It may seem practically impossible to bridge today’s walls. Yet, in the early 1980s, few thought the Berlin Wall would fall in their lifetimes. The secret? Focus on the issue, not the personalities.
During the depths of the Cold War, when United States and former Soviet Union officials pointed hundreds of nuclear weapons at each other and appeared on a disastrous path towards an unthinkable catastrophe, I walked through Texas into Louisiana with a few other people.
Our group was small, our goal to end the decades-long Cold War almost laughable. Motorists yelled at us, calling us commies and worse. More people stopped to ask why we were walking in 100-degree heat from Nowhere, Texas, to Moscow, Russia. To this day, I have to admit I don’t fully understand why.
But I knew then, and I know now, if we saw a dangerous trend that would lead to tragedy and disaster, we had to do something to address it, to wake up people from their doldrums. So about eight months following the release of the nuclear war terror film, The Day After, some members of an American Legion Hall near Sulphur, La., called me and fellow walker Dale over. As we observed their jaws drop slightly while they read messages on our shirts about walking for peace to Russia, one asked, “What’d ya wanna go there fo’?”
Dale didn’t hesitate. “This is my eighth peace walk, and people are always telling us to go talk peace and human rights to the Russians. So, that’s what we intend to do.”
A crowd soon formed as several other curious war veterans joined the discussion. One named Bill shook his head. “If someone comes over and tries to take my land, I’ll sure fight him fo’ it. That’s what we fought fo’ in all these wars.” Another named Jim agreed. “The only way to keep the peace is by being the strongest. We have to keep building up weapons to show these Russians we mean bidness.”
I let them air their views without comment, taking mental notes. In them, I saw the attitude that a retired Methodist minister we had stayed with the night before had to confront most of his life. Rev. Daniel Poole had really caused a stir when he wrote a letter to the local paper in 1959 saying that schools should be integrated.
I knew once they thought they had their points across I could ask a few questions that might allow them to think further. I found a proper entry point. “So when is the arms race going to stop in your view? How many weapons are enough for us to be strong?”
Jim had an immediate answer. “More than they got. We’ve got to stay ahead.”
“Yeah, but don’t we also need to avert a nuclear confrontation?” Dale injected. “Won’t building more weapons just lead to more aggression and mistrust and eventually, if it keeps escalating, the unthinkable war?”
Silence, then Bill admitted, “Well, we do wanna keep a nucl’ar war from happ’ning. You see m’ boy over thar?” He pointed to a smiling youngster. “I don’t want him to be a legionnaire. I wanna be the last generation of legionnaires.”
Things really started to get odd when Jim invited us inside for a beer. “Uh, you have juice or water?” I did not recall the last time I had turned down a beer — before that walk, which had a no drugs or alcohol rule. We weren’t the stereotypical pot-smoking, anti-war hippies, which allowed us to relate better to conservatives in rural areas who through our action, realized we were willing to take risks and sweat to reach a goal. We drank cola, which some said was a drug stronger than beer or marijuana.
We surveyed the legion hall curiously. Women were in the kitchen cooking for a special banquet that night. Plaques and trophies dotted the huge room, and a detailed memorial for veterans sat on a table, ready to be hung. Our conversation with the men remained friendly, even when Jim asked in a low voice right after we stepped in, “You are anti-communist, aren’t you?”
“We believe in the freedom and human rights of all people,” Dale replied. “That’s explicitly in our petition, and we won’t compromise on that issue.”
His answer seemed to satisfy Jim for he took another swig of beer, tapped the memorial, and said, “Freedom. That’s what we fought fo’ in Korea and ‘Nam. And that’s worth dyin’ fo’ in my book. Better dead than red.”
Soon, it was time to get back on the road, and we gave them brochures on the walk and more to think about. They even put us on their mailing list. It was one of hundreds of impromptu meetings during that 18-month journey that broke down a few walls, allowing a spark of mutual respect and understanding to emerge. Through them, we learned that the most important peacemaking and wall-breaking didn’t come from trying to lobby government officials to halt the nuclear arms race as much as attempting to bridge the smaller divides that rise between individuals.
