A persons silhouette in front of the conference table and dark wood walled room of Berlin’s Cecilienhof Country House

Journey to the Center of the Cold War

Duke’s American Grand Strategy program heads to Berlin and Prague to learn in the spaces where it happened

A staff ride offers a unique opportunity for learning. The concept behind it is simple: to study earlier military campaigns by walking the battlefields. Being there – in the place where it happened – helps bring history and strategy to life.

During a staff ride, participants stand where decisions were made, surrounded by the terrain that shaped critical choices. Each person on the trip plays a role, immersing themselves in the perspective of an individual from the time to explain the options available and the choices ultimately made.

A group of students and other members of the trip stand in a group on a wide stone walkway surrounded by bare trees with a statue in the distance nin the background
Thirty members of the Duke community traveled across Berlin and Prague together, seen here at the Soviet War Memorial at Berlin's Treptower Park.

Staff rides are a staple in Duke’s Program in American Grand Strategy (AGS). Each year, the program takes undergraduate and graduate students, alumni, faculty and staff to study a campaign or battle from US history.

One person is using two hands to tie a bow tie around another persons neck on a city street at dusk
On the night of arrival, Nick Setterberg ('12) helped John Hillen ('88) fasten a bow tie in preparation for Hillen's performance as Harry S. Truman at the Brandenburg Gate.
One person stands behind another securing a bow tie on a street in daylight
The next morning, Lucas Wagner ('27) helped Abigail Bergan ('26) fasten a bow tie in preparation for Bergan's performance as Winston Churchill at the site of the Potsdam Conference.

This year, AGS traveled to Berlin and Prague to study the Cold War in Europe, from the division of Germany at the end of World War II through the collapse of communism across Central and Eastern Europe over four decades later.

A woman in a dark jacket stands in front of a stone wall pointing to the right
Susan Colbourn gestured at the Federal Ministry of Finance Building toward features of a 59-foot long mural that depicts Socialist idealism.

With two Cold War historians along for the ride, Simon Miles, an assistant professor at the Sanford School of Public Policy, and AGS’ Associate Director Susan Colbourn, it was an itinerary packed with sites marking 40 years of confrontation between two systems.

“I’ve spent plenty of time thinking and teaching about the Cold War,” Colbourn noted, “but it’s different on a staff ride. It was a wonderful experience to watch our students link past and present and puzzle through the challenges of crafting strategy, as we visited the places that shaped that decades-long struggle in Europe.”

A man stands on a cobble stone street talking and pointing to the right with a group of students in the background
Simon Miles gestured at the Ministry of Transport of the Czech Republic, toward buildings across the Vltava river.

In Berlin, participants stood on airfields where allied planes landed every few minutes to supply the city’s western sectors during the airlift of 1948-49. They walked along the Berlin Wall, stumbling over the markers where tunnels had been dug and where East Berliners had attempted to flee. They stood in the grounds of a former prison, once run by the dreaded Ministerium für Staatssicherheit – the Stasi.

Three people walk down a path with a graffitied handrail and barren trees in the background
(from left to right) Rhiannon Camarillo ('26), Chloe Decker ('25), and Sophie Yost ('26) walk along the Vltava river. Across six days, staff ride participants spent more than 12 hours walking over 35 miles together.

Neel Mehra (’27) brought his role as the “Candy Bomber” of the Berlin Airlift to life, passing out sweets to the group. “It was amazing to present my findings and props at Tempelhof Airport,” he noted, and to connect his remarks with those of Kenrick Forrester, one of the Counterterrorism and Public Policy Fellows who joined the trip.

A student in blue reflective sunglasses stands in front of an eagle statue
Neel Mehra (’27) portrayed Gail Halvorsen, the "Candy Bomber," with vivid illustration at the Berlin Airlift in front of the looming gaze of the Tempelhof eagle sculpture.

A ride member stands in the foreground with students out of focus in the background listening
Colonel Kenrick Forrester’s service as an active duty Special Forces Officer gave students valuable insight into post-Cold War decision making.

Standing alongside pieces of the concrete slabs that once divided the German capital, participants heard the strategy behind the decision to build the wall – and the thinking of some who tried to escape its confines. Sophie Yost (’26) laid out what the wall’s construction meant for one Berliner, a German nurse named Ida Siekmann, the first casualty of the Berlin Wall.

“As I stood in the Berlin Wall Memorial, listening to the Ida Siekmann presentation,” Andrea Reyes (’25) remembered, “I caught a glimpse of the past which revealed how the physical barrier tragically impacted ordinary lives in Germany.”

