The twentieth century continues to captivate the attention of policy professionals, academics, and the general public. This is due to more than its contemporary salience; the century epitomized ideological contest on a global scale. As the threshold between Colonialism and Neo-Colonialism, the setting of both world wars, and a witness to the decades-long contest of their emergent world superpowers, the twentieth century proved a crucible for many of the most trying conflicts of human history.
Unfortunately, much of the twentieth century was marred by the theme of division. As the global climate divided between Washington and Moscow, the wake of World War II birthed several more regionally descript divisions: namely, that of East and West Berlin, and of Israel from Palestine.
Countless men and women dealt with these fissures in their everyday lives, and many continue to do so to this day. It is in the job description of American diplomats to ease division, and many have made a career of engaging in these tense post-conflict scenarios.
Few, however, have had as frequent a front-row seat to the heavy events of our time as Ambassador Brandon Gove. From serving in Berlin in the late sixties to working in Jerusalem just after the signing of the Camp David Accords, Ambassador Gove had a view into some of the most divisive global issues of the modern age. Read on to discover Ambassador Gove’s tense experiences in occupied Germany, pursuit of peace in the Middle East, and his views on how each were affected by the broader strategies unfolding beneath the Cold War.
Ambassador Brandon Grove
U.S. Mission, West Berlin (1965–1969)
Deputy Chief of Mission, The German Democratic Republic, Berlin (1974–1976)
Consul General, Jerusalem (1980–1983)
Read Brandon Grove’s full oral history HERE.
Drafted by Mathew Creedon and Aaron Derner
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“One had a feeling of incompletion and amputation in the city’s downtown streets, a depressing reminder of something absent and lost.”
Berlin: An Island Amid Treacherous Seas
In reading recently published transcripts of deliberations in the cabinet room secretly taped by President Kennedy during the Cuban missile crisis of October 1962, I am struck to see how closely everyone’s assessments and decisions were affected by the situation in Berlin, whose four-power status was being challenged anew by Khrushchev. In a call on the president in the early stages of the Cuban crisis, Foreign Minister Gromyko characterized the Western military presence in Berlin as a “rotten tooth that must be pulled out.” Kennedy and his advisers believed Khrushchev would move on Berlin following a U.S. response to the Soviet missiles positioned ninety miles off our shores. He did not do so, but West Berlin remained a tinderbox NATO feared would touch off World War III. My first assignment to Berlin began a little more than two years after the Cuban missile threat was defused by a calm and clear-thinking president, and four years after the East Germans built their wall. Throughout, Berlin remained the great diplomatic issue of the Cold War.
In 1965, the city bore scars of the war beyond its pock-marked buildings. One in three Berliners was a woman over 45, an indication of the loss of men in the war and the aging of the population. Young men from the Federal Republic, however, came to Berlin to avoid military service. Below the surface, Berlin was always tense. The wall separating West and East Berlin had been erected four years earlier, on August 13, 1961, giving rise to frequent shooting incidents which were shocking and depressing. What kind of Germans were on the other side, people wondered.
We lived at 54 Thielallee in Dahlem, in the American sector of Berlin, in a pre-war villa whose garden of fruit trees and shrubs bordered a quiet park. Our children attended the American school, and were happy there. In many ways, life with a big PX and commissary was easy, yet we could not shake off feelings of remoteness and menace. I have served at no post, including in the middle of Africa, where people were more conscious of their isolation. We felt we lived on a fortress island in the midst of a red sea, the German Democratic Republic, surrounded by Soviet armed forces. There were three ways in and out: the Autobahn highway, military train, and air corridors. The first was subject to tight, formal Soviet—and de facto East German—control; the second and third were also subject to Soviet interdiction. There was constant tension between the Allies and East Germans over the Soviet role at the crossing points. The East Germans attempted to control access to Berlin in efforts to create what would amount to an international frontier around West Berlin.
