The Berlin Wall and Missed Opportunities

Exclusive: The U.S. State Department’s obsession with “information warfare” as a strategic weapon has made U.S. credibility one more casualty of the Ukraine crisis, along with any remaining trust in the mainstream U.S. media. It was not always thus, laments ex-CIA analyst Ray McGovern.

By Ray McGovern

Which President to believe on Ukraine: Obama or Putin? Which top diplomat: Kerry or Lavrov? Which country is more to be trusted: USA or Russia?

For the first half of my adult life, “USA” was the instinctive answer one that seemed undergirded by real-life evidence, not simply blind patriotism. Now, white hats and black hats have merged into a drab gray; in fact, at times the hats seem to have switched heads, as inconvenient reality shatters instincts and preconceptions. And, as Aldous Huxley once put it, “Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you mad.”

A portion of the Berlin Wall as photographed in 1975, toward the east. (Photo credit: Edward Valachovic)

A portion of the Berlin Wall as photographed in 1975, toward the east. (Photo credit: Edward Valachovic)

To cite a small but telling example, is it really being “sanctimonious,” as President Barack Obama would have us believe, to think that those who ordered and implemented torture in our name should be held accountable? It was not always thus.

I have lived through a lot of war and not enough peace in my 75 years. I was born on the day that Stalin and Hitler formally agreed to carve up Poland, a week before German tanks invaded that country. Yet, by far the saddest sequence of events during the second half of my adult life began 25 years ago, when the fall of the Berlin Wall brought with it a genuine opportunity for peace in a Europe “whole and free.”

That is how then-President George H. W. Bush foresaw the implications of that epochal event. But, as has now become abundantly clear, that opportunity was squandered by those preferring a divided Europe and the perceived advantages of continuing to marginalize Russia as a preternatural, perpetual bête noire.

The current hysteria around Official Washington over Russia’s reaction to hostile developments in neighboring Ukraine simply does not measure up to genuine concerns that existed during the Cold War.

On Aug. 13, 1961, the East Germans, with Moscow’s blessing, began to build a wall separating Communist-controlled East Berlin from West Berlin, and sealing off the well-worn “escape route” from the East to West Berlin and ultimately freedom somewhere in the West.

What a graphic demonstration of the bankruptcy of Communism, that millions living in East Germany and other East European “satellites” of the USSR had already chosen to leave home for an uncertain but hopeful future in the West via Berlin. For skeptics who saw little difference between East and West, John Kennedy’s famously advised, “Let them come to Berlin.”

The Communist leaders running East Germany were so desperate to stem the flow of emigrants that they gave orders to shoot those attempting to climb over or chisel through the Wall. And how alarming was the weeklong standoff between American and Soviet tanks just 100 meters apart at the Wall’s Checkpoint Charlie in late October 1961.

In the fall of 1961, I had just completed a stint as “adjunct instructor” of Russian at Fordham University in a New York State-designed program to equip high school teachers to teach Russian. I was a year away from an M.A. in Russian Studies.

The building of the Berlin Wall was the second clear affirmation given me that I had chosen a field of study that enabled me easily to respond to Kennedy’s inaugural challenge, fresh in my ears, to “ask what you can do for your country.” The first affirmation had come on Oct. 4, 1957, when the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, the world’s first artificial satellite, just three weeks after I had chosen, as a college freshman, to study Russian.

The strategic danger from Russia took ominous shape when, in the fall of 1962, the Soviets emplaced medium-range nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles in Cuba. (We learned only later that some of them were actually armed and ready to fire.)

Through a tough but flexible combination of public and private diplomacy seldom seen in Washington before or since, President John F. Kennedy got the Soviets to back down. A pivotal moment came when U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Adlai Stevenson unveiled high-altitude reconnaissance photos of the Soviet missile base in Cuba, top-secret information that convinced the world that the United States was telling the truth.

Soviet President Nikita Khrushchev eventually removed the missiles (as part of a negotiated arrangement with Kennedy), but Moscow’s brazen attempt to steal a strategic march on the U.S. had brought the world very close to a nuclear exchange and left deep traumatic scars.

How close we came to war over Cuba became clear to me in a very personal way when I reported on active duty at Fort Benning, Georgia, on Nov. 3, 1962. The Infantry Officer Orientation Course in which I was enrolled had virtually no weapons for us to train with. Most had been swept up a few weeks earlier by an Army division headed south to Key West less than 100 miles from Cuba.

