What possibly could bring together Rep. Gene Green (D-Tx), Rep. Sheila Jackson-Lee (D-Tx), Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Tx), Rep. Kay Granger (D-Tx), Rep. Rosa DeLaura (D-Ct), Rep. John K. Delaney (D-Md), Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hi), the Honorable Annise Parker and Houston’s First Lady Kathy Hubbard, a representative of Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tx) and the interest of Rep. Ted Poe (R-Tx)?
What indeed? They came to honor three American heroes, one Republican, one Democrat, and one independent, for their vital role in winning the Cold War: Joanne King Herring, and, posthumously, CIA operative Gustav Avrakatos and Rep. Charlie Wilson.
As the late, iconic, journalist George Crile observed in his chronicle of that victory Charlie Wilson’s War:
America … won the Cold War, a triumph every bit as significant as the victory over Nazi Germany, yet there had been no V-Day celebrations, no ticker-tape parades, no Douglas MacArthur to publicly celebrate. Life in the capital seemed to roll on as if there never had been a Cold War.
The lack of a moment of celebration of the end of the Cold War cheated America out of an opportunity to reorient itself. Silence submerged the lessons of an epic epoch. A Gold Medal for Joanne, Gust and Charlie might help resolve that.
The Cold War was an era of even greater terror than now. I still recall “duck and cover drills” in grade school. Grammar school children were put through a ritual of crouching under our desks, then being led into the hallways for a pretense of protection from the blast of a potentially apocalyptic Soviet nuclear strike. Air raid sirens sounded throughout the sleepy state capital in which I grew up, Albany, New York, as they did in drills across America.
Now that’s Terror: the real, hair-trigger, possibility of an all-out nuclear war. And then….
Three people stepped forward to end that reign of terror called the Cold War. And did.
Crile meticulously investigated how the Cold War was won. He reported that main credit for American victory belongs to Joanne King Herring, Gustav Avrakatos and Charlie Wilson. In his book Crile reports a conversation with Avrakatos:
Years later, as he tried to explain how it all happened, how the CIA ended up with a billion dollars a year to kill Russian soldiers in Afghanistan, Avrakatos would offer a curious explanation. “It began with a Texas woman, one of Wilson’s contributors. She’s the one who got him interested.”
Joanne Herring was a glamorous and exotic figure out of the oil-rich world of Texas in the 1970s and ‘80s. At the time nobody imagined that in addition to her role as a social lioness and host to the powerful, she was simultaneously responsible for setting in motion a process that would profoundly impact the outcome of the Afghan war. When almost everyone had written off the Afghans as a lost cause, she saw potential for greatness in the most unlikely characters.
Of the recent gathering in the Rayburn Gold Room to honor these three by proposing the Congressional Gold Medal, the Houston Chroniclereported the next day, on page one, above the fold:
On Wednesday, [King] Herring … was feted at a Capitol Hill reception marking the rollout of legislation granting her the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest civilian honor bestowed by Congress. Also up for the medal, which dates back to George Washington, are Wilson and the late CIA case officer Gustav Avrakotos, who helped ratchet up the secret program, dubbed Operation Cyclone.
“In hindsight, the Soviets losing in Afghanistan started the downfall of the Soviet Union,” said Houston Democrat Gene Green, who served in Congress with Wilson. …
Also sharing reminiscences were Houston Democrat Sheila Jackson Lee, along with Fort Worth Republican Kay Granger, Houston Mayor Annise Parker and Harris County Sheriff Adrian Garcia. All are backing the legislation, along with Austin Republican Michael McCaul, chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee. The award requires the assent of 290 House members, so it has to be a bipartisan affair.
Perhaps in awarding such a medal America can accelerate its post-war reorientation and begin to heal its wounded political soul. The record shows that Houston’s Mayor, Annise Parker, with the support of First Lady Kathy Hubbard, quietly recruited Rep. Gene Green to sponsor the Gold Medal legislation. (Full disclosure, I introduced Mayor Parker at the Gold Medal introduction event, and she generously attributed to me the idea for bestowing the Congressional Gold Medal on King Herring, Wilson, and Avrakatos. My role was trivial. To observe that King Herring’s, Avrakatos’s, and Wilson’s contribution to victory in the Cold War is worthy of a Congressional Gold Medal merely stated the obvious.)
The event certainly created a stir in Texas, also appearing on the front page of the San Antonio Express-News. That said, legislation proposing these three for the Congressional Gold Medal represents much more than a valedictory celebration.
As King Herring, precipitated the winning of the Cold War (with critical assists from such other unsung heroic figures as Robin King, who risked his life to film inside Afghanistan footage instrumental in persuading Charlie Wilson, CIA Director William Casey and others to back the Afghan Soviet resistance forces) she also carries on to win the peace.
As King Herring said to Roll Call’s Heard on the Hill reporter Warren Rojos:
(The) U.S. government can defeat its modern opponents by returning to the bottom-up approach she and Wilson championed. “If we strengthen the villagers, they’ll get rid of the Taliban,” she counseled.
“You saw what happened [in the Afghan theater] during the Cold War: Not a single American died,” Herring said, adding, “We gave them [the Afghan mujahedeen] everything — except our sons.”
Any thanks, she stressed, deserves to be spread amongst everyone who participated in the bipartisan scheme — she took credit for bringing Republicans and Saudi businessmen to the table, and tipped her hat to Wilson for rounding up Democrats and the Israelis — to undermine Russian forces.
“It really was a joint effort. And that’s what I want to see again,” she said.