How do we bridge today’s divisions?
Thinking back to that time, there are some lessons to relate to today. Perhaps the country seems more divided now among Donald Trump supporters and opponents than it did among Ronald Reagan supporters and opponents in the early 1980s. Even to his worst detractors, Reagan might have seemed more stable than Trump does now to his. And Reagan might at least listen to opponents’ side more than Trump these days.
Yet, there were times when we questioned Reagan’s sanity, such as when he proclaimed during a radio microphone check in 1984 — as we marched through Alabama — that he signed legislation to “outlaw Russia.” “We begin bombing in five minutes,” Reagan said to a crowd that included National Public Radio engineers. The pre-broadcast remarks hit the media, and Reagan said he was joking, much like Trump said he was being sarcastic when he talked in 2020 about people injecting disinfectant to treat the coronavirus.
Behind the scenes, Reagan administration officials took the Cold War more seriously. Reagan and a high-level Soviet official, such as Premier Konstantin Chernenko, did not even meet between 1981 and 1984. Nuclear weapon deployment and “war games” had escalated along the Iron Curtain European borders, particularly after the 1983 Soviet shoot-down of Korean Air Lines Flight 007. Declassified documents published by the National Security Archive in 2013 showed that leaders of the U.S. and former Soviet Union drifted the countries closer to nuclear war than anyone previously admitted “through suspicion, belligerent posturing and blind miscalculation.” The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists set its traditional “Doomsday Clock,” which has marked the danger of nuclear war since 1947, to three minutes before midnight in 1984. That was the closest the clock had been to midnight in three decades.
The Cold War was a dangerous crisis that could have killed millions, and the US president was joking before NPR employees about outlawing and bombing the Russians. Like during this virus crisis, it was not a time for a leader to joke. Reagan had made public statements that “all mankind would lose” in a nuclear war as early as 1981, though he also said that same year that one could be limited to Europe.
The mixed messages were more than confusing. Privately, Reagan and his administration seemed to be planning for a nuclear war. The concept of “protracted nuclear war” was a key part of a classified report signed by Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger in 1982. That same year, Reagan signed a national security order to develop a “capability to sustain protracted nuclear conflict.” While he continued to publicly speak against initiating a nuclear war until his begin bombing “joke,” the private plans seemed to be proceeding at full steam.
While some members of our group, which had grown to about a dozen by the time we hit Washington, D.C., were more politically astute than me, I preferred to work on an issue level. That is, as much as I thought there were leaders better equipped to deal with the Cold War than Reagan, I sensed that voting one individual from office wasn’t automatically going to change much. Though it could at least temporarily — Barack Obama’s terms ushered in historic changes concerning healthcare and other matters, though many changes were more cosmetic and reversed by Trump. The issues dug deeper than one individual. We met Reagan’s disarmament adviser at the White House and other conservative officials — along with liberal and moderate ones and Soviet officials — and kept lines of communication open. You never know who might turn out to be an ally. Sometimes help comes from the most unthinkable source.
The walking part of our project ended in Geneva in late 1985 during the first summit between Reagan and new Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. That meeting started a process that resulted in a thaw in the Cold War, as Reagan and Gorbachev, who came from the academic side of the Soviet system, graduating from law school and believing in reforms, bonded in unexpected ways. In 1987, Reagan and Gorbachev signed the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, which banned land-based ballistic missiles, cruise missiles, and missile launchers with ranges of 310 to 3,420 miles. As Eastern European nations broke from the Soviets, some 2,700 missiles were removed by 1991. George H.W. Bush continued meeting with Gorbachev and signed the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty in 1991, which resulted in the removal of about 80 percent of strategic nuclear weapons.
The progress was ruined mainly by the rise of Vladimir Putin, a former KGB officer who became Russian president in 1999, and Trump, who took over the White House in 2017. Trump and Putin withdrew their countries from the INF treaty in 2019. They pursued other nuclear weapon systems and more ways to break up international alliances like the UN, European Union, and NATO that have helped improve relations for decades. Some say Putin seeks to establish a Soviet Union 2.0 with a Cold War 2.0, and Trump is doing little to curb that, even aiding the process. While many pols govern mostly through debate and compromise, Putin and Trump have ruled more through fear, division, and chaos.
