning inside the head of Chaim Thau (Jeff’s dad), as he leaned over that demolished bridge near Torgau to shake the hand of the first American GI that he had ever met – and wondered, “Hmm. . . How do I become you?”
I also thought of Joachim Wesner, the 11-year-old German soldier, who was killed in combat on the last day of the fighting in the Torgau area; and I began to see why Joe Polowsky fought, with every fiber of his being after the meeting on the Elbe, to end all wars.
I imagined my mom shooting rivets into the tail section of one of the B-17s that I had seen taking off from Manassas Airport. And I could see my uncle Claud, vigorously jumping up and down and waving his arms vigorously, trying to convince those Japanese civilians on Okinawa not to be fearful of Americans – not to jump off of those cliffs.
Then, I thought of my dad, who – probably because of his own wartime trials – waited fearfully for my return home from my brief combat experience in Vietnam. I felt the love of the hug that he gave me on the day of our reunion; and I felt the blow when I received the news the next morning that he had suddenly passed on. That was 40 years ago, this month.
Lastly, I recalled the self-styled “non-German” German on the train ride to Prague, the hockey fan who had come to Florida to ride the dolphins with his family and thought that he knew Americans quite well, although he couldn’t fathom the patriotism part.
I thought to myself: yes, my friend — you’re right! I really don’t need to say out loud “God Bless America,”
. . . because I know — deep down in my heart — that He already has.
By clicking on this link — Elbe Day 2015 — you will be taken to a Google photo album featuring a presentation on the 70th Anniversary of the historic link-up between U.S. and Soviet forces in eastern Germany in April 1945. Suzanne and I journeyed to Torgau in beautiful Saxony in April 2015 to participate in this solemn commemoration. The photo of veteran “Chet” Yastrzemski and his Russian counterpart located at the top of this blog page was featured in New York City papers several days after the event.
This year’s late-fall trip to Europe took us back to two of our favorite locations – southern Germany and northern Italy. These regions feature some of the most spectacular scenery on earth – the Bavarian Alps and the Italian Dolomites – which you will see in the landscape photography presented here. An additional plus for us was the wonderful hospitality that Suzanne and I always experience in this corner of the world.
Historically and culturally, southern Germany, Austria, and northeastern Italy are linked as German-speaking regions. At one point during the early medieval period, three southern Germanic districts – Bavaria, the northern Tyrol (located in modern Austria), and the “south Tyrol” or Südtirol (located in modern Italy) – were ruled as a single political entity. Much later on in European history, the Hapsburgs would control the Tyrol and the Südtirol as part of the Austrian empire – right up until the end of World War I, when Italy was awarded the Südtirol by the Treaty of Versailles. Thus, throughout the Südtirol and the Dolomite mountains reside today upwards of half-a-million Italian nationals, who claim German as their preferred language. Moreover, the region seems to have the sights, sounds, smells, cuisine, and overall tidiness of Bavaria and Austria.
Sound confusing? I’ll add one more cultural oddity: Within this sea of hundreds of thousands of German-speaking Italian nationals living in the Dolomites, one can find another cultural group residing in five remote valleys, who speak the modern derivation of the Latin used by former Roman legionaries 2,000 years before. Numbering only 50,000, these people are called the Ladina (or Ladins), and they are working hard to preserve the language and folk traditions of their oft-forgotten community.
Despite this cultural confusion, the Italians have pretty much sorted things out. As a region representing three interspersed linguistic groups, the Südtirol of the spectacular Dolomiti features towns, each with two-to-three different names, and trilingual signs on its roads & buildings and in its museums – in Italian, German, and Ladina. Sorry for the inconvenience. . . we’d love for you to visit, but there is no more room on our signs for English. Ciao!
Enjoy the photography!
Click on the following link when you are ready to view the presentation:
The following notes and photographs with respect to the family of William Owen Lewis, my Welsh forebearers, were based in part upon information gathered in August 2005, during a visit to Monmouthshire in southeastern Wales. Data from several British birth, death, and marriage certificates, plus a fairly rudimentary family tree provided by my aunts on the Lewis side of the family, offered essential clues.
There was constant drizzle during our brief search for my Welsh roots. Unfortunately, I was negligent in protecting my camera from the elements; therefore, the photography provided here is rather substandard. I am embarrassed because Wales is truly a beautiful country, and my photos simply do not do it justice. I guess this means that I need to make another trip to the land of legends, wizards, and red dragons in order to get the photography portion of this presentation right.
Background on My Nearest Welsh-American Relatives
Like many U.S. citizens, I consider myself to be just a typical “Heinz-57” American. Since DNA results suggest that roughly 75 percent of my ancestry is rooted in the British Isles (the rest being mainly Germanic), I’m fairly certain that I have more Welsh in me than just the well-documented Lewis line discussed here. Clearly, the most recent ancestral connection to Wales goes through my maternal great-grandfather, one William Owen Lewis, who emigrated to the United States with his father (another in a long line of William O. Lewises) in 1868 at the age of 13. After father and son arrived at the port of Philadelphia, they made their way through the established Welsh Tract of Pennsylvania until they established temporary roots in a coal mining community in Mercer County.
Both father and son worked in and around the coal mines (and possibly the oil fields) of northwestern Pennsylvania for about a decade. According to family folklore, my great-grandfather, while just a teenager, first found work keeping track of the geese used to detect methane gas in the mines. Before long, he figured out that it was a much safer profession selling sandwiches to the miners. He then bought a broken-down wagon, set up shop, and became an American Capitalist.
At about sixteen years of age, my great-grandfather William met a young school teacher two years his senior, named Albertina Richards; and she began teaching the illiterate Welsh newcomer how to read. Albertina herself was from a long paternal line of Welshmen by the name of Owen Richards (the Welsh evidently weren’t too imaginative with their first and middle names), who had arrived in America during the colonial period. On her maternal (English) side, Albertina is the fourth or fifth great-granddaughter of a Colonel Joseph Ball, the paternal grandfather of George Washington.
After their studies together were completed, Albertina and William decided to get hitched; and sometime in the 1880s, they moved way out to Rawlins County, in northwestern Kansas, where William built a wood and sod house on a homestead in the middle of the bleak prairie. My grandfather Don Lewis, the family’s second son, was born in a sod dugout that served as the family’s shelter until the house was built.
Ever the fast learner and always re-inventing himself, William Lewis soon discovered it was better to run the local cooperative for dairy products and grain than farm himself. A successful businessman, this once illiterate teenager from Wales became the local justice of the peace and served multiple terms as a Republican in the Kansas House of Representatives.
“Judge Lewis” retired from politics after he made the fateful decision to side with Teddy Roosevelt’s Progressive “Bull Moose” Party in 1912, and he was voted out of office for his sin. He did however found a long line of successful Kansas lawyers and sometimes politicians. Most of them were named — you guessed it — “William Owen Lewis.”
My grandfather Donald Sydney Lewis married a young lady named Martha Rather, whose parents were immigrants from the eastern part of Germany (Brandenburg-Prussia).
My grandparents Don and Martha Lewis raised nine children on the prairie house that Don built for his family near Atwood, Kansas. My mom Bernice was exactly the middle child. She used to joke that, until she was ten years old, she thought her name was “Damnit,” because it always took a while for Grandma Martha to run through all the other kids’ names before she got my mom’s right.
Don Lewis farmed his land and kept his family together until the Dust Bowl of the 1930s wiped them out. One by one, the family relocated to Washington State to seek jobs, usually with Boeing, as the nation began ginning up for the Second World War.
Both my grandfather Don Lewis and his father William kept two Welsh traditions alive during their sojourns in the New World:
Coming from a long line of Welsh “woodmen,” they loved carving wood and making all the furniture required for their families.
And they always loved to sing and play on the piano their favorite Welsh hymns.
For my part, I suppose that I inherited my love of rousing hymns and a strong, heartfelt melody from my Welsh ancestors.
While I’ve always loved the feel of wood grain, the only “woodman” skill I actually mastered was fashioning skateboards out of pine planks found in the dumpster of the local lumber yard. In Venice, California, where I grew up, we had few hardwood forests; but we had plenty of hard pavement.
County Monmouth, Wales
The places we visited were associated with three individuals, each named William O. Lewis (which sometimes makes it confusing). To keep it simple, I’ll refer to this triad of grandfather, son, and grandson as William I, II, and III, respectively (although William I’s father was also named William, but never mind that for now). William I (1783-1867) lived near the town of Trelleck, in the northeastern corner of the county, near the city of Monmouth. William II and his son William III (my great-grandfather — the future “Judge Lewis” of Kansas) lived in the following three places before the family emigrated to the United States in 1868: Shirenewton (located about eight miles south of Trelleck), St. Woolos (16 miles to the west of Shirenewton near the seaport of Newport), and the village of Mynyddyslwyn (ten miles northwest of Newport).
Monmouthshire (or “County Monmouth”) is situated in the southeastern corner of Wales, defined on the south by the River Severn and the Bristol Channel, on the east by the River Wye (which marks Monmouthshire’s boundary with the English county of Gloucestershire), and in the northwest by the Brecon Beacons. During part of the 19th Century, Monmouthshire was administratively combined with the County of Glamorgan to the west. Since the time of the Norman invasion and through the Middle Ages, this combined region of southeastern Wales has traditionally been known as Gwent.
Due to its geographical accessibility and the attractiveness of its port towns, Gwent was the first part of Wales to be subdued by the Normans after they invaded Britain in the 11th Century. While it took the Normans and their successors nearly two centuries to conquer all of Wales (the task completed by Edward “Longshanks,” later known as “the Hammer of the Scots”), this southeastern corner of the country assimilated relatively quickly into the new Anglo-Norman culture of the Middle Ages. Since then, Gwent has remained as the most “Anglicized” part of Wales.
The Briton-based language of Cymraeg (Welsh), however, never completely died out. Despite this, Wales did not become officially bilingual until the 1990s. Today, one can observe road signs everywhere in both English and Welsh. Welsh is spoken mainly in the more isolated northern and central villages of the country; and less than 10 percent of those residing in Monmouthshire consider themselves fluent in the language, although it is taught in the schools.
Today, Wales is considered one of the historically Celtic countries of northwestern Europe, which includes Ireland, the Isle of Man, Scotland, Cornwall, and Brittany.
Based upon the historical orientation of Gwent toward England, there is a strong likelihood that the Lewis Family of the 19th Century, although clearly Welshmen, spoke English as their primary language. They probably kept the Welsh language familiar to them through poetry and music. Most likely, they did not consider themselves as culturally distinct from any other subject of the British Crown. Also of note, Lewis is an extremely common surname in Wales, perhaps following Smith, Jones, and Williams, in terms of numbers. During this period, the Welsh region of Gwent, despite the advancing industrial revolution, remained one of the poorest regions in the United Kingdom.
Young Welsh men routinely enlisted in the British Army, and they served the Empire in campaigns fought in several corners of the world. The most famous Welsh unit is known as the South Wales Borderers (called the 24th Regiment of Foot before 1881). The unit, with rosters containing common Welsh names such as Lewis, distinguished itself in North America, the Napoleonic Wars, and Africa.
Comprising 30 percent of the 24th Regiment, Welsh soldiers played prominent roles in twin battles against the Zulu nation in January 1879. Approximately 1,400 British soldiers (perhaps as many as 400 Welsh) were slaughtered by 20,000 Zulus at Isandlwana; and later that day, 140 British soldiers (mainly Welsh) withstood an onslaught of 4,000 Zulus at a nearby river crossing and supply post, known as “Rork’s Drift.” Two Welshmen received the Victoria Cross for their bravery at the latter engagement.
Always impressed with this fabled saga in Welsh history, both battlefields in the KwaZula-Natal were mandatory stops, when I took my family to South Africa in 1999.
Proud Descendants of Zulu Warriors, Who Defeated the British Here at Isandlwana
Makeshift Redoubt at “Rork’s Drift,” Where Welsh Soldiers Held Off 4,000 Zulus
Later that year, I made a brief visit to the Museum of the South Wales Borderers in Brecon, Wales. Identifying myself as a U.S. military officer and student of military history, the curator kindly granted me access to drawers in the unit’s archives, which were filled with hundreds of “after-action reports” and observations written by hand on everything from fine stationary to newspapers and toilet paper. Isandlwana was such a devastating defeat for the British Army that they wanted an account from every survivor, from captains down to privates. Just as I started to rummage through the accounts, the curator said she had to go to lunch. She asked me politely to shut the door to the archives when I was finished.
On this same research trip, I visited another military museum in Cardiff Castle. After identifying myself, I was taken to a dimly lit storage room and was shown a particularly amazing war trophy. I was astonished as the curator unfurled a slightly tattered “Stars and Stripes.” He said it was seized by Welsh soldiers at the Battle of Bladensburg, right outside of Washington, D.C., during the War of 1812. A few hours after their victory in 1814, the British soldiers would be torching the White House.
During the lifetimes of William I and II, the County of Monmouth experienced significant growth in population, employment opportunities, and squalor due to the advent of the industrialization and the development of coal mines and iron mills in the region. Judging from their signing of marriage and birth certificates with an “X,” one has to assume that both William I and William II were illiterate. However, both were skilled craftsmen who worked with their hands in the plentiful forests of the region and the village workshops or local factories to create wooden objects required of the rapidly expanding economy.
William Lewis I is identified as a “Hoopmaker” when he married a widow named Susan Hemmans [perhaps “Hemmings] in 1848 – William himself having been widowed sometime earlier.
At first, I thought that a hoopmaker was merely a tradesman for making wooden hoops for women’s dresses or barrels for shipping. However, the flared dresses that one usually associates in the U.S. during the antebellum period, while popular in the 19th Century in Europe, tended to use whale bone, not wood; and barrel makers were called “coopers” (although hoopmakers at times provided the wood components used by the coopers in their barrel making). Hoopmakers were distinct from carpenters.
Researching the term “hoop maker” a little further on the internet, I came across some sites explaining the importance of wooden hoops for hoisting and attaching sails to ships’ masts and the craftsmanship required to make these intricate devices. Evidently, between 1750 and the 1870, a hoopmaker (or “hoop shaver” and “woodman,” as noted on documents referencing William Lewis II’s occupation) was a highly sought-out trade, which required precision in selecting, cutting, shaving, and bending oak and other Welsh hardwoods through the use of steam or heat. I also recall reading that Admiral Horatio Nelson insisted that British warships be outfitted with wood from the forests of Monmouthshire, as the county provided the most most reliable source for timber in the U.K. at the time. (The only other major European source for ship masts were situated along the southern Baltic coast.)
Evidently, well-crafted hoops were in great demand during the Napoleonic wars; and Newport, located approximately 15 miles away, was a growing port city with an expanding shipbuilding capability. Given his age at the time, this begs the question: Could the young woodman, William Lewis I, have fashioned with his own hands some of the mast hoops used by Nelson’s fleet during the battle of Trafalgar in 1805?
Evidently, the skill was important enough to be passed on to his son, who was also listed as a “hoopmaker” on a subsequent census. Regardless as to whether William I and William II crafted intricate wooden devices for ocean-going ships, beams for coal mines, or wooden inserts for women’s dresses, their skills with wood were evidently in high demand throughout the last 100 years of the family’s residency in southeastern Wales.
We began our brief passage through Monmouthshire by traveling from the Cotswolds in neighboring Gloucestershire (the presumed origin of my Slaughter (sic.) English ancestors). Our objective was to get as far west as possible toward our final destination at St. David’s on the extreme southwestern coast of Wales. As such, we only had the afternoon of one rain-swept day in August to visit several of the villages associated with the Lewis Family.
Satellite Photo of Trelleck from “Google Earth”
Heading south from the city of Monmouth, we first stopped in the town of Trelleck, where William Lewis I, a widower, married the widow Susan Hemmans in the parish Church of St. Nicholas. Evidently, William and his new bride lived approximately three miles southeast, in a locality written on the wedding certificate and his subsequent death certificate as “White Leigh.” William I’s home, which one suspects was a very humble dwelling, was located either on a landed estate or in very small hamlet spelled today as “Whitelye.”
“Harold’s Stones” by Photographer Francis Frith
In the past, Trelleck was spelled as “Treloch” after the “Three Stones” located in a field outside of the town. According to several references, these monoliths were a recognizable feature, as travelers approached the town from the south by horse, foot, or cart. Referred to as “Harold’s Stones,” after the last Saxon king who was killed during the Battle of Hastings, these important prehistoric religious objects were most likely erected as a small astrological calendar and temple by the same pre-Celtic culture that built Stonehenge, situated on the Salisbury Plane, approximately 60 miles to the southeast in England. Archaeologists have now determined that these ancient builders transported the famous “bluestones” of Stonehenge from modern-day Preseli National Park in Wales, located 90 miles to the west of Trelleck. The monoliths which William I routinely passed by as he came to town on business or to worship may have originated from this same source. The presence of the monument suggests that the area around Trelleck has been continuously inhabited since circa 2500 B.C.
Bluestone in Preseli National Park on the Western Part of Wales; from the Same General Quarry Used by the pre-Celtic Builders of Stonehenge (Represents a clearer view of what one of Trelleck’s ThreeStones might have looked like)
According to a brochure available in the Church of St. Nicholas, the town of Trelleck has been in existence since the Anglo-Saxon period. During the 13th Century, the town was larger than Newport or Chepstow, but it was mostly destroyed in 1291, as a result of a raid following a dispute over deer poaching. Its population and importance diminished further as a result of the Black Plague in the 1350s and a Welsh revolt for independence 50 years later, led by fabled Welsh freedom fighter Owain Glydwr. Today, it is a sleepy little hamlet situated in the middle of humbly maintained farmland, with less than a hundred structures.
Lion Inn Pub, Trelleck
Church of St. Nicholas, Trelleck
The Gothic-style Church of St. Nicholas, where William I and Susan Hemmans were married in 1848, was constructed between 1225 and 1272, although the remains of an old Saxon church built during the 7th Century no doubt served as part of its foundation and furnished some of the stonework. Today, St. Nicholas is considered an “Established Church,” meaning that it is affiliated with the Church of England. As was the case with a majority of churches in England and Wales, St. Nicholas was no doubt forcibly converted from being a Catholic house of worship to Protestantism by Henry VIII during the early part of the 16th Century. St. Nicholas probably settled into its current Anglican conventions of worship following the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660, after the English Civil War.
Interior of St. Nicholas Church
(Note the Norman-built stone pillars, still standing after 750 years)
Tump Terret Castle Mound
Another point of interest in Trelleck is “Tump Terret” (not to be confused with “Trump Tower”), a forty-foot-high mound located about a quarter of a mile south of the church, which contains the remains of the local “motte and bailey” castle. Built by the town’s Norman overlord in the 11th Century, it once featured a wooden fortification on the top of the mound, and soldiers’ barracks, enclosed by a fence and a moat, around the bottom. Situated on the west side of the main road leading north into town, the “castle” served the Normans for about 100 years until it was destroyed by a Welsh attack. It wasn’t too difficult to negotiate the weeds and thistles to get to the top of Tump Terret for a photo. The mound has obviously been left untouched for centuries; and according to a brochure in the church, there remains a local legend that calamity will overtake anyone who attempts to excavate it.
The South Side of Trelleck, taken from the Top of Tump Terret, Looking East
Due to time constraints, we were unable to visit the tiny hamlet of Whitelye, located approximately three miles southeast of Trelleck, where William Lewis I actually resided.
Shirenewton’s Main Thoroughfare, Lined by Lovely Stone Cottages
After wandering around Trelleck for more than an hour, we headed south down scenic Welsh roads to reach the town of Shirenewton, where William Lewis II lived between 1849 and 1855. The town was the birthplace of William Lewis III (the “Judge”) in 1855.
Today, Shirenewton has a much larger population than Trelleck. Although clearly a bedroom community for nearby cities, such as Newport, Cardiff, and Bristol, the town appears to also serve as a location for upscale summer cottages, given the maintenance of its neatly laid out buildings and lovely gardens.
According to the town’s website, Shirenewton means “Sheriff’s New Homestead,” and the locality was formally established by Walter Fitzherbert, the Sheriff of Gloucester, around 1100 A.D. The town’s Welsh name is Trenewydd Gelli Fach, which means “New Homestead in the Little Grove.” Other ancient names for the village include Nova Villa, which suggests that these crossroads were once the location of a Romano-British villa.
Shirenewton’s Church of St. Thomas a Becket
According to a marriage certificate, in 1849, William Lewis II (my great-great grandfather married Anne Highley (also spelled “Heyley”) in the parish church, St. Thomas a Becket’s, in Shirenewton. William Lewis III (my great-grandfather) was most likely christened here. The building is dominated by an excellent example of a Norman fortified tower.
According to the town’s website, the church was built at the end of the 13th century by Humphrey de Bohun, the Norman overlord. Situated in the center of the village, the tower commands an elevated position overlooking the Bristol Channel. A census taken in 1851, when William II lived in Shirenewton, indicates that the town’s population numbered 933 inhabitants.
Bridge Crossing the River Usk From St. Woolos to Newport
Sometime after William III’s birth in 1855 and before 1859, William Lewis II and his family moved to the town of St. Woolos (spelled St. Woollos on birth certificates of subsequent children), which was a bedroom district for laborers working in the factories and docks of Newport across the River Usk. While we don’t know where William II was employed, the above contemporary sketching suggests what the city of Newport might have looked like, as he crossed the river on his way to work from St. Woolos. Given the rapid expansion of mines, factories, and shipyards in south Wales during the Industrial Revolution, one wonders what sort of Dickensonian conditions the members of the Lewis Family may have experienced during this period of uncertainty.
