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Doris writes a weekly column for LaGaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper, which has pages in English, Spanish, and Italian.  Begun in 1922 for Tampa's immigrant community, it continues to thrive more than a century later.  Her column is titled "In Context," as it aims to put contemporary issues in the context of the past.

Department of Peace

I was driving down I-75 on my way to play bridge when NPR ran another of its unexpectedly relevant reports. As you may know, hubby and I just returned from Eastern Europe, where I spoke at a conference in Poland that was near the Russian border. We visited four nations on the Baltic Sea and read guidebooks for all of them and more – and nowhere did we see or hear of any evidence of the radio’s exciting news: It turns out that we have the beginnings of a bike trail that follows the border of the former Iron Curtain. I’m too old to bike it, but maybe they’ll let us take an electric scooter. I want to go.

I’d gotten tears in my eyes when we went north from Poland to Latvia. Although we knew these nations now are members of the European Union (EU), we expected some sort of border hassle. We got our passports out and were ready to cajole an official – and were surprised when we found that, as in the United States, we could just drive through. The same was true at the borders of Lithuania and Estonia, as the EU really is becoming analogous to the US.

In fact, there was so little activity at these previously enforced stops – and so much available parking because of past paving – that we got out and took pictures. The razor fences that had terrorized potential émigrés in the past were gone, but no one had bothered to tear down the watchtowers and other accoutrements of arrest. Everything necessary to send someone to prison still was there -- except for the uniformed men who previously enforced authoritarianism’s stay-at-home mindset. Now there’s nothing but wildflowers poking up from the pavement and birds chattering to each other, but I could sense the ghosts of people trying to be free.

And now there will be a bike trail running along the entire length of that fearsome 6800-kilometer Iron Curtain. (That’s 4,225 miles, much more than the southern edge of the US, from which some want to bar Latin Americans.) Oddly enough, the trail has three seas that begin with B. It begins beyond the Arctic Circle’s Barents Sea, where Russia meets Finland and Norway. After running down the Finnish-Russian border, it jumps across the Baltic Sea to take in Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia, and Poland. Heading west, it follows the line between West Germany and East Germany, where Hitler started this evil history by attacking Poland in 1939 and Russia in 1940.

The trail then goes south, taking in Hitler’s native Austria and the modern Czech Republic (which was Czechoslovakia when he annexed it to Germany in 1938). Slovakia now is an independent nation, as is Hungary. Prior to World War I, it was part of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire, and except for Hungary’s very different language, had a lot in common with Hitler’s ideas. We’ve visited all of those nations, so the part of the trail that will be new to me runs along the borders of Slovenia, Rumania, Serbia, Croatia, Moldova, Macedonia, finally reaching the Black Sea in eastern Bulgaria, just north of Greece and Turkey.

The environmentally sensitive trail runs through parts of twenty nations, fourteen of which are now members of the EU. And Green Cross International, which is creating parks and preserving the area’s natural greenery, is headed by former Russian premier Mikhail Gorbachev! How can anyone say there’s no progress?

* * *

It takes time, of course, and most of all, patience. It means turning a deaf ear to the warmongers, whose primary purpose is to sell weapons or to profit from the other billions that it takes to supply soldiers. It also takes genuine political courage to stand up for peace instead of succumbing to war.

Do you remember that until after World War II, the name of the modern Department of Defense was the Department of War? That changed terminology came from the great generals who won WWII, especially Dwight D. Eisenhower, George Marshall, and Omar Bradley. They all would be labeled ultra-liberals today for their willingness to forgive and forget, for their leadership in restoring the economies of our former enemies, Germany and Japan. With the name change, we signaled to the world that we limited ourselves to our own defense and had no intention of waging more war. As you know, that didn’t last, but never again did the world host a war like that of the 1940s.

When they changed the War Department to the Defense Department, some people proposed an analogous change: the Department of Peace instead of the Department of State. War/Peace, why not? But state departments had been called that since colonial days, and “peacenik” would have an especially traitorous ring when we got mixed up in the mess that was Vietnam. Still, when I taught the Cabinet to civics classes, I always tried to promote the analogy. The State Department’s purpose is avoiding war and promoting peace, especially through treaties and travel. That department should be our budget priority, not Defense, because if State is successful in its diplomacy, we don’t have war. Such diplomacy is what John Kerry is trying to do now in both Israel and the Ukraine, and we should support him.

We also should insist that our leaders, especially in Congress, make the effort to know different cultures and to understand how their people think. Instead of deriding travel as “junkets,” we should encourage more politicians to get to know the world up close and personal. There are a tremendous number of details to understand, even in Europe where we have long experience. Despite the success of the EU, for example, there’s still work to be done even there.

Until we went to the Baltic nations, I’d never noticed a bit of the area that’s called Kaliningrad, which lies between Poland and Lithuania. Just 86 square miles – smaller than Hillsborough County -- this little vestige of the Soviet Union was once the German city-state of Konigsberg. Part of Prussia prior to that, its history always has been militaristic. Still politically affiliated with Russia, it seems to have closed itself off so that it’s difficult to even find on a map, let alone cross the border. It seems to me that's a good place to spend money, especially establishing exchange programs so that young people there can travel and learn the ways of peace and plenty.

I was encouraged in that thought Sunday afternoon. I went to the USF library and was forced to wait for book retrieval in its Starbucks. Not far from me in the overstuffed chairs was a young woman who appeared to be from India or elsewhere in southern Asia. She appeared to be talking with her family via computer: her voice changed, as she seemed to adjust it for younger siblings and adults. She casually ate a banana while chatting with people whose actual faces were thousands of miles away. After a while, two young women came in who probably were from northern Asia, perhaps China or Korea, and after greeting us in English, spoke quietly to each other (and to their smart phones) in another language.

All three young women put their feet on the big ottoman in front of us, one wearing soxes and the other two with their shoes on (something that they probably wouldn’t do in Asia, where most people leave their shoes at the door). I looked around and saw others – male and female, Americans and non-Americans -- stretched out in the same teenage style, draped over tables and chairs with shoes on and off the furniture. What a change from my college library days, when I wore skirts and sat in straight chairs with shoes firmly on the floor!

And that’s all good. These kids inherently resist rigidity; they understand that comfort is preferable to conformity. And best of all, they aren’t studying to go to war to kill God’s other children.


Doris Weatherford writes a weekly column for La Gaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper. With pages in Spanish, Italian, and English, it has been published in Tampa since 1922.
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