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What About the Russians? Personal Encounters

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Along with all Americans, save the generation now in high-school and younger, I grew up and lived under the shadow of the Cold War, and behind it the ever-present threat of nuclear annihilation. We all remember it well.

But I also dimly remember a time when we thought well of the Russians our allies in World War II, a war against the stereotyped "Japs" and "Krauts."

All that changed a mere ten months after the surrender of Nazi Germany when, in Fulton, Missouri, Winston Churchill spoke these enduring words:

From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the Continent. Behind that line lie all the capitals of the ancient states of Central and Eastern Europe. Warsaw, Berlin, Prague, Vienna, Budapest, Belgrade, Bucharest and Sofia, all these famous cities and the populations around them lie in what I must call the Soviet sphere...


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Many historians mark that speech as the beginning of the Cold War.

A year later, in March, 1947, President Harry Truman requested and received from the Congress an appropriation of $400 million to aid the Greek and Turkish governments in their struggles against Communist rebels or "insurgents," as we would call them today. This policy became known as "The Truman Doctrine," the effect of which was an open-ended commitment to fund anti-communist regimes around the world.

Concerned that the American public might resist an increase in military appropriations so soon after victory in the World War, Truman was advised by Arthur Vandenburg, the Republican Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, that in order to succeed with his confrontational policy, the President would have to "scare Hell out of the American people."

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And so we the people have lived in fear, up to the fall of the Berlin Wall in November, 1989, and that of the Soviet Union in December, 1991. After a hiatus of a mere decade, the fear resumed on September 11, 2001, to once again captivate the American people and their government.

Though constantly preoccupied, like all Americans, with "the Soviet Menace," in the early days of the Cold War, I rarely encountered a "real live Russian," much less a Russian communist. On one occasion, while enrolled in some graduates course at Columbia University, I happened to meet a young correspondent from Radio Moscow, and seeing an opportunity to get better acquainted, invited him to lunch for an extended conversation. "Be careful, he's probably KGB," my parents warned. Then, for the next three decades, I had no further personal contact with any Russians. Throughout that time, the dark, abstract specter, "the Soviet Threat," chilled my consciousness, as it also dominated the news and public policy.

It is noteworthy that for the vast majority of Americans, "the Russians," like "the Germans" and "the Japanese" earlier, and "the Arabs" and "the Muslims" today, are perceived abstractly, as a collective gathered under a label, without faces or individual personalities. All the better to serve as "targets" in a war, either cold or hot.

Even so, for several decades I wondered, "Just who are these people, as individuals, whom we are prepared to annihilate by the millions, as they are equally prepared to annihilate us? Surely, they too have families that they love, and friendships, joys, griefs, aspirations, and traditions, just as we do. And they must also have ideas to challenge us. Is our common humanity less important than the mutual antagonisms and mutual threats that separate us?"

I was to have my first answer in June, 1989, when I was invited to participate in a summer seminar on "Global Security and Arms Control" at the University of California, Irvine, sponsored by the University of California's Institute on Global Conflict and Cooperation. As it happened, the seminar convened less than three weeks after the massacre at Tiananmen Square in Beijing. Assigned a dorm room with a visiting Chinese scholar, I saw in his face and heard in his voice his personal agony at the repression of his friends and colleagues "back home."

Also at the seminar were four articulate, intelligent and personable Russians, whom we soon came to call "the gang of four." In the discussions, it soon became clear that these individuals were not "the enemy," but rather like ourselves, victims of the shared insanity that had befallen our respective governments.

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A sample of that insanity was distributed to the members of the seminar for their critical analysis. It was the 1988 edition of the US Department of Defense report, "Soviet Military Power: An Assessment of the Threat." Primarily directed to the Congress, it was, in effect, a wish-list and a sales pitch in behalf of the Military Industrial Complex. After the fall of the Soviet Union, and the subsequent inspection of the Soviet military capability, the report was found to be, by and large, a fraud. Of special interest was the report's assessment of the Soviet government, three years into the Administration of Mikhail Gorbachev and the advent of "Perestroika" and "Glasnost:"

Gorbachev's "new thinking" primarily reflects a change in style, while his diplomatic initiatives embody new tactics. By cultivating a less threatening international image, Moscow aims to deflect attention away from Soviet militarism and adventure in its foreign policy. In Moscow's view, the consequent international climate will improve Soviet prospects for maintaining an advantageous "correlation of forces: worldwide, especially in an era of economic stagnation. At the same time, Moscow will aim to expand its power and influence... (31. See also, my: "If Peace Were at Hand, How Would We Know It?" [1989]).


At about the same time, George Will put it more succinctly: "Gorbachev is Brezhnev with a tailored suit and a thin wife." It is instructive to recall these words in the light of events in the Soviet Union subsequent to the release of this DoD report on "Soviet Military Power."

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Dr. Ernest Partridge is a consultant, writer and lecturer in the field of Environmental Ethics and Public Policy. Partridge has taught philosophy at the University of California, and in Utah, Colorado and Wisconsin. He publishes the website, "The (more...)
 

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