What My Soviet-Fearing Father Taught Me About Today’s Russian Threat

My father hated communists and Russia right up until the year before he died, 1999. He didn’t have a change of heart about the Reds; rather, he developed dementia associated with the Lewy Body form of Parkinson’s. The only thing he worried about in those last months was where my mother had gone. Even when I was staying with him and she’d step outside to get the mail or water her plants, he’d come to me with a look on his face that maybe he had shown as a child, back in the early 1930s:

“Where’s your mother?”

Maybe he wanted a bowl of orange sherbet; maybe he needed help in the bathroom. Or maybe he knew that being alone now was a sign of things to come.

Of course by then, the only three countries that were at all scary red in our world were China, North Korea, and Cuba. The Soviet menace had gone the way of Glasnost, then Perestroika, and then collapse, but even in collapse, even in the new Russian federation, old ghosts, old bogeymen, old scars and wounds didn’t die for my father.

Through the 1990ss he still hated the Russians; he never once referred to them by any diminutive form: never Russkies, Reds, and certainly not “comrades,” even though back in the ’40s, when he was eighteen, he fought alongside them, our Soviet allies, as his army, Patton’s Third Army, made its way through Germany from the south.

When the film, Patton, came out, Dad took my mother, brother, and me to see it. It’s a powerful work, and even at fourteen, I sensed the magnitude of this history. Near the end, when Patton calls the Soviet general a “commie bastard” and then tells Eisenhower that we ought to follow up our victory in Germany by plowing on into Russia and wiping the communist menace out, Dad leaned over and said,

“Damn right! If only we had listened to that man!”

Dad returned from the war mostly silent, telling only two stories.

Once, he and his fellows were guarding some German POWs, and the Germans were crowing about their heavyweight champion, Max Schmeling, defeating American heavyweight champ, Joe Louis, in their title fight.

“They didn’t know about the rematch,” Dad said. “And when we told them that Louis knocked Schmeling out in the first round of that second fight, they didn’t believe us!”

It’s a funny thing to consider: a Jewish man telling Nazis about America’s black champion in a war where Nazis were exterminating Jews and American forces were still segregating themselves by race.

I know Dad hated Hitler, but by the time I came along and was old enough to understand that my father fought in a war, Hitler had been dead for almost twenty years.

Dad’s other story concerned the German pistol he brought home, taken, he said, off a dead body. My brother has a friend who researched the pistol and said it was likely manufactured in either Britain or France. I’m not sure what this means, though it seems that most countries look to other nations for much of their weaponry.

I don’t know what it means, either, that Dad never said more about that dead body. How did it get dead? From whose weapon? Foreign or domestic weapon? Since Dad never discussed his dreams either, I don’t know the extent to which his Army time bothered him. He never ranted and raved about those days, the months he spent overseas. True, he wanted to buy only American products, especially cars from General Motors—he hated Fords but never told me that it was due to Henry Ford’s anti-Semitism. He also passively accepted the trend of Beetle Bugs and Mercedes-Benz that increasingly crowded the streets, even in our small Alabama town. In this, he was very much unlike his brother Shirleigh who fought in the Battle of Midway and who cussed not only “those Japs” forty years after we nuked Japan into submission, but also the cars they kept foisting on America, especially those “damned Mitsubishis” that he said only a “damned traitor” would buy.

***

            I tell all of these stories to try to explain to understand a question I’ve had all this time: why did Dad hate the Soviets to such an extreme? It was a hatred that had no logical basis. There was no reason for any American to be in love with Khrushchev, Brezhnev, or even Gorbachev. Yet we weren’t in a declared war with Russia, and I personally didn’t know any Russians. I could understand that we both wanted to get to the moon, that we both had nuclear weapons, that there had been this thing called “The Cuban Missile Crisis.”

Still, I didn’t wake up every morning worried that this might be the day that the Soviets would “hit us,” as Dad did. When I entered college in the mid-1970s, I tried arguing and even reasoning with him about defense budgets and deterrents.

“Dad, we don’t need to spend any more money on weapons; we can already annihilate the world ten times over.”

“We have to keep strong,” he’d say, “because the minute they think they’re stronger than us, they’re gonna hit us.”

He’d argue then that they were already stronger than us, which was why we need to increase defense spending.

“But Dad, if they are already ahead of us, why haven’t they hit us yet?”

He would turn beet red then, and I knew I had gone too far. I really didn’t know which country had more arms, and on one level, I didn’t care. I did believe that we were both crazy countries ruled by our militaries, and I was as fearful about what we might do next—invade Panama or Grenada—as I was about what the Russians might do to us.

