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Sunday, August 14th, 2011

Baton Rouge, Louisiana



Fifty years ago his weekend, the Berlin Wall was erected by the puppet soviet state of East Germany.  Unless you are over sixty five or are a history buff, you may not understand the tensions that existed then that had many observers feel we could be on the brink of war with the Soviet Union.  Just a year later, that concern almost became a reality as then President John Kennedy faced down Russia’s Premier Nikita Khrushchev over the Cuban missile crisis.

East German and Russian soldiers scurried throughout the night on August 14th and 15th of 1961 to erect a 25 mile long barbed wire fence, forcing some 2000 East Germans to flee their homes.  In the months that followed, the “wire wall” became concrete with guards aloft who shot anyone trying to climb the wall, and make their way into West Berlin.   For the next 26 years, German citizens were not allowed to cross the wall.  Americans could enter into East Berlin at “˜Checkpoint Charlie,” only if they could establish some business purpose for crossing the border.

At the time, I was a politically naïve graduate student at Cambridge University in England.  I had the privilege of being a member of the US Track Team that had run track meets throughout Europe.  And strangely enough, my track career led to the first significant political crisis I ever faced. After competing for a month, we had a two-week break in the schedule, and the American team was going to vacation in various parts of Europe, then regroup in Bremerhaven, Germany, for our next official competition.

A meet promoter approached me to compete at a major track meet in East Berlin during the break. The promoter assured me that I would receive full expenses and appropriate prizes. There was no professional track in the 1960s, but the better runners could negotiate for their prize ““ a clock radio, a T.V. set, maybe a refrigerator, all of which could be cashed in after the meet.  I had never been to East Germany, and I figured if the promoter was willing to cover the expenses of a struggling student runner, why not go for it.

I would have to cross the Berlin Wall and compete at the Olympic stadium in East Berlin.  Now at this time, America did not recognize East Germany as a legitimate country. It was considered a Russian puppet state, and the U.S. maintained no diplomatic relations with them. Once you crossed to the other side of the wall, you were on your own.

On the afternoon of the track meet, I crossed the border from West Berlin at Checkpoint Charlie, along with the agent who had arranged for me to run in the meet. (He also served as my interpreter.) It was an evening meet, and I was scheduled to compete in the high hurdles against an East German who was world ranked. The East Germans had built up the competition as a grudge match between our two countries and made it a point of honor for their national pride.

Our team had been competing several times a week, but the break had given me a lengthy rest from the grind of competition. I felt extra spring in my legs and anticipated a good run and victory over the East German.

The 100-meter dash was about to begin when my agent brought over an American who wanted to talk to me. He did not fully identify himself, but he said he was with the American Embassy in West Germany. He told me in strong terms that it would be completely unacceptable for me to run the high-hurdles race that was about to start. As a member of the American team, he argued, I was a representative of my government. Since America did not recognize East Germany, I would be giving tacit recognition to a country that the United States felt was illegitimate. He implied that by competing I could start an international incident; if I had any patriotism, I would get my gear and head back across the border to West Berlin immediately.

What a dilemma for a twenty-one-year-old who was simply enjoying the opportunity to travel and had no real understanding of the international consequences supposedly at stake. I wanted to run, but I certainly was not going to go against the wishes of my country. So I gathered my warm-ups and had the interpreter tell the meet promoter that I was not going to run.

As the announcement was being made that I would not compete, I headed for the locker rooms, which were located at the other end of the stadium, diagonally across the infield. Thousands of people in the stadium stood up and whistled loudly, which was their way of booing. I learned later that the announcer had told the crowd the American was afraid to compete against the East German. I was angry and disappointed, but I had enough common sense to change my clothes and get back across the border.

Many years later, I would look back on this controversy as my first political act. I guess the possibility of starting an international incident certainly qualifies as a baptism in politics.

The following year, President Kennedy stood at the foot of the Berlin Wall, and told a crowd of 125,000 that “All free men, wherever they may live, are citizens of Berlin, and therefore, as a free man, I take pride in the words, “˜Ich bin ein Berliner.'”  But the wall stayed in place for another 25 years.  In 1986, President Ronald Reagan spoke in West Berlin at the Brandenburg Gate and admonished; “Mr. Gorbachev take down that wall.” The wall finally fell three years later.

Fifty years have gone by, and we no longer fear one super power.  There are brush fires worldwide that have overwhelmed America’s resources. Stephen Glain, a guest on my radio show this weekend, and author of the best seller, State vs Defense” articulately argues that America is in a whole new era of defining America’s empire in the years to come.  Let’s hope we will continue to argue about destroying walls and not destroying countries in the future.


“Sometimes I think it should be a rule of war that you have to see somebody up close and get to know him before you can shoot him.” ~M*A*S*H, Colonel Potter

Peace and Justice

Jim Brown

Jim Brown’s syndicated column appears each week in numerous newspapers and websites throughout the South.  You can read all his past columns and see continuing updates at www.jimbrownla.com. You can also hear Jim’s nationally syndicated radio show each Sunday morning from 9 am till 11:00 am, central time, on the Genesis Radio Network, with a live stream at http://www.jimbrownla.com.

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