For the week of June 16, 1999  thru June 23, 1999  

Are Russians testing NATO at Pristina Airport?


Common sense suggests the financially bankrupt and presumably less warlike Russians of 1999 will see the light and end their occupation of Pristina airport in Kosovo.

But not so fast, says my gut feeling and memories of a luncheon conversation in Berlin 38 years ago with a U.S. general.

Bear with me.

Coming off their spearhead entry into Berlin during World War II, the heady Russians decided in 1948 to blockade all of Berlin, which led to the historic U.S. airlift to supply the besieged city. That broke the back of the Russians.

Then, after Berlin was divided into sectors, the Russians decided in 1961 to erect a wall, sealing off their East Berlin sector and effectively holding Germans prisoners in the Russian sector.

Check Point Charlie, the heavily guarded crossing, became famous.

In October that year, a mere eight weeks after Russians and East German laborers began building the Berlin Wall with light cinder blocks, I arrived in Berlin with a Florida trade mission group, which had visited England, France and Italy to peddle the virtues of Sunshine State products. I was a young reporter for The Miami Herald sending dispatches about the group’s activities.

Escorted by a U.S. Army captain, our itinerary included a daylong trip to East Berlin, as bleak, dreary and gray a place ever created by humankind. Huge banners with red lettering in German exhorted East Germans to bend to the Marxist ways of their conquerors.

Returning to West Berlin, our van was confronted with East German police and Russian soldiers blocking our route at Check Point Charlie. Sensing a showdown in the making, perhaps even Russians holding us hostage, our escort officer instructed the German driver:

"Run the bastards down!"

The driver hit the accelerator, and the phalanx of soldiers and police leaped aside as we sped back into West Berlin.

The experience was fresh in our minds when we sat for lunch with the commanding general of the U.S. sector.

When I asked why we’d permitted the Russians to build the wall, the general (I believe his name was Norris) told this story:

When first moves to build the wall were spotted, the general called superiors in Washington. He said within minutes, President John Kennedy was on the phone asking for a report, and for a recommendation from the general.

"What do you recommend?" the general recalled Kennedy asking.

"They’re testing us, Mr. President. We should knock the damned thing down with bulldozers," the general replied.

"But that might start World War III," he recalled the president saying.

To our group, the general opined that had bulldozers knocked down the initial wall, the Russians would’ve done nothing, and East Germans would not have had to endure the Wall until it was torn down 28 years later, and the world wouldn’t have been held hostage to fears of Russian nuclear attacks.

So, are the Russians once again testing the West, seizing Pristina airport in Kosovo, and daring NATO to call their hand?

And if the West bows to the Russian military, does this portend a new era – Cold War II – that will be déjà vu all over again?

Murphy is the retired publisher of The Arizona Republic and a former radio commentator


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