A student stands in a grassy area speaking to the group as people enjoy the green space with the Berlin Wall in the background
Rhiannon Camarillo ('26) presented as Walter Ulbricht, the Communist leader who authorized the Berlin Wall.

A group of students poses lined up, posing for a photo in front of the graffitied Berlin Wall
Students gathered along the graffitied remains of the Berlin Wall.

“I think something that shook every staff rider to their core was the Stasi prison,” Abigail Bergan (’26) recalled. “This micro-level closeup of the horrors of war is sticking with me well after I’ve left Berlin and Prague."

A view through the windows of an old van with two people in the background
Peter Feaver peered into the window while Harrison Schreiber ('25) walked around the van to view the side entrances. Staff ride participants toured Berlin Hohenschönhausen, a former Stasi prison, and learned about the various ways Stasi trafficked victims of the state's paranoia and propaganda campaign.

It is always a stark reminder that people make history. Their personalities, past and preferences matter.

Perhaps no one reminded this year’s participants of that better than Reyes, who opened by taking off her shoe and banging it on the ground to signal that she was the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev.

The journey continued in Prague, with stops at the radio building where skirmishes broke out in August 1968 following the Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia and on historic Wenceslas Square at the markers to commemorate young students who self-immolated in protest. Participants climbed the hills of Prague to the former West German embassy where East Germans took refuge in the summer of 1989, hoping to escape for a better life in the West.

Four members of the staff ride stride up the cobble stone street under a cloudy sky
(from left to right) Ian Bailey ('25), Zachary Patterson ('26), John Hillen, and Kenrick Forrester ascended the cobbled street of Ke Hradu on their way to Prague Castle.

“It was especially powerful to learn and embody the historical context and strategic thinking at the places where it actually happened,” Jazper Lu (’26) observed. “Focusing my research on a single person and time frame allowed me to see the complexity and significance of each small decision that would normally occupy a single sentence or less in a history textbook.”

The group stands at the bottom of the hill in front of the gate for the Embassy of Germany. Large evergreen trees flank the sides of the photo.
Staff ride participants gathered at the Embassy of Germany in Prague to hear Susan Colbourn's presentation of Olympic figure skater Katarina Witt, whose position in the German Democratic Republic highlighted the privilege of status and celebrity.

At each stop, students, alumni and faculty shared insights from their own reading and research into an array of individuals, including presidents, prime ministers, and general secretaries, along with soldiers, diplomats, religious leaders, athletes, and everyday people navigating the complexities of geopolitics.

A student holding their phone delivering their talk on a cobblestone street
Krishna Shah ('27) presented as Condoleezza Rice along the cobbled streets that lined Prague Castle. Rice, who visited AGS earlier this year, became the first Black female secretary of state and first woman to serve as a national security advisor.

Another student give their talk on a city street as an old red-striped street car passes
Lucas Wagner ('27) performed as Soviet Union leader Leonid Brezhnev in front of Český Rozhlas, the oldest radio broadcaster in continental Europe.

A student giving their talk as the subject of their presentation stands, out of focus, in the foreground
Ian Bailey ('25) presented as John Hillen. Hillen served as U.S. assistant secretary of state for Political-Military Affairs and became the inaugural inductee into Duke Army ROTC’s Hall of Fame.

The subject of the talk gesturing with one hand up while adding context to the talk
In response to Bailey's presentation, Hillen offered additional context about what he experienced at the German border when the Iron Curtain fell.

Two students casually walking down the cobbled streets of Prague with a 550 year old tower in the background
Ian Bailey and Abigail Bergan ('26) walk along Prague's Hybernská road after marveling at the Powder Gate Tower that was built in 1475.

AGS Director Peter Feaver, a professor of political science, capped off the week considering how the Cold War shaped a generation of policymakers. Reflecting on the sites they had seen and the episodes discussed over the past week, the students debated the formative experiences and defining moments that might shape their generation’s outlook on the world.

Peaver Fever gesturing as he presents, wearing an amber and gold, circular brooch
Peter Feaver wore a brooch pinned to his shirt as he ended the week of discussions with a presentation as Madeleine Albright. Albright was the first woman to serve as U.S. secretary of state. Feaver’s service in the White House on the National Security Council overlapped with Albright’s tenure, which made for a colorful and poignant perspective on decision-making.

(from left to right): Elliot Strauch (’27), Neel Mehra, Jazper Lu, and Lucas Wagner drop into a stylized pose during a moment while surveying the exhibit halls at the Museum of Communism in Prague.