In the late summer of 1944, Hitler pulled all Wehrmacht troops out of the Balkans to help stop the Soviets and the Allies as they raced towards Germany. Hitler’s Balkan allies, Romania and Bulgaria, sought an accommodation with the Soviet Union and switch sides. In Yugoslavia, Josef Tito’s highly organized communist partisans filled the vacuum left by the retreating Germans and successfully stiff armed “liberating” Soviet troops. In Greece however, the partisans were generally divided into two camps that were hostile to each other. The first were the various factions supported by Tito’s Partisans and the Soviet Union, the National Liberation Front (EAM), and the other was composed of the various groups and reformed army units supporting the Greek Government in Exile, backed by Great Britain.
Winston Churchill foresaw the coming post war conflict with Communism and vowed Stalin would not have direct access to a port on the Mediterranean. All through 1944, the British made a point of securing German occupied islands in the Eastern Mediterranean and Aegean Seas. The stage set, Winston Churchill quietly pulled British units out of Italy and the Middle East to accompany the return of the Greek Government in Exile after the Germans departed. On 3 October, British and Greek units occupied Athens and began funneling supplies to allied militias and disarming the EAM and the Greek Communist Party.
The EAM organized a general strike and on 3 December staged a massive protest in Athens to stop the complete erosion of communist power in Greece. The protest degenerated into a riot and eventually into open street fighting by the EAM against Greek soldiers, police and militias and their British backers. On 12 December, the tough 4th Indian Division, veterans of the 2nd Battle of Monte Cassino, arrived from Italy and this turned the tide against the Communists. By late January, the EAM was defeated. In February the various parties signed a ceasefire, supported by the US, Great Britain and even the Soviet Union. Stalin knew he could then use Churchill’s intervention in Greece as a pretext to openly do in Bulgaria, Romania, Poland, and Hungary what he was already doing in secret.
The Greek Civil War began in earnest in March 1946 when the Yugoslav and Soviet backed Democratic Army of Greece (DSE) attacked Greek policemen across the country (the DSE was formed from the remnants of the EAM). Great Britain was bankrupt from six years of war and asked for the United States to take their place as the Greek government’s patron.
In 1945, President Truman recognized America’s new found leadership role in the Free World, and with Secretary of State George C Marshall developed and adopted the “Truman Doctrine”, which vowed America would stop the spread of Communism, starting with Greece.
In the autumn of 1989, the people of Eastern Europe had had enough of Socialism. In Poland in September, Lech Walesa and Solidarity formed the first non-Communist government in a Warsaw Pact nation. In Czechoslovakia, Vaclav Havel was organizing the Velvet Revolution from his prison cell, and thousands of East Germans were openly using the West German Embassy in Prague to escape their Stasi-controlled socialist paradise. In Hungary, the border was effectively open and tens of thousands of Eastern European “tourists” were flooding Austria, never to return.
In East Germany, and Berlin in particular, massive but peaceful protests rocked the Communist government. In early November, the protesters stopped chanting “We want out!” and began chanting “We are staying!”. The new East German leader, Egon Krenz, recognized that he would not be in power for long if some changes were not made. On 9 November 1989, he and his advisors finished reviewing the new rules which greatly lessened the restrictions on travel and the burdensome bureaucratic process needed to obtain approval, but it did not open the border.
A note about the new regulations was passed to his spokesman, Gunter Schabowski, who was having a press conference that evening. Schabowski told reporters that there would be changes to the regulations, but not the details since he didn’t have them. When asked, Schabowski assumed they would also include Berlin and that they were effective immediately. The reporters then assumed the changes would open the border as it was in Hungary, and ran with it. This was most definitely not the case, but within the hour, it was broadcast around the world that the inter-German border was open.
Thousands descended upon the gates in the Berlin Wall demanding that they be allowed to cross into West Berlin, because “Schabowski said we could”. East German Stasi Lieutenant Colonel Harald Jager of the Bornholmer Street Gate made repeated calls to his superiors asking for clarification. His superiors mocked him and told him to use force to clear the protesters since they knew nothing of the new regulations, despite it being all over the news. Jager refused and let the East Berliners through. They were met by celebrating West Berliners. Within days all of the gates in the Berlin Wall were open and several new ones were established when jubilant Berliners smashed through with pick axes and bulldozers.
The Cold War was over.