Mynyddyslwyn and Nearby Towns, with the Brecon Beacons in the Background
For some reason, William II and his family resettled in the village of Mynyddyslwyn, located in the foothills of the Brecon Beacons, approximately 9 miles northwest of St. Woolos. This district of rapidly growing settlements housed the workers employed in the nearby coal mines and steel factories. The story of the family’s long presence in Wales ends here, as within two or three years after this, William II and William III (and perhaps other members of their family) emigrated to the United States, where they first settled in Pennsylvania.
Our brief journey in August 2005 to several of the geographical points of interest associated with the Lewis Family during their last century in Wales also ends at this point, as we had to head out that evening towards our destination at the cathedral town of St. David’s, located on the spectacular and rugged extreme southwest coast of Wales.
St. David’s Cathedral
The Spectacular Pembrokeshire Coast of Southwestern Wales
If you’ve been watching the costume drama Poldark on PBS and have seen the spectacular views of Cornwall, just double it to get a sense of the beauty of Wales.
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Wales remains a fascinating country with gorgeous scenery, a long history, and friendly people experiencing a proud revival of their ancient language and heritage. I hope to visit again this enchanting land of the Red Dragon and the Lewis Family origins.
Suzanne and I spent 14 glorious days in gorgeous Norway in late July and early August 2013; and you are invited to enjoy the video versions of the photography with us by clicking on the links below.
You’ll notice that I’ve created a few more videos than last year’s presentation on Switzerland and Italy. Not to worry – each segment is much shorter in length. Hopefully, you will experience fewer buffering problems as you stream the videos; plus you can come back often to view more content. Perhaps this will make the experience a bit more interactive and enjoyable for you. (Depending upon your computer, connection, and media viewer, it could still take 30 seconds or more before the video will start playing. The videos run best on Apple platforms; so if you have an iPad or Mac, try to use either one of these.)
The videos are presented in the order in which we traveled across Norway; therefore, you will be able to go on a virtual journey with us – just as the actual trip unfolded. Most segments show maps at the beginning; so you will never get lost.
For you fans of the History Channel’s hit series Vikings – O.K., even you’re not – you should begin by viewing the scene setter for our own latter-day Viking quest by clicking on the link entitled Vikings: Preview of Upcoming Episodes. Who knows? These whacky outtakes might eventually see the light of day.
You all have busy schedules; so if you only have time to watch just a couple of the videos, I would encourage you to go straight to my three-part “documentary” on the Norwegian efforts to sabotage the Heavy Water production facility in Telemark that was so vital to the Nazis’ quest to develop an atomic bomb during WWII. The “trilogy” is titled Tribute to the Heroes of Telemark.
To round out this year’s program, I have penned four short pieces for those who would like to read a little more about the information presented in the videos and the music. Links to these brief summaries are provided at the bottom of the following program guide.
Enjoy your journey!
– Bruce (April 2014)
Program Guide (Just click on the links to view the videos)
If buffering becomes excessive or your media viewer can’t play or interrupts the video, click on “Difficulty Viewing Videos?“ at the very top right of this page.
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NOTE:The videos in this blog are for non-commercial, ad-free private viewing by invited friends and family. They are not for broadcast. If you have not been invited to view the videos, kindly honor this policy. The rest of this blog is available for viewing by the general public. Contact Bruce Slawter via “Leave a Reply” below, if you have any comments, questions, or requests.
O.K., I know that I’m over a year late putting this one together — but I believe it’s worth the wait.
With the encouragement of my son Andrew and his selling to me of his older but refurbished iMac (a transaction for which he claims to have taken a substantial loss), I have endeavored to take the “joy” of viewing your parents’ travel pics to a new level. So for the 2011 trip featured in this post, when you click on the links located toward the bottom of this blog entry, you will be streaming high-quality videos of still photography with music and special effects.
For you armchair film critics: yeah, I realize that the modest home-grown videos featured throughout this blog are probably not up to the standards of someone like, say, Ken Burns. In fact, my production values are so low that I would hate to think what might happen if the venerable documentary film maker were to get wind that I was using the “Ken Burns Effect” named after him for panning in and out of still photos. Ken’s so touchy about these sorts of things that he’d probably throw a tantrum, yank out his beard, and most alarmingly, block PBS from re-running his series, The Civil War, during pledge weeks. So don’t worry. . . my lips are sealed.
On the other hand, I don’t think that I’m hyping this too much by promising you that this year’s journal of our most recent trip to Europe is definitely not your grandmother’s photo album of her honeymoon with “Gramps” in the Poconos.
In fact, you should strap on you seat belt — and turn your speaker volume up — especially for the first video, during which you will be joining us for a high-altitude hike around the famed Matterhorn. Make sure that you don’t look down.
Our trip to Europe in 2011 was planned so that Suzanne and I could really stretch our legs getting in some high-altitude hikes (that is, “high altitude” for Virginians). Therefore, the presentation features photography of the Swiss Alps around Zermatt and the region of the Italian Alps known as the Dolomites. Prior to reaching Zermatt, we made a brief stopover in Lausanne, a French-speaking city serving as one of the historic centers of Reformed Protestantism in the 16th Century and the present host-city of the International Olympic Committee. We also managed to visit some of the wonderful lowland sights of northeast Italy — such as Venice and Verona — between our more extended stays at our two Alpine destinations.
Here’s a welcome note to those of you whose excuse for not being impressed by a lot of background detail is that you got your only exposure to history from your off-season high school coach (re: my comments on the historically challenged in my first blog entry, Trip to the Aegean (2008)):
Hooray! You will be relieved to know that I have provided relatively scant information in the way of historical context in this three-part video.
But gee. . . . you know that I can’t help myself from providing just a few historical observations.
So. . . . class. . . . it’s time to getout those spiral notebooks with pictures of the Beatles on the cover (or maybe it’s the Bieber now) — before we head over to the gym for some volleyball.
First, it’s easy to overlook the fact that Switzerland (the first stop on our journey) has been a stable, independent republic for a very long time, although its present geographic territory wasn’t fixed until 1848. Based initially upon a defensive alliance beginning with the Old Swiss Confederacy in 1291, the nation grew into a multi-lingual nation-state by the 19th Century with a Federated system of power-sharing between the various cantons (provinces) and the central government. One afternoon, while enjoying some lunch with a Swiss couple in a mountain-side restaurant, Suzanne and I learned that Switzerland would be celebrating its “National Day” the following day, which was August 1st. Our table mates laughed as I congratulated them on their holiday and asked how long Switzerland had been independent. They protested in typically good-natured Swiss fashion: “That’s unfair. Everyone knows about your 1776; but we’re not certain about ours. It was probably sometime during the Middle Ages, right?” In any event, Switzerland continues to be a stable and wealthy country, although with an extremely high cost of living. It definitely bears further examination to fully grasp why the Swiss continue to be so successful.
Second, many of you have already visited the fabulous international heritage site of Venice, Italy (our second major stop); so there is little that I, as a humble graduate of Venice High School in California (“Go, Go, Gondoliers!”), can add to the general knowledge of the place. However, the one major point that jumped out at me as Suzanne and I wandered through labyrinthine passages, visited museums, and rode the Vaporetto water transports was that the wealth of this water-borne city-state, which created its many splendors during the Middle Ages and Renaissance, was generated as a direct result of the nature of the republic’s governmental structure and sense of national purpose. The Venetian state, as I briefly note in the presentation, was the most stable and long-lived republic in history. While it was clearly an unequal representative democracy, with only the members of the top 200 or so families enfranchised to participate in the highest levels of the body politic, the fairly lean Venetian form of government, for over 1,000 years, tended to get its priorities straight: the business of the state was to promote commerce, and commercial success was linked to maritime power. Sure, there was some downside to the Venetians’ fixation on maintaining commercial superiority: they exploited the Crusades and the decline of the Byzantine Empire; and they punished their highly skilled artisans severely, such as the glassmakers of Murano, for divulging the technological secrets of their factories. However, most strata of society, for a number of centuries, benefitted greatly from the stable government and its emphasis on commerce. Even the Jews, many of them having been expelled from Spain in 1492, found safe haven in Venice and thrived under the system. Arguably, this Most Serene Venetian Republic (as it was officially called) was the most salient example in world history where so-called “trickle-down economics” seemed to work.
My final historical observation concerns the spectacularly beautiful region of northeastern Italy, known as the Dolomites — the last stop on our European journey during the summer of 2011. While the entire region has been an integral part of Italy since the Treaty of Versailles broke up the Austro-Hungarian Empire after the First World War, for most of its history, the valleys and towns of the Dolomites have been controlled by different political entities. Up until the time it was dismantled by Napoleon Bonaparte, the Venetian republic dominated the southern third of the Dolomites, and the Austrians ruled the northern part until the end of WWI. The remaining areas fell under the suzerainty of lesser principalities, until Italy became a united nation in the 19th Century. Thus, even today, one can hear three distinct languages spoken in the various parts of the Dolomites. German is typically spoken in the northern part (the region known as the “Sudtirol”), and Italian continues to dominate in the southern area around Cortina d’Ampezzo (where we had our lodgings). A third language — Ladin (apparently resembling modern Romanian) — is still spoken by about 30,000 Italian nationals living in five small valleys scattered throughout the Dolomites. While the entire region is rather upscale in nature (due to its popularity among Europeans as a year-around outdoor destination), we momentarily thought that we had overshot one brief leg of our journey and had crossed the border into Austria (“The hills are alive…ah…ah…ah”), as we entered the pristine German-speaking town of San Cassiano while descending from one Alpine pass. Although we were still well inside Italy, the town resembled a quaint Austrian village. Even the cops writing parking tickets wore Germanic-looking uniforms. (Luckily we were able to evade their Teutonic diligence.) But we loved the entire region – both the Italian-speaking and German-speaking parts. Suzanne and I both gave the Dolomites our top vote for a return visit with the entire family.
Blah, blah, blog — Time to see the movies!
The total running time for the entire album is about 35 minutes; however, you’ll need to view it (at your leisure, of course) in three segments.
NOTE:The videos in this blog are for non-commercial, ad-free private viewing by our family and friends. They are not for broadcast. If you have not been invited to view them, kindly honor this policy. The rest of this blog is available for viewing by the general public. Contact me via “Leave a Reply” below, if you have any comments or questions.
Click on the following links when you are ready to view the videos. Don’t be afraid to turn up your speakers or headphones. If you want to view a particular scene a little longer, just click on the pause button. If you experience buffering, either hit the pause button (and count backwards from 99) or back out of the site and re-click on the link on this page. Most of you are veteran web-surfers; so you know what to do.
If buffering becomes excessive or your media viewer can’t play or interrupts the video, click on “Difficulty Viewing Videos?“ at the very top right of this page.
For another fascinating visit to Europe (really, do we go on any that are boring?), Suzanne and I drove from Paris down to the Dordogne region of southern France to look at 35,000 year-old cave drawings (such as those in the Lascaux area), visit Medieval chateaux marking the battle lines of the Hundred Years’ War, and paddle kayaks down the scenic Dordogne River, which meandered peacefully through the rolling French country side. After visiting the south of France, we made our way up to Brittany and Normandy, before returning to Paris.
In addition to pictures of the Dordogne, this photo album features photography of the Loire river valley and, most memorably, the battlefields associated with the D-Day invasion of Normandy in June 1944, including the site of the first engagement of the fabled 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, known in the superb Steven Spielberg series as the “Band of Brothers.” (The series was based upon a book by the same title, written by the late Stephen Ambrose.)
Since my first posting of this photo album on Picasa, Dick Winters, who led “Easy Company” in many of its European engagements, has passed on; and efforts by others to have him awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for his courageous leadership on D-Day appear to be fading away. However, thanks to funds raised in the U.S. — including nearly $100,000 collected by 11-year-old Jordan Brown selling commemorative bracelets — on 6 June 2012, a 12-foot-tall $250,000 bronze statue of Winters was erected on the site of the assault he led against a German artillery battery near Utah Beach, on that fateful day in 1944.
In this presentation, I offer my take as to why so many Americans lost their lives while assaulting the other major landing point for U.S. seaborne troops — Omaha Beach — despite one of the heaviest aerial and naval bombardments of enemy defensive positions in history.
I also walk you through the story of the U.S. rangers who first scaled the key German artillery position at Pointe du Hoc — and then, with reduced numbers, had to defend the position for two more days until relieved.
Lastly, I include as a brief footnote to this major event in U.S. military history the true story of the Niland Brothers — a poignant tale upon which another outstanding Spielberg production, Saving Private Ryan, was based.
When you are ready to view the presentation, click on the following link:
1. Click on “Slideshow” at the top left of your screen, right underneath the title.
2. As soon as the opening photo comes into view, immediately click on the pause button located at the bottom of the screen.
3. O.K., once you have paused the presentation, click on the “+” sign (also at the bottom) to increase the time for each slide from its default of 3 seconds (which is way to fast) to perhaps as much as 6-8 seconds.
4. Select “F11” on the top row of your keyboard (for PCs) to fill your entire screen with the picture.
5. Now click on the “play” button to resume the presentation.
(The other option is just to advance the slides with the arrow keys.)
Explore a Little Further
After viewing our web album via the above link, if you would like to dig a little deeper into some of the subject matter, I’d recommend that you view the following presentations by clicking on the links to them:
Prehistoric Cave Art
Click on the above link to reach a beautiful interactive site featuring a tour of the cave paintings of Lascaux in the south of France. To select English, move your cursor to the left edge of the screen, and then down to the bottom of the pop-out menu to click on the English flag.
Pointe du Hoc
Watch a nicely done YouTube video about the Ranger assault on Pointe Du Hoc, which includes President Ronald Reagan’s speech on the 40th anniversary of D-Day.
Band of Brothers Engagement at Brécort Manor
For an excellent portrayal of Easy Company’s assault on the German guns at Brécort Manor, check out Episode Two of the mini-series, Band of Brothers. You’ll probably have to stream it from Netflix or some other online movie company. WARNING: Contains graphic violence and language.
Click on the above link to view my short video of a WWII armored vehicle demonstration at the Airborne Museum in Ste.-Mère-Eglise. WARNING: Contains footage of stupid photographer almost getting run over by tank. (I’m not telling who that photographer was. . . . but it sort of explains why this video segment is a tad wobbly.)
In 2009, Suzanne and I made a memorable trip to Sarajevo and Mostar in Bosnia-Herzegovina and to Dubrovnik, Korcula, and Hvar in Croatia — several of these locations having served as scenes for some of the worst fighting and violent atrocities during the Yugoslavian wars of independence in the 1990s. What a beautiful region this corner of the world remains today, although unfortunately it has been psychologically scarred by such a terrible period in recent European history. Physically, the towns and cities have all but recovered, but deep inter-ethic trauma remains.
This presentation features photography of the absolutely gorgeous Dalmatian coast of the eastern Adriatic. Those following HBO’s Game of Thrones series might recognize some of the scenery. A portion of season 2 was filmed on location in the Dubrovnik area. Before you get to this part, however, you’ll have to “endure” some photos of beautiful, peaceful Garmisch-Partenkirchen, nestled in the Bavarian Alps, which served as the jumping off point for our poignant journey to the Balkans.
When you run through the presentation on the Picasa web-based program, be ready to click on the “pause” button when you come to my detailed bullet slides. I love to pontificate, and I don’t want anyone to miss a single fact or conclusion in my always insightful analyses. Besides, you never know when Alex Trebek might be calling you out of the blue and say, “We’d be ever so grateful if you could substitute for a Jeopardy contestant on short notice.” Seriously, how are you going to respond to him. . . . “Sorry Alex; but that needed to be in the form of a question“?
Click on the following link when you are ready to view the presentation:
Suzanne and I managed to get in some “island-hopping” around the Aegean for our 35th anniversary in 2008.
All of our journeys are self-planned, and we always seem to get along just fine without guides or having to travel in confining tour groups. We enjoy the flexibility to explore out-of-the-way locations and interact directly with locals that such independence offers us. Plus, not to brag (O.K., I am bragging a little), the trips we go on are much cooler!
This particular trip was no exception, although it did include one memorable six-hour road trip on a cramped Turkish public bus and one sea-tossed voyage on a rusty Greek steamer in order to visit some of the disparate sites in the allotted time.
The “photo journal” for this exciting trip to the archaeological treasures of Greece and Turkey has been posted as a slide show on the Picasa web-based photo album program featured by Google. The presentation is in two parts. Two more presentations featured in other blog postings — Trip to Germany, Bosnia, and Croatia (2009); and Trip to France (2010) — have also been made available on Picasa.
One note of caution: As you may have noticed, I am one of those. . . you know. . . “boring history buffs.” As such, I couldn’t help myself but provide a fair amount of historical and cultural context in my Picasa web albums, both in the captions and with some additional explanatory slides and maps (used more extensively in the presentations on our trips to the former Yugoslavia and France). I realize that some may appreciate this background detail, and others might not — especially those with the usual excuse that their high school history courses were taught by their off-season football coaches. (“Hey, you clowns need to listen up, because today I’ll be going over some important locker-room procedures in ancient Greece.”) For any unfortunate considering himself to be in this latter history-doesn’t-interest-me-that-much category, I say unto thee: “Thou goatish clapper-clawed barnacle!” (Apologies to the Bard of Avon.)
When you are ready to view the presentation, click on the following links to get to the two photo albums of our memorable journey back to the Greco-Roman origins of Western civilization:
Abstract: Inflamed by images of Russian destruction and unspeakable atrocities, most Americans have been rooting for the Ukrainians as they attempt to repel the invader. If the fighting continues throughout the summer and into the fall, the sad reality is that more Ukrainian cities will be turned into rubble, and the deaths and displacement of civilians will continue. The war has the potential of widening to include direct attacks by Russian offensive systems on our NATO partners outside the confines of Ukrainian territory – even by tactical nuclear weapons. Now is the time for the U.S. and its NATO allies to focus on an end-game based upon a negotiated settlement. The question is, can peace come to Ukraine short of the destruction of half the country, given the growing influence of what has emerged in the U.S. as a “War Hawk” sentiment uniting both Democrats and Republicans? This piece is an extensive study of “Putin’s War” — approximately 60 pages in length. Some of its conclusions may seem controversial to readers with entrenched political viewpoints. It challenges as overly simplistic the “sound-bite” explanation of the invasion as an act by a crazy tyrant, hell-bent on reconstituting the former Soviet Empire; and it questions the narrative that there was nothing the Biden Administration could have done to prevent it. Putin is responsible for the carnage. Nevertheless, a more sober understanding of Russia’s security concerns is needed in order to bring the conflict to an end — although such considerations are instinctively dismissed by pundits and politicians, as they default to more morally satisfying positions. This paper begins by examining the complex record of U.S. diplomatic interactions with Russia and Ukraine since the end of the Cold War, focusing on the “Great Schism” between Washington and Moscow that widened in 2012. It asks why the current U.S. administration ignored warnings by past U.S. statesmen about Putin’s “Red Line” and pushed so hard for Ukraine’s accession into NATO — and why Putin’s offer to negotiate was rejected. The study continues by providing an analysis of Russia’s political objectives and military strategy at the beginning of the invasion, describing how Russia failed to achieve those goals, why the Ukrainians have performed so well, and why Russian threats of using tactical nuclear weapons should be taken seriously. This monograph-length treatment of a war that continues to affect millions concludes with a template for ending it.
Like many of you, I have been transfixed by reports about the ongoing war in Ukraine. As of this writing, Russia’s conflict with its southern neighbor has entered its fourth month. Frankly, I don’t know how anyone can listen to news broadcasts or read newspapers or social media postings and not be astounded by the courage being displayed by President Volodymyr Zelensky and his fellow Ukrainians in this modern-day David and Goliath struggle.
Clearly, Zelensky’s inspiring leadership and the Ukrainians’ determination to blunt the attacks by the Russian invader have accomplished what no political leader in the United States or Europe had been able to do at the opening stages of the war: Three months ago, they galvanized free citizens throughout the world, who compelled their reluctant governments into tossing lifelines to a sovereign nation, struggling to survive.
As emotions have risen with reports of Russian atrocities, those initial moderate steps to assist Ukraine have since expanded significantly. In our efforts to come to the aid of a David, we have now become de-facto belligerents in a dangerous proxy war against a nuclear-capable Goliath, with tensions between two superpowers now having risen to levels not seen since 1962, during the Cuban Missile Crisis.
While Ukraine’s resistance to the Russian onslaught continues, Americans emerging from the Pandemic are getting a sense of what the “old normal” once felt like. Most of us are bouncing back with relatively little effort. However, a few Americans are finding the light of spring and summer too bright and the task of re-acclimation too daunting. Some of us may feel the need to retreat back into the security of our living rooms and await further instructions from the CDC.
Gradually weaning ourselves off of our home entertainment systems, Americans could be experiencing the after-effects of ROKU-Separation Anxiety Syndrome (ROSAS). Pronounced “RO’-ses” by Dr. Fauci, the main symptom appears to be the urge to binge on a Netflix mini-series every now and then – perhaps one with an absorbing “morality play.”
However, the price of streaming services such as Netflix and Prime continues to rise (like everything else). Viewers might want to trim their costs of living by sticking with basic TV news or newsprint, while Fauci and his fellow health experts “follow the science” on this new phenomenon.
By spending more time with some hard news, Americans will discover that the valiant Ukrainians are already providing a compelling tale before our very eyes. Reality TV on steroids, its stars are genuine heroes; and those heroes are paying for their lives in real blood and real misery.
On the one hand, the plot of the unfolding war in Ukraine is all too familiar. For most of us, what may come to mind is an episode in the Star Wars series, whereby the Evil Empire strikes out against a liberty-conscious people, and these rebels resist the bad guys against all odds. As a Hollywood analogy, I would prefer the feature film, “300,” with the muscular Gerard Butler playing the role of King Leonidas of Sparta, who sacrificed himself and his personal retinue in order to save a corner of an imperfect Europe from the advancing Persian horde.