Later, while posted in West Germany I was not far from the border with Czechoslovakia when, on Aug. 21, 1968, the Soviets sent in tanks to crush the experiment in democracy called the “Prague Spring.” A subsequent assignment as chief of CIA’s Soviet Foreign Policy Branch left me in little doubt as to which country was America’s “main enemy” or “glavniy vrag,” the term used by the Soviets for the U.S.

There was widespread feeling that this Cold War could not basically change in any near future. But just two decades later, the Berlin Wall fell amid widespread unrest in the rest of Eastern Europe. And there was a real chance for lasting peace in a Europe “whole and free” from Portugal to the Urals.

Blowing a Unique Opportunity

The unwelcome truth is that it was the U.S. that bears primary responsibility for sabotaging that unique opportunity; Washington decided to expand rather than disband NATO to match the disbanding of the Warsaw Pact. To those who cared about the U.S. relationship with Russia, this was a profound disappointment.

Regarding U.S. assurances that NATO would not be expanded, former Ambassador to the USSR Jack Matlock took copious notes at the summit between U.S. President George H. W. Bush and Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev in Malta just three weeks after the Berlin Wall fell. Matlock was there again two months later (early February 1990) in Moscow when promises were made during the visit of then-Secretary of State James Baker, who told Gorbachev that if Russia would acquiesce to the peaceful reunification of Germany, NATO would not move “one inch” eastward. [See “U.S. Welched on Promise NATO Would Not ‘Leapfrog’ Over Germany.”]

Some of the brightest thinkers about East-West relations have lamented the U.S. failure to live up to those assurances. For example, former Democratic Sen. (and Rhodes scholar) Bill Bradley called NATO’s expansion eastward, reneging on Washington’s explicit promise not to do so, a fundamental blunder of monumental proportions.” In a speech on March 4, 2008, Sen. Bradley bemoaned what happened as a “terribly sad thing.”

A month before Bradley’s speech, U.S. Ambassador to Russia William Burns (now Deputy Secretary of State) was warned by Sergey Lavrov, Russian foreign minister then as now, that Moscow was unalterably opposed to NATO’s plan to make Ukraine a member of the military alliance, regarding that as a dire strategic threat to Russia.

We have unique insight into this critical warning, courtesy of Pvt. Chelsea (formerly Bradley) Manning and WikiLeaks, who made available the text of a State Department cable dated Feb. 1, 2008, from the U.S. Embassy in Moscow bearing the unusual title: “NYET MEANS NYET: RUSSIA’S NATO ENLARGEMENT REDLINES.”

The IMMEDIATE precedence that the cable bears shows that Ambassador Burns was addressing a priority issue under active consideration in Washington. Here is Burns’s introduction to the message that he sent to Washington after his lecture from Lavrov:

“Summary. Following a muted first reaction to Ukraine’s intent to seek a NATO membership action plan at the [upcoming] Bucharest summit, Foreign Minister Lavrov and other senior officials have reiterated strong opposition, stressing that Russia would view further eastward expansion as a potential military threat. NATO enlargement, particularly to Ukraine, remains ‘an emotional and neuralgic’ issue for Russia, but strategic policy considerations also underlie strong opposition to NATO membership for Ukraine and Georgia.

“In Ukraine, these include fears that the issue could potentially split the country in two, leading to violence or even, some claim, civil war, which would force Russia to decide whether to intervene.”

Ambassador Burns continued: “Russia has made it clear that it would have to ‘seriously review’ its entire relationship with Ukraine and Georgia in the event of NATO inviting them to join. This could include major impacts on energy, economic, and political-military engagement, with possible repercussions throughout the region and into Central and Western Europe.”

In his closing comment Burns wrote: “Russia’s opposition to NATO membership for Ukraine and Georgia is both emotional and based on perceived strategic concerns about the impact on Russia’s interest in the region. While Russian opposition to the first round of NATO enlargement in the mid-1990s was strong, Russia now feels itself able to respond more forcefully to what it perceives as actions contrary to its national interests.” [For more details, see’s “How NATO Jabs Russia on Ukraine.”]

But the Lavrov/Burns warning fell on deaf ears. On April 3, 2008, a NATO summit in Bucharest formally announced: “NATO welcomes Ukraine’s and Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic aspirations for membership in NATO. We agreed today that these countries will become members of NATO.”
(Paragraph 23 of the NATO Declaration)

This past spring, with real trouble brewing in Ukraine, Lavrov returned to the subject in an interview with Bloomberg News on May 14, 2014. He said Russia remains “categorically against” Ukraine joining NATO, recounting Moscow’s longstanding concerns about NATO’s eastward expansion. He thus explained Moscow’s position to a large English-speaking international listeners, many of whom were learning about this history for the first time.

