I would like to thank Chevron and the other sponsors for inviting me today. I am so pleased to join our American guest of honor, Frank Cohn, on the stage today, and I look forward to hearing his observations about the historic meeting of American and Soviet soldiers at the Elbe 70 years ago.
Frank is among the millions of Americans who were part of what we call the “greatest generation” – those who grew up during the Great Depression and later fought in World War II to defeat the Axis powers. Like Frank, both my father and my father-in-law were veterans of the war’s European front.
My dad served in the Air Force in North Africa and Italy. My wife Mariella’s father served in France in the wake of the Allied “D-Day” invasion of Normandy. Every year – on what Americans call “V-E” (Victory in Europe) Day, we honor the memory of our fathers and their bravery in the war.
I also have deep respect for the tremendous sacrifices made by the Russian people and by others in the region during the Great Patriotic War. Having served as Ambassador in Russia and in three former Soviet states, I am acutely aware of their heroism and sacrifice. And I have made a point of laying wreaths at memorials to the soldiers who perished in that terrible war.
The historic meeting of American and Soviet forces on the Elbe had little military significance, but tremendous symbolic importance. Even though the political and economic systems of the United States and the Soviet Union were far apart during the Second World War, we were able to cooperate in those years to achieve a greater good – the defeat of Nazi Germany. And, even though our relations later chilled during the Cold War, Moscow and Washington were able to avoid a direct conflict during a half-century of geopolitical tension.
As Frank Cohn knows well, the soldiers from the U.S. Army’s 69th Infantry Division and the Soviet 58th Guards Rifle Division who met at the Elbe in April 1945 celebrated in the “Spirit of Torgau.” They shared souvenir dollars and rubles, they compared rations, and they toasted one another with “liberated” beer. As one of our former military attaches wrote: the Torgau soldiers “reached across a broken bridge, over a dangerous river, to clasp hands in joy at survival and success in a common cause.”
It is a pleasure to join you in commemorating this important event in the history of our two nations. Despite the current tensions in our relationship, I am confident that Americans and Russians will continue to find “common cause” on issues of mutual interest.
Thanks for inviting me here today.