While the initial plot-line is straightforward, the moral underpinnings for this later Ukrainian saga may be only vaguely familiar to many Americans and Europeans, particularly those growing up after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. So here is the recap:
In the Euro-American tradition, citizens expect few things from their governments: equality under the law, a fair shake at prosperity, unfettered political discourse, and a healthy environment in which to raise their families.
However, the pursuit of these ideals takes a back seat whenever liberty is about to be lost.
Looking at the broad sweep of history, one realizes that this moral or “principle” is a golden thread woven into the very fabric of Western civilization ever since the days of the ancient Greeks. Liberty is the sine qua non of modern liberal democracies; and it remains very fragile.
In the coming weeks, as we think and pray about the Ukrainian patriots, let us also learn what they are teaching us about this this sacred principle.
No doubt, Ukraine is an imperfect country, still struggling with the chronic corruption it inherited after the collapse of the USSR in 1991. However, in less than a generation, its citizens have developed a distinct political identity of their own – one with an amazing understanding of what it means to be a sovereign nation-state.
Despite its own set of oligarchs and history of cut-throat politics, Ukraine has been a better place for post-Soviets to live than Putin’s Russia. Now entering the fourth month of the war, no one would have predicted at the beginning of 2022 that the Ukrainian nation would have rallied around an ex-comic-actor to resist the onslaught of the second most powerful military force in the world.
Let us therefore look upon the valiant people now defending their homeland as the 21st Century descendants of those 300 Spartans holding off Xerxes and his army at Thermopylae. May we be inspired by their example of sacrifice – undertaken like Leonidas’s small force as their Greek allies first dithered over the price of olive oil – never to forget that it is our devotion to libertyabove all else which sets us apart from the barbarians at the gate.
From Heart to Head – An Alternative View
At the gut-level, most of us are indeed rooting for the Ukrainians. Some Americans are even flying the Ukrainian flag next to the Stars and Stripes. Our hearts and prayers remain with these Ukrainian heroes, and particularly with those non-combatants, who continue to suffer and become displaced.
However, now is the time to detach cold logic from these understandable emotions. This is difficult at present, particularly while American and European sentiments continue to be inflamed by images of Russian destruction and unspeakable atrocities.
There is a distinct probability that the war will widen and that devastation in Ukraine will accelerate if the fighting continues. The U.S. and its allies therefore need to focus on a near-term end-game based upon a negotiated settlement.
The question is, can peace come to Ukraine short of the destruction of half of the country, given the growing influence of what has emerged organically in the U.S. as a “war party”?
Sometimes called the “Victory Lobby,” I will refer to this group throughout the rest of this monograph simply as the War Hawks.
Given the current divisiveness in the U.S. body politic, the rise of a War Hawk sentiment seems to be the sole phenomenon uniting Democrats and Republicans in a common cause. Politicians and pundits are outdoing each other in brazenly demanding Putin’s head and the destruction of his military – even if this is accomplished on the backs of suffering Ukrainian civilians and innocent soldiers on both sides of the conflict.
Remember the “slam dunk” narrative promoted by Republican and Democratic politicians and fanned by the New York Times on the eve of the U.S. invasion of Iraq? We Americans prefer our options to be presented in morally black and white terms.
However, as President Barack Obama used to remind us: “Beware of false choices.”
I realize that the notion of questioning the U.S. Administration’s dizzying statements and retractions about the war in Ukraine may not be in vogue. Anyone not fully supporting the narrative at the moment invites immediate ridicule from our Agitprop press. Heretics are soon outed as a “enablers” or “supporters” of the Russian “tyrant.” But such epithets are pure nonsense. We need more debate and more critical thinking about the war before we can figure out how to end it.
No American politician is directly accountable for Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine.
However, as one who has studied the fields of “Russian Military Thought” and nuclear strategy over a career, I believe that diplomatic missteps since the fall of the USSR in 1991 – in particular, over the last 10 years – have had rippling effects upon our ability to control recent events in Eastern Europe.
U.S. errors tending to the Russia and Ukraine “accounts” rendered the Biden Administration apoplectic during the run-up to the Russian invasion in February. It is clear also that past malfeasance in U.S. diplomacy is now placing us at a disadvantage in implementing solutions that could contain the conflict and bring it to a swift conclusion.
If the fighting continues throughout the summer and into the fall, the sad reality is that more Ukrainian cities will be turned into rubble and the deaths and displacement of civilians will continue.
The war also has the potential of widening to include direct attacks by Russian systems on our NATO partners outside the confines of Ukrainian territory – even by tactical nuclear weapons.
The fighting and carnage need to stop. In order to bring this about, we first need to be honest about our actions in the years leading up to the Russian invasion and our ability to impose any settlement on Putin’s Russia, now that U.S. credibility with Moscow has all but been squandered.
In addition, the subtext of “vendetta” – now underlying the increased rhetoric about “victory” being heard in the halls of Congress – needs to be checked.
Shifting Paradigms at the End of the Cold War
My involvement in U.S.-Russian and U.S.-Ukrainian affairs goes back several decades. It began in 1982, during my first of two tours of duty at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, when I first served as a defense attaché.
Prior to 1991, Ukraine was one of 15 “Union Republics” of the former USSR. The Defense Attaché Office had only 12 accredited officers to cover a country with 11 time zones; so we had to divide up the nation for reporting purposes. I was assigned Ukraine and the Transcaucasus.
During that first diplomatic assignment, I made a number of trips by plane and train from Moscow to points in Ukraine, spending a great deal of time in Kyiv and other provincial cities, usually teaming up with a Brit or Canadian diplomat. My wife and I also made several road trips from one end of Ukraine to the other in a rickety old Soviet-made Lada that our office had purchased for that purpose.
During this low-point in U.S.-Soviet relations, official contact with Moscow’s military was almost non-existent. For many reasons I cannot explain here, living and working in the Socialist police state was always challenging and sometimes dangerous.
In order to observe what was going on in the western part of Ukraine, during one trip, my wife and I crossed over a highly sensitive border area into Hungary and returned the same way several days later. As there were only several entry points into the country for Americans, we were surprised that Moscow had approved the trip. It turned out that we were the first Americans during the Cold War permitted to use that checkpoint. Today, tens of thousands of refugees continue to flee from Ukraine through that same Carpathian mountain pass.
Places in the news, such as Kyiv, Kharkiv, Vinnitsa, and L’viv, which I have visited over the years, therefore, are all too familiar to me.
During the late 1980s, as the Berlin Wall was about to crumble, a new diplomatic paradigm would emerge: We would cooperate with former Cold War adversaries on newfound converging interests.
I would return to Ukraine several years after that first diplomatic tour in Moscow under the protocols of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. One of the sites to which I led my team of inspectors was a base called Lozovaya – at that time, one of the largest tactical nuclear storage facilities in the USSR. Lozovaya is located a mere 50 miles south of Kharkiv, the largest city in Ukraine’s eastern half. At this point during the current war, Russian forces have pulled back from the major industrial and transportation hub of Kharkiv and the area around Lozovaya, leaving the urban areas in rubble. Intensive fighting, however, continues not too far away.
Later, I would lead a U.S. delegation of military and civilian personnel to Kyiv for the first series of Joint Staff Talks with the newly established General Staff of the Republic of Ukraine. (We also held periodic staff talks with the Russian military.)
At the time, I had just been appointed as the first director of a division established on the Joint Staff with the expressed mission of normalizing relations with Russia, Ukraine, and Eurasia. Senior military leaders in the U.S. were ready to roll up their sleeves and start breaking down decades of Cold War barriers.
Later in 2008, as the civilian Director for International Nuclear Energy Policy at the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), I would oversee a program for upgrading the safety of nuclear reactors in Ukraine. I was particularly horrified to learn that one of the nuclear power plants at which U.S. contractors had been working was attacked by Russian ground forces during the initial stages of the war and remains occupied. As reported in the news, Zaporizhzhiya is the largest nuclear power facility in Europe.
Diplomacy and the Art of “Relationship-Maintenance”
As the Soviet empire was going through its death throws from 1989 to 1992, the U.S. defense establishment was concerned about the security of our former adversary’s nuclear arsenal. We were also apprehensive about potential mis-reading of early warning indicators that might set in motion a series of nuclear exchanges. Senior U.S. defense officials were particularly uneasy about the potential for mishaps whenever U.S. and Russian forces operated in close proximity.
In response, the U.S. military, with bipartisan support in Congress, took the lead in negotiating a series of Dangerous Military Activities agreements with the Soviet armed forces. These accords featured protocols designed to prevent accidental encounters between military units, and included methods and frequencies for communicating between aircraft and ground-based air defense facilities. These initial efforts, pursued under the Crowe-Akhromeyev Accords, were expanded and deepened in the years following Gorbachev’s announcement on Christmas Day 1991 that the USSR was no more.
With the full endorsement of the administration of President George H.W Bush, the U.S. Air Force aggressively pursued this new mission of building relationships with former Cold War adversaries by initiating a series of exchange visits by bomber and fighter units in 1992. In addition, U.S. and Russian commanders and launch teams began visiting each other’s missile silos and underground command facilities.
Each visit was established under a mutually negotiated calendar of Military Contact Activities. The program would establish formal and informal communications between commanders at various levels. During the exchanges, Russians and Americans would engage in frank discussions about military doctrine, warfighting strategies, and most importantly, steps that needed to be taken in order to avoid accidental launches and nuclear accidents.
The U.S. Army initiated a series of U.S.-Russian peacekeeping exercises; and the U.S. and Russian navies would work on refining longstanding “Incident at Sea” protocols and increase the frequency of good-will visits to ports previously off limits during the Cold War.
During my second tour at U.S. Embassy Moscow (1997-1999), I worked closely with General Eugene Habiger (recently deceased), the Commander in Chief of U.S. Strategic Command. We shared a long-term vision of establishing professional ties with the nuclear chiefs of the Russian services.
To deepen the U.S.-Russian military relationship, we routinely hazarded end runs around the Russian FSB (formerly the KGB) and the GRU (the military’s intelligence organization), who were always opposed to direct military-to-military contacts.
Senior Russian commanders were our partners in this experiment in relationship-building and maintenance. They risked much more than we did. Despite the constraints posed by their own security services, these senior Russian military leaders pursued the relationship, because they truly believed that working together to prevent future conflicts was in the best interests of both our peoples.
Each side concluded that the best way to prevent the rise in tensions and unintentional nuclear disasters was to reach out with concerns to their opposites – outside of the normal bureaucracies, which tended to impede frank and open discussion. Habiger’s extraordinary initiatives were documented by a CBS film crew; and footage would be featured during two segments of the CBS program, “60 Minutes,” during the late 1990s.
As Air Attaché, I routinely hosted senior Russian military officers at my modest apartment on the Embassy compound. On two occasions, when General Habiger and his staff came to Russia for a visit, my wife and I crammed the commanders of the nuclear forces and their senior deputies into our home for impromptu buffet dinners.
I will never forget the faces on our teenage kids one night, as they poked their heads into our living room and saw the most powerful brass-laden military commanders in history draped over the arms of our sofas or sitting on hastily borrowed chairs. During these occasions, senior U.S. and Russian commanders would eat, drink, exchange jokes – and discuss nuclear doctrine until well-past midnight.
During this second diplomatic assignment, our office in Moscow also facilitated a series of U.S.- Russia Theater Missile Defense exercises. The purpose of this series of exchanges was to understand the other side’s operational procedures and to better distinguish between actual missile launches and mere technical glitches.
The U.S. military was also concerned about what Y2K unknowns might pop up during the transition from one millennium to the next. To mitigate the impact of early warning anomalies during the changeover, one of my talented assistant air attaches spearheaded an initiative to get a Russian early warning officer into the NORAD command center near Colorado Springs on New Year’s Eve 1999/2000.
Working at a console equipped with a direct hotline back to General Staff headquarters in Moscow, the Russian officer carefully watched the screens of the sensitive U.S. early warning system alongside his American counterparts, while the rest of the world was happily bringing in the millennium.
Twenty Years of “Cooperative Threat Reduction”
The highly successful Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction Program began just a few years after the Crowe-Akhromeyev accords. The first phase was initiated towards the end of the Administration of President George H.W. Bush and was funded under DoD’s budget. The program expanded significantly during the presidency of Bill Clinton, whose seasoned Russian affairs experts embraced this notion of relationship-building with extraordinary gusto.
U.S. activities initially focused on assisting Russia and the three post-Soviet states of Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan with the dismantling of their bombers, missiles, launchers, and submarines that were slated to be scrapped under START. Several years later, the program would take on additional steam when the Department of Energy (DOE) obtained its own funding for dealing specifically with the security of the nuclear warheads and weapons-grade material. After retiring from the Air Force, I joined the Civil Service and would manage one of those programs.
DOE was expanding its nonproliferation directorate under its newly established sub-entity – the National Nuclear Security Administration. The U.S. was making good use of the unique expertise found in our National Laboratories (such as Oak Ridge, Lawrence Livermore, Sandia, and Los Alamos) to improve the security of Russian sites containing nuclear warheads and weapons-grade material.
The premise of these twin U.S. government (DoD/DOE) programs was that Russia, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, lacked the funding, security infrastructure, and security culture to properly secure its own nuclear weapons and material, and to eliminate its launch systems.
To be fair, the Russians had been reasonably responsible stewards of their nuclear arsenal throughout the Cold War. However, it was a low national priority for the cash-strapped Russian economy after the collapse of the USSR, and some storage facilities needed urgent repair. In addition, we determined that security systems and practices were outmoded and lagged behind those that we had developed in the U.S. Therefore, to prevent terrorists from getting their hands on Russian nuclear weapons, the U.S. believed that it needed to jump in with both feet to help fix the problem.
Boris Yeltsin believed that U.S. assistance with the problem was necessary. When he became President in 2000, Vladimir Putin concurred with the assessment that it was in both countries’ interests to keep the partnership going. The programs took on additional steam as a result; and it continued for another dozen years.
In 2003, I was appointed as the director of DOE’s warhead security program for the Russian Federation. My job was to focus on securing Russia’s “loose nukes.” The nascent efforts first begun in the late 1990s had stalled. Within four years, with renewed effort on the part of our experts from the national labs and support from the Bush-43 Administration, our teams had turned around the program; and we were well on our way to securing over 80 sensitive Russian military sites containing huge quantities of weapons-grade material and nuclear warheads.
Third-party critics in the U.S. would occasionally attempt to derail the program, viewing it as “U.S. taxpayer-funded welfare” for a former Cold War enemy. However, the focus of our “Threat Reduction” projects was always to enhance U.S. security interests – e.g., to make it extremely difficult for terrorists to obtain a Russian nuclear bomb or manufacture one from unsecured Russian fissile material and then smuggle it into the U.S. or the territory of an ally. The Russian motive was to prevent a weapon from getting into the hands of Chechen terrorists and being exploded on Red Square. Slightly different perspectives – but close enough!
The events of 9-11 only served to underscore the importance of redoubling our cooperation with the Russians. The U.S. and Russia found themselves sharing even more of the same interests, as U.S. and NATO began operations in Afghanistan to defeat a common foe – Islamic extremism.
By installing state-of-the art security systems and by training Russian personnel in modern security practices, we reduced the risk of a successful attack from terrorists or theft from corrupt Russian insiders from relatively high to relatively low levels. The total cost of the several hundred contracts negotiated to upgrade the sites was an estimated $1.2B. Our counterparts at DoD also participated in warhead security efforts in Russia, but due to DoD’s priority of eliminating Russian launch systems under START, they would upgrade fewer storage sites.
During the two-year period of work required at minimum for each site, during which the new security systems were being designed and installed, our teams enjoyed unprecedented access to highly sensitive nuclear facilities all across Russia from the Kola Peninsula in the northwest to the Kamchatka Peninsula jutting into the Pacific Ocean. In a number of instances, our access to sites continued during the post-upgrade “sustainability phase.”
As we worked on this monumental task, we established an extraordinarily high degree of trust with our Russian military counterparts and security contractors. We routinely met face-to-face when traveling to Moscow or talked weekly by phone to work through the issues. The relationship was professional and geared to problem-solving. Long-term friendships were established along the way.
To be sure, it was no cake walk doing business in Russia. It was uncharted territory, and we had no precedent to guide us. I had to make thirty trips to Russia in four years’ time to sort out unforeseen difficulties.
There were always bureaucratic obstacles on both sides to deal with, and we encountered a great deal of unknowns, such as unpredictable climatic conditions, horrible roads, mosquito-infested swamps, and Siberian permafrost. Our technical experts routinely risked injury while traveling within Russia. But everyone understood the importance of the mission; and the teams stuck with it until the work was done.
Key to the U.S. success was the knowledge that the work was also the priority of senior administration officials – and that they always had our backs.
Bipartisan Support for the U.S.-Russian Relationship – the First 20 Years
Three successive presidential administrations – Bush-41, Clinton, and Bush-43 – recognized the critical importance of “relationship maintenance” when it came to the Russian political and military leadership. They invested a great deal of political capital to stay actively engaged – particularly whenever hiccups, slights, or fissures were encountered along the way.
As each party (Republican and Democratic) turned the White House over to the subsequent administration, one sees that the depth and breadth of security cooperation with the Russian Federation had been expanded considerably.
Unfortunately, by 2012, this favorable trend in the U.S.-Russian relationship had taken an unfortunate turn. Minor fissures in the partnership had erupted into major cracks, as both Vladimir Putin and Barack Obama were about to begin their follow-on terms as presidents of their respective nations. It was only two decades after the “Golden Years” of the U.S.-Russia partnership had first begun.
My Difficulty in Writing About the Ukraine War
Having worked first-hand with Russian and Ukrainian military officers and defense officials over the years, I have to admit that this has been a particularly challenging monograph for me to write.
I am saddened by the fact that the people of these two closely intertwined nations are engaged in such a brutal and largely unnecessary war. Over the years, so many Russian military officers that I have come to know have had Ukrainian surnames or mentioned to me at some point that one of their parents or their grandparents had roots in Ukraine. For many Ukrainians that I worked with, their family situations would be reversed.
In many respect, this conflict is a “cousins’ war.” As Americans know from studying the English Civil War in 17th Century, the American Revolution in the 18th Century, and the American Civil War in the 19th Century, cousins’ wars often take on extraordinary brutality.
My first response, like most Americans, is therefore heartfelt. At the emotional level, the war in Ukraine does indeed seem like the classic “David and Goliath” struggle, described at the beginning of this monograph.
The Russian invasion was, on its face-value, an illegal act according to international norms; and Putin is the guy who drove it (although we all should acknowledge the obvious – that the Russian population is not responsible for Putin’s actions). Therefore, my first impulse has been for the U.S. to do everything in its power to come to Ukraine’s aid.
On the other hand, as a participant in the now collapsed U.S.-Russia partnership, I have been compelled to take a more sober look at how the U.S. and Russia have come so dangerously close to exchanging blows over the war in Ukraine. I have asked myself over the last few weeks whether, through benign neglect, hubris in strategic over-reach, or even diplomatic malpractice, the U.S. contributed to the long slide to this conflict. . . and now to our flirting with the fringes of a more devastating nuclear conflict.
The answer is a rather complex one. If unraveled, it may become disconcerting to those seeking guilt-free black-and-white answers. Unfortunately, the logic of “Occam’s Razor” is no longer up to the task in producing moral clarity in the 21st Century.
Part of the problem is that, over the last few months, both political parties in U.S., supported by the echo chambers in their respective news outlets and on social media, have united in embracing a Manichean view of the conflict as an eschatological battle of good vs. evil.
Assessing Putin’s Mind-Set on the Eve of the Invasion
In seeking some explanation for Russia’s decision to invade Ukraine, pundits on both Progressive and Conservative media outlets have characterize “Putin’s choice” as devoid of any rationality – essentially an act by an unhinged madman, hell-bent on reconstituting the former Soviet Union. According to this narrative, Putin is motivated by his desire “to re-establish Russia’s Greatness, a goal he has sought for several decades.”
This major European war has already killed tens of thousands of Ukrainians and Russians and has displaced millions of Ukrainian civilians, who have fled from their homes during this horror. At this point, the issue as to why Putin initiated the war is probably moot for them.
Nevertheless, I would venture the less popular view that the above media-driven sound-bite explanations of Putin’s motives for invading Ukraine are both incomplete and inaccurate.
It is vital to reconstruct several of the pre-war turning points in order to better understand why Putin wanted to invade Ukraine in the first place. This is necessary, not only as a case study as to what the U.S. might have done differently in the years and months leading up to the Russian invasion, but also to prevent the escalation of the war to beyond Ukraine’s borders.
Equally important, Russia’s underlying interest in invading Ukraine – although it is routinely misstated and then rejected as illegitimate by Washington’s political class – has to be understood more precisely if ever a negotiated end to this tragedy is to be pursued.
First, as for the “crazy-Putin” part of the narrative, one can state the obvious: It is difficult for anyone to psycho-analyze the mental state of any national leader from afar, including that of Vladimir Putin. One can make several observations, however.
Since his legend was born in 1989, when he single-handedly faced down an angry mob of Germans about to storm the KGB station in Dresden armed only with a pistol, Putin has been known as a risk-taker, a skilled bluffer, and a rational decision-maker.
After he became the Russian President in 2000, Putin added to that legend his reputation as a decisive “man-of-action” on the domestic and international scene. During the few instances when his bluffing didn’t do the trick, he employed physical violence to produce the desired outcome.