Living in West Berlin, one felt oneself in a truncated city of smokeless industries and suburbs, and an odd handful of main streets downtown. The historic center of the city, AlexanderPlatz, was on the other side of the wall. West Berlin had no logical center. The Kurfuerstendam, its main street of elegant shops, cinemas and cafés, petered out into a dead end as it approached the wastelands bordering the wall. Its architectural landmark, the Memorial Church, was a bombed-out shell standing as a reminder of the devastation of World War II. One had a feeling of incompletion and amputation in the city’s downtown streets, a depressing reminder of something absent and lost. Life under military occupation sometimes bordered on surrealism. The decades-long Allied involvement in running Spandau Prison, a vast compound maintained solely for three Nazi prisoners, Rudolf Hess, Albert Speer, and Baldur von Schirach, was the most expensive and bizarre incarceration anywhere. Eventually, Hess was alone. Allied authorities responsible for managing the prison met daily during the week for a luncheon there. Allied guests, such as myself and my wife would occasionally be invited to a more formal monthly luncheon. It was a form of theatre noir to have a four-course lunch accompanied by French wines served in the prison commandants’ dining room while Rudolf Hess a few yards away read in his cell, or worked in the garden. Each country tried to outdo the other in hosting a great meal. The changing of the guard each month was an extraordinary sight, especially when the Americans handed off to the Soviets. The first time we came I thought we were on a different planet.
The Allied Command Authority building located in the American sector was another Berlin anomaly. Formerly a court house used in the Nazi show trials, most of its nearly 500 rooms remained empty and unheated. Its grand halls were on rare occasions used for the ceremonial signing of four-power agreements on Berlin. The Berlin Air Safety Center for flights in the Allied air corridors was located there, not to direct traffic, which was done at Tempelhof Airport, but to secure a Soviet clearance for each flight. Military officers of the western Allies sat at their desks, frequently passing flight information on slips of paper to their Soviet counterpart for his stamp of approval. Three air corridors transited the Soviet Zone of occupation and this ritual reminded everyone that the Soviets controlled the air space over East Germany.
“That evening, my wife and I were scheduled to attend a social function, and I became obsessed by the weather. As we left our front door to walk to the car it began to sprinkle, then pour. I have never been so relieved to feel rain.”
Rituals and Harsh Reality
Each Pan American, Air France and BOAC flight coming to or from Berlin in the prescribed, tube-like corridors of 10,000 feet required Soviet approval. Other airlines did not provide service to West Berlin. Occasionally, Soviet fighter pilots would draw near the corridors for a look or be sent up if a plane strayed out of its corridor. Sometimes these pilots came too close and the Allies protested. “We could see his face!” a PanAm pilot might complain. As with the administration of Spandau Prison, this function remained a daily exercise of four-power occupation rights conducted with the Soviets in West Berlin. Pan American’s pilots announced to their passengers over West Germany that they were “about to enter the Berlin corridor,” and one could feel the plane descend to 10,000 feet. The back of my neck always tingled at this matter-of-fact reminder of the Cold War.
There was a Berlin Document Center, which held millions of incriminating documents on Nazi affiliations and Hitler’s regime. The Allied Kommandatura, a small empty looking building in Dahlem served as the formal meeting place for the four Allied powers—who no longer met there, except for the occasional Western Allies meeting. The Soviets had walked out, and their flag pole was kept forever bare. Allied rituals in West Berlin had an aura of unreality at many levels, but what was being done served to maintain the occupation status intact, since if that was lost, the basis for Allied access to Berlin from West Germany would also be lost.
If the rituals seemed contrived, Berlin did not lack real life drama. One afternoon, an East German attempting to escape swam across a lake and reached some reeds near West Berlin’s shore. He had made his flight unobserved by East German patrol boats which, with their search lights, might later spot him in these reeds. West Berlin police watched him through their binoculars. I learned about the escape attempt in my City Hall office when it began, and about the rescue arrangements Berlin authorities were making. They hid ambulances in the woods near the shore, and stayed out of sight until night. It was a cloudy day and the man’s success in escaping would be largely decided by the weather. If it rained, his chances were good; if it did not, they were lower. That evening, my wife and I were scheduled to attend a social function, and I became obsessed by the weather. As we left our front door to walk to the car it began to sprinkle, then pour. I have never been so relieved to feel rain.
“We were certain Brandt did not intend to keep contacts between East and West Berlin limited to technical levels. We saw that should he become chancellor, the pace would accelerate.”