For seven weeks starting in April 1989, university students occupied Tiananmen Square in Beijing and the Communists were terrified. Though there were some hardliners, the Communists understood the need for economic reforms. They did not want a repeat of the disastrous Cultural Revolution of the 60s when Maoists doubled down on statism and Communism, and 30 million people died as a result. The Chinese people remembered this devastation from a scant twenty years before. In the spring of 1989, they would not stand for it again. In support of the students, millions protested across China for market reforms, free speech, free press, and a way to remove the intolerably corrupt politicians of the Communist government.
But unlike the Soviets and the communists of Eastern Europe, the Chinese Communists were under no illusions about what would happen if they held elections. However, they did have one advantage that the other communist governments did not have: the People’s Liberation Army was not state controlled as in the Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc, they were party controlled. They could be relied upon for use against the Chinese people. First subjugation, then economic reforms. In early May 1989, a concerted effort was made to mobilize and bring formations up to fighting standard, and on 20 May 1989, the communists declared martial law.
250,000 PLA soldiers descended on Beijing. However, by 24 May, they were stopped cold by millions of peaceful protesters. For a week there was an impasse, but on 3 June, the communists had had enough. They ordered the PLA to use force to remove the protestors. Although some units refused to shoot civilians, thousands were killed when communist soldiers opened fire that night and into the next day. Almost immediately, vicious street battles broke out after students and shopkeepers banded to together to fight tanks and machine guns with rocks and fists. By the end of 4 June at least three thousand lay dead, and many more wounded. The fighting was largely unnoticed by the outside world.
The communists, like all tyrannical governments, feared scrutiny and transparency so they either coopted or coerced the domestic media into submission. But their censors did not apply to foreign journalists so they had placed severe restrictions on them, including harassment, isolation, and cutting their communications. Nevertheless, on 5 June 1989, those journalists locked in the Beijing Hotel witnessed an amazing event from their balconies. As a column of Type 59 tanks approached Tiananmen Square on Chang’an Avenue, an unnamed man crossed the broad street carrying two bags of groceries. The lead tank came to a stop just before hitting the man. The man, looking up, stood in front of the tank and then refused to move. The driver attempted to go around him, but the young man moved with it. The driver eventually stopped and shut down his engine, and soon the entire column did the same. For a long moment, it seemed that this one courageous individual had defeated the communist regime. The young man talked with the tank crew for a while, but was eventually seized by two goons from the People’s Security Bureau. The column continued on. Tank Man was never identified, nor was he seen or heard from again.
Despite the international exposure that the photos of Tank Man gave the events in China of early June 1989, the PLA successfully dispersed the protestors by 7th of that month. Afterwards, the communists rounded up and arrested anyone with connections to the protests. The People’s Republic of China is one of the few communist regimes that survived 1989. Today, due to censorship, Tank Man is unrecognized and unknown in China.
In April 1989, Lech Walesa’s Solidarity movement in Poland won the right to run candidates in the first fairly free parliamentary elections since before Poland was invaded by Germany and the Soviet Union 50 years before. On 4 June 1989, the Polish people headed to the polls (Ha!).
The Communists knew they were not popular, but they had several critical advantages. First, they still controlled the bureaucracy and the election apparatus. Also, their commissars still controlled the Polish military. Furthermore, more than half of the seats were rigged so only communists were allowed on the ballot. And finally, there was still 60,000 Red Army soldiers stationed on Polish soil.
The Communists believed they could not possibly lose the election utilizing these and every plausibly deniable, and not so deniable, electoral dirty trick. And many Solidarity candidates agreed with them. But the Polish people’s dissatisfaction with Communism’s inherent hypocrisy and corruption ran deep. Despite bureaucratic harassment, voter intimidation, and widespread election fraud, observers estimated that 98% of eligible voters turned out, virtually all for Solidarity.
Early ballot counts immediately showed that Solidarity and its allies had won a decisive victory. By the next day, it was confirmed: Solidarity had won 90% of the seats. Even seats where there was only a communist name on the ballot were lost to write-in candidates. It was a stinging rebuke of collectivism.
However, there was still the specter of military intervention. Fortunately, cooler heads prevailed. Polish military units began marginalizing, neutralizing or even out right arresting their commissars after the election, particularly if they attempted to take over units from their commanders. The Polish Army would not influence the election and the Poles did not have to worry about the Soviets. Like everything else about communism, the Red Army in 1989 was a facade. The Soviet 6th Motorized Rifle Division and 20th Tank Division had not received fuel or spare parts in months, because their supply system was so horribly corrupt. They had huge discipline problems and soldier-gangs ruled the barracks, where officers refused to go. What soldiers they did have control of were needed to tend the farms around the cantonment areas, which was the only way the divisions could be fed adequately. The Brezhnev Doctrine was dead, not because Gorbachev disavowed it, but because he had no choice.
