Jeffrey LewisOn Memorial Day

On Memorial Day, I wanted to remember Major Arthur D. Nicholson, a U.S. Military Liaison Mission Tour Officer who was killed on March 24, 1985 by a Soviet soldier.

As a lapsed epistemologist, I can’t help letting my interest in arms control, disarmament and nonproliferation creep into an interest in intelligence and espionage. I don’t think one can understand the spread of nuclear weapons without also understanding how much of the information about proliferation is collected.

Of course, it helps that spy stories are also riveting.  And there aren’t many as riveting as the Cold War-era Military Liaison Missions.

Originally established at the end of the Second World War among the allied powers occupying Germany, the powers accredited a small number of liaison officers to the occupation forces of the other side.  For the United States, that meant that there were 14 free passes for US intelligence officers to go driving around much of what became East Germany. Although the stated purpose of the MLMs was liaising, over time they evolved into a tolerated form of intelligence gathering.

Nicholson was involved in one of the biggest bonanzas in the history of the USMLM — photographing the inside of a Soviet T-64B tank to determine whether it fired an anti-tank missile through the main battle gun. (As it turns out, it did.)

That mission was executed during the wee hours of the anniversary of the October Revolution, when the US military figured “not a sober breath would be drawn throughout East Germany …”    The quote, as well as the basis for much of this post, is from the reminiscence of Major General (Retired) Roland Lajoie, who served as Nicholson’s commander.  Lajoie, who who would later run US Cooperative Threat Reduction programs, provided his remarks in a podcast available from the International Spy Museum.

Nicholson and another officer got through the fence at a Soviet installation in East Germany, then got inside a tank shed, and finally inside a tank itself.  The overlapping photographs of the inside of the tank demonstrated that the T-64B had been modified to fire an anti-tank rocket through the main battle gun. Lajoie called it a “gutsy operation,” which is an understatement.

A subsequent mission, however, had an unhappy ending.  On March 24, 1985, Nicholson was walking on a tank training range that was near, but according to Lajoie, not in a Permanent Restricted Area off-limits to the MLM. Without warning, an overzealous Soviet sentry started shooting, hitting Nicholson.  The sentry then prevented Nicholson’s driver from administering first aid.  Nicholson is buried in Arlington National Cemetery. Nicholson is often called “the last casualty of the Cold War.” (As for the first, well, a certain politically conservative group that bears his name thinks it was an American missionary turned intelligence officer in China called John Birch.)

John Miller, writing in the National Review, has a detailed account of Nicholson’s killing, although Miller’s version differs from Lajoie’s recolletion on certain minor details about the first mission.

Miller is right about one thing: Someone should start an Arthur D. Nicholson Society.

If you want to learn more about Military Liaison Missions, my reading list right now is: Allied Military Liaison Missions, 1946-1990, Christopher Winkler, Anna Locher, and Christian Nuenlist, editors (Parallel History Project, 2005); John Fahey, Licensed to Spy: With the Top Secret Military Liaison Mission in East Germany (Naval Institute Press, 2002) and James R. Holbrook, Potsdam Mission: Memoir of A U.S. Army Intelligence Officer in Communist East Germany (AuthorHouse, 2008).


  1. Chuck Thornton (History)


    I worked directly for Major General (Retired) Lajoie in the CTR Program Office in the Pentagon in the mid-1990s. He is a great soldier-statesman, and I respect him deeply. During one of our early meetings with the Russian MOD to discuss CTR implementation issues, a Russian general officer raised the subject of the incident you described. It was clear to us that the Russian general (a) wanted to taunt Gen. Lajoie, and (b) wanted us to know that their side had looked into Lajoie’s background prior to our meeting. The Russian’s behavior was, in my opinion, rather unseemly.

    I’ll tell you more of the story some time.

    Thanks for the post; I’ve forwarded it to Gen. Lajoie and to Harold Smith, who was ATSD/NCB and Gen. Lajoie’s boss for CTR.


    • Chuck Thornton (History)

      I just remembered another story:

      In 1988, I was sitting in a cafe in East Berlin when a shiny new Saab convertible, with its top down, drove up and 4 very large, black, uniformed US military personnel stepped out. They were so out of place that they became a spectacle — everyone on the street and in the cafes stopped what they were doing and stared. The US Army guys strolled around, took pictures like tourists, laughed and joked with each other, and seemed generally relaxed and comfortable. I have no idea whether they were there on one of the MLM tours, or whether they were there under one of the other agreements that permitted the four occupying powers to visit the other zones. But it’s one of those scenes I’ll always remember.

    • Jeffrey (History)

      What is the appropriate protocol when one wishes to reach across the table and strangle his interlocutor with his bare hands?

    • Chuck Thornton (History)

      That’s a fairly common urge experienced by all international diplomats/negotiators. It often seemed to me that less restraint would have yielded shorter-term results.

    • Lugo (History)

      Lajoie should have responded, “Don’t worry, Ivan, we won’t spy on your installations in East Germany any more, bwahahaha.”

    • Jeffrey (History)

      Whenever Russians point out that they have withdrawn all tactical nuclear weapons to Russia, I fight the urge to point out Moscow might feel differently about forward deploying nuclear weapons in allied countries, if Moscow had any allies.

      Instead I just ask them whether they think the Soviet reaction to Prague Spring was shaped by the need to ensure Czechoslovak participation in forward deploying nuclear weapons.

    • David (History)

      re: East Berlin. It’s normal to see GIs in uniforms in E. Berlin as they can cross Checkpoint Charlie as members of the Army of Occupation to visit the Soviet Zone bypassing the E. German border controls. The shiny new Saab was a dead giveaway as Saab aggressive sold their cars via the BX/PX for European delivery to GIs. The convertibles were a big seller.

  2. Mike Plunkett (History)

    I would also recommend adding ‘BRIXMIS: The Untold Exploits of Britain’s Most Daring Cold War Spy Mission” by Tony Geraghty to the reading list. It gives an absolutely riveting account of what the British equivalent of the US Military Liaison Mission got up to, including the world’s only Top Secret piece of fruit.

    • Andrew Tubbiolo (History)

      Along the same lines there is “The Last Mission: Behind the Iron Curtain” by Steve Gibson, ISBN-13: 978-0750914086. A very ripping yarn.

      Also, along these lines there is this posting on YouTube.
      Cold War Pioneers: The U.S. Military Liason Mission, 1947 – 1990, Dr. Stephen V. Hoyt
      Eastern Washington University

  3. Andrew Tubbiolo (History)

    So has anything more come out after the fall of the Warsaw Pact as to what really happened to the two American’s shot during the drawdown of the Cold War? Has there been any conclusive reason given to the public as to why these shootings occurred?

    • David (History)

      I had a conversation years ago with someone who was at MLM at the same time as Nicholson. What he told me was that later the Russians told them the Soviet guard was not at his post when Nicholson got past him, and when he returned panicked and shot Nicholson to cover up for his absence. This sounded pretty credible to me.

  4. Andrew Tubbiolo (History)

    I hate to over-post on a particular subject. But I came across this after lunch today in the last 5 min of the lunch hour.