Towards Reunification and the Cessation of the Cold War: Occupiers or Fiduciary Agents?
The Allied commitment to Berlin guaranteed the freedom of the city’s western sectors and kept Soviet forces in East Berlin on their side of the wall. The Allies were referred to as “occupying” powers, but in the west, beyond the three aging Nazi inmates in Spandau Prison, there was no one for them to subdue. Their civil role was largely symbolic, but it was no less indispensable for that. In military terms, the Berlin brigades served as a trip-wire, should the Soviets move their forces westward toward the Fulda Gap. West Berlin could have been overrun in hours. The symbolism and trip-wire mattered, therefore, and the Allied commandants held their parades and maneuvers and cultivated good relations in the city with this in mind. It was widely believed, including by the Soviets, that a third world war would likely start over Berlin.
Berlin’s legal status was thus always a concern. In 1969, for example, the West German parliament decided to hold a meeting in West Berlin for the first time. The Allies had serious reservations about this prospect and the Soviets were opposed, claiming it inappropriate to the occupied status of West Berlin. We, in turn, did not like the fact the Volkskammer, the East German parliament, met all the time in East Berlin. West German legislators felt that if their eastern counterparts could meet in Berlin, the West German parliament should be able to do the same. To complicate matters, the Allies did not recognize any competencies of the Federal Republic in Berlin. Bonn’s proposal was a departure from the status quo, whose maintenance was regarded by the Allies as a near-sacred obligation. We were able to quash the idea, although a few individual parliamentarians traveled to West Berlin and “committee meetings” were tolerated. This was not the only instance in which the three Western powers and the Soviets saw eye-to-eye, even if for different reasons. Each Allied mission in Berlin had a legal adviser on its staff, as did their embassies in Bonn, a highly unusual arrangement at foreign service posts dictated by the intricacies of the legal aspects of a four-power presence in post-war Germany. I served with Marten H.A. van Heuven and his successor, Arthur T. Downey. Both were skilled and thoughtful lawyers and each had, in ways that differed markedly in personal style, a thorough appreciation of the political context of our presence in Berlin at a time when its governing mayor, Willy Brandt, was developing his Ostpolitik. The smallest steps affecting Allied-Soviet relations assumed legal dimensions in terms of past agreements and current responsibilities.
There were many potential crises during the years 1965–69, incidents at the wall and checkpoints, on the Autobahn, or in areas of city administration such as the common sewage and subway systems between east and west. These were manageable, because we carefully assessed the nature of each provocation and the required Allied response, if any. A Soviet decision to escalate tensions was always possible. The Soviet government was celebrating its fiftieth anniversary, believing itself stable internally and a world power internationally. Its constant mischief-making in Berlin was intended to wear the West out, but failed to do so. The Russians historically backed down to the letter of wartime agreements when confronted by strong protests. East German authorities felt less committed, but we knew that eventually they would pay heed to their Soviet masters and be made to comply with Soviet international obligations. When I opened our embassy in East Berlin in 1974, I would come to know them better.
Our discussions were often tough, however. We pressed for details on what Brandt was up to, warned of possible missteps, delivered official statements from the Allies. The Germans were equally outspoken, sometimes criticizing Allied timidity and inaction or, privately to me, the crossed lines of some of the more visible aspects of American intelligence activities. On this last point, raising an intelligence problem with me was intended to place a political light upon it; there were separate channels for intelligence liaison. This give and take and exchange of information, duly reported by us, formed the basis for Allied comprehension of and influence upon developments in Berlin, and permitted the Germans to understand our positions and constraints. These were among the most exciting and productive diplomatic exchanges of my career, as Brandt progressed in his Ostpolitik. They had their basis in Allied authority in the city, and sometimes that authority was invoked; but they went far beyond this in tenor, content, mutual respect, and openness as we dealt with the present and speculated about Germany’s future. What a contrast to the way the Soviets and East German authorities dealt with each other across the wall, where the Russians talked and the East Germans listened!