Solidarity’s landslide victory was a reality on 6 June, 1989.
In July, the communists managed to hold onto the presidency through a series of back room deals, but a Solidarity candidate became prime minister in August. In September, 1989, the first non-communist government in the Eastern bloc in was sworn in.
The rest of Eastern Europe took notice
Since 1988, two former Soviet Republics, Armenia and Azerbaijan fought over the Nagorno-Karabakh region in the Lesser Caucuses Mountains after the Armenian population voted to secede from Azerbaijan and join Armenia. The Nagorno-Karabakh War was fought through the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. On 5 May 1994, Armenia and Azerbaijan signed a cease fire agreement in Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan, temporarily halting their destructive war. The agreement left the unrecognized Republic of Artsakh as the defacto ruling government of the area as neither Armenia could annex the region nor Azerbaijan control it.
Throughout the late 80s, Communism’s inherent flaws and fundamental inconsistencies could no longer be covered up with propaganda by state controlled media or coercion and terror waged by internal security forces. This was especially true in the more liberal (relative to the Soviet Union) states of the Warsaw Pact: Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary. Some political and economic concessions had already been made, but their people clamored for more. When this happened in previous decades, the Soviet Union responded with force. But in 1988 and 1989, the Soviet Union had just withdrawn in defeat from Afghanistan and the Red Army was paralyzed from corruption and the need for its soldiers to participate in the spring planting, lest they starve. Furthermore, the Soviet Union was going through an economic crisis that was 40 years in the making. Soviet Russia could only look on.
Events came to a head in the spring of 1989. Two symbolic events in April 1989 stood out. First, the Solidarity movement in Poland gained a crucial victory when it secured permission to participate in parliamentary elections in June. (They would go on to win 90% of the seats.) But it was the second that was most distressing to the Soviets at the time because they relied on the false perception that Communism was for “the people”. In a reaction to Solidarity’s victory, the Hungarian parliament, who saw the writing on the wall, unanimously voted to change the official name of the country from “The People’s Republic of Hungary” to “The Republic of Hungary” which was more in line with the names of Western governments. This removed the farcical “People’s” from the name. By the late 80s, it was obvious Communism only served a totalitarian, oligarchic, and bureaucratic elite in the name of the “Greater Good”. Still, the name change was only a symbolic gesture, but the reformers in the Hungarian Parliament, who were the sons and daughters of those curb stomped by the Soviets in 1956, knew it was an important one.
On 2 May 1989, that symbolic gesture had substantial consequences. On that day, the Hungarian Border Police, following the lead of their Parliament’s vote, began removing the border fence with Austria, to kick start improved economic ties with the West. Although there were hundreds of small symbolic acts of defiance against the Soviets that spring, the dismantling of the Hungarian border fence was the first concrete act by a Warsaw Pact government toward a peaceful end to the Cold War.
As a popular tourist destination for Warsaw Pact subjects, Hungary was relatively easy for East German, Czech, and Polish families to obtain travel papers. Tens of thousands of “holdiaymakers” fled their countries for the West by ostensibly going to Hungary for vacation. The summer of 1989 was the most successful tourist season in Hungary’s history.
Just a little over a month after he was elected Pope of the Catholic Church and sovereign of Vatican City, Pope John Paul I died in his bed on 28 September 1978. Two weeks later on 16 October the Second Papal Conclave of 1978 elected Pope John Paul II after two days of deliberations. Pope John Paul II was the greatest Roman Catholic Pope of the modern age.
Born Karol Wojtyla outside of Krakow, Poland, he was the son of a Polish Army noncommissioned officer and attended university in Krakow where he studied history and languages until the Nazis closed it down in 1939. By 1941, his entire family was killed by the Germans, but Wojkyla survived by taking jobs in factories that got him exempted from the random detention and execution of Polish civilians. He spent his free time studying at an underground seminary while protecting and hiding Polish Jews from the Nazis.
After the war, Wojtyla was ordained a priest and spent the next 30 years in the difficult position of an outspoken Roman Catholic in a country dominated by Communism. His unpretentious demeanor and wise counsel earned him the nickname “Uncle” which his parishioners and peers used until he was elected Pope in 1978, when he took the name John Paul II.