In terms of temperament, Vladimir Putin is the polar opposite of Joe Biden: Putin speaks softly. . . and he carries a big brutal stick. He is never hesitant in using it when persuasion fails; and he seldom fails to follow up on his threats.
Up until the present war, Putin’s decisions have tended to be based upon the proper weighing of costs and benefits. The trouble with most tyrants like Putin is that, over time, success tends to breed a belief in the infallibility of one’s own personal judgment. Putin has always thought that he possessed a superior faculty for sizing up his opponents.
At some point, a dictator’s circle of advisors becomes reduced to a small group of sycophants, and he goes with his instincts without seeking views from outside his immediate entourage. Add in a touch of paranoia and isolation due to the Pandemic, as may have been the case with Putin, and you miscalculate the level of resistance you might encounter in invading a neighboring country.
Perhaps for the first time in his life, Putin made an enormous blunder in trying to subdue Ukraine. He never anticipated the enormous fight that the Ukrainian patriots would put up. Moreover, he never anticipated the charisma and communication skills of a comic-turned-President, who would galvanize world public opinion against him.
To be fair, none of us did.
Russia’s strategic goals in invading Ukraine are perhaps easier to explain – although I am not under the illusion that any American politician or pundit would accept my explanation of them.
Putin’s original objective in sending his armed forces into Ukraine is a bit more nuanced than a simple desire to reconstitute the old Soviet Union.
First off, Putin has always been an opportunist, but he was never a committed Communist. While he is always looking to expand Russia’s influence, he has no intent of reviving the old Socialist system and all of its side effects of consumer shortages, long lines, black marketeering, and chronic poverty. Those characteristics are always the unintended consequences of centralized economic planning.
As I speculated in a Strategic Review article in the early 1990s, the corrupt but seemingly democratic Yeltsin would be followed by a Peronista-style leader, who would give semblance to domestic prosperity by promoting a form of crony-capitalism, as once reigned in Eva Peron’s “Don’t Cry for Me” Argentina.
Today, as the incarnation of my imagined dictator, Putin appears to be quite happy allowing small mom & pop businesses to thrive along-side the Gucci outlets and the petroleum monopolies, so long as he can engage in governmental racketeering in order to control them and milk their bank accounts.
Putin’s economic model is simple: Let the markets run their course, but influence their direction. One can extort more money from those with assets than from penniless peasants. This is best accomplished not by re-constituting GOSPLAN (the former Communist Party’s central planning entity), but by employing the good offices of the tax police, the Federal Security Service (FSB), and the chief prosecutor’s office.
In terms of the “vision thing,” Putin’s self-image is certainly wrapped in the traditional Russian messianic ideal of uniting all Russian-speakers and related ethnic groups into a Slavic core. And this is where his territorial ambitions begin to take shape.
Several decades ago, I drew a map for Pentagon officials depicting what a futuristic Russia with a Slavic core might look like. It included the current Russian Federation, of course; but it also consisted of Belarus and other republics where large concentrations of Russians lived: the northern stretch of Kazakhstan and Ukraine to the east of the Dnipro River.
Putin does see himself as the redeemer of a Russian-dominated Slavic union. However, traditional “Russian Military Thought” – a concept only marginally understood in the West – has played the most important role in shaping Putin’s strategic vision as defender of the realm.
The Geopolitical Foundation of Russian Strategic Thinking
While the “system of military thought” in Russia is always viewed through the patina of Moscow’s quasi-mystical belief in itself as the “Third Rome,” its practical application remains grounded in a realistic self-assessment of the nation’s strengths and weaknesses as a land power straddling two continents.
As such, the dominant influence on Russian strategic planning throughout the 20th Century and into the 21st has been that of Geopolitical Theory, a system first articulated by Halford Mackinder, the onetime director of the London School of Economics, in the early 20th Century.
While Russian leaders seldom give credit to its origins in Western Europe, Mackinderan geopolitics continues to be taught at Russia’s war colleges and KGB institutions, the latter where the young Putin received his professional training for his career as a case officer. Putin believes in geopolitical theory. Accepting it as imbedded in the DNA of Russian war planning is vital for understanding Putin’s primary instinct when he decided to invade Ukraine in February 2022. Moreover, recognizing it as fundamental to the overall Russian military mindset may be the key that unlocks a solution for ending the war.
A term with expanded usage today, the theory of classical “Geopolitics” posits that the Eurasian landmass can be conceptually viewed as consisting of three concentric components. The most critical part is the “Heartland,” for which Moscow is the approximate center point. Next in importance is the “Rimlands,” a wide belt arcing mainly around the southern part of the Eurasian landmass. This is followed by the “Insular” regions of Western Europe, the Americas, and the Indo-Pacific.
Most arm-chair strategists in the West, including U.S. naval theorists, reject Geopolitical Theory out-of-hand, because the U.S. is an insular power with two oceans and a strong navy to protect it. Such critics also believe that the key to world power is controlling the international sea lanes, not landlocked parts of Eurasia. But that is not the point. Russian military leaders do believe in it, and they plan for Eurasian wars with its concepts in mind.
Moscow’s Soft Underbelly
O.K, let’s unpack some of this theoretical mumble-jumble.
Looking at the long sweep of history, Russian strategic thinkers have long considered the wide belt of land spanning around the southern regions of eastern Europe, running around the Caspian Sea westward to Romania and up into Poland and the Baltic states, as the most vulnerable approaches to the heartland of central European Russia.
During the Medieval period, everything that threatened this Slavic core – Goths, Huns, Magyars, Turco-Tatars, and plagues – came streaming out of Asia across the Steppe of southern Russia and what is now Ukraine.
Starting in the early 18th Century during the reign of Peter the Great, Russia had to defend against invasions from Europe, first in the form of Sweden’s army of Gustavus Adolphus from the northwest, then from Napoleon’s much larger coalition from Prussia and Poland. Later, during two World Wars, the Germans would come from the west with even larger forces on multiple fronts, devasting large swaths of European Russia in the process.
Several of the largest and most consequential battles in Russian history were fought in the terrain located in the eastern part of Ukraine and on adjacent Russian territory. These battles included Peter the Great’s “Poltava,” located southwest of Kharkiv; two major WWII clashes fought over Kharkiv itself; and the largest tank battle fought in history around Kursk, located just to northeast of the Ukrainian border and the disputed Luhansk district.
Ukraine is not just a nebulous “sphere of influence” that Putin wants to control – as American pundits tend to assert with little forethought. It remains a critical part of Russia’s defense-in-depth strategy.
For the Russian military, the Baltic states, Poland, and the Balkan countries are always useful to dominate as buffer areas. However, occupying them is no longer desirable or achievable.
On the other hand, controlling what happens in Ukraine in the strategic sense remains vital to Russian national interests. Therefore, any non-Slavic foreign power controlling Ukraine or stationing troops on its territory poses an existential threat to the Russian heartland.
During the Cold War, Geopolitical principles influenced the General Staff’s development of three continental Theaters of War – the Far Eastern Theater to defend mainly against China, the Southern Theater for the Islamic threat, and the Western Theater to deal with NATO.
The Western Theater was furthered divided into three “theaters of military operation” (TVDs). The most vulnerable sector – given the break-up of the USSR and NATO expansion in the direction of Moscow – has been the Southwestern TVD, which today runs through Ukraine.
To further define the problem for Russian general staff planners — the historically Russian-speaking territory of Ukraine located to the east of the Dnipro River provides the soft underbelly approach for enemy land armies and tactical aviation formations.
NATO is a “defensive” alliance, right? It has no plans to invade Russia.
However, noting that NATO forces have already been employed in the 21st Century to nations beyond the confines of Europe (e.g., Libya and Afghanistan), the Russian High Command believes that there is a fine line between operations conducted under the alliance’s Article V provisions for “collective defense” and military adventurism abroad.
Today, we discount NATO’s threat to Russia because Western war planners have tended to consider intent as well as military capability in our threat assessments. That is why the U.S. is not particularly concerned about the Royal Canadian Air Force. Unless Ottawa decides to re-ignite the 1859 “Pig War” over the international boundary running through the Pacific Northwest, we have little to fear from our northern neighbor.
Russian strategic planners tend to discount near-term intent and concentrate on potential military capability. Concepts such as defense-in-depth therefore play a critical role in their calculations concerning conventional war.
The other day, I looked at a chart of Ukraine and Russia. I turned it upside down to get a sense of Moscow’s view looking south. I measured the distance between Moscow and the now mothballed bomber base at Poltava – a facility used by B-17s of the U.S. Army Air Forces flying shuttle missions into Nazi Germany during World War II.
I estimated that a NATO F-35 fighter-bomber taking off from Poltava or any re-activated airfield located in the northeastern part of Ukraine might take as little as 35 minutes to reach Red Square in downtown Moscow. A missile launched from a B-52 flying over Ukrainian airspace would take less than half that amount of time.
Putin has been clear for years that such a scenario is unpalatable – that it threatens Russia’s vital interests. But have we been listening? Would the U.S. have tolerated a potentially hostile power with its offensive systems based in a neighboring country, less than an hour away from striking a major U.S. city?
During the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962, we certainly did not.
The Lead-Up to the War
Lest I be accused of being an apologist for a brutal dictator, I will be clear: I share the conventional view – even the simplistic sound-bite version of it – that Vladimir Putin bears full responsibility for starting the war and its horrible consequences – although I would widen the direct responsibility to include those “power ministries” responsible for Russia’s security: the military High Command, the FSB (FBI), SVR (CIA), and MVD (national police).
Ukrainian (and Russian) blood is on Putin’s and his enablers’ hands alone.
Although the provision of joining NATO had been incorporated into the Ukrainian constitution, the Zelensky government did nothing to provoke Putin.
Equally important, it should be obvious that neither President Trump nor President Biden bear direct responsibility for the ongoing carnage caused by Russian military operations in Ukraine.
What may be fair game, however, is the consideration how President Biden’s problematic withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan may have factored in on Putin’s timing. Did Putin’s assessment of the U.S. President’s weakness translate into his decision that it was “now or never” if Russia were to derail Washington’s drive to bring Ukraine into NATO?
Moreover, given increased European reliance on Russian petroleum – and Biden’s greenlighting of the Nordstream-2 pipeline – did Putin believe that the Americans and Europeans would just slap his hand with a relatively mild package of sanctions, as they had back in 2014, after Russia seized Crimea? After all, then Vice-President Biden was in charge of the Russian & Ukraine portfolios, wasn’t he?
From December 2021 until February 2022, the Biden Administration did an admirable job of warning the world about the build-up of Russian forces and that the probability of an invasion was high.
However, it was clear in the period before the war began that, after years of diplomatic malfeasance in the management of the Moscow and Kyiv “accounts,” the U.S. had all but lost its influence over Moscow.
This then was the “inconvenient truth” that neither President Biden nor Secretary of State Anthony Blinken wanted to publicize – that the U.S. government had too few tools left in its diplomatic bag, no residual trust remaining between Washington and Moscow, and little temperament with which to seek out-of-the-box solutions. This left the Biden Administration with the weak threat of imposing economic sanctions as its only strategy for preventing the war.
Moreover, by November 2021, the U.S. Administration’s public loathing of Putin seemed to be out in the open and had reached its ugliest point in U.S.-Russian relations.
In turn, the Russian leader and his national security establishment shared the belief that Moscow’s repeated concerns about NATO expansion were being ignored. Putin could no longer trust a Democrat in the White House to see his point of view – or to negotiate in good faith.
While both sides played a role in the schism that had been widening over the previous decade, the reality is that Washington – by the eve of the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 – had burned all of its bridges to the Kremlin. The question is how did this all happen?
The Origins of the Great Schism
Maintaining a relationship with difficult party – whether it is with a cranky corporate customer or just a teenager who thinks you are ruining their life – is a challenge. To smooth out the rough patches, it requires imagination, a great deal of patience, and a little love, if one can grin and bear it.
Often one party in the relationship has to expend a great deal of energy in order to keep things on an even keel. They have to be the “adult-in-the-room” and bite their tongue. Doing so is not considered “appeasement” in either family matters or in the corporate world; it is prudent, particularly if one wants to advance the interests of all parties involved. When it comes to dealing with an international competitor with nuclear weapons, it is just common sense diplomacy.
For most of the Cold War and into the 1990s, Democratic Party administrations grasped these principles when it came to building and maintaining relations with Moscow. At times, they would go overboard as apologists for the Russians, even taking their side on issues ranging from missile defense to the now discarded START II treaty. After the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, the administration of President Bill Clinton finally got the balance about right.
Clinton’s team in the 1990s included some of the sharpest minds ever produced by the Democratic Party’s foreign policy establishment. Guided by seasoned statesmen, who were knowledgeable about Russia – such as Madelyn Albright (recently deceased) and Strobe Talbott at the State Department, and Bill Perry and General John Shalikashvili at the Pentagon – they built upon the prudent handling of the disintegration of the Soviet empire by President George H.W. Bush by widening and deepening ties with both Moscow and Kyiv.
In hindsight, the Clinton Administration’s singular mistake was encouraging Russian President Boris Yeltsin and his economic advisors into moving out quickly to privatize state-owned enterprises. Moscow would push forward before laws and administrative mechanisms could be put in place. Such measures might have prevented rampant corruption, as shares of large Soviet-era industries first went on the market. This was an honest error, motivated in part by the prospect that the Communist Party might retake the Russian presidency in 2006 (more on this later).
However, this rushed transformation of the economies of the post-Soviet states resulted in a major unintended consequence: the creation of the system of Oligarchs that continues to plague both Russia and Ukraine to this day.
Clinton would support a team of Democratic Party economists, including Jeffrey Sachs of Columbia University, in advising the Yeltsin Administration how the Russians might go about this major economic overhaul. A young Stanford professor by the name of Michael McFaul would join in on this largely experimental undertaking in 1994, when he was helping to set up the Moscow Carnegie Center, an affiliate of the Carnegie Endowment for Peace. McFaul would play a role in the Great Schism in U.S.-Russian relations that would open up wide two decades later.
It seemed to have happened by mutual consent.
It takes two to tango, and the leaders of the U.S. and Russian governments had taken to a mutual disliking. There was no formal divorce, no signing ceremony; but the “golden years” of U.S.-Russian cooperation were clearly over by early 2013.
In retrospect, the rift became apparent a year before, as Vladimir Putin, after having sat in the shadows of leadership as Prime Minster as required by the Russian constitution, had decided to run again for President and was re-elected in early 2012. President Obama was running for his second term a little later that same year.
It was being whispered in Washington’s corridors of power: the U.S. administration was experiencing a bout of “Russia fatigue.” President Obama preferred not to focus on Europe’s problems; his real international interests lay elsewhere.
Barack Obama would expend the balance of his presidency’s foreign policy energy on two primary issues: (a) the “Pivot to the Asia-Pacific,” and (b) the striking of a nuclear deal with Iran.
Congressional funding for the highly successful Cooperative Threat Reduction programs first initiated by Senators Nunn and Lugar in the early 1990s was slated to sunset in early 2013. However, most professionals in the U.S. government – and many of our Russian counterparts in the military – had hoped to continue with projects that had furthered the security interests of both nations.
More work was needed on the nuclear non-proliferation portfolio – in sustaining the upgrades in security systems we had put in place around nuclear storage sites, in enhancing the Russian “security culture,” and in maintaining the overall defense relationship. Interlocking ties had been formed over the previous two decades. Moreover, for relatively low cost, the U.S. was benefitting significantly from routine access to Russian facilities, military commanders, and governmental decision-makers.
As had happened several times over the previous two decades, it appeared as though Putin’s pride in having to rely on U.S. funding and technical assistance and the resistance of the counter-intelligence services were the chief factors in Russia’s impulse to terminate the programs. Russia was also recovering its finances as the price of petroleum was in an upswing.
I had faced similar resistance in the early 2000s, when the Department of Energy was planning for a significant expansion of the Russia warhead protection program. While Russian security interests put up their usual grumbling, we also had to endure several attempts to derail the program from individuals within the U.S. Government, who (as some today) seemed stuck in an old Cold War echo-chamber of perpetual animosity towards our Russian partners.
Through a series of background papers and briefings delivered to Stephan Hadley (Bush-43’s Deputy National Security Advisor), we were able to do end-runs around saboteurs in both the Bush and Putin Administrations. We were persistent with our military and civilian counterparts in Russia, who were willing and eager to press on.
What eventually broke the log jam was the enlistment of the good offices of soon-to-be Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Secretary of Defense Don Rumsfeld, both who expended a great deal of effort to convince their Russian counterparts of the mutual benefits of our critical work.
This high-level intervention paid off. The result was that the U.S. Government went on to secure the largest cache of “loose-nukes” in the history of the U.S.-Russian relationship. Routine contacts and cooperative relationship continued with renewed interest for a number of years afterwards.
By contrast, when the Russians proposed ending the twenty-one-year-old engagement programs in 2013, the Obama Administration dispatched considerably lower-levels civil servants, who, with little clout and apparent disinterest on the part of senior political appointees, had little choice but to acquiesce.
While hundreds of security assistance projects were terminated, the era of highly productive military contact activities and routine communications between senior U.S. and Russian military commanders had all but ground to a halt.
About a month into the current war in Ukraine, I listened to a briefing by Pentagon Spokesperson John Kirby. He reported that Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin seemed perplexed by the fact that he had tried dialing his Russian counterpart in Moscow to discuss Russia’s rumored plans to deploy chemical weapons toward Ukraine.
. . . but no one answered.
I thought to myself, “Do you guys even get it?”
[Several weeks ago, the Pentagon reported that Secretary Austin did finally have a conversation with Russian defense minister Sergey Shoigu. Let’s hope that they will speak again.]
The Russian Presidential Election of 2012
President Barack Obama had forgotten the cardinal rule of international diplomacy: sometimes the U.S. needs to rise above disputes with difficult interlocutors, in order to keep key relationships on an even keel. To that principle, I would add a corollary: Never attempt to effect personnel changes in Russia; it will always backfire on you.
In a sense, the highly successful threat reduction and military contact programs were collateral damage in the fight that the U.S. Administration had picked with Putin a year earlier in the run-up to his re-election.
When he entered office in 2009, President Obama had enlisted Stanford University professor Michael McFaul as his senior NSC director for the Russia account. McFaul had spent a semester as a student in St. Petersburg; and he had returned in the 1990s on a short stint with Carnegie. He had no professional foreign policy experience before being brought into the White House. However, McFaul had taught two popular courses at Stanford. One was “Russian Foreign Policy.” The other was “Regime Change.”
It was clear when McFaul started working at the White House that he thought there was “unfinished business” from the Yeltsin years, and that the U.S. should take a proactive approach in correcting Moscow’s divergence from its true democratic potential.
One man stood in the way of McFaul realizing his vision: Vladimir Putin.
Avoiding the use of the words “Regime Change,” a termed coined during the administration of George W. Bush and thus viewed by Democrats as pejorative, McFaul referred to his program for Russia as “Democracy Promotion.” The Russians were convinced that this was merely the Stanford professor’s code term for “Let’s get rid of Putin.”
Over the next several years, McFaul’s faulty knowledge of the Russian language would tend to get in way of his efforts to effect internal change in Russia.
The first instance was when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton presented Sergey Lavrov, her Russian counterpart, with a large button labeled “Overcharged” in Russian, when it was supposed to say “Re-Set.” Whether or not McFaul had actually coined the term, he was certainly responsible for the concept and should have caught the error. McFaul would be responsible for subsequent syntactic fiascos as Obama’s lead for all things Russian.
Recovering from that embarrassing attempt to exaggerate Bush-43’s lack of progress advancing the Russia “account,” McFaul did oversee one noteworthy success in 2011, during the interregnum presidency of Dmitry Medvedev. It was the negotiation of the New START treaty. This nuclear accord extended and modernized somewhat the original START treaty, which had been negotiated during the earlier administration of President George H.W. Bush.
The late Ted Warner, an old pro with whom I worked during the Clinton years, was brought out of retirement to negotiate the details. The treaty did result in a net decrease in deliverable warheads; however, some of the numerical reductions were achieved by a slight-of-hand trick – the counting of each bomber as carrying only one nuclear weapon, when in reality the aircraft were capable of dropping or launching between 16 and 20 weapons each.
As a result, New START did relatively little to change the overall strategic balance or reduce the likelihood of a nuclear exchange beyond that provided in the “Moscow Treaty” signed by Putin and President George W. Bush back in 2002. The Moscow Treaty had been seen by both sides as a necessary modernization of the original START treaty.
In many respects, the Obama Administration’s “New START” was merely Old START of the two Bush presidencies repackaged. It failed to capture Russia’s numerical advantage in tactical nuclear weapons, and it left in place inherent instabilities in the calculations as to when “to use or lose” these highly destructive weapons during a nuclear exchange (discussed later).
In 2011, as the Russian parliamentary and presidential campaigns were about to go into full swing, McFaul would make a series of “rookie mistakes” in international diplomacy – and the repercussions would reverberate to this day. He would venture a ham-fisted foray into the minefield of Russian electoral politics and attempt to discredit Vladimir Putin on the eve of the Russian elections.
Secretary of State Clinton would put her full support behind McFaul’s efforts, leading the charge in late 2011 with a vigorous claim that the Russian parliamentary elections (which took place before the presidential election) had been rigged. The implications were that Putin’s upcoming election would be a sham as well; and Clinton was putting Moscow on notice.
Judging from pro-democracy protests in Moscow and other Russian cities that Putin’s re-election as president might not be a sure thing, the U.S. Government funneled approximately $22.2 million through the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) to NGOs working in Russia on projects related to “human rights, democracy, and governance.” Some of the funds would go to a Russian NGO named “GOLOS.”
While similar USAID programs had been countenanced by previous governments in Russia, Ukraine, and the other post-Soviet states – this time, they were clearly unwelcomed by the Kremlin.
