The Military Liaison Missions in Germany During the Cold War:
Documents and Interpretations, by Gen. William E. Odom
Christopher Winkler's interpretations of the role, purpose, and survival of the several military liaison missions between the occupying powers in Germany through the Cold War provides an excellent launch for more research on the military liaison missions in Germany. A pioneer, he is to be much congratulated, especially because I believe he has moved the history of these organizations from the level of anecdotal to serious history.
A few veterans of USMLM began thinking about writing a serious history of the missions during the late 1990s, but never got very far. I say "serious history" because most of what we knew that had already been published was mostly "war stories" about gathering intelligence overtly in the Soviet occupation zone of Germany. Indeed, life in USMLM, FMLM, and BRIXMIS was filled with danger and excitement. Chases, close-calls in avoiding terrible car wrecks, the dangers of the kind that killed Major Nicholson of USMLM, and many other such things provide endless stories that could be recounted. We saw a great danger that histories of the missions could turn out to be nothing more than a string of tales of those adventures. A few might be entertaining, and also convey something of the realities that duty in the missions involved, but more than a few could become boring very quickly.
We also recognized the danger of exaggerating the accomplishments of the missions. Some successes in intelligence collection turned out to be fairly important, but they hardly justify the claim that has been informally made by a few veterans that the missions played a major role in winning the Cold War.
Winkler has committed none of these errors. He identifies some important questions, ones that can begin to put the military missions into the larger context of the Cold War in Europe. His essay includes all of the issues that have occurred to me and a few more. Yet I am not satisfied that he has exhausted the possibilities. As more documents become available, they will almost certainly prompt a few interested historians to ask additional questions and to alter, modify, or expand the ones that Winkler has asked. And some may be dropped as not very important.
Winkler addresses one issue that was almost constantly in the minds of US, British, and French commanders of forces in Germany: Why did Moscow allow these liaison missions to continue to exist? Their initial and public purpose – facilitating the joint occupation of Germany by four allied armies – had become increasingly unnecessary. Soviet intelligence seemed to have much better access for judging the capabilities of NATO forces in Germany than did the intelligence services of the United States, Britain, and France.
The staffs of allied commanders in the German Federal Republic considered most of the answers that Winkler addresses in his essay, but they never reached a consensus on a single answer that I can recall from the mid-1960s.
I do not, however, find very plausible Winkler's dismissal of the Soviet missions in West Germany as "almost perfect cover or 'residenturas'" because of the Soviet refusal to accept "on-site inspection and verification" for arms control. That refusal came very late – in the 1980s – and Moscow could have easily dissolved the missions in the 1950s or 1960s long before arms control verification was on anyone's mind in Moscow or in the West. Nor am I sure that he is correct in saying that the Western missions were able to see the Soviet military's most advanced technology in East Germany. Many critical intelligence collection requirements were not and could not be met in East Germany. And a few of them were met inside the Soviet Union.
He probably has not, therefore, put to rest this question about why Moscow tolerated the missions. That will require access to Soviet documents and testimony. Even if we had such evidence, however, the answer still might remain unclear. It probably changed from time to time. Or it may be very simple, but not in the documents. For example, Soviet leaders were not noted for disbanding any international machinery once it was in place. They paralyzed many such organizations, ignored them for periods of time, or used them rarely, but they did not normally abolish or abandon them. This propensity itself may explain their tolerance for the military liaison missions. And it probably reduced the likelihood that abolishing them was ever proposed at a high level in Moscow.
The East German government, of course, did raise abolishing them at a high level, according to Winkler's research. In fact, his treatment of this issue is the first I have seen that is based on more than pure speculation. His tentative answers must be taken seriously, but there is the danger of failing to understand that abolition of the missions, if it was ever seriously considered by the Soviet central committee and politburo would not be in isolation from the larger complex of East-West linkages in Europe. That context could easily support a strong case for retaining the missions at any time throughout the Cold War.
In any event, Christopher Winkler brings the skills of a competent historian to his task, and he is opening the way and pointing out the important directions for additional research. Finally, he reminds us that all Soviet documents and most US documents from these missions have yet to be declassified. Thus, there is more "opening up" work to be done on sources.
Lieutenant General WILLIAM E. ODOM, US Army, retired in 1988 as the director of the National Security Agency. Today he is director of national security studies at the Hudson Institute (Washington, DC) and a professor (adjunct) of political science at Yale University. His book, The Collapse of the Soviet Military, was published by Yale University Press in 1998. He served in the US Military Liaison Mission from July 1964 to July 1966.