Pope John Paul II was the first non-Italian pope in 500 years, and one of the youngest and healthiest. He had a worldly view that contrasted greatly with previous popes. Pope John Paul II spoke eight languages fluently and was the most widely traveled pope in history. He spent much energy repairing relations with the other world religions and was the first Pope ever to pray in a mosque. Pope John Paul II was not against contraception for health reasons i.e. to prevent the spread of HIV, and routinely affirmed Catholicism’s stance that evolution and creationism are not mutually exclusive. He publicly apologized for many of Roman Catholicism’s historical sins, and the first ever papal email was sent apologizing for the church sex abuse scandals.
Despite this, Pope John Paul II was hated throughout much of the world due to his staunch and outspoken nature against totalitarianism. He specifically decried Apartheid in South Africa, the Mafia in southern Italy, Latin and South American dictators, Socialist Liberation Theology, and was the one of the few world leaders with the courage to call the fighting in Rwanda what it was: genocide. He was a consistent opponent of war in general, but more importantly, Pope John Paul II was the world’s moral leader against Communism.
He survived numerous attempts at humiliation (a favored tactic of socialists) and two actual assassination attempts, one of which was bankrolled by the KGB, due to his voracious anti-communism. His homilies and sermons on the evils of Communism and Socialism gave hope to hundreds of millions of oppressed people around the world, particularly in Eastern Europe. Most historians agree with Polish Solidarity leader Lech Walesa and former Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev, both of whom said that without Pope John Paul II there would have been no Solidarity, and without Solidarity there would not have been the Fall of the Iron Curtain and Berlin Wall in 1989.
In 2004, Pope John Paul II was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease and died in the Vatican on 2 April 2005. On 8 April 2005, four million people packed into Rome, St Peter’s Square, and the Vatican to attend the funeral of Pope John Paul II. His funeral is the single largest gathering in the history of Christendom. It was attended by over 90 heads of state, and in a historical anomaly, was attended by the spiritual leaders of 14 of the world’s largest religions, including Islam, Judaism, the various Protestant denominations, and Eastern Orthodoxy. It was the first time the Archbishop of Canterbury attended Catholic Mass since the 16th Century, and the first time the Patriarch attended a papal funeral since the Great Schism between the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches a thousand years before.
He was canonized St. John Paul II on 27 April 2014.
Flight Lt Victor Belenko was one of the Soviet’s best and most experienced pilots, and in 1972 was assigned to fly the newest fighter in the Communist arsenal: the MIG-25 Foxbat. (Cue ominous music)
In the early 70s the Foxbat was the Boogie Man. It’s radar could see farther than any comparable American or NATO system, and the plane itself could accelerate, cruise, and climb faster, with greater range, than any fighter in the Free World. The CIA, much less the US Air Force, knew precious little about it, and what they did was only picked up from electronic hints by SR-71 Blackbird reconnaissance pilots trying to outrun its missiles.
Belenko was the training officer for a MIG-25P fighter squadron outside Vladivostok in eastern Siberia. As such, he was responsible for not only flight instruction but political indoctrination, which he considered a waste of precious time. He was a smart and practical man, and for several years, struggled with the cognitive dissonance inherent in a Communist society. The propaganda simply did not match reality. As a fighter pilot, he intimately knew the consequences of ignoring information that contradicts a perceived situation. But unlike most of his peers whom just became subdued cynics, Belenko turned skeptical of the entire system.
He was constantly bombarded by his commissars about “the greatness of the Soviet state and progressive society”, but he slowly noticed evidence to the contrary. His base conditions were horrible, and was called a “Bad Communist” for suggesting improvements to his men’s quarters. Due to a horribly inefficient and under funded maintenance system, he was routinely forced by his superiors to doctor training records, an act the commissars threatened with imprisonment. He found the entire system rife with corruption, and had to use his wife’s party connections to get anything done.
Belenko began to question everything. “If Communism worked, why did he, an elite fighter pilot, have to help with the harvest?”, “If America was backwards, why were their fighters so much better in Vietnam?” and, “If the West was falling apart why did they have so many more Nobel prize winners in science?” were just a few. Soon after his wife’s divorce due to their bleak existence in Siberia, Belenko reached the tipping point when he was presented with unmistakable proof of the commissars’ lies.
