Zachary Hubbard

Many Europeans like to ridicule Americans for our poor understanding of history and geography, but how bad is it really? Here’s a hint. A class of Albuquerque, New Mexico, high school seniors recently voted to make their prom theme Prom-munism, an allusion to communism.

Are American kids truly so clueless?

Their questionable decision set off a firestorm of debate around Albuquerque and garnered national media attention. The most plausible explanation for their decision – they thought it funny, according to a local TV reporter. Are you kidding me?

I spent most of my 24-year military career engaged in the Cold War – a standoff between democratic Western nations and the communist empire of the Soviet Union.  

After the Soviet Union crumbled in 1991, the rest of my career involved a lot of damage control in places such as Africa and the Balkans in the aftermath of the Soviet implosion.

Things were simpler then.

Our greatest fear was mutual nuclear annihilation, a prospect so terrible neither side’s leaders were willing to cross the line leading to extinction. It was nothing like today’s unstable world, where chaos seems to erupt in new places daily.

Most of my experience occurred in Germany, but the Cold War was a slow, global conflict waged in places such as Cuba, Nicaragua, Peru, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, Korea and China.

Communism has not delivered on Karl Marx’s promise of global utopia. His promise is always wrecked by greedy, power-hungry, ruthless communist political leaders.

Some estimates put the global death toll of communism’s oppression at more than 100 million people.

I spent almost 14 years in Germany, first as an Army brat and later in uniform as an Army officer.

Germany was the most visible focal point of the military standoff between the Soviet Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).

There, I witnessed firsthand the reality of communist oppression.

After World War II, the victors divided a conquered Germany into four zones of occupation – British, American, French and Soviet. Berlin, the former Nazi capital located in the Soviet zone, was divided into a democratic west and a communist east.

In 1961 the Soviets erected wire barriers to keep the Westerners out and the East Germans in. The barriers were subsequently reinforced into what was dubbed the Berlin Wall – a global symbol of communist cruelty.

During the Cold War, NATO could only access West Berlin by airplane, a superhighway called the Helmstedt Autobahn or via special trains. It was truly an island of freedom in the heart of Soviet-dominated Eastern Europe. Many East Germans were shot to death – killed by their own military forces – while trying to cross the wall into freedom.

I attended high school in Frankfurt during the early ‘70s. The Internet didn’t exist, so we depended on radio for our music. Frequently, while tuning through the stations, one would encounter a German language broadcast consisting of only numbers and letters. These were supposedly encoded messages being sent from the communist East to its spies in the West. Spies in West Germany were widespread. Sex, drugs and money were the bargaining chips they used to entice people to commit treason.

While attending college in Munich, I was able to tour several Balkan nations. They were all Soviet satellite states – not part of the Soviet Union, but dominated by the government in Moscow.

Visiting Bulgaria was particularly memorable. In the capital of Sofia, a city rich with relics of the Byzantine and Ottoman empires that once ruled there, our tour group was required to report to the local tourist agency upon arrival. We were escorted to our hotel and made to surrender our passports for the duration of our visit.

We were assigned an official tour guide, an attractive young woman who was likely an operative for Bulgarian intelligence. She took us to the mandatory city sites the Bulgarian government required us to see – the local television broadcast antenna, a plain-looking high-rise apartment complex and a large square with a gigantic statue of Vladimir Lenin. We were unimpressed.

Our “four-star” hotel was even less impressive. The grand lobby and dining room showed decades of neglect, like so many other buildings there. The food selections included several local dishes featuring animal entrails. The twin beds in our rooms were little more than cots, less than 3 feet wide.

The fear in the people of Sofia was palpable. They walked the drab streets with eyes cast downward toward the sidewalk, afraid of making eye contact with someone who might be a member of the secret police. They dressed in dark clothing and shopped in drab stores. How odd we American teenagers in jeans and bright T-shirts must have looked to them.

The products in Sofia’s stores had no branding. If one needed bath soap, there were big wire bins with loose bars of soap – no paper wrappers or labels of any sort. There were bottles of vodka, beer, juice and sparkling water with labels identifying the contents and nothing more. Apparel had only labels identifying the materials used and sizes.

The few luxury items available, such as American shaving cream, were incredibly expensive. Nearly everyone smoked cigarettes.

Sofia was just one of many similar Soviet-dominated cities. Fortunately, the Soviet era is past, but the oppressive, violent drive for hegemony in Eastern Europe remains in modern-day Russia. We see this playing out daily in the Ukraine.

Farther to the east, the communist Peoples Republic of China is flexing its muscles, quickly morphing from regional power to superpower.  

Its history of oppression is long and extremely violent.

America must keep a watchful eye on China. Take time to study its official policies and learn about the Korean War, which has never officially ended.

There’s nothing funny about communism. Americans need to learn history.

Zachary Hubbard, formerly of Johnstown, is a freelance writer and retired Army officer residing in the Greater Pittsburgh area.

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