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In Memorium
Major Arthur Nicholson
1947 - 1985

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Arthur D. Nicholson (7 June 1947 - 24 March 1985) was a United States Army military intelligence officer shot by a Soviet sentry while engaged in intelligence-gathering activities as part of an authorized Military Liaison Mission which operated under reciprocal U.S. - Soviet authority. Military Liaison Missions were ostensibly liaisons between the British, French and U.S. forces and the Group of Soviet Forces in Germany (East Germany), but they had a known intelligence-gathering secondary mission and an important role to verify that offensive action was not being prepared. Reciprocal groups were authorized and operated by both the British, French and U.S. (in East Germany) and the Soviet Union (in West Germany) during the Cold War. Nicholson is officially regarded by the U.S. Department of Defense as having been a victim of murder and the final victim of the Cold War. Nicholson's death led to a U.S. - Soviet crisis and intense negotiations regarding the Military Liaison Missions.

Nicholson was the son of a career navy officer. He graduated from West Redding (Connecticut) High School in 1965 and achieved his bachelor's degree from Transylvania University in 1969 before joining the U.S. Army in 1970. Because of Nicholson's specialty in military intelligence (MI), his full career is not known in detail. He served as a Battalion S-2 (intelligence officer) with a missile battalion in Korea during 1973-74. From 1974 until 1979, he served with MI units in Frankfurt am Main and Munich in the Federal Republic of Germany.

Following this, Nicholson achieved a foreign area officer specialty. In 1980, he received his master's degree in Soviet and East European Studies from the Naval Postgraduate School and also attended a two year course in the Russian language at the Defense Language Institute. From 1980-82, Nicholson attended the U.S. Army's Russian Institute in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany. In 1982, Nicholson was assigned to the U.S. Military Liaison Mission (USMLM) to the Commander-in-Chief of the Group of Soviet Forces Germany. Nicholson was promoted to major in 1983.

On March 24, 1985, with Sergeant Jesse G. Schatz, Nicholson undertook his final mission for the USMLM. The mission was to photograph a Soviet tank storage building near Ludwigslust, some 80 miles northwest of Berlin. After approaching the Soviet facility covertly but legitimately through an adjacent forest, Nicholson stepped out of the vehicle and approached the building to photograph it while Sergeant Schatz maintained a watch for Soviet personnel. Unseen by either man, Soviet Sergeant Aleksandr Ryabtsev emerged from the forest and opened fire on the Americans. The first bullet narrowly missed Schatz, and another bullet struck Nicholson. After crying out that he had been hit, Nicholson fell to the ground. Attempting to go to Nicholson's aid, Schatz was halted by Ryabtsev at gunpoint and forced back into the USMLM vehicle.
Although the Soviets later claimed that Nicholson died instantly, an autopsy indicated that he had actually bled to death while on the ground. Even as more senior Soviet personnel arrived, no medical aid for Nicholson was provided and no one checked his conditions for two hours after he was shot. After an attempt by the Soviets to perform an autopsy of Nicholson and a demand by General Glenn K. Otis that they return the body, Nicholson's body was returned to the U.S. Army at the Glienicke Bridge in Berlin. On March 30, 1985, Nicholson was buried at Arlington National Cemetery. He was posthumously awarded the Purple Heart and the Legion of Merit as well as promoted to Lieutenant Colonel. The Soviets contended that the response of Sergeant Ryabtsev, as a guard, had been appropriate in confronting an "unknown intruder who did not comply with the warnings of the sentry, and also stated that the area that Major Nicholson was in was "off-limits" to military liaison mission operations, as well as placing blame for the incident on the United States.

At a subsequent meeting between General Otis and General Mikhail Zaitsev, the commander of Group of Soviet Forces Germany, General Otis made it clear that the U.S. Army believed that Nicholson's murder "[was] officially condoned, if not directly ordered." Following this, a Soviet diplomat was ordered out of the U.S. and the U.S. canceled plans to jointly celebrate the 40th anniversary of the end of the Second World War in Europe with the Soviets.The incident was also the first major foreign policy crisis faced by Mikhail Gorbachev as leader of the Soviet Union. The relatively muted U.S. response drew criticism from various sources, among them George Will.

Further negotiations over the shooting resulted in the Soviets issuing instructions to their personnel that the use of force or weapons against Allied military liaison personnel was strictly forbidden. However, in 1987, another incident took place in which Soviet soldiers fired at USMLM personnel, one of whom was wounded. In 1988, Soviet Defense Minister Dmitry Yazov officially apologized for the death of Major Nicholson to U.S. Defense Secretary Frank C. Carlucci at a summit conference in Moscow.