During the run-up to the parliamentary elections in late 2011 and on the eve of the presidential election in March 2012, the optics of the U.S. largess to pro-democracy groups in Russia could not have been worse. Moscow considered them to be a poorly disguised attempt to support Putin’s opponents. These Clinton State Department efforts, which were steered by McFaul, would lay the groundwork for the downward trend in U.S.-Russian relations over the next 10 years.
In theory, USAID funds were to be made available to train all political movements in Russia, including election monitors. However, in practice, Putin’s United Russia party had little desire to participate in the programs; and therefore everyone knew that the lion’s share would go to organizations opposing Putin’s re-election.
Victoria Nuland – who was the State Department spokesperson at that point in her career – insisted that United Russia had participated in USAID’s democracy-building activities, and that the program had always been even-handed. Putin surrogates vigorously denied both assertions. Their arguments may have been exaggerated, but the U.S. programs had provided fodder for Putin’s subsequent claims of U.S. involvement in internal Russian political affairs.
Coupled with Secretary Clinton’s strong condemnation of Russia’s parliamentary elections, this all seemed to like U.S. meddling in foreign elections, which former KGB agent Putin had known the U.S. had done in times past. Putin recalled the time when an earlier Democratic administration had become involved in influencing the outcome of a Russian presidential election. The results had been dramatic.
Bill Clinton’s Rescue of Boris Yeltsin
It happened back in 1996. Putin had recently joined the presidential administration of Boris Yeltsin. On the eve of his re-election bid, Yeltsin’s poll numbers had sunk to 6 percent. Everyone thought that the first democratically elected President of the new Russia would be voted out of office.
According to Dick Morris, in early 1996, President Bill Clinton was frantic about the prospects of Yeltsin’s defeat and a Communist (Gennady Zyuganov) returning to power. Clinton was up for re-election later in the year; and his prospects would plummet if he were blamed for having lost Russia.
Morris developed a back-channel whereby the U.S. President would be kept informed of Yeltsin’s campaign progress and pass electioneering advice to him.
In addition, three seasoned American campaign operatives, one Democrat and two Republicans, secretly traveled to Russia. Sequestered away from prying eyes in a Moscow hotel, the Americans would feed to Tatyana Yumasheva (Yeltsin’s daughter and campaign advisor) the results of focus groups and advice ranging from how to hold campaign rallies to the need to run negative TV ads against Yeltsin’s Communist opponent.
Yeltsin’s campaign began to make progress. During the first round in early 1996, Yeltsin secured 36 percent of the popular vote. It was enough for a run-off.
Bill Clinton decided to pull out the stops by convincing the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to provide Russia with a major loan. The amount would be $10.2 billion, and the U.S. taxpayer’s share would amount to approximately $1.6 billion.
The IMF loan did the trick: Yeltsin would win the run-off in June 1996 with 54 percent of the popular vote.
Nothing smells like election interference as an infusion of $10.2 billion in cash.
Having witnessed first-hand the Americans’ consequential involvement in the 1996 presidential elections in Russia, Putin believed it was about to happen again in 2012. This time, the U.S. effort would be choregraphed by Hilary Clinton’s State Department.
Earlier in the campaign, Putin’s re-election seemed like a sure-thing. However, due to pro-democracy protests in Russia and McFaul’s growing chorus of “Never-Putiners” back in Washington, the process had become a bit more complicated.
Putin then discovered that the worst was yet to come. Obama had nominated McFaul to be the next chief diplomat in Russia.
Ambassador “Regime Change” would arrive in Moscow about two months before the presidential elections. There was plenty of time for the Stanford professor to stir up trouble in Mother Russia.
McFaul’s Performance as U.S. Ambassador
To say that Mike McFaul was the wrong person to send to Russia at the wrong time would be an understatement.
In short, Putin was waiting for him; and the fledgling diplomat never knew what hit him.
On his second day as Ambassador in January 2012, McFaul held a meeting with a large group of pro-Democracy groups opposing Putin’s re-election. These included some of Putin’s most vocal opponents.
It was not uncommon for U.S. ambassadors to meet privately from time-to-time with leaders of the Russian opposition and even with dissidents during the Soviet era. In the 1990s, I had accompanied the U.S. ambassador to a closed meeting with Yeltsin-opponent and Communist Party chief Zyuganov.
However, for McFaul to hold such a public event as one of his first official acts after arriving in Moscow – one in the middle of a major political campaign – was out of the ordinary.
According to Russian media, when one anti-Putin attendee left the meeting, he was asked about the purpose of the session with the newly arrived U.S. ambassador. The answer was, “To receive our instructions.”
Whether or not that response had been manufactured by a pro-Putin reporter, the damage had been done. The subject of the meeting and the remark would provide Putin and his advisors with anti-American headlines for Russian news broadcasts for some time afterwards.
McFaul would compound his problematic reception in Moscow by launching the first-ever social media campaign waged by a U.S. Ambassador in Russia; and it was not to praise Putin. McFaul’s efforts were naive, ham-fisted, and doomed to failure from their beginning.
Long before Trump could barely spell “Twitter,” McFaul was busy using that platform together with Facebook to openly converse with and lend support to Putin’s detractors, always “speaking from the heart” about his true feelings concerning the wrong track that Russia was being taken down. He brazenly criticized Putin when exchanging tweets with Putin’s chief nemesis Alexei Navalny.
McFaul relished the opportunity of giving interviews on Russian TV; although he tended to get ambushed by well-prepared moderators.
McFaul’s faulty knowledge of conversational Russian made matters worse. On one occasion, he referred to Russia as a “wild country,” when he meant to extend a compliment. On another instance, he Tweeted that he was heading out to a conference in “F**kburg,” when he meant “Yekaterinburg.” There were other linguistic snafus, but you get the point.
Like a kid walking around with a “kick-me” sign on his back, the unexperienced diplomat was mercilessly hounded by the Russian press throughout his tenure. He seemed easily baited; he was caught on tape responding visibly upset to one Russian reporter. For Vladimir Putin, Mike McFaul was the gift that kept giving.
Needless to say, McFaul’s feeble efforts at “Democracy Promotion” had little chance of affecting the outcome of the election. Putin would coast to victory on the first ballot in March 2012. But the damage had been done to U.S.-Russian relations.
Putin would later use what he claimed was U.S. inference in the elections of 2011 and 2012 to shut down USAID programs in Russia. To put an exclamation point on the episode, he confiscated all unspent U.S. taxpayer funds sent to GOLOS for election monitoring.
McFaul would hang on as U.S. ambassador until the Sochi Olympics in early 2014; but he had had enough by then. Cutting short his only stint as a U.S. diplomat, he returned to his “Ivory Tower” at Stanford University in California and began writings books about his achievements as President Obama’s Russia expert.
In the telling of his tumultuous tenure in Moscow, McFaul would emphasize that he was the unsuspecting target of Vladimir Putin – a foil for the dictator’s rationale for reconstituting the old Soviet Union. McFaul has never acknowledged his role in helping to widen the crack in U.S.-Russian relations.
Secretary Clinton and President Obama would try to cover over McFaul’s missteps and undiplomatic temperament, stating that he was merely following U.S. policy, and that he enjoyed their support. Several former ambassadors were recruited to come to his defense, stating that it had just been a case of “Mike being Mike” . . . he was “a new type of ambassador” . . . or that he was just “speaking truth to power.”
McFaul would later reveal that he been declared persona non grata by the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs – e.g., he was banned from Russia for life. It is a distinction he says that he wears as a badge of honor.
Despite its public support of McFaul’s “Democracy Promotion” efforts in Russia, the Obama Administration tried some damage control by replacing him by an unassuming but highly polished career diplomat named John Tefft. As the Deputy Chief of Mission during my second tour at U.S. Embassy Moscow, Tefft was the perfect choice. Unfortunately, at that point in time, there was relatively little that the seasoned professional could do to put the train back on its track.
Retreating to more friendly ground in academia, McFaul would soon find a second career as a cable news commentator. He became the Russia scholar-expert for the Democratic Party arguing vehemently in support of the accusation that President Trump had worked with Putin to steal the 2016 presidential election from Hillary Clinton.
Today a member of the informal War Hawks faction, Mike McFaul is openly calling for “regime change” in Moscow as the surefire way to achieve victory in Ukraine.
The Georgia War of 2008
Progressive and Conservative media pundits over the last few months at times have asserted that the fissure in U.S.-Russia relations began under Bush-43’s watch in August 2008, when a border conflict broke out in the Transcaucasian Republic of Georgia – or perhaps a year prior, when Putin made a speech in Munich warning about NATO expansion.
These are overstatements; and they may lead to incorrect conclusions as to “who lost Russia?”
While Russian President Medvedev made good use of the Georgia War as a “shot-across the bow” regarding NATO expansion, the circumstances leading to the fighting were entirely different. The casualties by comparison with the war in Ukraine were minimal, and the impact on Russia’s relations with the U.S. and Europe were quickly repaired.
The Georgian border war was relatively short – 12 days from the first shot to the cease fire. While over 10,000 civilians were initially displaced, less than 250 combatants lost their lives. French President Sarkozy took the lead in negotiating an armistice in which Russia’s ground forces and their Abkhazian and Ossetian allies ceded undisputed territory captured during the conflict back to Georgia.
While the Bush Administration condemned the Russian-led incursion, it resisted Georgian calls to provide an infusion of military equipment – unlike what the Biden Administration has increasingly done over the last few months in Ukraine.
Some observers believe that President Bush’s decision not to pour in military aid to Georgia encouraged Georgian President Miheil Saakashvili to make concessions, including placing Georgia’s desire to join NATO on hold. This helped bring the fighting to a swift halt.
Bush also had the good sense to prevent the conflict from becoming a U.S.-Russia proxy war by letting the French take the lead in the negotiations that ended it.
It is true that Moscow always had a hard time of accepting the presence of an independent Georgia in the volatile Transcaucasus. In the 1990s, the Russians had fought two brutal wars in Chechnya over control of the oil and gas pipelines transiting the region, and to check what they thought was the advance of Islamic fundamentalism. Moreover, the presence of a NATO outpost on that southern flank would made the region far more complicated for the Kremlin.
However, tensions in and around Georgia had been brewing ever since the Russo-Georgian War of 1921. The brief fighting in the late summer of 2008 was more about settling historic scores between hostile ethnic groups and the problems created by Stalin’s policy of forced transportation of minorities than NATO-Russia competition.
An additional factor was that an investigation by a European commission concluded that the Georgians had fired the first shot.
Russia had been a member of the NATO-Russia Council since May 2002, participating in a number of military contact programs, education opportunities, and peacekeeping exercises. Three council meetings had already taken place in 2008 before the fighting broke out.
While the Russian presence at NATO had been suspended during the short border conflict, Council meetings resumed in early 2009, along with many of the other lower-level activities. Russia’s participation in NATO Council meetings would continue for five more years, when the Russians seized Crimea during the Obama Administration.
When President Barack Obama took over the White House in early 2009, it was therefore political hyperbole for Secretary Clinton (and Mike McFaul) to assert that a “Re-Set” in U.S.-Russia relations was necessary. There were always going to be ups and downs.
However, by comparison with the manner in which the Obama Administration turned over affairs to the incoming Trump Administration in 2016 (discussed below), it is clear that the Russia “account” had been left by George W. Bush to the new Democrat in the White House in relatively sound order.
The 2014 Euromaidan Uprising
Ever since Mikhail Gorbachev declared the end of the Soviet Union on Christmas Day 1991, the status of an independent Ukraine has posed a bit of a dilemma for incoming U.S. administrations.
On the one hand, U.S. foreign policy experts have always viewed the prospects of integrating Ukraine into the rest of Europe as potentially the ultimate strategic prize of the post-Cold War period.
However, for complex reasons – such as Soviet-era legacy issues (e.g., economic integration with and energy dependence on Russia), ethnic ties, oligarchic control of internal politics, and chronic corruption – over the decades, Ukraine has met few of the expected benchmarks required for entry into European institutions, such as the EU and NATO.
Successive U.S. administrations and European governments have spent millions of dollars to help Ukraine make the transition, and they have received spotty returns on those investments.
As with Russia, the U.S. had poured tens of millions of taxpayer dollars into Ukraine to foster democratic activity and train election monitors. Those efforts would have mixed results for long-term U.S. interests in the winter of 2013/2014, during what became known as the “Euromaidan Uprising.”
In early 2013, the Ukrainian Rada (parliament) ratified a “Political Association and Free Trade Agreement” with the European Union (EU). By agreeing to it, Ukraine would commit to a long-term series of steps to clean up internal corruption, establish judicial reforms (e.g., rule of law and regulatory reforms), and to reduce its national debt.
Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich, viewed as an ally of Vladimir Putin, was then offered a counterproposal by Moscow: to join Russia’s “Eurasian Economic Union.” Putin proposed to incentivize the deal by purchasing $15B in Ukrainian Eurobonds, wiping out a large chunk of Ukraine’s national debt. Putin’s offer also included a 60 percent reduction of the price of Russian-supplied gas through GASPROM.
Riots erupted across Ukraine as Yanukovich announced in December 2013 that he would not be signing the EU agreement and was considering Putin’s offer.
The ensuing Euromaidan Uprising of November 2013 to February 2014 would serve as a watershed moment for both internal Ukrainian politics and the further downward spiral in U.S.-Russian relations.
Pro-Western protestors on Kyiv’s main square (the “Maidan”) clashed with police in bloody confrontations over the winter months; and they would eventually force President Yanukovich to flee for his life to Russia. His abdication in February 2014 would be followed by his formal removal from office by the Ukrainian Rada.
Putin was outraged by what he labeled as “a coup of a democratically elected president.” He asserted that it had all been orchestrated by the Obama Administration and its West European allies.
The uprising was largely organic and not instigated by the U.S. or the Europeans – although the Obama Administration clearly supported Yanukovich’s ouster. Moreover, several embarrassing actions by State Department officials lent credence to Putin’s later claim that the Obama Administration could not help from becoming involved in the internal affairs of a nation considered vital to Russian interests.
First, Victoria Nuland, who had been promoted to Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs, would visit Kyiv at the height of the crisis to help steer events. The EU would also dispatch representatives. The U.S. administration did little at first to coordinate efforts with the Europeans; and each party was somewhat wary about what the other might be doing to influence the formation and direction of an interim Ukrainian government.
A one point, Nuland was filmed walking behind the barricades of the anti-Yanukovich protestors, openly showing her support for their pro-Democracy efforts – even handing out cookies to civilians defending the square against anti-riot police. When she was later asked about the incident, Ms. Nuland quipped that she had been handing out sandwiches, not cookies.
Perhaps most damaging, Putin released the transcripts of an intercepted phone call between Nuland and Ambassador Geoffrey Pyatt, during which the two discussed U.S. plans regarding an interim Ukrainian government after President Yanukovich’s departure.
According to the transcript, Nuland is heard advocating the appointment of those Ukrainians she thinks will be acceptable to Washington. She appears to instruct Pyatt to make sure that several Ukrainian politicians (such Vitali Klitschko, the current mayor of Kyiv) are prevented from holding key positions in the new Ukrainian government. She also indicates that she intends to leverage her contacts in the U.N. to run rough-shod over the more conservative approach being offered by the EU representatives.
Nuland is also recorded as insisting that Arseniy Yatsenyuk, an ally of hers, should become the interim Prime Minister.
Pyatt agrees with the plan. The phone call comes to an end as Nuland remarks that Jake Sullivan – the national security advisor to Vice President Joe Biden – is looped in on her thinking; and that Sullivan will have Biden [as the titular head of the “Ukraine account”] make some phone calls.
Anthony Blinken, serving as President Obama’s Deputy National Security Advisor at the time, was undoubtedly also keyed into these U.S. attempts to shape the follow-on Ukrainian government.
Shortly thereafter, the Rada announced that the interim Ukrainian cabinet would in fact be headed by Yatsenyuk. He would remain in power as Prime Minister for two years.
Putin’s response to these rapidly evolving events in Kyiv was swift. For some reason, the Russian reaction seemed to have taken the Obama Administration by surprise.
On 27 February, Russian special operations forces began seizing key locations in Crimea. By 17 March, it was all was over. A quickly formed pro-Putin parliament in Crimea declared the peninsula’s independence from Ukraine.
A few days before then, just as Russian troops were tidying up Crimea, Putin launched major offensives into the districts of Luhansk and Donetsk in eastern Ukraine.
Eight years after those fateful events of 2014, the sad result is that Ukraine has made some effort on its benchmarks for joining the EU, but it has shown much less progress on those requirements for NATO. However, it has managed to enshrine its desire for NATO membership in its constitution. Not all NATO members agree that this is good enough.
Moreover, the current Ukrainian president (Zelensky), who had been elected largely on an anti-corruption platform back in 2019, would still be fighting Russian troops in the east and dealing with oligarchs from within, when Putin decided to go “all-in” three months ago.
In a recent podcast recorded at Stanford University, former Ambassador Mike McFaul confirmed that Vice-President Joe Biden had been calling the shots for the Obama Administration during the Euromaidan Uprising that had led to the Russian invasions of Crimea and the Donbas.
By and large, the same U.S. officials who were responsible for the miscalculations and missteps in 2014 are back in charge of U.S. policy for Russia and Ukraine today.
What Use Is Russia Anyway?
During most of his first term in office, President Barack Obama had avoided direct interaction with Vladimir Putin. The affable Dmitry Medvedev was serving as Russian head of state; and the two seemed to get on well. All that changed as a result of the Russian parliamentary and presidential elections in 2011 and 2012, for the reasons described earlier.
Soon after Putin’s inauguration as the leader of Russia in March 2012, presidential atmospherics took a turn for the worse. It became clear during subsequent months that there was mutual animosity between the two world leaders – surpassed only by the rift that would ensue between President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over Syria, the Palestinian Question, and Iran.
Content to leave the Russia and Ukraine accounts in the hands of Vice President Biden, President Obama would focus his foreign policy energy on the Asia-Pacific.
Obama wanted one major foreign policy win before he left office. That legacy would be a multinational agreement to constrain the Iranian drive to develop a nuclear weapon. His achievement would be called the “Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.”
One of President Obama’s impediments to negotiating the “Iran Nuclear Deal” was the fact that Putin had been the main enabler of the Iranians in their quest for a bomb. The Kremlin had been underwriting Teheran’s efforts at developing nuclear technology for decades. This is in part because nuclear technology continues to this day to be the most lucrative money maker of Russian exports, not far behind that of its fossil fuels.
Russia needed to be at the table and buy into the deal. The Russians therefore became members of the “P5+1” group of nations that would negotiate and sign the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.
Ensuring Putin’s acquiescence on the nuclear agreement with Iran became the defining objective of U.S. diplomatic efforts toward Russia during the remainder of the Obama Administration.
To ensure his support, Putin needed two concessions from the American president.
The first quid pro quo was the expansion of the Russian footprint in the Middle East, which had largely disappeared after the “Yom Kippur War” of 1973.
Putin got his wish after President Obama failed to follow-up on his “Red Line” warning of “consequences,” should Bashar al-Assad use chemical weapons in the Syrian civil war. About a year after the U.S. President’s threat, Assad’s forces began using Sarin gas.
President Obama decided not to take military action in response to Assad’s crossing of the line.
John Kerry, who had replaced Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State, brokered a deal whereby the Russians would remove and destroy 600 tons of the Syrian chemical weapon stockpile.
Putin took this as a green light from the Obama Administration for expanding Russia’s influence in the northern Levant. For the first time in nearly 40 years, the Russians deployed an expeditionary air force abroad, which would then begin air operations against the Syrian rebels in their support of Assad.
Assad would be back using chemical weapons on his civilian population; and Russia would use its aircraft to destroy civilian neighborhoods in Syrian cities.
The un-checked Moscow-Damascus genocidal actions would create the largest refugee crisis in Europe since the end of the Second World War. The flow of several million migrants westward would result in an upswing in popularity of anti-immigrant parties throughout Europe and the British exit from the European Union. In addition, the massive refugee crisis would indirectly further the political aspirations of a billionaire-developer in the U.S., named Donald Trump.
Next Concession for the Iran Nuclear Deal:
Russia always opposed a European missile defense system. Putin needed some relief on that front as well. Although its purpose was to defend Europe against an attack from Iran, Moscow planners had always believed that a missile defense network deployed in Eastern Europe could be adapted to intercept Russian intercontinental missiles, not just Iran’s.
Citing the technical limitations of the system negotiated earlier by the Bush-43 Administration, President Obama would cancel the European Ballistic Missile Defense Program during his first term. Announced with little advance warning to the Czech Republic and Poland (where the radar systems and launchers would have been deployed), the actions threatened to topple governments in Prague and Warsaw.
The Obama Administration’s rationale was that a better concept was in the works; but everyone understood the cancelation as a concession to Putin.
The Russians were relieved. Moreover, they fully expected that nothing would become of any follow-on missile defense system, although NATO would announce that negotiations for basing rights in Romania would begin subsequently.
With Russian support, the Iran Nuclear Deal was wrapped up in July 2015.
Ten months later, in 2016, the Obama Administration announced that the first of an “Aegis-Ashore” battery had become operation in Deveselu, Romania. The facility would serve as the backbone of Obama’s revised European missile defense shield.
Needless-to-say, Putin was not happy with what appeared as Obama’s bait-and-switch on missile defense.
The Poles warned that the Russians would retaliate by moving nuclear forces closer to their border.
The Russians did end up deploying nuclear-cable missiles to the Kaliningrad enclave on the Baltic Sea next to Poland, ostensibly in reaction to the Obama Administration’s new European Missile Shield. Whether or not the deployment would have occurred without the Aegis missile defense program, Moscow’s offensive nuclear systems in Kaliningrad posed a direct violation to the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty of 1987.