Ukraine’s NATO Membership

Even earlier, in a Memorandum for the President dated May 4, 2014, the Steering Group of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity called on President Obama to ask NATO to rescind the part of the April 3, 2008 Bucharest summit declaration that states: “We agreed today that these countries [Georgia and Ukraine] will become members of NATO.”

The memo added: “Once that intention is disavowed, you, [Russian President Vladimir] Putin, and Ukrainian leaders should be able to work toward a Ukraine with considerable regional autonomy domestically and neutrality in foreign policy. Finland is a good model. It lives in Russia’s shadow but, since it shuns membership in NATO, it is not seen as a threat to Russian national security and is left alone to prosper.”

The Memorandum, which called for an early Obama-Putin summit, got considerable coverage in Russian print and electronic media, both controlled and independent. It got none in U.S. media; and we are still awaiting a response from the White House.

It will be highly interesting to watch how NATO’s leaders choose to deal with this central issue or to duck it at the upcoming NATO summit on Sept. 4-5 in Wales, since it seems a safe bet that the violence in Ukraine will continue.

Meanwhile, the steady flow of anti-Russian propaganda coming from the U.S. State Department and the simplistic good guy/bad guy narrative favored by the U.S. media (with Putin as the ultimate villain) have done a huge disservice to Americans trying to understand the actual background to the Ukraine crisis and the role played by the U.S. and NATO.

It is certainly no longer easy to say which side in this and other global controversies is more trustworthy. [For more details on this credibility question, see’s “Who’s the Propagandist: US or RT?”]

Ray McGovern works with Tell the Word, a publishing arm of the ecumenical Church of the Saviour in inner-city Washington.  During his former 27-year career as a CIA analyst, he was chief of the Soviet Foreign Policy Branch, chaired National Intelligence Estimates (as Deputy National Intelligence Officer for Western Europe), and during President Ronald Reagan’s first term briefed his top national security aides mornings with The President’s Daily Brief.

20 comments for “The Berlin Wall and Missed Opportunities

  1. Joe Tedesky
    August 13, 2014 at 23:54

    You know what stupid stuff is? Listening to Zbigniew Brzezinski. What a brain. One of America’s biggest mistakes was listening to that guy.

    As I read Mr McGovern’s article here, I could not help but wonder what a WW2 veteran would think. Could they stomach our country supporting these Ukraine Nazi’s? I mean, wasn’t that what we fought, and lose life’s for? Weren’t we then the good guys fighting the bad guys? What the heck happened?

    Not to change the subject, but have any of you seen the Ferguson Mo. Police in action? Between the military gear and equipment, I do believe we are seeing the beginnings of things to come. One might say, the police state is now officially operational!

    • Yaj
      August 14, 2014 at 09:03

      Except that after world war two, the US harassed the Soviet Union in the Ukraine, using the remnants of the Ukrainian forces that had cooperated with the Nazis. And this all was run by a continuation of Nazi intelligence.

      So nothing really new here.

    • Joe Tedesky
      August 14, 2014 at 09:44

      Thanks Yaj, for giving us the last word on my comment!

  2. R L Brodersdorf
    August 13, 2014 at 23:20

    When speaking of credibility, the USA has lost it to much of the world. The State Dept sounds like a British Tabloid spouting about things, saying they have absolute proof, and then there is nothing. I do not know if the photos of some of the wreckage from MH 17 is photo-shopped or honest photos from the debris field. The apparent 30/50 caliber holes makes one wonder if the Ukrainian Su-25 that was presented by evidence submitted by Russia did the deed and that is why the US State Dept refers to social media for the absolute proof. I cannot believe how gullible so many people are to believe this as proof. I have not seen a piece of evidence from the USA that says the anti-Kiev rebels did this with help from Russia. I do get the idea that maybe the US/Ukraine governments are covering up a horrific crime. That is why I do not believe the US government can have any credibility … and do not mention Benghazi, NSA, IRS, and ACA spins. AS much as I do not want to believe Russia is being more honest, I have to believe they are more apt to be correct than the government I pay my taxes to.

    • Yaj
      August 13, 2014 at 23:44

      Except there is no Benghazi or IRS scandal, and pretending there are undermines your point.

      Well there is a Benghazi scandal, but that’s about sending arms to Syrian rebels.

      And the IRS should be looking into various political action groups.