You can read the once Classified Official Report on Nicholson's death by clicking on the links below.

Nicholson Report Part 1
Nicholson Report Part 2
Nicholson Report Part 3
Nicholson Report Part 4
Nicholson Report Part 5

Statement by Principal Deputy Press Secretary Speakes on the Death of Major Arthur D. Nicholson, Jr., in the German Democratic Republic
April 23, 1985
The statement provided by the Soviet Embassy on April 22 concerning the murder of Maj. Arthur Nicholson is a distortion of the facts and unacceptable to us. On April 22, Soviet Embassy Charge d' Affaires Sokolov called on Assistant Secretary of State Burt to present a statement on the Soviet Union's assessment of the April 12 meeting between Generals Otis and Zaytsev. Mr. Burt informed Mr. Sokolov that he found the Soviet statement totally unacceptable. After reviewing the Soviet statement with Secretary Shultz and other senior officials, Acting Assistant Secretary Kelly, in Mr. Burt's absence, called Mr. Sokolov into the Department that afternoon and reiterated in the Secretary's name that we found the Soviet statement totally unacceptable. We understand that prior to that meeting the Soviet Embassy had released the substance of its statement to the press, although Mr. Sokolov did not mention this fact at the meeting. The description of Major Nicholson's killing released by the Department of State is accurate. The Soviet attempt to excuse the killing by stating that Major Nicholson was an ``unknown intruder who did not comply with the warnings of the sentry'' is not at all acceptable. Major Nicholson was acting in accordance with procedures and practices which have been completely normal and accepted for many years. He was acting in accordance with the spirit and letter of the Huebner-Malinin Agreement of 1947, which governs the activities of the military liaison missions (MLM) on both sides. Soviet military missions operating in the Federal Republic of Germany under this agreement function in exactly the same way. That is an essential point, which the Soviet account unacceptably distorts. While performing the normal and accepted duties of a member of our military liaison mission, using a clearly identified MLM vehicle and wearing an insignia clearly identifying him as a member of the U.S. military liaison mission, Major Nicholson was shot and killed by a Soviet sentry. No verbal warning was issued. The shot or shots which the sentry fired before killing him did not constitute warning in any accepted or acceptable sense of the word. The Soviet military at the scene prevented Sergeant Schatz, Major Nicholson's driver, from providing first aid and left Major Nicholson lying without medical aid for approximately an hour. We do not know why they did this. We cannot imagine that they did it in keeping with the instructions of the ``military manual'' referred to in the Soviet statement. Like the shooting itself, it was and remains unacceptable to us. There is another essential point: What we find appalling about the Soviet statement of April 22 is the apparent inability of Soviet officials to understand the human issue involved in Major Nicholson's death. In the wake of this tragedy, we agreed to discuss changes in procedures to ensure that such a tragedy could never happen again. We note that yesterday's Soviet statement reiterates this commitment on the Soviet side. But by again repeating their restrictive interpretation of the procedures in force at the time, the Soviet authorities demonstrate that they do not grasp the unacceptability of continued use of force and violence as a first reaction against even the most minor issue. Major Nicholson constituted no threat either to Soviet forces or to the security of the Soviet Union. He was unarmed, as all military liaison mission members are unarmed. The task of the U.S. military mission is to build confidence by openly observing the placement of Soviet forces. The use of lethal force against a member of a military mission was contrary to the practices for dealing with respective military missions which have been in effect for over 35 years. We have not used and will not use lethal force in dealing with such practices on the part of Soviet MLM personnel in the Federal Republic of Germany. Members of the U.S. forces in Germany have written instructions to this effect. The use of lethal force against Major Nicholson was not only a violation of normal practice under an agreement in force, it was an outrage. Major Nicholson's death was a senseless, unnecessary act which raises serious questions about orders provided to Soviet military personnel throughout the world. The Soviet statement again expresses regret. We believe that this is not enough. What is needed is some sense that they recognize the enormity of this outrage. It is for this reason that we have from the beginning expressed our belief that the Soviets owe us and Major Nicholson's family an apology and compensation for Major Nicholson's widow and for his child. In his meeting with General Zaytsev, General Otis set forth these considerations fully and clearly. General Zaytsev did not accept them. Instead, he referred them to higher authority as was accurately stated in our account of the meeting. The Soviets subsequently have so far refused to respond to these requests. For our part, we will continue to point out that they are matters of elementary justice. Continued Soviet refusal to address this matter in a responsible and reciprocal fashion can not fail to have adverse consequences on future relations.
Deputy Press Secretary Larry Speakes