In 2018, the Trump Administration appealed to Moscow to remove their missiles; but Moscow refused to comply. In February 2019, the Trump Administration announced that it was withdrawing from the INF treaty.
Former Obama Administration officials mercilessly criticized the decision.
The Expulsion of Russian Diplomats After the 2016 Presidential Election
For over two years (2017-2019), a team of 17 highly experienced prosecutors led by Special Counsel Robert Mueller conducted an extensive investigation into allegations that the campaign of Donald S. Trump had coordinated with the Russians to influence the 2016 Presidential Election.
Mueller (a Republican) selected 13 Democrats, 2 Republicans, and 2 Independents to conduct the investigation. In March 2019, Mueller’s team reached its conclusion in the Report on the Investigation into Russian Interference in the 2016 Presidential Election.
The “Mueller Report” stated that the investigation could find no evidence that members of the Trump campaign had “conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities.”
Yet 25 months earlier, the Obama Administration expelled 35 Russians as it was closing up shop at the White House to further the narrative that Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton had lost the 2016 presidential election because of Moscow’s meddling; and that Trump had somehow colluded in that effort.
For a lame-duck president to make such a major foreign policy decision to expel foreign diplomats without consulting with the incoming administration was unparalleled in the history of presidential transitions. In hindsight – given the conclusions in the Mueller Report more than two years later – it was one of the most damaging decisions in the 10-year downward spiral of U.S-Russian relations; and it was one more incident that would affect the Biden Administration’s ability to prevent the war in Ukraine.
To justify its decision to expel the Russians, the Obama Administration coordinated with the heads of three U.S. intelligence organizations to rush through a report. It was published in an unclassified summary on 6 January 2017 under the title, “Assessing Russian Activities and Intensions in Recent U.S. Elections.”
The intent of the assessment was to justify the expulsions, hobble the incoming U.S. President domestically, and prevent him from restoring relations with the Russian Federation.
Any Democrat and many Republicans with a microphone over the next few months would cite this intelligence assessment as the “smoking gun” for Russian interference. Moreover, most Democrats would extrapolate the findings to further the narrative that Trump had been Putin’s collaborator.
As time went on, politicians would inflate the conclusions; and even the number of intelligence organizations would grow each time a member of Congress cited the report. Some Democrats would wildly proclaim that ALL agencies in the intelligence community organizations had “fully endorsed” its findings.
The trouble is that, of the 16 agencies in the U.S. intelligence community (IC), only three (plus the Director of National Intelligence overseeing the IC) played a role in producing the assessment. Thirteen agency-members of the IC were either not consulted – or they deemed it as so political or so rushed – that it was better for them to not participate in the process at all.
Two of the most politicized intelligence entities – the CIA and the FBI (both headed by vocal adversaries of Trump) – were the only members of the 16 independent organizations to go on record stating that they had “high confidence” in the key finding:
“Putin and the Russian Government aspired to help President-elect Trump’s election chances, when possible, by discrediting Secretary Clinton and publicly contrasting her unfavorably to him.”
Most strikingly, the National Security Agency – the organization most likely responsible for providing data upon which the IC assessment was hastily assembled – rated its confidence in the finding as only “moderate.” Even the intelligence bureau in John Kerry’s State Department did not participate in the assessment.
For those of us who have been consumers of U.S. intelligence, any IC assessment fully endorsed by only 2 of the 16 agencies – and for which the least-partisan agency had reservations about – would be the equivalent of receiving a “D” on a final exam.
Did the Russians attempt to meddle in the U.S. 2016 elections?
Answer: You bet!
Did Putin prefer a Republican over another Democrat?
Answer: A Republican, no doubt — given Putin’s past experiences with Democratic administrations.
Did the Russian efforts change any voters’ minds?
Answer: Probably very few.
The January 2017 IC report emphasized one thing: Its purpose did not include a determination as to the actual effectiveness of Russia’s meddling.
Neither would the Mueller Report, which was far more extensive, produce anything definitive as to how the Russian effort manifested itself in term of vote counts.
One should conclude from these glaring omissions in both the IC assessment and the Mueller Report that any opinion as to how many voters’ minds were actually changed due to the Russian interference campaign back in 2016 would be highly speculative.
Despite all the hyperbole, in reality the Russian attempt to influence the U.S. Presidential Election of 2016 was an uncoordinated effort that lacked anything close to Stalinist conviction. This is because Moscow clearly followed the U.S. polls and had concluded, like everyone else, that Clinton would become the next U.S. President.
It turns out that the purpose of Moscow’s limited effort to meddle in the 2016 election was not so much about getting Trump elected as it was to tarnish what the Russians thought would be the incoming Clinton Administration. This is borne out by the fact that Moscow’s influence campaign in 2016 was conducted on the cheap.
The only minor success of the Russian GRU (military intelligence directorate) was to hack into the unclassified computers of John Podesta and other workers at the Democratic National Committee; and that was accomplished through unsophisticated social engineering techniques.
A little-known Russian organization, the “Internet Research Agency” (IRA), planted most of the social media bots and third party postings. They paid Facebook the most – roughly $100,000 for 3,500 ads favoring Trump or opposing Clinton. The Russian entity also attempted to organize several campaign rallies via the social media giant. These efforts evidently eluded Facebook’s “speech-moderating” algorithms.
The IRA was responsible for approximately 80,000 postings spread out over the campaign season. By comparison, Facebook has over 4 billion postings every 24 hours.
Given the estimated $1.7B in known U.S. taxpayer funds that Democratic administrations had spent in attempts to influence the internal political direction of Russia and Ukraine since 1996, Putin got a lot more bang-for-the-Ruble than the U.S. in terms of impact.
To be even more conservative in calculating costs, if one doubles the amount that Russia spent trying to influence the 2016 Presidential Election in the U.S. and halves the amount the U.S. spent trying to influence political outcomes in Russia and Ukraine over the years, Moscow’s ratio of resources expended compared to that of the U.S taxpayer would amount to only 0.003 percent.
Putin was as surprised as anyone else by the results of the election. Realizing that accusations of “Trump Collusion” were nonsense and hoping that Trump would soon weather the storm, Putin would refuse to rise to Obama’s bait and decided not to retaliate by sending U.S. diplomats home from Moscow. However, Putin’s patience with internal U.S. politics would eventually run out; and tit-for-tats over numbers of diplomatic personnel would resume seven months later.
Trump, who had intended to restore business-like relations with Russia in his own “Re-Set,” was constrained from mitigating the damage done to U.S.-Russian relations while Mueller methodically went about his investigation for more than two years.
Obama’s decision to expel Russian diplomats for mainly domestic political purposes in December 2016 had poisoned the well.
President George H.W. Bush’s main foreign policy achievement at the end of the Cold War was managing the peaceful dissolution of the Soviet empire and to lay the foundation for a working relationship with Boris Yeltsin’s new Russia. In doing so, his administration successfully facilitated the massive withdrawal of Soviet “Groups of Forces” from central Europe and the re-unification of Germany. Bush would pursue no expansion of NATO beyond the German-Polish border.
Bill Clinton would be the first U.S. President to initiate the enlargement of NATO beyond Germany; and that first expansion would include Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic (March 1999). George W. Bush would sponsor the accession of the three Baltic states, plus Romania and Slovakia (March 2004). All eight of these countries had suffered immensely at the hands of the Russians during the Twentieth Century; and their accession was justified on the basis of their economic orientation to the west, their historic vulnerability to Russia, and their clear security benefit to the alliance.
The further expansion of NATO was motivated more by political “coup counting” than any major security concern or clear benefit to the alliance.
In March 2004, during the Bush-43 Administration, NATO would also accept into its ranks the non-frontline states of Slovenia and Bulgaria. Barrack Obama would add Croatia and Albania (April 2009). Donald Trump would complete the expansion of NATO with the inclusion of Montenegro (June 2017) and North Macedonia (March 2020).
Putin understood that the inclusion of these last six nations in NATO were largely symbolic. One only need look at a map of Eastern Europe see why their territories posed little threat to Russia’s strategic interests.
While Putin always opposed the growth in NATO membership, the process up to this point had been gradual and measured. The Russian leader would grudgingly resign himself to the inclusion of these countries because, aside from accepting the accession of the relatively non-threatening Baltic states of Estonia and Latvia, the arrangement left the western part of Russia with a buffer zone and considerable strategic depth for defense.
No U.S. presidential administration before Joe Biden’s would push so rigorously for Ukraine’s accession into NATO. For over two decades, many foreign policy experts considered the prospect as Russia’s “Red Line.” In turned out that they were correct.
Throughout the Cold War, senior U.S. statesmen serving in both Republican and Democratic administrations – such as Henry Kissinger, George F. Kennan, Zbigniew Brzezinski, Clinton Defense Secretary Bill Perry, and Obama Defense Secretary Ash Carter – warned that there would be an eventual reckoning with Russia over NATO expansion.
Perry wrote in his memoirs that he was so concerned about Clinton’s sponsoring of the first phase of NATO enlargement that he almost resigned his post as head of the Pentagon.
Fiona Hill, who would later testify against President Trump during his impeachment hearings, advised President George W. Bush not to invite Ukraine to join NATO.
Current CIA Director Williams Burns, a longstanding Democratic Party loyalist, while serving as Ambassador to Russia in 2008, stated that “Ukrainian entry into NATO is the brightest of all redlines for the Russian elite (not just Putin).”
After the crisis over Russia’s seizure of Crimea in 2014 had simmered down, President Barack Obama gave an interview to Jeffrey Goldberg for The Atlantic, in which he defended his measured response to Putin’s actions. Goldberg summed up the Obama Doctrine as it applied to Russia and Ukraine as follows:
“Obama’s theory here is simple: Ukraine is a core Russian interest but not an American one, so Russia will always be able to maintain escalatory dominance there.”
Goldberg continued by quoting the President:
“The fact is that Ukraine, which is a non-NATO country, is going to be vulnerable to military domination by Russia no matter what we do.”
In the parlance of U.S. national security-speak, Obama was summing up the consensus view since the end of the Cold War: Ukraine was clearly in Russia’s vital interests, but not in ours. Russia might conceivably go to war to prevent Ukraine from exercising its right to join NATO. However, it was illogical for the U.S. to risk a war with Russia in order to defend Ukraine’s desire to do so.
The Biden Administration’s Redux
After taking the oath of office in January 2021, President Joe Biden would pick up the management of the Russia and Ukraine accounts about where the Obama Administration had left off. He would assemble the same team that had managed the Russia and Ukraine portfolios during the Euromaidan Uprising, the Russian seizure of Crimea, and the beginning of the long war in the Donbas back in 2014.
Each player had been promoted to a higher position in the new administration. Joe Biden, as President, was of course in charge of overall U.S. policy toward Russia and Ukraine. Anthony Blinken was back, this time as Secretary of State; Victoria Nuland returned as Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs; and Jake Sullivan had been elevated to the position of National Security Advisor to the President. One more Obama Administration official was back: former National Security Advisor Susan Rice – this time as Biden’s chief domestic policy advisor. Professor Mike McFaul, as the Democratic Party’s perennial “Russia expert” from Academia, would provide the intellectual backstopping on cable news and other media outlets.
Biden would ignore his previous boss’s views about how Russia’s interests in Ukraine would always trump ours. The new leader of the free world would make another go at Putin. This time, the chief vehicle for advancing his team’s goal of “democracy promotion” in Russia would be to push for Ukraine’s accelerated accession into NATO.
During the 2020 presidential campaign, Victoria Nuland would sketch out a presumptive Biden Administration blueprint for dealing with the troublesome Russian tyrant in her July/August Foreign Affairs article, “Pinning Down Putin: How a Confident America Should Deal With Russia.”
Nuland was the perfect person to send up the trial balloon. A former public servant in the State Department, she had served in both Democratic and Republican administrations. Nuland had been appointed U.S. Ambassador to NATO by Bush-43, before settling down with Hillary Clinton’s State Department as a Democratic Party loyalist.
In her article, Nuland called for the U.S. and Europeans to build on their strengths to “put stress on Putin where he is vulnerable, including among his own citizens.” They should “raise the cost of Russian confrontation and militarization. . .” through advance weapons development and “establish permanent bases along NATO’s eastern border.”
According to Nuland, “Ukraine is another battlefield for democracy that the United States should not cede to Putin.” The U.S. and its allies should “make clear to Russia that the road . . . goes through Ukraine. . .”
Six months later, Joe Biden would achieve his life-long goal of becoming President of the United States.
If the new U.S. Administration had ever hoped to establish positive atmospherics for solving international problems with Russia, that train went off the tracks only six weeks later. It almost seemed intentional.
In an interview with George Stephanopoulos in March 2021, President Biden made two astonishing declarations.
First, Biden stated that, during his first meeting with Putin, he had told him “I know that you don’t have a soul.” (This of course, was a glaring dismissal of Bush-43’s remark years before that he had “looked into the eyes” of Putin and “had seen his soul”).
What really set off an international firestorm, however, was Biden’s response to Stephanopoulos’s next question as to whether the President thought that Putin was “a killer.”
Biden didn’t hesitate in answering: “Yes.”
Putin challenged Biden to a debate over the remark; but the U.S. President did not pick up the gauntlet.
Biden’s unprovoked opening salvo against Putin would be followed up several months later with his administration’s initial move to make Ukraine a NATO member.
At the end of the June 2021 meeting of NATO heads of state, Brussels would issue a lengthy communique, which restated the alliance’s core values and mission areas. While the document expressed increased concerns about Russia’s treaty violations and force posture, it was mainly boilerplate language.
Backed by the Biden Administration, however, a paragraph about Ukraine’s membership in NATO was included in the communique. Paragraph 69 stated the following:
“We reiterate the decision made at the 2008 Bucharest Summit that Ukraine will become a member of the Alliance with the Membership Action Plan (MAP) as an integral part of the process; we reaffirm all elements of that decision, as well as subsequent decisions, including that each partner will be judged on its own merits. We stand firm in our support for Ukraine’s right to decide its own future and foreign policy course free from outside interference. . .”
By supporting this insert into the statement by the heads of state, member-states confirmed NATO’s “open door policy” and the right of sovereign states to choose their alliances.
The statement served as a signal to Kyiv that it needed to pick up the pace in checking off the list of prerequisites required for membership.
However, the NATO declaration regarding Ukraine also implied what everyone had always known:
All 30 NATO members would have to be convinced of Ukraine’s readiness for membership before it would be accepted. Moreover, current members would need to agree that Ukraine’s accession would be in the alliance’s best interests. The reality was that NATO was well short of unanimity on both of those points.
Part the problem was that Ukraine was still perceived as a chronically corrupt state. On the eve of the Russian invasion, it was still slipping down on the ranking of states monitored by the Berlin-based anti-corruption watchdog “Transparency International.” Of the list of 180 states, most NATO members fell into the top 20 percentile – e.g., they were not particularly corrupt. Montenegro, a new member with a checkered past, ranked 64. By comparison, Ukraine was ranked 122 of 180, just behind countries such as Algeria, Egypt, and Zambia. Putin’s Russia was still perceived as more corrupt than Ukraine with a ranking of 136 out of 180 on the index, but that was hardly anything for Kyiv to brag about.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki alluded to Ukraine’s deficiencies in meeting the benchmarks of the NATO MAP after President Biden’s meeting with Ukrainian President Zelensky in September 2021. She conceded that the Biden Administration still had concerns. Obfuscating her remarks somewhat, she said, “There are steps that Ukraine needs to take. They’re very familiar with these: efforts to advance rule of law reforms, modernize its defense sector and expand economic growth.” She could have listed more.
By Fall 2021, it was clear that there were two camps in NATO with respect to Ukraine’s entry into the alliance. The U.S. and frontline East European member-states, such as Poland and Romania – who were always eager to have a large buffer between themselves and Russia – were willing to move out on Ukraine’s accession. However, the largest European members – Germany and France – remained agnostic.
Then in an astonishing move, on 10 November 2021, the Biden Administration threw its full support behind Ukraine’s membership in NATO by signing the “U.S.-Ukraine Charter on Strategic Partnership.”
Clearly designed to persuade the doubters among the 30 NATO member-states, the Charter unequivocally stated, “the United States supports Ukraine’s right to decide its own future foreign policy course free from outside interference, including with respect to Ukraine’s aspirations to join NATO.”
More importantly, the document implied that Ukraine had made some progress on the Membership Action Plan. The U.S. would be intensifying efforts to accelerate Ukraine’s completion of the checklist.
In an interview given to the Wall Street Journal, Robert Service, a leading scholar of Russian History at Oxford University, stated that the Biden Administration’s signing of the “Charter on Strategic Partnership with Ukraine” in November 2021 was the West’s chief blunder that caused the Ukraine War.
According to the Oxford professor, the Charter had given heft to NATO’s June 2021 communique and made it likelier than ever that Ukraine would join NATO.
Service called the U.S. move “shambolic management.” “It was Putin’s last straw.” Preparations for Russia’s move into Ukraine moved forward after that.
Oxford’s Russia expert added that Washington’s accord with Kyiv offered the latter encouragement on the NATO question but gave no apparent thought to how such a tectonic move would go down with Putin. Service emphasized, “Nothing was done to prepare the Ukrainians for the kind of negative response they would get.”
Missed Opportunities to Avert the Invasion
On 17 December 2021, two months before the war, Putin floated a comprehensive proposal that he indicated would render his pending “Special Military Operation” unnecessary.
Putin’s “Agreement on Measures to Ensure the Security of the Russian Federation and Member-States of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization” offered a few starting points for negotiation. As always, they contained a few items that the Russians knew they would have to compromise on.
In the Russian proposal, NATO would commit to the following:
States who had become members prior to May 1997 would not deploy forces to the territory of states that had become members after that date (Article 4)
No further enlargement, including Ukraine (Article 6)
No military exercises in Ukraine, Eastern Europe, South Caucasus, and Central Asia (Article 7)
Article 4 and the prohibition of NATO exercises in Article 7 – as it pertained to NATO’s newest members – were clearly throw-away positions designed to appear as compromises by the Russians.
Moscow’s core goal in the proposal was to seek an agreement on Article 6, which would prevent Ukraine’s (and Georgia’s) entry into NATO.
Other items in the Russian proposal, such as re-invigorating the NATO-Russia Council, placing a hotline between Moscow and NATO headquarters, exchanging threat assessments, and working to minimize dangerous incidents at sea, were entirely reasonable.
If taken seriously by the Biden Administration, the Russian offer to negotiate could have prevented or delayed the Russian invasion.
Only four days after Moscow unveiled its proposal, Steven Pifer, a former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine, would publish for Brookings an apologia for the Biden Administration’s decision not to follow up on the Russian offer to negotiate.
Pifer conceded that the proposal contained a number of elements that could provide the basis for negotiation. However, the document included the poison pill of placing limits on NATO’s “open-door policy.” In attempting to explain the Administration’s bizarre logic, Pifer suggested that the Russians really did not want to negotiate. They intended for NATO to reject their proposal out-of-hand, thus providing a pretext for their invasion.
The former Obama official added that the manner in which the Russians openly published their proposal indicated that they were not serious about talking.
Evidently, the Russians needed to have sent their proposal in a diplomatic bag.
National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan’s excuse for not talking with the Russians was equally unconvincing. Dissembling his arguments, Sullivan remarked that the U.S. and NATO could not negotiate without the presence of the Ukrainians. He quipped, “nothing about you without you.”
However, there was nothing in the Russian proposal that would have precluded the Ukrainians from having a seat at the table.
In an incredible disclosure, Derek Chollet, counselor to Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, summed it up by stating that the issue of Ukraine joining NATO “was not on the table in terms of negotiations.”
Instead of acknowledging the Russians’ long-standing redline regarding Ukraine’s inclusion in NATO or Putin’s proposal as a basis for negotiation, the Biden Administration squandered the last few weeks before the invasion peddling the narrative that Moscow was about to launch a “false-flag” operation as a pretext for a possible incursion.
The forecasted Russian provocation never materialized – but the invasion did.
There had been one more pathway forward that the Biden Administration could have pursued – one that had a high probability of averting the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
The pre-war solution should have been for U.S. and its NATO allies to propose a 10-year moratorium on Ukraine’s membership in NATO in exchange for Russian forces returning to their home barracks. The proposal could have included an enduring armistice for Luhansk and Donetsk, followed by a plebiscite to determine the future status of these two Russian-speaking districts of eastern Ukraine (more on this concept later).
Given Ukraine’s difficulties in meeting the benchmarks of the Membership Action Plan, putting a pause on Ukraine’s entry into NATO would have had a negligible effect on the country’s long-term aspirations of joining the alliance. So long as Russia posed little threat to the undisputed portions of Ukraine, Kyiv could have used the period to work on anti-corruption reforms, furthering its economic integration into the European Union, and building up its armed forces.
If the Administration indeed believed that Putin was the chief antagonist in the mounting conflict, then Washington, Brussels, and Kyiv could have waited him out – rather than engage in a devastating and dangerous proxy war.
Ten years from this October, Putin will be 80 years old. Considering the Byzantine aspects of the post-Soviet political system that Putin helped to create, he could very well be irrelevant at that point; and a younger generation might be in charge by then.
Now, as the war continues with more devastation — fueled in part by a dramatic escalation of military assistance from the West and the redoubling of Russian efforts in eastern Ukraine — the War Hawks in the Administration, the Congress, and the media are irrationally calling for “victory” against the Russians, without explaining what that actually means. The current narrative therefore continues to posit that there was never anything that the Biden Administration could have done to deter Putin’s evil intent.