Today, the Doomsday Clock is closer than ever at less than two minutes to midnight. That development is not just because of Trump and Putin, as the clock inched closer during Obama’s terms. While Obama was the kind of pol who governed through debate and wit, even that couldn’t reverse the doomsday slide. That leads one to believe that more people of goodwill have to get involved, a belief that Obama has continually repeated; we can’t leave the future of our planet in the hands of a few high-level leaders.
Focus on issue, not personalities
So how exactly did projects like our walk help break down barriers and lead to international treaties that made us all a little safer for more than a decade? Once we entered Eastern European countries, we met people who had not seen anyone from the West before, or at least few such folks. We gave them a personal glimpse of our shared humanity, a confirmation that the propaganda that existed in every nation was misguided. Perhaps they lobbied leaders to negotiate more seriously with the US, as we requested our leaders to do likewise with the Soviets in our countries.
We sought to meet people and officials with whom we didn’t agree. As with the Louisiana veterans, we found an issue where there was already broad agreement to start: how a nuclear war was unwinnable and had to be avoided. Conservative Alabama Gov. George Wallace and small-town mayors were among those submitting letters of commendation or welcome. At times, we had to walk away. In Virginia, a state trooper told us he would have busted us “in the chops” if he was an East German guard. Nothing we said changed his mind. In one Maryland town, authorities refused to let us walk with signs. That was the only town to bar us, except for in Eastern Europe, where officials declined to let us walk. But our effort helped open the doors for future projects, such as a three-week walk of Soviet citizens and Westerners in 1987.
While some say the fall of the Berlin Wall and collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989 were caused more by Reagan’s hard-line military buildup, others note that efforts to bridge East-West differences like these walks played a significant role, inspiring people in Hungary, East Germany, and other countries to protest for political reforms. The impetus for change in those former Soviet satellites came more from within the citizens themselves than pressure from Western militarism, although the latter certainly factored into the outcome.
Of course, you don’t have to walk for weeks to bridge differences. Thousands of cultural exchanges between cities and individuals that involved relatively brief visits resulted in important meetings through the years. Writing letters often worked, which advanced to email and chat programs in more recent years.
As we emerge from the global coronavirus pandemic and quarantines, we should make a renewed effort to deal with the larger issues like global warming and international relations. We can’t return to the old methods that seem to inspire divisiveness more than concrete progress. Perhaps instead of focusing much attention on Trump’s border wall — though I appreciated the creative protests where people wear masks of jaguars and other animals that could see habitats destroyed — we work on larger economic, political, and social issues that cause people to want to illegally move to the US. If we could truly help poorer nations grow their economies and become more stable, we wouldn’t need a Berlin Wall-like structure along the southern border. Drones and more Border Patrol agents could adequately fill in the gaps. Another larger issue that has to be addressed to solve this situation is the many U.S. businesses that employ illegal immigrants, including Trump’s companies. That won’t stop with a wall.
The focus should be on the issue, not so much the personality, even though one official may be a bigger obstacle than another. Many who thought Reagan was a warmonger changed their tune when he became a sort-of peacemaker. It’s sometimes fun to copy Trump and call him names in return, but the initial impact quickly fades, accomplishing little in the long run besides another venting exercise. Instead of talking about opposing Trump directly and making the focus on Trump — which he wants — try finding an issue that resonates with most people, such as strengthening Social Security and healthcare. Discuss the issue with everyone you can. Go around the personalities to deal with the issues. Address your responses to all, not just a few.
I admit I don’t always do that. I sometimes fall back into focusing on Trump. It’s a challenge. Dealing with those who seem to most oppose you may take more perseverance and patience. But if they can come around to eventually support your original goal, the impact can be greater than imagined.
Kevin James Shay is the author of Walking through the Wall, a book on long walks for peace he participated in during the 1980s.