Class of 1968
One of the tenants of Sister City program envisioned by President Dwight Eisenhower was that every individual should have the opportunity for an international experience toward world peace.
My opportunity came in 1992 when I was a project manager for leading delegations of American public administers to the newly formed countries of the former Soviet Union.
When the “wall” finally fell, the existing sister city relationships between communist communities and their U.S. partners were in place to create programs in democratic governance.
With funding from USIA, I led a delegation from Tucson to their sister city, Alma Ata, Kazakhstan. We were treated to the most enthusiastic welcoming ceremonies at almost every stop in our tour, including one visit to a state farm and winery. There, we were given a tour and a lavish lunch and were encouraged to drink the wines produced at the farm, as well as their home made Cognac. Of course there were bottles or vodka for the traditional series of toasts that are almost mandatory in any ceremony of importance.
When my turn came, I mentioned that as a veteran of the Vietnam War I was happy to be part of peaceful exchanges between our two peoples who had been kept apart far too long by the politics of the cold war.
The next to toast was a Kazakh, and as he looked over at me, he mentioned that was also a veteran of the Vietnam War. The entire table broke out in laughter. This man was a soldier in the former Soviet Army and was an adviser to the North Vietnamese Army.
We were urged to have our pictures taken while standing together, shaking hands. During the picture taking I asked what he did in Vietnam, and he said he was “shooting down your airplanes.”
I was surprised and said, “I was in those airplanes.” The room again broke out in laughter. I said to him in mock anger, while pointing my finger at him, “why were you trying to shoot me down?” He replied “that he only wanted me to come down to have a drink with him.” I laughed, we shook hands and the room broke out in applause. The vodka flowed and our gathering took on the comfortable feeling of being with friends.
On our way back from the farm, my fellow veteran and I were in the same car. I gave him a pin of the insignia of my unit in Vietnam, which I had picked up a few days earlier while at the Vietnam Memorial, across the street from the U.S. State Department.
The insignia is of the XXIV Corps that consists of white heart in a blue background. I told him that it is fitting that the heart that once stood for war now stands for peace. I said that we were lucky to have survived our circumstances and he gave me a hug, Russian style with kisses on both cheeks and said, “All the world is a stage and we are merely actors.”
I did not know what to expect from the former evil empire, but Shakespeare was not anywhere in my expectations.
A few days later, I saw my new friend and asked him about the pin. He told me that he gave it to his daughter, who was in the 8th grade. She took the pin to school where she showed it to her classmates and said that her father had met a man who was once an enemy but who is now here as a friend to help us.
I was just blown away with wonderful feelings. It was nothing I did, but a series of circumstances that had provided a moment in time so very rich in meaning and good karma.
Sister City Organizations provide opportunities in which everyone who wants one can have a moment in time like my day in Kazakhstan.
After my former enemy from the Vietnam war told his story, I felt a true sense that peace among people of good will may just be possible. The rest of the story got much, much better.
I developed a similar program in democratic institution building in Kharkiv, Ukraine, building upon their existing sister city relationship with Cincinnati, Ohio. I recruited a city manager and political science professor from Ohio to accompany me to Ukraine to present a two-week program to more than 200 communist administrators from the Kharkiv district.
A few days into this program the local press interviewed me and asked if I had any interesting “anecdotes” from my travels through the former communist countries. I told them about my project in Kazakhstan and about the former enemy who “only wanted me to come down and have a drink with him.”
They loved it and put the story of our project and that anecdote on the front page of the paper. Kharkiv has a population of more than 2 million people.
When I returned home, in anticipation of the arrival of officials from Ukraine selected for internships in the U.S., I had several pins made, depicting the insignia of my former unit.
A month or so later, I welcomed the first group from Ukraine to the U.S. by meeting them at Dulles International Airport and a four-day tour of our nation’s capital. They spent their time in Washington visiting our institutions of government before they went to Cincinnati, Ohio, for six-week internships and study of state and local governments that I had arranged with the sister city association.
On their last day in D.C., I took them to the Vietnam memorial, where I had served as a volunteer.
I gathered them around me at the apex of the memorial and explained all the symbolism integral to its design and the repetitive circular themes: We the living are reflected in the polished, black granite through the names of the dead; that the names of the dead are recorded according to time of death so that the beginning of each new group of alphabetized names is a new day allowing those joined in death to be joined in memoriam; that the Wall goes from the apex, east toward the Washington memorial and ends in the middle of 1968 and then begins again on the west wall, toward the Lincoln Memorial, and continues with 1968 and proceeds with names toward the apex again, linking not only the monuments on the National Mall but also the last man killed with the first man killed. And now former enemies were reflected and united by their names and memory.
I went on to say that these names were the sacrifice of my generation in the fifty year Cold War and that now that we have met each other in peace, it is up to us to dedicate the remainder of our lives to work in ways big and small to make sure this never happens again. To memorialize this moment, I presented each of them with a lapel pin as a token of our time together at this hallowed place.
There was not a dry eye in either our group or the tourists who stopped by to listen. The interpreter was crying and having a hard time translating the words. As I handed a pin to one of the delegates, a former colonel in the soviet army, he gave me a big hug and with tears in his eyes said, “All soldiers should be veterans.”
I, too, was very emotional and let them all pass so I could have some time in front of the names of my fallen brothers.
Later that evening, in a room set up as a hospitality suite, many of the Ukrainians were into vodka and one in particular, a former Soviet soldier, looked very morose and sad. He spoke up, “I am very ashamed for what I saw and what I did in Hungary and now we are lost and have no country and no hope.”
The former Soviet colonel spoke up. “How can we be lost when we are in the United States talking about such things?”