As this analysis has demonstrated, the issue of Ukraine’s membership in NATO – and the existential threat perceived by Russia of NATO forces stationed in Ukraine – was indeed the main casus belli for the current conflict.
The key question is why did the Biden Administration fail to use all of its energy and creativity to seek a solution that would have addressed Russian concerns and avoided all the carnage?
Were former Obama officials, who had been re-called to serve in the Biden Administration, trying to re-litigate their handling of past crises, such the Euromaidan Uprising of 2014?
Was it their intent to use Ukraine as a cudgel for “regime change” in Moscow, as McFaul always envisioned and was implied in Victoria Nuland’s Foreign Affairs article?
Had U.S. officials concluded that they had burnt all of their bridges to Moscow and had nothing left in their diplomatic tool bag but the threat of economic sanctions as a “deterrent”?
Or was it just plain hubris?
We will never know for certain whether a moratorium on NATO enlargement would have prevented the war in Ukraine, because it was never seriously considered by the Biden Administration.
The sad truth is that, because of the conflict, Ukraine will not be joining NATO in the near future. Moreover, U.S. diplomatic malfeasance over the last ten years is indirectly contributing to our lack of vision, indeed our inability, to see a way of ending it.
Most heartbreaking for the Ukrainians, however, is the knowledge that they actually believed – when they entered into the Strategic Partnership with the Biden Administration six months ago – that salvation through NATO membership was within their grasp.
Russia’s Political Objectives at the Beginning of the Invasion
Putin’s initial objective in November 2021 had been to use the “coercive diplomacy” offered by the build-up of Russian forces along Ukraine’s eastern and northern borders to reverse the momentum of Ukraine’s accession into NATO. Having failed to bring U.S./NATO and Ukraine to the bargaining table or to make any concessions, Putin’s military columns poured into Ukraine on 24 February with the intent of swiftly toppling the Zelensky Government and seizing as much Ukrainian territory as possible.
The clear objective of the military operation was to deny the U.S. and NATO the possibility of stationing forces close-in to the Russian heartland. Putin’s minimum territorial objectives at the beginning of the invasion was to capture the capital of Kyiv and seize that half of Ukraine located to the east of the Dnipro River.
Putin’s secondary objective was and is the weakening of NATO by driving a wedge between its 30 member-states. This has been an important long-term goal of every regime in Moscow since NATO was first founded in 1949. Effecting a split in the Euro-American alliance remains part of the calculus in just about any foreign policy decision coming out of the Kremlin.
Putin does not intend to invade the Baltic states in the near future. They are not part of his Slavic core. In addition, Article 5 of the Washington Treaty, which governs NATO’s responses to attacks upon member-states, would place a serious constraint on Putin’s freedom of action in the Baltic region.
However, had the Russian invasion of Ukraine swept the Zelensky Government from power and pacified the entire country – and had NATO split apart or faltered in its response – Putin, ever the opportunist, would have set his sights on the subsequent demilitarization of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. At present, the Baltic states appear to be safe because Putin has his hands full in Ukraine, and NATO remains united.
Putin and his High Command do not have an interest in reconstituting the old Soviet empire in Eastern Europe, as many pundits have asserted. His objectives have remained far more limited.
To revamp the former Warsaw Treaty Organization, the Russians would have to tangle with Poland and Romania. Putin understands that Russian forces would get clobbered if they attempted to enter the territory of these historically anti-Russian states. That said, Russian missile strikes on depots currently being built up by the West in Poland and Romania are not inconceivable; and the probability of this happening goes up if a major Russian defeat in eastern Ukraine appears imminent.
At the beginning of the invasion, Putin most likely envisioned an end-state for Ukraine in which most of the country situated to the east of the Dnipro River would be annexed into the Russian Federation outright. He would then create a rump-state west of the Dnipro, with a regime loyal to Moscow duly installed in L’viv. This pacified “Vichy-style” polity would then be demilitarized and placed off limits to all foreign troops, except for Russian military units. Given the historic hostility shown to Moscow by Ukrainians living in the western part of the country, Putin probably never considered that he had the resources with which to lock down and annex the entire country.
As we all know, Putin’s initial goals have been upended. What follows is a brief analysis as to why this has occurred.
Russia’s Initial Military Strategy
Russian military planners have long studied the classic military theorists of the 18th & 19th Centuries (such as Suvorov, Jomini, and Clausewitz) and the great Soviet-era thinkers (e.g., Frunze, Tukhachevsky, and Ogarkov).
The Russian High Command expected the war to be over in a matter of days or weeks. As such, it seems to have favored Jomini in its direct linear approach toward achieving victory – e.g., that the “will” of the Ukrainian nation could be swiftly broken by seizing two key strategic loci: the capital of Kyiv and the large industrial-transportation hub of Kharkiv.
On paper, such a direct strategy appeared more executable for forces lacking the proficiency in large-scale maneuver warfare.
However, had Putin read more closely his Clausewitz, he might have come to the conclusion that the “center of gravity” in terms of breaking the will of the Ukrainian nation was not one or two geographic points on the map. It was Zelensky’s small but deadly territorial defense forces.
In hindsight, the better theater-level plan would have been to draw Ukrainian units defending the eastern half of the nation out in the open where they could have been destroyed by superior Russian artillery and tank formations.
Wholly counter-factual at this point, the campaign strategy that might have worked for the Russians should have started with an initial demonstration in the Luhansk and Donetsk sectors. This would have been followed by the main Russian thrust – a lightning-fast Ogarkov-style pincer movement launched from Russian territory near Rostov-na-Donu in the east, cutting straight through Mariulpol’ along the coastal highway near the Sea of Azov (bypassing the port if necessary), and linking up with forces coming up from Crimea at Kherson and Zaporizhnia.
At that point, combined Russian forces could have advanced northeast of the bend in the Dnipro River but stopping well short of Kyiv in the rear of the Ukrainian defenders. This campaign strategy could have set up a significant portion of Ukrainian forces in the east for destruction outside of the two large urban centers of Kyiv and Kharkiv.
A follow-on offensive could have been a swift advance on the port of Odessa, which would have had the effect of depriving Ukraine of most of its ports on the Black Sea.
Putin and his generals most likely chose the direct approach to Ukraine’s capital (Kyiv) and second largest city (Kharkiv) because they believed that an invasion featuring blitzkrieg-like maneuvers would be too risky for his unpracticed armor and motorized rifle units. As a result, much of the Russian force invading Ukraine became bogged down and suffered major losses in two urban slug-fests.
Having now withdrawn his forces from the fight for Kyiv and Kharkiv, Putin appears to be splitting his ground forces to achieve two fairly conservative military goals: (a) strengthening and widening his hold on the littoral along the Sea of Azov in the south; and (b) engaging in a war of attrition in the east around the districts of Luhansk and Donetsk.
Why the Initial Russian Strategy Failed
You have probably read or heard that the failure of the initial Russian offensive was due to logistical problems. Putin’s ground forces certainly encountered a host of them; however, there were other factors in play as well.
For one, the largely organic logistical issues encountered by elements of the Russian ground forces advancing on Kyiv were exacerbated by the topographical features of the region in which the capital is situated.
As is often the case with river systems in Ukraine and the European part of Russia, water tends to run north or south, collecting along the way in large marshlands. Some of the Russian forces advancing on Kyiv were required to negotiate the large Pripyat marshes in Belarus to the north and work their way down the west bank of bog-laden Dnipro tributaries before getting anywhere near the Ukrainian capital. Knowing the terrain much better, Ukrainian defenders were well-prepared to engage with the Russian columns, as they lined-up stuck in the springtime mud – sitting ducks awaiting their own slaughter.
Closer to Kyiv, the broader expanses of the river provided the Ukrainian defenders with additional advantages. Russian combat units approaching the northern suburbs of Kyiv from opposite sides of the Dnipro were unable to re-enforce one-another by crossing over the river, while Ukrainian forces enjoyed the use of interior lines; and they effectively used bridges located closer to the center of the capital for repositioning troops where needed.
Kyiv has several other features that provide the defenders with physical advantages. The first is an extensive subway system built deep below the surface by the Soviets during the Cold War. The other is a natural tunnel system and series of subterranean caverns that run for hundreds of kilometers.
Another important physical advantage for Ukrainian forces during the first phase of the war was that much of the fighting was conducted in towns and cities. A long-standing military maxim since the time of the Napoleonic Wars has been that it takes roughly three-times the number of soldiers to defeat a prepared defensive force. In urban warfare, that 3-to-1 ratio favoring the defender increases significantly. Sadly for Ukrainians, the rubble left in Kyiv and Kharkiv by retreating Russian forces proves that point.
Another Napoleonic maxim posits that morale plays a key role in determining a unit’s combat effectiveness. This is where Ukrainians, defending home and hearth, continue to enjoy a significant advantage.
In the years before the war, Putin boasted of having increased the professionalism of his armed forces by adding significantly to the number of “contract” (or enlisted) soldiers. However, the Russians continue to rely primarily on the same system of forced conscription employed back in Suvorov’s day.
In Russia, males between the ages of 18 and 27 are called up twice a year (spring and fall). Additionally, in recent years, the period of service for draftees has been reduced from two years to one. Thus, a sizable portion of the non-officer soldiers sent into Ukraine had as little as three months and no more than one year of actual training and experience.
In addition, the war in Ukraine is the first major conflict initiated by Moscow in over a hundred years in which Russian soldiers were deployed to combat zones without the “benefit” of a Zampolit. In the past, this “deputy commander for political affairs” had been responsible for several Communist Party functions. One task was to indoctrinate and motivate the troops with regime-approved propaganda. The next was to counter-sign the unit commander’s orders. The third was to shoot on the spot any soldier who, while under fire, had turned around and was attempting to retreat.
Although small by comparison, the percentage of seasoned veterans with the skills and motivation necessary for battlefield success has been much higher for the Ukrainian territorial defense forces.
Since 2014, Ukraine had been rotating its officers and conscripts into fighting positions in the Luhansk and Donetsk districts. Although a large portion of Ukrainian defenders are reservists called to active duty, many of them had already received valuable combat experience by the time that the full-blown Russian invasion began in February 2022.
The last point of comparison has to do with the general approach toward military leadership.
The Russians have historically trusted only its senior commanders with campaign details; and Moscow’s High Command expects its generals and colonels to carry out operations, even down to the tactical level, if it becomes necessary.
Trained to respond to orders and fearful of making decisions on their own, rank-and-file Russian conscripts tend to be reticent about taking the initiative. This is the reason why nearly two dozen Russian general officers have lost their lives during the first three months of the war: They were up front directing traffic and telling their soldiers where to shoot.
Western militaries – and the U.S. in particular – have trained their junior officers and non-commissioned officers to think and act on their own. As Eisenhower once said, all military plans go out the window when first contact is made with the enemy. Therefore, modern Western military doctrine emphasizes that combat leaders at all levels understand the general mission, and that young lieutenants and seasoned sergeants are trained to be capable of improvising when road-blocks during combat operations are encountered.
The U.S. and our European allies have been training the Ukrainian military for several decades. Together with NATO’s Partnership-for-Peace program, these efforts have helped to improve the leadership skills of the lower ranks. This is perhaps why we see a number of press reports in which a Ukrainian sergeant, recalled to active duty from the reserves, has mounted a spirited counter-attack against opposing Russian troops on his own initiative.
No doubt, many aspects of the Western “way-of-war” have rubbed off on Kyiv’s military and is being translated into battlefield success.
What the Biden Administration Has Gotten Right
At first stunned by an invasion that it had been warning the world about, in several weeks’ time, the Biden Administration recovered and began sending in a trickle of combat materiel that would play a vital role in helping Ukrainian forces blunt the initial Russian offensives.
The three most effective weapon systems at the beginning of the conflict were the Javelin anti-tank missiles and the shoulder-mounted Stinger anti-aircraft missiles provided by the U.S., and the remotely piloted vehicles (e.g., “drones”) provided by the Turks. Similar materiel provided by other NATO allies were also used effectively by Ukrainian forces.
Another significant factor was the supply of battlefield intelligence from U.S. and its allies. According to the Wall Street Journal, information provided by NATO “eyes-in-the-sky” AWACS aircraft flying over the Black Sea has been a particularly effective “force-multiplier” for Ukraine.
The Biden Administration made two critically important decisions during the first two months of the war. The first was a courageous decision to reject Zelensky’s repeated calls for NATO to declare a “no-fly zone” over Ukraine. The second was the Biden Administration’s veto of a proposal made by several NATO nations, such as Poland, to provide Soviet-era aircraft directly to Ukraine.
Implementing an effective “no-fly zone” would have been a risky endeavor. This is not just because NATO pilots would have to engage directly with Russian pilots in the skies over Ukraine. Creating and maintaining a no-fly zone would also require that long-term “air superiority” be established. In order to do so, an array of aerospace assets would have to be employed in a concerted air campaign designed to suppress enemy ground-based radars and missile systems, and to destroy Russian aircraft on the ground – most of which would be based in Russian territory. In addition, NATO pilots would have to engage with anti-aircraft units embedded with Russian ground units already fighting on Ukrainian territory.
There are several issues regarding Poland’s supplying of MiG-29s to Ukraine.
First, the Ukrainians do not seem to be flying all that many sorties. During the first two months of the war, Kyiv’s air force averaged no more than 50 sorties a day compared to 250 sorties flown by the Russians. Kyiv probably has more operational combat aircraft at its disposal, but it seems to be holding them in reserve. The question is why?
Are the Ukrainians conserving their small air force for a future Russian advance beyond the Dnipro? Is it due to a shortage of spare parts? Is it the limited range of their MiG-29s? Or is there some other motive working here?
Second, an infusion of a squadron of Polish MiGs would rightly arouse suspicions by the Russians that NATO would also be supplying the pilots.
The proper compromise, which the Biden Administration has prudently approved, is for the Polish Air Force to supply the Ukrainians with just spare parts for their aircraft.
Secretary of State Blinken can take some credit for vigorously coordinating the Europeans’ responses, particularly regarding economic sanctions – although the measures taken to date have had a marginal impact on Putin’s war machine.
Moreover, the Administration’s efforts are partly responsible for blunting Putin’s secondary political objective — that of dividing NATO.
Because of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, Finland and Sweden have applied to join the alliance. The Biden Administration has correctly endorsed their immediate accession into the alliance. (Turkey is the only NATO member-state opposing Finland and Sweden joining the alliance.)
Both northern nations would bring to NATO highly professional and relatively deadly military organizations. Finland and Sweden have each benefited from their status since the end of the Second World War as an “armed neutral.” The ambiguity provided by their neutrality has made the strategic picture more complicated for the Russians; although it has always been assumed that, should a general war break out between NATO and Moscow, the two nations would throw in with the Western alliance. Their accession into NATO would make their assumed positions explicit commitments, and it would also extend to them the defensive umbrella provided by Article V.
While Putin of course opposes NATO membership by both Finland and Sweden, he apparently sees their membership in the alliance as having a relatively minor impact on Russia’s overall strategy for defense.
Finland shares an 830-mile border with Russia; however, a substantial portion of it consists of marshland and forests, which are typically impassable except in winter. The main threat posed by Finland is to nearby St. Petersburg, which is located at the eastern end of the Gulf of Finland, less than a two-hour drive from Helsinki. That sector, however, has always been highly fortified.
Perhaps the greatest peacetime concentration of military forces in the world is located in the Murmansk-Severomorsk region of the Kola Peninsula, where the formidable Russian Northern Fleet is based. The adjacent North Cape of Scandinavia, which is possessed by NATO-member Norway, had already posed a jumping off point for Western forces contemplating an attack against that highly militarized part of the Russian north.
What the Biden Administration Is Getting Wrong
About 45 days into the conflict the Administration and its NATO allies seemed to strike a balance between providing Ukraine with sufficient military support and doing so in a manner that would not provoke Putin into to widening the conflict, including the introduction of tactical nuclear weapons.
That brief period of measured but prudent support to Ukraine has since passed.
Emboldened by the pull-back of Russian units from around Kyiv and Kharkov, the War Hawks in the U.S. have been ratcheting up their calls for the dramatic expansion of military assistance to Ukraine. Instead of using Ukraine’s surprising but still limited battlefield success as a basis for negotiation, U.S. politicians in both parties are risking a major escalation in the war and a devastating reversal of short-term gains by wildly calling for “victory” and the punishment of Putin.
In recent days, Russian forces have all but taken the Luhansk district. This has happened while politicians and pundits in the U.S. have been waxing confidently that the Russians have been on their last legs.
Visiting Kyiv recently, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi exclaimed, “Our commitment is to be there for you until the fight is done. . . We stand with Ukraine until victory is won.” To this Churchillian-sounding slogan, she might as well have added a demand for Russia’s “Unconditional Surrender.”
Moreover, the very notion of seeking a negotiated end to this horrible conflict takes a punch in the solar plexus whenever President Biden goes off script by indicating that the U.S. would “respond in kind” should Russia use chemical weapons – or by calling Putin a “killer,” “murderer,” “butcher,” or “war criminal” – and then demand his removal from power.
In correcting his gaffs, Administration fixers may try to explain away such rhetoric as the President “speaking truth to power” or “just Joe Biden expressing his personal feelings.” However, the President’s angry ad-libbing on the world stage does little to create an atmosphere for a negotiated end to the conflict – or to keep the war from escalating. His remarks certainly do not inspire confidence that he is up to the task of managing the U.S. response to what may be the most dangerous and devastating conflict of the 21st Century.
Many Republicans, such as Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, have joined in on the chorus. The only temporary vocal opponents to the $40 billion military aid package just passed by Congress were Senators Rand Paul of Kentucky and Bill Hagerty of Tennessee. However, their arguments for delaying the bill seemed to be limited to the need to prioritize domestic challenges in the U.S. over the war in Ukraine, concerns about how to pay for the unfunded package, and the lack of an auditing mechanism to ensure that large portions of the assistance do not end up on the Ukrainian black market.
Most of the fighting, civilian losses, and destruction of cities, town, factories, and infrastructure has been confined to Kyiv, Kharkiv, and the eastern half of Ukraine. While there have been deadly missile attacks against targets in the west, Ukrainian territory located to the west of the Dnipro River has largely escaped the wholesale destruction experienced in the east.
The unintended consequence of massive military aid packages from the U.S. and other NATO countries is that this situation could change in the coming weeks.
As military aid is ramped up, large depots will be built up in the western half of Ukraine; and highways and rail lines will be increasingly used for conveying copious quantities of heavy equipment and supplies to the front.
The Russians understand quite well that the interdiction of an enemy’s combat potential in rear areas is always preferable to dealing with it on the front lines. Therefore, supply points and transportation hubs, such as L’viv, Lutsk, Zhytomir, and Vinnytsa, will experience increased destruction and loss of life as the Russian military steps up missile and bomber attacks against cities located to the west of the Dnipro River.
Even Avril Haines, the U.S. Director of National Intelligence, warned Congress recently, “The most likely flashpoints for escalation in the coming weeks are around increased Russian attempts to interdict Western security assistance flowing to Ukraine. . .”
Moreover, the extraordinary expansion of aid envisioned by the American $40B aid package, if not managed properly, could create bottlenecks at border crossings through which materiel will be funneled. Pre-positioned depots in NATO nations, such as Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, and Romania, could become tempting targets for Russian missile attacks, including by systems armed with nuclear warheads.
The Nuclear Threat
It is astonishing to hear the cavalier manner in which many U.S. politicians and media pundits are dismissing warnings from Putin and Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov that Russia might use tactical nuclear weapons if NATO increases its lethal assistance to Ukraine.
Serious military analysts are taking a more sobering look at the issue. Some are considering plausible scenarios as to how Putin might cross the nuclear threshold if he becomes cornered.
Recently, Gregg Herken considered three such possibilities for Political Magazine.
The first option for Putin would be to detonate a low-yield warhead above Novaya Zemlya, the old Soviet test site in the Arctic. While the nuclear fall-out would be minimal, the psychological impact of this first above-ground nuclear explosion in 30 years would be enormous and could drive Ukraine and its NATO supporters to the negotiating table. It would certainly cause the Swedes and Finns to rethink their applications for NATO membership.
The second scenario would be a high-altitude detonation over Ukraine. While the blast effect on the earth’s surface might be kept to a minimum, the electromagnetic pulse could knock out electronic components below and blind Kyiv’s command and control system.
Putin’s third option would be to interdict U.S./NATO equipment flowing into Ukraine by launching a small tactical nuclear weapon against a supply depot or transportation hub located to the west of the Dnipro River.
Each of these scenarios would represent a dangerous escalation of the conflict. Moreover, anyone believing that any nuclear detonation in eastern Europe might be trivial should watch the HBO mini-series Chernobyl.
During her recent testimony on the Hill, IC chief Haines stuck with the Administration’s attempt to downplay the probability of a nuclear exchange. However, even she conceded that Putin might introduce tactical nuclear weapons should he “perceive that his rule or Russia itself is in peril.”
Biden’s CIA Director William Burns added the warning that “none of us can take likely” Putin’s threat of introducing tactical nuclear weapons.
Nevertheless, when Defense Secretary LLoyd Austin was asked by a reporter what the U.S. might do if the Russians detonated a nuclear weapon, he dismissed the question by responding that “we had the means to deal with the problem.”
Interpretation: We actually have little recourse; and you should avoid thinking about it.
Other Administration officials have nonchalantly stated that the U.S. would not respond in kind to an attack in Europe by a Russian tactical nuclear weapon; and that such an event would simply further Putin’s international isolation.
More wishful thinking.
Nuclear weapons, however, are a different kettle of fish. Besides their destructive capability, they are incredibly unstable in terms of their employment. Nuclear war planners have long considered the central problem: once a single nuclear warhead is detonated, maintaining any “escalatory control” over the employment of additional weapons becomes highly problematic.
