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A Ride to Remember: Exploring Cold War Russia via the Trans-Siberian Railroad

It was unusual for any Americans during the Cold War to travel in the Soviet Union but Russell Sveda did just that in 1969. After serving for two years as a Peace Corps (PC) volunteer in Korea, he decided to make his way home by taking the path less traveled and riding the Trans-Siberian railroad. He talks about meeting ethnic Koreans in Samarkand, his offer of marriage by a woman he didn’t even know, and an hours-long “interview” with a KGB agent posing as a journalist.  Read more

The Birth of the Chemical Weapons Convention (and the OPCW)

Recent events in Syria have once again spotlighted the dangers of chemical weapons and international efforts to catalog and destroy them. The Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production, Stockpiling and Use of Chemical Weapons and on their Destruction (otherwise known as the Chemical Weapons Convention or CWC) was opened for signature with a ceremony in Paris in January 1993 — 130 States signed the Convention within the first two days. Four years later, in April 1997, the Convention entered into force with 87 States Parties. Currently, the CWC comprises 184 States Parties, as well as an implementing body, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), located in Brussels. The OPCW as awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2013 for its work. Read more

Microwaving Embassy Moscow — Another Perspective

ADST’s post on Microwaving Embassy Moscow brought back a flood of memories to James Schumaker, who served most of his career in the USSR and later Russia and Ukraine. In this account, he describes how U.S. Ambassador to the USSR Walter Stoessel threatened to resign, the widespread concern many Americans posted at the embassy had regarding potential health problems, especially when two ambassadors died of cancer, and his own experience with Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia. This comes from his blog and is used with his permission. Read more

War of the Waves: Combating Espionage in Embassy Moscow

U.S. relations with Moscow through the decades have been problematic at best while the embassy itself has been the subject of spy scandals, eavesdropping and other Cold War intrigue. One of the strangest episodes was revealed in the 1970s, when the U.S. confirmed that the USSR had been beaming microwaves at the embassy for the past 15 years. One concern was that the Soviets were trying to inflict physical harm on the Americans working there. Famed columnist Jack Anderson wrote that a CIA file named “Operation Pandora” described the Soviets’ attempt to “brainwash” Americans.

The level of microwaves was actually lower than what was considered safe in the U.S. at the time; another explanation is that the USSR was apparently trying to jam electronic monitoring devices located at the embassy. Read more

The More Things Change – A Look Back at Syria’s Hafez al-Assad

“You know I have my ups and downs, but I have a pact with God. The pact is that no matter what problems I have, wherever there is a challenge, I will have all my strength,” asserted a sickly Hafez al-Assad to George Shultz, who grimaced at the firmness of Assad’s grip. Despite Hafez al-Assad’s constant ailing health, the Syrian leader’s tenure in office spanned some 30 years. Political Officer Edward G. Abington, Ambassador David Ransom and wife, Deputy Chief of Mission, Marjorie Ransom, highlight Assad’s most criticized political power plays, Syria’s problems with Iraq and its reluctant reliance on the USSR, as well as provide insights about the man who reluctantly readied his son, Bashar al-Assad, to later assume power.  Read more

A Cold End to the Prague Spring

In 1968, growing opposition to the failing sociopolitical and economic policies of hard-line Communist regime in Czechoslovakia, led by Antonín Novotný, finally came to a breaking point. Reformist politician Alexander Dubček replaced Novotný as First Secretary of the Communist Party of Slovakia. The period that followed, known as the Prague Spring, saw an expansion in freedom of expression, economic liberalization and sociopolitical reform that took the country by storm and was ultimately seen as an existential threat in Moscow. As a result, four countries of the Warsaw Pact — Soviet Union, Hungary, Poland and Bulgaria —  invaded Czechoslovakia on August 20th, 1968 to stop Czechoslovakia from further liberalizing its government. Read more

Prague Spring as Seen from the Outside – The Utter Impotence of U.S. Policy

Newspapers that had long been the Party mouthpiece were allowed to criticism the government, labor unions were given more rights to speak for their members, people were allowed to speak more freely. The shackles of Soviet totalitarianism were loosened. But only briefly. The Prague Spring, that period of political liberalization in Czechoslovakia beginning in January of 1968, came to a swift end when Soviet troops, aided by other members of the Warsaw Pact, invaded the country on August 20-21. Dubček’s reforms were abandoned as he was arrested and sent to Moscow and was removed from office in April 1969. In the end, Prague 1968, like East Berlin 1953 and Hungary 1956, became just another poignant reminder of what could have been. Read more

Stalin’s Legacy: The Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict

Nagorno-Karabakh is a highly contested, landlocked region in the South Caucasus of the former Soviet Union. The present-day conflict has its roots in the decisions made by Joseph Stalin when he was the acting Commissar of Nationalities for the Soviet Union during the early 1920s. In April 1920, Azerbaijan was taken over by the Bolsheviks;  Armenia and Georgia were taken over in 1921. To garner public support, the Bolsheviks promised Karabakh to Armenia. At the same time, in order to placate Turkey, the Soviet Union agreed to a division under which Karabakh would be under the control of Azerbaijan. With the Soviet Union firmly in control of the region, the conflict over the region died down for several decades.

When the USSR began to collapse, the question of Nagorno-Karabakh re-emerged. In August 1987 Karabakh Armenians sent petition for union with Armenia tens of thousands of signatures to Moscow. The struggle over Nagorno-Karabakh escalated after both Armenia and Azerbaijan attained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. Read more

“We Didn’t Start the Fire”: Billy Joel Sums up World History with a Single Song

“We Didn’t Start the Fire” was a huge commercial success when it was released in 1989. It was Billy Joel’s third Billboard No. 1 hit and was nominated for the Grammy Award for Record of the Year. It’s also a great summary of history for the second half of the 20th Century. Its lyrics include brief, rapid-fire allusions to more than 100 headline events between January 1949 (Billy Joel was born on May 9 of that year) and 1989, when the song was released on his album Storm Front.

Billy Joel, a self-described “history nut” who wanted to be a history teacher when he was younger, got the idea for the song as he was talking with someone on the verge of turning 21, who averred that the world was an unfixable mess. Joel replied to him, “I thought the same things when I was 21”. The person replied, “Yeah, but you grew up in the 50’s and everybody knows that nothing happened in the 50’s”. Joel retorted, “Wait a minute, didn’t you hear of Korea, the Hungarian freedom fighters or the Suez Crisis?” Read more

After D-Day — Life in Paris After Liberation

The Allied invasion of France under the Supreme Command of General Dwight Eisenhower began on D-Day, June 6th ,1944. As the Allies advanced through France, they had to administer liberated areas and plan for the post-war political future. Douglas MacArthur II had been stationed in the Paris embassy prior to the war. Because of his experience, he was recruited to be the political advisor to Eisenhower in the coming invasion.

In these excerpts he talks about being in Paris right after liberation on August 25, 1944, working with the myriad groups and political parties that were vying for influence, his suspicion about the French Communists as well as the difficulty of working with General Charles de Gaulle.  Read more