Document Friday: The Soviet Union Admits to Being “Completely at Fault” For Ramming a US Truck
In July 1985, a Soviet truck slammed in the the rear of a vehicle. Then, the two drivers –one American, and one Soviet– “engag[ed] in a heated argument.” Could happen on any street corner, right? Except the two drivers were soldiers, the crash occurred during the heat of the Cold War, and it was in East Berlin –the American was “behind enemy lines.” And even more peculiarly, when viewed through the lens of the Cold War, Soviet officials were quick to announce to the United States that their soldier was “completely at fault.”
Fortunately, a 24 July1985 National Security Counsel memo, recently released by the Reagan Presidential Library, untangles and explains the incident. It’s a very interesting read –and does a lot to explain how the policy makers at the top of the American government get their information and enact their strategies.
So why was an American soldier even driving on the Soviet side of the Berlin Wall? He was probably conducting a type of “licencing spying.” Colonel Roland Lajoie was driving in a US military tour vehicle as a member of the US Military Liaison Mission. The Military Liaison Missions were established near the end of the Second World War to dismantle the Third Reich; when the Cold War began, the Liaison Missions remained. After the Soviets built the Berlin Wall they became even more important, giving the Soviets a view into West and the Americans a view into the East. (I know this is old news to anyone that has ever read a Le Carre novel.)
Of course, this “licensed spying” was not completely safe. Americans harried Soviets in West Berlin, and Soviets harried Americans in East Berlin. In fact, a very strong case can be made that the last American to be killed in the Cold War was killed in East Berlin, by Soviet soldiers. Army Major Arthur Nicholson, a member of the Military Liason, was shot and killed in March 1985, just four months before a Soviet truck rammed into the rear of Colonel Lajoie’s vehicle.
Here’s the account of the July ramming, as reported to the National Security Counsel:
Two days later, Lajoie’s superior officer “protested verbally” to the Soviets. They agreed to investigate, and –surprisingly– reported that the Soviet troops “were completely at fault,” although the accident “was not deliberate;” the Soviets also promised that the soldiers at fault, “would be punished.” An unnamed Soviet officer even “extend[ed] his personal condolences to Colonel Lajoie.”
But that’s not all. On a deeper level, the document appears to reveal the beginning of the end of the Cold War –Mikhail Gorbachev had become the Soviet GenSec in March of 1985. After admitting complete fault for the incident, the Soviets pleaded that the crash not impact US-Soviet relations in Berlin, or more broadly. They also insisted that it was “more urgent than ever” to “move forward with military-to-military staff talks.” (I’m not sure if “move forward” means “continue having” or “begin having.” If you know the history of these military contacts, drop a comment. There is also the possibility that the vehicle that Lajoie was travelling in was coming from one of these military-to-military talks, making the Soviet soldier’s ramming all the more egregious.) As the memo’s author, Tyrus Cobb keenly concluded, “Most importantly, old hands cannot recall any instance of the Soviets being so forthcoming as they were in responding to this incident.”
Cobb also expressed disapproval that “the President was never formally informed of the actual incident.” He blamed this on “the ineptness of the military reporting system and the multi-layered armed forces bureaucracy [that is] readily apparent. OSD [had finished preparing a report on the incident] but failed to send it to us –even though we repeatedly asked for information.”
I wonder if Mr. Cobb –now at the National Security Forum– has ever filed a FOIA request.