The least of the problem is the imbalance between the number of Russian tactical weapons in Europe compared to those of the U.S. and NATO.
Over the decades, the Russians have retained thousands of nonstrategic nuclear warheads on various launch systems as a hedge against the Chinese and NATO. The U.S. has never been able to limit these deadly systems under arms control treaties. The one exception was the INF Treaty, which, for several decades, had banned systems with ranges between 500 and 5,500 kilometers. That treaty has now been relegated to the “wastebin of history.”
In the European theater, Russia has an estimated 2,000 tactical nuclear weapons to be deployed on various launch systems. By comparison, due to popular objections in Europe and politically binding Presidential Nuclear Initiatives undertaken during the Bush-41 Administration, the U.S. possesses only an estimated 150 weapons stored in 5 locations in Europe. This limited tactical nuclear arsenal consists of antiquated B-61 gravity bombs, intended to be dropped by “dual-capable aircraft.” Their presence in Europe has been mainly to re-assure our NATO allies of the continuing U.S. commitment to their defense.
The more worrisome conundrum for nuclear planners, however, has been how to deal with the concept of “strategic stability.” Referred to by different names depending upon the scenario, the issue can be summed up as a calculation as to when an adversary believes that he needs to launch all of his deployed nuclear weapons – because he might lose them if he hesitates.
U.S. nuclear warfighters have long worried about the “use it or lose it” feature of nuclear arsenals. The U.S. believes that strategic stability during an actual nuclear conflict is enhanced by our capability to hold our fire when we see incoming Russian Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs) or their sea-launched equivalents (SLBMs), assess the situation after receiving the first salvos, and then still have sufficient nuclear weapons with which to hold Moscow’s high-value political and military targets at risk.
During a Russian first-strike scenario, the U.S. considers its missiles deployed on submarines already on patrol at sea to be the only survivable leg of our “Triad” of ICBMs, SLBMs, and bombers. The issue is that the Russians do not approach the “second-strike” problem in the same way as we do – and this is the central challenge during periods of high tension.
The Russians place a great deal of reliance on their land-based ICBMs and their SLBMs deployed on submarines. However, since the end of the Cold War, their submarines have experienced difficulties deploying out to sea, where they would be more difficult to target. The result is that, during crises, their second-strike forces may have to pull their alerts in port, where they are more vulnerable. During the opening stages of a nuclear exchange, the Russian general staff might be induced into launching its SLBM force prematurely.
Regardless of the scenario, the likelihood of a launch due to accident or the misinterpretation of technical indicators goes up significantly when tensions are heightened.
During the Cold War, a NATO exercise called “Able Archer-83” was intended to test the Allies’ response to a simulated detonation of a nuclear weapon in Europe. The Soviets completely misinterpreted the exercise and thought that it might be a cover for a bolt-from-the-blue nuclear attack by the U.S. The Soviets brought their strategic forces into a state of high-alert, even loading nuclear bombs onto aircraft placed on standby.
At one point during the crisis, a Russian early warning operator noticed what appeared to be an incoming missile. Luckily, he had the good sense to recognize the signal as a possible glitch in the system.
It was later determined that heightened tensions over the pending U.S. deployment of Pershing II missiles to Europe had been a contributing factor. The Soviet leadership was quite aged at the time and always seemed paranoid about what President Ronald Reagan might have up his sleeve.
Years later, after the Cold War ended, the Norwegians launched a research rocket from their northwest coast. Its purpose was scientific – to study the Aurora Borealis over the Svalbard Archipelago. The problem was that Russian early warning monitors thought that the missile had been launched from a U.S. submarine on patrol in the Arctic Sea and was heading toward Moscow. Their initial assessment was that the warhead would explode in a high-altitude burst intended to blind their command and control systems. Russian procedures required an immediate response.
Fortunately, relations between Bill Clinton and Boris Yeltsin were at its zenith; and the Russian general officer on duty at the time calmly followed his checklist until the situation was clarified. It was later disclosed that the Norwegians had provided advance notification to the Russians via two separate channels. Unfortunately, due to human error, neither warning had made it up the chain of command to the Russian officer responsible for missile defense. Both notifications had been misplaced in the bureaucracy.
Over the years, during war-games, U.S. military planners and nonproliferation specialists have performed various calculations weighing the probability of a nuclear weapon exploding versus the consequences of the detonation. In each instance, whether the detonation had been planned in advance, or whether it was a result of miscalculation or accident, the evaluation of the “consequences” was the chief factor in determining what actions the U.S. needed to take.
Therefore, I am aghast when I hear commentators or political leaders brazenly call for the U.S. to double-down on efforts to defeat the Russians in Ukraine, because Putin’s warnings about using tactical nuclear weapons are mere “saber-rattling” – or there is “little probability” that he will follow up on his threat.
Some irresponsible U.S. politicians have gone so far as to assert that we are “self-deterring” ourselves by just listening to such talk.
Back in 2003, when I began my watch as director of the Energy’s Department’s “loose-nukes” security program for Russia, I asked my boss to sum up what he really wanted me to do. I will never forget his response. It taught me something I will never forget about the concept of “probability” when it comes to nuclear weapons.
He said, “Slawter, your job will be to do everything you can with the taxpayer funds I give you, leaving no stone unturned, to prevent a stolen Russian nuclear weapon from ever detonating on the Washington Mall. It just takes one to get through. That’s the only probability you need to remember. Should you fail – and if you survived the blast – you will be the one explaining to the reconstituted Congress why you hadn’t done enough.”
It is clear from the outstanding reporting of Western correspondents and Ukrainian investigators that there have been a number of horrible atrocities perpetrated by Putin’s military on Ukrainian civilians and soldiers. While a number of Russian soldiers directly responsible for the acts have been identified by Ukrainian survivors, relatively few of them have been captured by the Ukrainian military as of this date.
The Zelensky government may prefer to try Ukrainian-held Russian soldiers in Ukrainian courts. Three Russian POWs have already been convicted and sentenced to life in prison. This is a mistake and may result in Ukrainian POWs captured by Russian forces being placed on trial in retaliation. The better course of action would be to turn over those accused of war crimes to an internationally convened tribunal.
The most likely venue for trying war criminals is the International Criminal Court (ICC) at the Hague, which was established by the “Rome Treaty” in 2002.
While the Biden Administration would most likely support investigations and prosecutions by the ICC, the U.S. is not a party to the Rome Treaty. This is for several prudent reasons:
First, the U.S. Department of Defense is wary that its military operations around the world would be systematically stymied by frivolous charges lodged against American military personnel by adversaries abroad and by those in the U.S. seeking to curtail what they view as military adventurism.
Second, while it is not perfect, the U.S. has a better track record than any military in the world for policing its own through the Uniform Code of Military Justice.
Third, the U.N. provides for alternative methods of trying accused war criminals, such as international tribunals convened by interested parties for a limited scope.
It would be a huge mistake – and one that the U.S. Senate would oppose – should Progressives in the Biden Administration use the Russian atrocities in Ukraine as a justification for joining the ICC in an effort to constrain future U.S. Presidents in their freedom of action.
Unfortunately, the arrest and trial of Russian commanders higher up the chain, including Vladimir Putin himself, will remain problematic. The challenge is always going to be that the country of the accused party has to first be defeated – as we did with Germany and Japan at the end of World War II. Short of engaging in a nuclear confrontation, Biden will be unable follow-up on any of his accusations against Putin as a war criminal.
As Americans become more emotionally invested in the Ukraine war – in part because of widespread reports of Russian atrocities – we also need to distinguish between willful acts by individuals or local commanders and the far more typical horrors of a major European land war.
Let’s return briefly to one of the more unfortunate aspects of the “Russian way of war.”
Since the time of Marshal Mikhail Kutuzov, the Russian defender during the “Battle of Borodino” (the inspiration for Peter Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture), the Russians have placed a great deal of emphasis on artillery. Napoleon Bonaparte taught the Russians how to lead with it. The Red Army would experience significant battlefield success with artillery during the final stages of World War II. The rubble of Warsaw and Berlin would testify to this.
During its two wars fought in Chechnya in the 1990s, Yeltsin’s army led with indiscriminate artillery barrages against built-up areas (the second war was managed by Putin himself).
While all modern militaries use precision-guided munitions, the Russian defense establishment apparently had not invested sufficiently in them before invading Ukraine – nor have Russian commanders seemed all that concerned about collateral damage when it has come to using destructive artillery fires against built-up areas. In addition, there are few internal legal and policy checks on Russian generals, as is usually the case with the U.S. and its allies.
Russian conscripts assaulting large built-up areas have been taking losses in part because of their lack of training in urban warfare. As such, the default tactic for minimizing Russian casualties has been the firing of mostly unguided munitions from artillery batteries into buildings. The results have been horrifying for Ukrainian defenders and civilians trapped in their neighborhoods.
Ending the War
The logical means of preventing further wartime atrocities, more destruction of urban areas, additional civilian and military casualties, and the widening of the war – including the introduction of tactical nuclear weapons – is for the U.S. and NATO to back a cease-fire-in-place, with the eventual phased withdrawal of forces back to their positions at the beginning of the war.
The U.S. goal should be a negotiated settlement of the outstanding political-military issues, not an ill-defined “victory” over Putin’s Russia.
The contours of a political-military settlement were sketched out broadly at the failed talks in Istanbul. Kyiv indicated that Ukraine’s accession into NATO is now off the table – although Zelensky is still insisting on Article V-like “legal guarantees” from individual NATO member-states.
For his part, Putin has greenlighted Ukraine’s further economic integration into the Eurosphere. On 17 June, the European Commission, the permanent bureaucracy for the European Union at Brussels, recommended that Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia be advanced to formal “candidate status”; and on 23 June, the members of the European Council (heads of states) approved that recommendation for Ukraine and Moldova. Past applicants granted candidate status have taken as many as 10 additional years in implementing the reforms required by Brussels before they were approved as full EU members.
As long-time military strategist Edward Luttwak recently noted, the main stumbling block remains the status of the Luhansk and Donetsk districts in the eastern part of Ukraine. He proposes giving Putin a face-saving measure by holding plebiscites, as was successfully done for disputed territories in Eastern Europe by the Treaty of Versailles after World War I. An open plebiscite should be conducted for Crimea as well.
For the results be accepted as legitimate, the plebiscites would have to be internationally orchestrated and monitored. A multinational election board would be established in order to determine who could vote, as millions of displaced Ukrainians have been fleeing from these areas since 2014; and international monitors need to be in place in order to ensure that the plebiscites are fair and open. In addition, the voting should take place in locations from which military forces have been withdrawn (this might be problematic for Crimea, given the realities on the peninsula since early 2014).
With its large Russian-speaking and Russia-oriented population, Crimea would most likely opt to remain with Putin’s Russia. If so, then Kyiv, Brussels, and Washington need to be prepared to accept the results, regardless of the clear violation of international norms that occurred when Russia seized the peninsula back in 2014.
While Putin’s take-over of Crimea was an illegal affront to Ukraine’s sovereignty, most international diplomats and long-term observers of Russia, Ukraine, and the former Soviet Union have always thought of Crimea as a Russian enclave; and that it was mainly due to a fluke of historic nostalgia that Communist Party Chairman Nikita Khrushchev transferred Crimea to the province of his birth back in 1954.
While Luhansk and Donetsk are also populated by traditionally Russia-leaning populations, the results of plebiscites conducted in these two districts would be more difficult to predict; and the solution may be that they end up being partitioned between Russia and Ukraine.
Zelensky’s insistence for legally binding commitments from the U.S. and selected European states to come to Ukraine’s defense – similar to NATO’s Article 5 – is a non-starter; and the Biden Administration should make this clear to him. An agreement of the type Zelensky envisions would require either a Senate-ratified treaty or a legally binding agreement confirmed by Congress. Either agreement would be a hard sell.
The best deal that Zelensky could get – and it would satisfy Putin’s interests as well – would be a withdrawal of Russian troops in exchange for pledge not to allow any foreign troops on the eastern half of Ukraine for a definable period (perhaps 10 or 15 years), but to permit U.S./NATO forces to be stationed on a rotational basis to the west of the Dnipro River, mainly for training and military exercises. U.S./NATO could use that period to re-build the Ukrainian military and improve its overall combat capability, including the establishment of a capable air force.
Getting a cease-fire in place and troop withdrawals moving would pose the greatest challenges. However, they could be achieved by implementing, in phases, a series of Confidence and Security-Building Measures (CSBMs). Similar approaches have been used with the Russians in the past, mainly though the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).
The first step would be the immediate establishment of a Special Verification Commission (SVC) made up of representatives from the two warring parties and key European states, such as France and Germany. The SVC would serve as a mechanism for monitoring progress on the CSBMs and resolving disputes.
The initial CSBM after the declaration of a halt in the fighting would be for the two sides and their supporters to cease shipments of lethal materiel into the theater of military operations. One side should be given the first 48 hours after the armistice is declared to cease their shipments; and the other side would reciprocate by the end of the next 48-hour period. For instance, U.S./NATO might be the first side to halt its shipments of lethal military aid to Ukraine as a good-faith measure; and the Russians would then be required to reciprocate.
Using the same formula, the next series of CSBMs would be the incremental withdrawal of forces from their current positions back to their locations as of 24 February 2022. At a specified safe distance of separation between various combatant formations, international peacekeepers would be inserted into the vacated zones as monitors of the armistice.
If the initial military CSBMs and the armistice hold, then a multilateral commission can take charge of planning for the plebiscites.
Let’s face it: Ending the war by driving the Russians out of the entirety of Ukraine or by replacing Putin – as the Biden Administration and the War Hawks in the U.S. still hope to do – would be plausible only if nuclear weapons had never been invented.
If the White House is truly committed to ending the war in a manner that prevents the escalation of the conflict, ends the suffering, and preserves Ukraine’s existence as an independent nation with its pre-war territory intact, several additional measures need to be adopted by the U.S.
First, President Biden should publicly declare that the U.S. is not seeking Putin’s removal from power and is committed to an immediate cease fire and a negotiated settlement.
Next, White House advisors, to avoid future gaffs and retractions, should designate a more nuanced and reasonably sounding official, such as Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, to be the lead Administration spokesperson for the war in Ukraine. Blinken can continue using the tools left in the U.S. diplomatic bag to keep the international sanctions regime together and manage U.S. relations with NATO.
Secretary Blinken should also spearhead international planning for rebuilding Ukrainian cities and infrastructure – and to work on facilitating the return of Ukrainian refugees to their homes. After a peace agreement is in place, the war-torn country is going to need a reconstruction program equal to that of the Marshall Plan for Europe after World War II.
Third, Defense Secretary Austin and Secretary Blinken should make it clear to President Zelensky that, regardless of the $40B military aid package recently authorized by Congress, continued U.S. military assistance will be contingent upon Ukraine’s good faith progress toward a negotiated settlement with the Russians; and that driving Russia completely out of Ukraine, including the disputed districts of the Donbas may not be achievable. The two U.S. cabinet officials should also warn their Russian counterparts that deliveries of U.S./NATO military equipment will immediately resume should Russia violate any of the provisions of the negotiated armistice.
Last, because of years of U.S. diplomatic malfeasance, which has resulted in the complete break-down of trust between Moscow and Washington, the Biden Administration should learn from the example of President George W. Bush during the Georgian War back in 2008. The U.S. needs to relinquish any perceived lead in overseeing a negotiated end to this European war to an established European leader – such as France’s recently re-elected President Emanuel Macron.
Prequel: “Long, Long Ago. . .”
I have been blessed with the opportunity of participating in various aspects of the Russia/Ukraine portfolio as a military officer or civil servant spanning four presidential administrations. Before ending this rather extensive analysis about the Ukraine War, allow me to leave you with a particularly positive memory of what it was like working with one of them. As I mentioned at the beginning of this monograph, I thought they had struck the right approach and exhibited just about the right balance in its relationships with the newly independent states of the former Soviet Union.
It took place nearly 30 years ago. The Administration of President Bill Clinton believed it needed to intervene in order to avert a conflict between the Russian Federation and the newly independent Republic of Ukraine over the status of nuclear weapons left on the latter’s territory after the dissolution of the Soviet Union.
The Russians claimed the nukes and launch systems in Ukraine as their own. In early 1993, Moscow had been making noises about seizing the weapons by force. It was similar to Putin’s more recent warnings about Ukraine joining NATO. This had been the worst-case scenario foreseen by Bush-41 several years before; and the Clinton team made the bold move in late 1993 to intervene diplomatically. The two principal sides in the dispute – Russia and Ukraine – allowed us a seat at the table in order to keep the crisis from blowing out of proportion.
I played a minor role as the representative of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and military advisor to a small interagency delegation led jointly by Ambassador-at-Large Strobe Talbott (soon to be Deputy Secretary of State) and Secretary of Defense William Perry. Les Aspen had suddenly stepped down as Pentagon chief, and Perry received word during one of our shuttle flights that he was now the head of the U.S. Department of Defense.
The U.S. team included some of the greatest foreign policy minds of that bygone era – such as Assistant Secretaries of Defense Graham Allison and Ash Carter (Carter would later serve as President Obama’s Secretary of Defense), and Jim Timby, the cerebral arms control professional from the Department of State. Up-and-coming foreign affairs specialist Victoria Nuland was Talbott’s chief of staff and organized the logistics.
U.S. policy was to reduce the number of post-Soviet nations possessing nuclear weapons (Russia, Kazakhstan, Belarus, and Ukraine) down to just one – Russia. We facilitated an agreement whereby Ukraine agreed to ship their nuclear warheads to Russia for eventual dismantlement; and Russia would supply uranium fuel rods for Ukrainian reactors, as the latter depended upon nuclear power for a large part of their energy needs. The negotiations involved shuttling between Moscow and Kyiv and resulted in the “Trilateral Statement” of January 1994.
In the end, the U.S. would agree to pay for the secure transport of the nukes from Ukraine to Russia, the destruction of the missiles and bombers on Ukrainian and Russian soil, and for the Russians to manufacture the fuel rods and ship them to Ukraine. (Similar arrangements would be reached with Kazakhstan and Belarus.)
Besides keeping their cities from going dark, the Ukrainians also received “political assurances” (not “legally binding guarantees”) from the U.S. and Russia not to violate the fledgling state’s borders.
Eleven months later, the U.K. joined the other interlocutors in signing the “Budapest Memorandum of Security Assurances” of December 1994. The accord lasted almost 20 years – until the Russians seized Crimea in 2014. (BTW: The Trilateral Statement and the Budapest Memorandum did not contain legally binding commitments to come to the defense of Ukraine.)
It was an exciting time for me. My role was to coordinate the team’s negotiating points with the Joint Staff, the Service Chiefs, and the Commander-in-Chief of Strategic Command. Some of this was done real-time while flying onboard the USAF VIP aircraft. The purpose of my presence also included advising the U.S. delegation on the organization, order of battle, and doctrine of the post-Soviet states’ nuclear forces – although most members of the U.S. team understood the particulars as well as I did.
I remember us plopping down together on the floor of the aircraft’s conference room in order to review the state-of-play. Bumping up and down as the aircraft flew through the occasional turbulence, the team would work out the next series of moves for this game of high-stakes nuclear chess. Ideas would be proposed. . . but most were readily discarded. Then one crazy notion would seem to make sense and stick. Suddenly, Bill Perry, a mathematics Ph.D., would sing out his favorite phrase: “O.K., folks, let’s see how we can multiplex this!” (Multiplex? Had there been smart phones back then, I too would have had to Google the term.)
We sat cross-legged or inclined in a lose circle trying not to spill too much of the coffee and pastries being fed to us by the flight stewards in order to keep us awake. I listened in awe to these brilliant leaders, as they brainstormed their way around every possible obstacle.
Absent myself, I knew that I was sitting among the greatest concentration of brainpower that I would ever encounter. Although I was multiple “pay grades” below these senior civilian officials, they each treated me with extraordinary respect and kindness – encouraged me to express my views, although in retrospect I probably contributed very little. For me, it was a masterclass in diplomatic problem-solving.
Everyone was sleep deprived. When the team would run out of ideas and become somewhat dejected, someone would break up the depressing mood with a hilariously funny joke. Then Perry would clap his hands as a quarterback faced with the third down and 10 yards to go; and recharged, the group would get back to putting a few more pieces of incentives and supporting arguments into the impossibly complex puzzle.
These senior Clinton Administration officials never placed blame on any side or person – never called anyone names – and they never indulged in the thought of giving up, going home, or resigning themselves to “que sera, sera!” No one considered what impact their decisions might have on Bill Clinton’s poll numbers back home. It was always about U.S. interests and keeping the peace between the Russians and Ukrainians.
They persistently stuck with it until they finally convinced Moscow and Kyiv to agree to a deal.
Would God had granted us the same caliber of statesmen to guide our nation before the war in Ukraine first began.
* * * * *
Bruce D. Slawter, Colonel, USAF (Ret.), lived and traveled in Russia, Ukraine, and the newly independent states of the former USSR for 25 years on U.S. Government business. He served a total of 44 months (two tours) at U.S. Embassy, Moscow; taught Russian military strategy at the Air Command & Staff College; led teams on treaty inspections in Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus; and established two Pentagon organizations for normalizing relations with Russia, Ukraine, and Eurasia (Air Staff and Joint Staff). As director of DOE’s warhead security program and director for international nuclear energy policy, his teams upgraded the security and safety of over 85 military storage sites and civilian reactors in Russia and Ukraine containing large quantities of nuclear weapons, weapons-grade material, and nuclear fuel.
The opinions expressed in this monograph do not reflect the views of the U.S. Air Force, the Department of Defense, or the Department of Energy.