Both countries, as we know, kept making weapons, using them in smaller world skirmishes, and selling them to each side’s version of “freedom fighters” around the globe. Finally, Reagan upped the spending and selling ante so high that the Soviets couldn’t keep up. The world didn’t end then, and it still hasn’t.

Dad did end, though, safe from the Russians at last and never knowing about, much less having to live through, the trauma of 9/11.

After his burial, I went to his bank security box with my mother so that we could put his affairs in order. There, we found the records of his parents’ birth. And immigration papers.

Dad’s mother had always told me that her family had immigrated to America from England, and that Dad’s father’s family had come from Pennsylvania, where they spelled their last name “Bahr.” Both sides of the family were Jewish.

According to their family records, both sides originally came from Russia.

***

            My father’s one trip out of the country was fighting Hitler’s hordes. He never visited his ancestral homeland, and the only foreign-speaking relatives we had were those who sprinkled Yiddish phrases into their ordinary lives. Dad used schmuck liberally for all the liberals he hated, people like J. William Fulbright, George McGovern, and Ted Kennedy. They were all “soft on communism,” he said. They all wanted to “gut the defense department and weaken us,” he kvetched. Up through the presidential election of 1964, Dad voted the straight Democratic ticket, always. In 1968, he might have voted again for LBJ, or he might have voted for Henry “Scoop” Jackson, a Democratic “hawk.” I doubt he would have pulled the lever for Bobby Kennedy, and I can console myself with knowing that, as an Alabama native, he didn’t even consider third party candidate George Wallace.

That he voted for red-baiter and Un-American Activities veteran Richard M. Nixon used to make me very sick. Then he voted for Reagan, and I got sicker. Dad was too sick to cast a ballot for George W. Bush in 2000, the year he died, but I’m sure he would have, and I’m sure had he done so, I would have grown even sicker. He would have continued saying even then, a decade after the Soviet Union collapsed, “Bush is for a strong national defense,” just as my adopted state’s Senator, Strom Thurmond, said about South Carolina gubernatorial candidate David Beasley back in 1994.

For Dad the Russians might have been gone as a world threat, but they weren’t forgotten.

Isn’t it strange to think about this today?

Op-ed writers claim that the leader of the free world is now German Chancellor Angela Merkel.And I find myself, for the first time in my life, fearing a Russian threat to our way of life.

I keep wondering what Dad would think about this state of affairs. About our fearless leader and about the man our leader seems so enamored of.

***

            I am 61 years old and teach English at a small liberal arts college in upstate South Carolina.

Given the state of politics in this country, I sometimes find myself attempting to explain how seriously people of my childhood took the Soviet threat. I find myself rationalizing the fears of my father, understanding them, while still apologizing for the mess his generation made in dedicating so much to military spending.

I still cannot believe that we are living in a time where our president is cozying up to an ex-KGB leader. That we are facing a crisis in which it might be proven that our president, his family, and aides close to him colluded with not just any foreign power, but Russia, our old enemy.

What words can I use or shout or hurl at people to make them understand how crazy, sinister, and evil this is?

And then I wonder if the words I want to shout are ones I’d have to shout at my father were he still alive?

I’m guessing that he would not have voted for Obama, and I know, given how he felt about Bill Clinton, that he would have never in his Jewish life voted for Hillary Clinton.

Dad would have never considered not voting. He also never voted for a third party, though Ross Perot did tempt him in ’92.

If he had voted for Trump, how would he be explaining these days of our country’s life? Would he be calling this fake news, or claiming that Trump is the biggest witch-hunt victim of all time? Would he be blaming the media or the Democrats?

Would he suddenly be saying that Russia is our potential ally, our friend?

Then, if he did, would I be attacking Putin, Russia, and the threat they pose to stability, freedom, and the “American Way?”

Have I really lived this long?

Am I at long last my father’s son?

His “older and wiser” comrade in arms?

His friendly witness?

***

Three days after Charlottesville, I know my answer. With visions of swastikas embedded in the Confederate Battle Flag, with helmeted and shielded storm-troopers in their white polo shirts and khakis shouting “The Jews Will Not Replace Us,” and stiff-arming their salute to someone (Duke, Spencer, Trump himself)?, my father would be in crisis. Not for or about our fear-provoking, witless leader, but for our country. The country he fought for. The country he loved.

The one I’m trying to live in now without fear. The one I hope will stand up and once and for all, say no to white supremacy, white nationalism, Nazism, and the man representing these disgusting voices. Trump, the man in bed with hate.

 

 

Image credit: Is This Tomorrow: America Under Communism. Catechetical Guild Educational Society, 1947. (Now in public domain.)