  3. F. G. Sanford
    August 13, 2014 at 22:20

    “Don’t do stupid stuff.” That’s the latest foreign policy pronouncement touted as either the crystallized wisdom of a strategy forged in the white-hot crucible of an imponderably deep and insightful intellect. If you’re in the dissenting wing of the same party, it’s just “lack of a coherent plan”. “Don’t do stupid stuff” might include, say…”Don’t bomb Tripoli when the humanitarian crisis is in Benghazi”. Or, how about, “Don’t give lethal aid to ISIS in Syria when they’re trying to undo all your plans in Iraq”. Then again, there’s “Don’t smuggle arms from Benghazi to the same people who want to kill you in Benghazi”. Stop and think about how asinine it is. EVERYTHING we do is “stupid stuff”. At the top of the list, there’s the ‘red line’ Ray succinctly depicts. NATO in Ukraine is bad enough. But the ultimate in “stupid” was delivering the message by “Nazigram”. I wonder how some Manhattan ad agency might have marketed this?

    “Nothin’ says lovin’ like Nazis with an oven”? “Say it with heils”? How about, “Reach out and putsch someone”? Maybe, “Nazis: when you care enough to send the very best”. Or, “With a name like Schutzstaffel, it has to be good”! Here’s one: “The ultimate conniving machine”. “Think outside the Reich”. “Club Kiev – The antidote for civilization”. “Don’t be vague, screw The Hague!” “Final solutions for a small planet”. “You’re not fully clean until you’re ethnically clean”? “It’s not your father’s Wermacht anymore”? “What happens in Litovsk, stays in Litovsk.” “Ukrainian by birth, Nazi by choice!” “When people talk, the Gestapo listens.” “We love to kill and it shows.” “So easy a Storm Trooper can do it!” “Svoboda – It’s not just for racists anymore.” “Pravy Sektor – The other white racists.”

    Something tells me Putin will have the last laugh here. Americans seem to forget about Anders Breivik and the millions of his “fellow travelers” scattered throughout the world. We’ve given them new found hope. If the Hillary faction wins, she’ll have to deal with her own legacy: “We came, we saw, we did a bunch of stupid stuff”. If the John McCain/Lindsey Graham faction wins, they’ll treat us to a smorgasbord of stupid stuff. In fact, they may even kick it off with those famous redneck last words: “Hey everybody, watch this!”

  4. elmerfudzie
    August 13, 2014 at 21:31

    It is unwise to muse about or suggest the notion that the Cuban missile crisis altered US nuclear first strike policy or lessened in any way, the likelihood of using nukes on today’s battlefield. Quite the contrary, western weapons testing labs are hard at work designing and reconfiguring fissionable materials that yield more neutrons, light energy or blast energy. To wit, there’s gossip about using non-fissionable material such as Hafnium 178 isotope for bomb material. The isotope almost magically magnifies any radiation source by a factor sixty. Toying with ideas of using pop-up space based lasers, launched from earth (possibly already hidden on undetectable space platforms) that will focus a nuclear weapon’s light energy into an earthbound pulverizing beam. I am postulating here but not taking any extraordinary liberties either. Generally speaking, for the last one hundred years science has run a muck, discovering or should I say uncovering whatever it may, without any bureaucratic agency to control the wildest “materials and methods” lab procedures. Always, always, fully funded (as seen with Monsanto’s shot gun genetic alteration experiments) …but I digress, science, especially in Naval atomic research labs, can be counted on to go in a direction not unlike that of snowflake formation, and God only knows where and what shape it will become. That said, the real question for today in regards to Iran is a transition from Western Occident colonialism, defined here for the uninitiated as direct and formal control over territories, into a new neo-colonialism, using trade policy, foreign aid, influence, bribery, military assistance, corruption and if all else fails, brute force for the same purpose of old the colonialists; to control and or extract wealth. Let us take a brief moment to spit in the eye of globalism and re-introduce the concept of neutralism. As JFK once postulated, paraphrased here: it’s inevitable and we should lean towards friendship with those who do not wish to be “associated as the tail of our kite” ( from a 1959 interview). I realize that this next comment is somewhat off the mark in relation to your article, which has merit but JFK was extremely disturbed with the statistic that two percent of the Latin American citizenry owned more than fifty percent of the wealth not to mention a majority of the politicking as well. Just imagine what JFK’s remarks would be about today’s America, four hundred citizens owning ten trillion dollars worth of assets! (exceeds the GDP of Italy). Thus, Latin America suffered from what the USA endures now; feudal patterns of land tenure, unjust tax structures, top-heavy military budgets an so on. Cuba on the other hand was the exception, wasn’t it? Back then, all the medieval nobility of South America stood shoulder to shoulder with Washington’s ideologies (hasn’t changed one iota) except little Cuba, and to this very day Hated for having an almost Hamiltonian and egalitarian culture. And now, we have finally arrived at the crux of the matter, Kennedy wanted a foreign policy based on neutralism, as his benevolent hand out(s) of foreign aid, without any strings attached showed. I’m almost tempted to blurt out, Lake Wobegon days!