Allied policy was clear: we would not get ahead of the Bonn government in its relationships with East Germany, and would take no initiatives of our own toward the GDR. Relations between the Germans was thus a matter left entirely to the leadership in Berlin and Bonn. We insisted, however, that our international agreements with the Soviets be respected. Our Berlin mission was in the forefront of those who expected Brandt’s “small steps” gradually to lead to a wider range of topics for discussion between East and West. We were certain Brandt did not intend to keep contacts between East and West Berlin limited to technical levels. We saw that should he become chancellor, the pace would accelerate. His motive in Ostpolitik was to achieve a more healthy and human relationship among Germans, even at the cost of accepting two German states.
Reunification of Germany seemed a fading prospect, and was mentioned less frequently in the West. The Allied powers had settled in for the long haul. West Berliners accepted the comforts of their lives and made the most of tightly controlled opportunities through wall passes to visit their relatives on the other side, who were stoic about their fate. The division seemed nearly complete, except for the knowledge that Brandt was making slow progress with his “small steps” toward normalization with the East.
“They spoke of their grief quietly and with dignity. They said they were unable to understand how the U.S. could do nothing as violence increased on the West Bank and innocent people were killed. They could not believe—few Palestinians could—that we did not have the power to curb the Israelis if we chose to.”
Jerusalem and the Camp David Accords
Jerusalem is a place of religious observances, none more solemn than Yom Kippur. During this time of soul-searching, the city comes to a silent standstill, except for emergency services. I recall walking down King George Street, a major thoroughfare, with my son Mark. It was deserted. Mark stretched out in the middle of the street, celebrating the absence of people and traffic. During Yom Kippur, Jerusalem is miraculously filled with the sounds of its birds. Jerusalem has no international airport. This city on hilltops is approached from the ground, either from the sea or desert. One climbs up to reach Jerusalem. In the early 1980s, there was still a feeling of having arrived at a small and quiet place, a rather sparse and somber enclave where the mood was set by scholarship and gods.
In jarring contrast are the Jewish settlements that now ring the city like the wall against Arabs they are partly intended to be. Politically motivated, hastily built and often unneeded apartment complexes, the settlements are strategically placed to defend the city from its hilltops and expand Jerusalem’s perimeters. In nearly every case, they are built on expropriated land Palestinians believe to be their own. The settlements bring more cars, pollution, population and ugliness to the environs of Jerusalem. They form a harsh skyline. Settlements crowd this former city of open places and small stone houses and squeeze it toward its ancient core. The old city becomes increasingly quaint, an attraction to tourists, archeologists and pilgrims. It no longer seems the heart and raison d’être of Jerusalem, around which the rest of the city emerged over centuries to provide support.
I arrived in Jerusalem 18 months after the Camp David Accords, which brought peace between Egypt and Israel, were signed in mid-1978. One of my responsibilities was to elicit support from Palestinians for those agreements and the “autonomy” process for the West Bank and Gaza they envisioned. It did not take me long to recognize we would not succeed.
Israeli officials resented the consulate’s reporting on their rapidly expanding settlements, and on Palestinian views critical of Israeli activities. We disciplined ourselves about what we said and wrote, and separated fact from analysis. We made it clear to Palestinians that the U.S. government had no sympathy for the expansion of settlements, collective punishment of Palestinian families, or acts of brutality by soldiers and settlers occurring with increasing frequency on the West Bank. We also deplored Palestinian terrorism and Arafat’s role in it.
There were problems beyond violence on the West Bank, among them Sharon’s plan calling for the creation of “Village Leagues.” These were to be made up of Palestinians imposed as unelected mayors and functionaries in cities that had lost their mayors through deportation. Later on, they were to become a cadre of Palestinians the Israelis intended to put in place under the “self-governing” provisions of the Camp David Accords. In March of 1983, former President Carter and his wife Rosalynn visited Jerusalem, and for most of two days traveled on the West Bank . . . . Carter, as the architect of the Camp David Accords, was intensely interested in Palestinians and their views.
Israel’s invasion of Lebanon on June 6, 1982 was the dominating event of my tour. As we watched the crisis mount, Israeli forces moved into Lebanon in an operation cynically called “Peace for Galilee.” The Habib Negotiations. Defense Minister Sharon intended to go all the way to Beirut to expel the PLO and arrange for the election of Bashir Gemayel as president of Lebanon . . . . The incursion polarized Israeli society as never before.
