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Nixon and Cold War politics, Finland 1975

English: Richard Nixon boarding Army One upon ...

I went there right after Ford pardoned Nixon and while I was there we got out of Vietnam.

I had been a very liberal child of the sixties living in Massachusetts.  I was in junior high when all that was happening but I still marched in the war protest.  I was very critical of the U.S. ’cause that was kind of cool.  I was just enthralled with the whole socialist system in Finland where you can have a baby for ten dollars and nobody’s poor and this and that.

And so I had this tremendous youthful idealism.  Well, you can imagine that these sort of relatively more well-to-do Swedo-Finns, in this pretty nice suburb were very opposite of that.  It’s like, “We need to be more like the U.S., and those of us who work really hard and make something of ourselves ought to get more.  But here everything’s too level.”


Richard Nixon meets Leonid Brezhnev June 19, 1...

Richard Nixon meets Leonid Brezhnev June 19, 1973 during the Soviet Leader’s visit to the U.S. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)



It was something that really surprised me.  Now, as a grownup, I can totally get it.  I think the tax structure’s a little screwed up.  Here I work so hard and I’ve risen to the top of this company and I still don’t make that much more and all that kind of thing, and that is not a perspective that I appreciated particularly when I was eighteen or nineteen.

Then there was the whole thing about the Soviet Union, and that kind of came into play.  I was very critical of the U.S., and my [host] dad was very supportive of the U.S. because it was the countervailing evil empire, and so people were really impressed with the U.S. in general.

I’d spent the whole summer watching Nixon go down in flames with Watergate, and when I got there it was like, “Well, you know we think Nixon was really great because he opened China.”  They just had a more global perspective.  It was sort of like, “Yeah, you know, politicians, there’s always corruption, and they always have their scandals and stuff, but look what he really did for the world.”  That was a very different perspective.  I couldn’t have found anybody to say anything good about Nixon by the time I went to Finland, and there they were taking the bigger picture.  I think it’s kind of how history is judging him.

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John Kennedy, good man, Peace Corps

Logo of the United States Peace Corps.

Logo of the United States Peace Corps. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

They loved their king.  He was respected and revered.  When the king went by, my brother and family were just honored they could see him.

That’s our king!

They knew nothing about our president in 1972.  The one president they did remember from the US was John Kennedy, and that was because he sent the Peace Corps over.  My father had named me Esmeri Jon, which meant Dear Lion, almost like you would say Papa-san, a term of endearment.  That was Jon in Farsi and Esmeri meant Lion.

He asked me what my name meant, and I figured here’s my chance to score a goal and I told him that Bob meant lion.

The few words that my father was able to say in English, he said “Esmeri Jon, John Kennedy, good man, Peace Corps.”

That was another life lesson I learned, that when you offer people it would pay dividends years later.  I considered a career in international relations when I came back.

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War Games in West Berlin

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This image was taken in 1986 by Thierry Noir a...
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I would hang out with friends in town after school and drink beer, smoke cigarettes and chat, whether one day it would be the Cold War, or what we would do if the Warsaw Pact attacks.

We weren’t that far from the border of East Germany, and we had a military base just outside of town.

My first week there was quite an experience because we were having war games going off.  I was lying in bed and there was shaking and bombs exploding and flares going off in the distance, and I came flying downstairs.

Bomben?  Bombs?”

“Oh, we forgot to tell you, there’s a military base and they’re just having war games.”

I got to appreciate more of that whole interaction with the Cold War, that we would have war games in there.  The Brits would come –we were in the British Zone–and their tanks would every so often drive through town.  Americans would come up for NATO maneuvers every so often and drive their Abrams [tanks] through town.  Depending on the size and scope of the games, they would have the Air Forces come in and do dry bombing runs.  What they would do is, they would come in over the base, but turn and loop back around and just skirt the border and get everybody agitated over there, and every time they did that it was an inside joke on this side of the border that we would stir the pot a little bit and see what happens.

Signage at Checkpoint Charlie

Image by edwin.11 via Flickr

It was just a brinkmanship game being played.  The Cold War was much more real at that point there.  We would discuss it and what if it came to war would you fight with East Germans.  “Yeah, if they shoot at me I’ll shoot back.  They’re the enemy.  They’re Germans, yes we speak the same language, but we’re different countries,” and they seemed very accepting of that, very Westward looking.

The whole EC at that point was 20 years old but still developing, still in it’s infancy as far as pan-Western European understanding and cooperation.  Spain and Portugal had just gotten in and that was a big shock to European economy.  Just as big as letting the former Eastern Bloc countries in recent years.

There’s actually some excitement among some of my friends, they can go and work now anywhere from Spain to Sweden.  How cool is that? I don’t need a passport!  That whole concept of not needing these documents anymore.

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National flag of Iran

Iran, 1978 – when the Cinema Rex burned down

English: Cinema Rex building after the fire; s...

The Cinema Rex, after the fire. Image via Wikipedia

Before I left Iran, some of my host family (cousins) took me by car to see some of the extremely poor sections of Tehran and also to see the very opulent “crown jewels” of the Shah at a museum.  They told me to remember what I had seen.

When that theater burned, it was very vivid in my mind because the next day this newspaper — which I couldn’t read because it was in Farsi — had this picture on the front page of these charred bodies.  It was really graphic.  What everybody thought at that point, and I’m only now coming to find out that it was something different, everybody thought it was the Shah and his secret police that had locked the doors.  But now I’ve been doing a lot of internet research and the feeling is now that it was actually the Islamic fundamentalists that did this and blamed it on the Shah, and that sort of started everything rolling.

I remember soon after that they had limited the number of people that could be together in a group in public, and we were going to be going to Esfahan with a family with nine kids, so we had to go in three cars and sorta not all be together.  With the parents there were about 20 of us.  It was interesting!


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Transformative Power of Intercultural Experiences

Twitter can be an amazing thing.  Just today I connected with a neat website about global, intercultural experiences.  Check it out.  This particular story is written by a gentleman who grew up in the former East Germany and was 19 when the Berlin Wall came down.

I was there at the same time as a 20-year-old college student, chipping away at the wall less than two weeks later, peering thru holes in the wall at smiling, friendly East German guards, and watching East Germans pour across the border for the first time in their lives.  I was in awe of the spectacle.

Intercultural experiences like this transforms lives.