    • Brandon
      August 13, 2014 at 22:06

      I wish there was a way to limit personal wealth to 1 billion

      • Yaj
        August 13, 2014 at 23:38


        There are ways of limiting vast accumulation of wealth.

        In the US that would be Eisenhower tax rates and the financial transaction tax that existed then.

    • Yaj
      August 13, 2014 at 23:40


      What does the existence of these exotic weapons have to do with games being played in Ukraine?

      • elmerfudzie
        August 14, 2014 at 03:04

        Yaj, I thought I was making my point(s) clear. The Cuban missile crisis did not alter US military posture or politics where nuclear weapons use (or threat of use) are concerned. The standoff between east and west at the Berlin wall or for that matter present day Ukraine, still invites the potential use of these weapons, add to the current unrest, newly tailored nuclear weaponry. All the other issues such as resource grabbing, corrupt feudal lords, neo-nazis, downed planes, cannot disguise what’s really afoot here, the return of a cold war mentality and nuclear confrontation, so history repeats itself again.

    • elmerfudzie
      August 17, 2014 at 13:04

      Correcting an error in my comment: When I said Iran, I meant Ukraine. It was a good old fashioned Freudian Slip.

  5. jer
    August 13, 2014 at 19:36

    The U.S. was no saint after WW2, but it evolved outright into an evil entity starting from the infamous Bill Clinton era especially after the fall of the Berlin Wall onwards. Now it has become a fascist democracy, determined to elbow out nations that refuse to obey and/or provide military bases. The U.S. desire to press ahead with full-spectrum global dominance, no matter what the costs, clearly marks it as the world’s only fascist superpower. Always ready, and fully willing to take down, subvert, infiltrate, and even turn other nations into failed states at the drop of the hat. It has missed everything good in order to become EVIL.

    • Dai
      August 13, 2014 at 19:59

      Right on. The real problem is in inner culture of the US, developed by Hollywood and politicians. I dont think anywhere in the world people think is such stupid black and white terms as here, such as we are the good guys bad guys are everyone else if they are not playing with us as we please. Consequently, today’s good guys can be tomorrow’s bad ones and vise versa. There are no shades of grey anymore. To one top movie which shows some shades of grey (for example Arbitrage with Gere) there are 100s of top tiles with dumb good guy/bad guy stories. Well filmed however. What do you expect of the average people who are bugged down with their credit cards, mortgages, work, life commitments, etc to think like in this environment? On top of that there are those politically active aholes screaming on each corner exactly what does it mean to be a patriot.

      • Yaj
        August 13, 2014 at 23:35


        And George H. W. Bush was a saint?

        Murdering retreating Iraqi troops who were under the the perfectly valid impression the US had called off the war to drive Iraq from Kuwait since Iraqi forces were leaving and Bush had gone on TV to say it’s over.

        So the idea that it all started with Clinton is bull.

        Do you have any idea how many crimes the US committed in Vietnam or Laos or Cambodia, or Nicaragua, or Guatemala? And that’s just over the 20 years between 1969 and 1989.

        Wake up.

  6. Coherent
    August 13, 2014 at 19:16
  7. Yaj
    August 13, 2014 at 19:03

    Bradley James:

    And therefore Obama must be a communist, nazi, extremist muslim, zionist, agent.

    Bull, just drop the clichés and try to deal with the very real problems of US policy in Ukraine.

    And also there are plenty of Russians, in Russia, attracted to aspects of Soviet life and power–doesn’t really apply here, but all the commies didn’t leave when the Soviet Union fell apart.

    • Dai
      August 13, 2014 at 19:42


      you are an idiot.

      Obama at the very least is a terrible liar. Putin is not. Remember how before Ukraine he lied about chemical attack Syria being done by their gov? Putin saved the world from another war.

      Now deal with the fact that Obama is scumbag and Putin is not you dumb mofo.

    • Yaj
      August 13, 2014 at 23:29


      Sorry, you missed a great deal there and read some positive Obama commentary into my post.

      The OP got busted telling Glen Beck, Pam Gellar, WND, Geoff Rense tales about Obama, so is not to be treated seriously.

      Also it was John Kerry lying about sarin use in Syria, Obama did very little of that.

      So wrong on many counts you be.

  8. Yar
    August 13, 2014 at 18:27

    If numerous murders of men, women, elders and children, ruining homes, hospitals, schools etc is welcomed by you, you can surely trust the USA and NATO. They will not fail in it.

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