Into this atmosphere came Philip C. Habib, assisted by Morris Draper, as leader of a U.S. negotiating team seeking to dislodge Arafat and his fighters from Lebanon. Subsequently, Habib would broker a peace among Lebanese factions and attempt to end the war itself. I had no idea, nor did Phil at the outset, of what was in store for all of us.
For Phil, the negotiations were arduous, frustrating, and often disappointing. In the early days of his negotiations, Phil received kudos by the gross. One week, he was on the covers of Newsweek and Time. After Arafat’s exit from Beirut, he was increasingly mentioned as a candidate for the Nobel Peace Prize. When Phil returned to Washington for consultation, President Reagan usually invited him to lunch. Habib was the star of U.S. foreign policy. That reputation changed after a suicide truck bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut killed 241 Americans in October of 1983, the worst of times for Americans committed to peace in the Middle East by their presence, actions, and cautious hopes.
“Settling the Jerusalem issue will probably be the last hurdle in arriving at a comprehensive structure for peace in the region”
Jerusalem – A Balancing Act of Interests and Status:
The few consulates general in Jerusalem are unique in status. They are neither embassies, nor traditional constituent posts. They function independently of embassy supervision and report directly to their capitals at home. My efficiency ratings would be written by the assistant secretary for the Middle East, not our ambassador in Tel Aviv, guaranteeing independence in reporting on such topics as Palestinian attitudes and Israeli settlements.
The U.S. view of Jerusalem is that it is a single, undivided city whose final status can be determined only when the parties involved reach a mutually satisfactory agreement. Until that happens, Jerusalem exists in a kind of limbo. Its circumstances are different, however, from the limbo of Berlin, whose final status was also undetermined during the Cold War, but defined by the outcome of World War II and extensive quadripartite agreements reached by the occupying powers. Jerusalem, fully occupied by Israel after the 1967 War, lacks any formal legal definition of its status.
Today, Israel has jurisdiction over all of Jerusalem. We and most other countries officially regard a portion of the city, the former Jordanian-occupied East Jerusalem, as “occupied territory.” We and most other countries have not located our embassy in Jerusalem in recognition of other legitimate interests in its ultimate status, and to encourage peaceful agreement in reaching accord on that status. Settling the Jerusalem issue will probably be the last hurdle in arriving at a comprehensive structure for peace in the region.
My Berlin experience, with its emphasis on symbols and precedents, helped me in Jerusalem. One such question was whether, and if so when, I should fly the American flag on our official vehicle. While this may sound like a trivial matter, flying a flag is a statement about the status of the occupant of the vehicle. I was not the American ambassador to Israel, and Israelis regard Jerusalem as their capital. I discussed the matter with Sam Lewis, and we agreed I would fly the flag during official calls at the foreign ministry and on the mayor, when attending national day celebrations of other consulates, and on formal visits to patriarchs.
We had different degrees of access to the Palestinians, based upon traditional ties and the politics of the moment. The U.S. inevitably was cast in the role of the “heavy” after the Camp David Accords, and the more radicalized Palestinians refused to see American officials. Monthly meetings of the consular corps, chaired on a rotating basis, amounted to discussions of how each of us viewed the situation on the West Bank and in Gaza, and more broadly the Israeli-Palestinian relationship. They gave me an opportunity to brief my colleagues on the lack of progress in the peace process envisioned in the Camp David Accords, and on U.S. involvement in Lebanon through Phil Habib’s negotiations.
As a consular corps, we had formal and long-standing relationships with the Greek, Armenian, and Russian Orthodox Patriarchs and the Vatican’s representative. For the U.S., these were matters of observing protocol and showing good will. For the Greek, Italian, and Turkish consuls, however, religious ties were their most important responsibilities. Dinners hosted by the Orthodox patriarchs took place in a medieval court-like atmosphere. We were literally “thumped” into the Patriarch’s presence by a kawas, a uniformed Arab attendant with a long and heavy metal-tipped staff which he banged loudly on stone floors to clear an imaginary path through empty halls and announce our coming. It is a particularly odd feeling to be calling alone and be preceded by a kawas. Except for the austere quarters of the Vatican representative, the patriarchs in their splendor left one wondering which century this was.