In June 1976, Belenko and his squadron were shown films of homelessness and poverty in American cities as affirmation of the failure of Capitalism. However, a closer analysis of the films’ backgrounds revealed stunning discoveries: he saw stores, but no massive queues. And they were lit with signs, and large windows that showcased huge varieties of goods. One film had a woman with bags of groceries with toilet paper poking out the top. (He “hadn’t used toilet paper in years”. He and his wife “cleaned themselves with old copies of the Pravda.”) Moreover, there were single houses completely at odds with the massive drab poorly maintained tenement block that he was forced to live in. Great swaths of Soviet society lived much worse than what he saw in the background of the propaganda films. The “‘Eureka!’ moment” came as cars drove past in all colors, shapes, and sizes. In a few frames passing by in a split second, he noticed “a Cadillac driven by a black man!”
The propagandists had said that African Americans were the most oppressed minority in the United States, but “how much worse must Communism be if a member of this oppressed minority can own a Cadillac, while I, an elite pilot high in the system, must wait for years on a list for a much smaller car?”
Belenko was convinced the propagandists were lying, and with no more ties to the USSR, decided to defect. Because the Soviets didn’t trust the pilots with a full tank of fuel for that very reason, he overstated his usage on a previous mission, and bribed his maintenance chief not to check. The next mission he received his allotment and with the prior overage, he figured he had enough to make the trip to Japan. Belenko smuggled operators and maintenance manuals into the cockpit, and hoped to buy his life in the West with his knowledge and his plane (the commissars told him the West tortured and killed prisoners).
On the afternoon of 6 September 1976, he broke formation, dove for the wave tops, slammed the plane into afterburner, and sped for Japan. Before his wingman could react, Belenko was gone.
He landed at Hakedate airport on the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido, with just 30 seconds of fuel left. Opening his cockpit, he fired two rounds in the air, and gave the startled white flag carrying Japanese officials a pre-written note asking for concealment of his plane, contact with American analysts, and asylum in the US (which he was eventually granted).
Belenko and his Foxbat were an intelligence windfall. The Air Force dissected the MIG-25 and found it to be far from the Boogie Man: it was a One Trick Pony. The Foxbat was the second fastest plane on the planet, but it was unmaneuverable, overly heavy, maintenance intensive, and extremely fragile. It was still a generation behind its contemporary the F-15 Eagle in all aspects but raw power.
Unfortunately, the Foxbat’s stay was much shorter than its pilot’s. The plane was ordered returned to the Soviets by President Jimmy Carter who wanted to increase goodwill with the Communists. The Air Force did exactly as the President ordered, but to their credit, with a bit of panache – the plane was completely disassembled down to individual bolts, and returned in thirty crates. Attached was a note that said:
“Dear Russian Bear, the US has everything we need anyway so here are the pieces to prove it. With best wishes, the Secretary of the Air Force.
PS: Nice plane, but nothing we need to keep.”
The passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the beginning of serious American involvement in Vietnam in 1965 began a new and more volatile phase in America’s Civil Rights Movement. The booming post war economy of the 50s and early 60s couldn’t keep up with the competing fiscal requirements of enforcement of the CRA, Johnson’s Great Society Programs, and the Cold War. A combination of Southern Democrats (for mostly racial reasons) and Northeastern Republicans (for mostly economic and political reasons) consistently steered money away from urban programs creating a widening economic gulf in America. In response to this, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, at the forefront of America’s Civil Rights Movement, organized the Poor People’s Campaign in late 1967 and early 1968, focusing on jobs and income for America’s urban poor.
As part of this campaign, Dr. King traveled to Memphis Tennessee in March 1968 to give support to the plight of black sanitation workers who received unequal pay and benefits compared to their white counterparts. Memphis was no stranger to Dr. King: he was there often and routinely stayed in the same hotel, even the same room. At 6pm on 4 April 1968, a gunman, James Earl Ray, took advantage of this situation. Ray shot and killed Dr. King as he stood on the 2nd floor balcony of his usual room in the Lorraine Hotel. Ray would escape, but would be captured in London two months later.
Later that evening, at a campaign stop in Indianapolis, Senator Robert Kennedy learned of Dr. King’s assassination. He had one last campaign speech to make that day but he tore up his remarks. During this impromptu address he gave one of the most memorable speeches in American history. He focused on Dr. King’s belief of non-violence and abhorrence of racial divisiveness. He concluded by saying,
“What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence or lawlessness, but love and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice towards those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or whether they be black.”