OPINION

Letter from Thessaloniki

You know, we weren’t such a bad bunch after all. Sure we were enemies. Yet we respected and trusted each other. We had distinct rules. And mark my words, we never had anything to do with terrorism. An ordinary pensioner now, sitting in the living room of his apartment overlooking the River Spree in the former East Berlin, Misha observed, referring to the Cold War years, that the river seen from the fourth floor was the same one across which people swam two decades ago to try to get away from the regime he was serving in the former German Democratic Republic. This occurred just months ago when I was visiting Berlin again after a long time. In the bad old days, Markus Wolf who once ran the notorious Stasi [East German secret police] was the spider whose web of agents spread across the west – though there were, he claimed in passing, no important ones in Greece – and ensnared a German chancellor, Willy Brandt. In the 1960s and 1970s I was studying and worked as a correspondent in Berlin. Nor was I any stranger to questionable propositions. At that time, I knew Markus’s brother Konrad Wolf, a prominent filmmaker in the GDR [East Germany] quite well. Hence the access to the head of the Stasi. It is said that journalists are loud and accessible. Spies are supposedly quiet and inaccessible. Not always. Last year the Cold War International History Project, under the auspices of the Woodrow Wilson International Center in Washington DC, co-organized with the Cold War Research Group in Bulgaria an international conference on The Cold War – History and Consequences in the Bulgarian city of Plodviv. It turned out to be an ode to the Cold War. Respectable intelligence chiefs from East and West – to some people those who’d have the electrodes on you in a flash – were present. Among them were CIA ex-deputy director Richard Curr, Pierre Lacoste from France, the former director of the French intelligence service, and the above-mentioned, confessed Russophile Markus Wolf. Not especially aged, they were still able to call up the tricks of the trade. Vladimir Kirpichenko, former deputy chief of the KGB could not make it. Ostensibly no one there had to cover his air ticket. Ultimately, they all came to the conclusion that the principal reason the Cold War remained tolerably cold and that the world was not blown to pieces was because spies intervened successfully during the 1960s. At the time, I recall the ex-chief of the Bulgarian Intelligence Service, who elaborated on Islamic fundamentalism as a global problem, stressing how difficult is to defeat this new kind of enemy whose center of gravity is almost impossible to define. Obviously, it is an extraordinarily difficult process when it is not clear who the enemy is. Yet keep in mind that it is absolutely wrong to replace the Soviet Union with Islam, in its militant version, as the new ‘evil empire,’ he elaborated. This year in May, Markus Wolf, who only two decades ago embodied the demonized figure of the barbaric Other, was invited as an honored guest by the Greek Naval Academy to the Fourth Pelagic Meeting in Cephalonia. While there he chaired a session titled The Other Side of the Iron Curtain and said, It is a fact that now intelligence services are not only used by governments to inform them about developments in crisis areas but also to prepare and enable, behind the parliaments’ backs, supplies of arms to parties in the conflict. Yesterday on the website Stratfor.com, the leading provider of global intelligence, was the comment There is no doubt the entity that attacked the United States got support from state intelligence services. Some of that support might well have been officially sanctioned while some might have been provided by a political faction or sympathetic individuals. In Cephalonia, Wolf elaborated further: Generations grew up in the shadow of a nuclear holocaust, believing that only constantly increasing armaments and military readiness might prevent a global conflict between the two blocs of power. Today, serious historians take the view that then there was no realistic reason to expect a world war, to assume the danger of a Soviet expansion. World War II and the agreement in Yalta are seen to have created a balance of power, to have kept the status quo that prevented the armed forces of the US and the Soviet Union from attempting seriously an expansion beyond the areas controlled by them. Some questions that arise in the wake of last week’s terrorist attacks in Manhattan are: Was the Cold War, in comparison, a blissful age; and were past generations more intelligent and fortunate than ours? Invoking Pearl Harbor, columnist Steve Duin of the Oregonian in Portland, Maine recently wrote, Pearl Harbor was the crucible of ‘The Greatest Generation’ just as December 8, 1941, began to define that generation’s character, September 12, 2001 began to determine ours. To that, William German, editor emeritus of The San Francisco Chronicle – and a foreign editor when I was contributing to the SFC from Eastern Europe during the Cold War- in an editorial entitled The Awesome Generation wrote last Friday, September 14, It warms the heart to read kind words about my World War II generation, but we must bow in admiration of the behavior of the younger generations of Americans. Still in shock, their response was sensitive, determined and intelligent. We are awed. I guess by some accident of time and place, I’m a member of Tom Brokaw’s ‘Greatest Generation’ as well as a participating witness to the Bay Area journalism of 1941. Judged by the local performance in the days following December 7, we seemed a better bet to go down in history as ‘The Goofball Generation.’ Let’s have a spotty look through the eyes of The Chronicle which, I regret to say, helped set the Laurel-and-Hardy tone. Then, The Chronicle ran a daily page-one news analysis by Pulitzer Prize-winner Royce Brier. The morning after Pearl Harbor, Brier wrote, ‘We need not worry unduly about the Japanese. We will take care of these upstarts in a little while and when we have, they will be back in the murky feudalism from which they emerged 89 years ago.’ Page One, of course, carried huge banner-like ‘US AT WAR’ headlines. After several similar examples Bill German comes to this: Postscript: My immediate boss, The Chronicle’s foreign editor who also wrote a page-one column, told me he was taking the train that night for the East Coast because the Japanese would be in San Francisco within a week. He advised me to do the same. I said goodbye but couldn’t take his advice. The Chronicle had already won DMV approval to put ‘blackout lights’ on my 1935 Chevy. ‘Greatest Generation?’ Surely not. Yet could it eventually be 1941 again with the same misjudgments all over again?