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Michael Walsh discusses his experiences as a journalist during the Cold War

Author and Former associate editor for Time Magazine Michael Walsh gave a lecture entitled “Behind Enemy Lines: The Adventures of an American Correspondent During the Cold War” at The Institute of World Politics on April 6, in which he described three unique Cold War experiences as a journalist.  

In February of 1985, Mr. Walsh covered a story on the 300th anniversary of Johann Sebastian Bach’s birth, a German composer who hailed from the eastern half of the nation. Mr. Walsh traveled to East Germany in order to learn more about what Bach’s experience would have been like in the 17th century. Mr. Walsh soon discovered what East Germany was like at the time. Once inside, he was told that, as a precaution, a German “translator” would help him around the country even though he spoke German. The reality was that the translator was spying on him. He continued by adding that the East Germans understood how to be communist, and, as a result, the nation was very quiet. When he was inside the country, it seemed that one out of every three Germans was an informant for the Stasi, which limited conversation to whispers. Within every city or town, it seemed that people were suffering with quiet desperation.

In the spring of 1986 he was in Moscow during the aftermath of Operation El Dorado Canyon, a U.S. airstrike done in retaliation for the bombing of a Berlin discotheque. Mr. Walsh described the USSR as dysfunctional with lazy but very friendly people, where there was disparity between socialism and reality, and the people whom you bribe stay bribed. He also mentioned that Marlboro cigarettes were used as a common currency. It was at this time that Mr. Walsh predicted that the Soviet Union would collapse and Germany would be reunified within five years. The reality was that Germany was reunified in three years.

During the summer of 1989, Mr. Walsh was at the Austro-Hungarian border when it was announced that the East German authorities were reportedly considering loosening travel restrictions between Germany and Hungary. Mr. Walsh described a deep sense of anxious desire within the European community. When the Hungarian government finally allowed East German refugees to flee to Austria, Walsh recounts the overwhelming relief and happiness he witnessed when East Germans made their way through Austria and to Germany. “These were whole families stuffed in these two-cylinder cars made of plastic, and they had gotten across. They had finally tasted the fresh air of freedom.” The underpinnings of the Soviet Bloc were beginning to crack, and before long, the entire structure succumbed to pressure from within.