The premise of Citizen Diplomats by Gale Warner and Michael Shuman, with a foreword by Carl Sagan, is simple: America’s elected politicians and professional diplomats have been so inadequate in managing relations with the Soviet Union and coping with the nuclear threat that concerned citizens themselves should do all they can to improve our understanding with the Soviets.

While the book has no bibliography, footnotes, or index, it does contain a 76-page appendix of 38 different categories of U.S./Soviet exchange groups. It is, in short, a kind of motivational tool for antinuclear activists.

Each of the nine chapters tells the story of an individual “pathfinder.” They range from Dr. Bernard Lown, cofounder of the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNN), to Samantha Smith, perhaps the most politically exploited little girl in the history of US/USSR relations. The idea is to show that everyone can contribute to our better dealings with the Soviets, regardless of age or occupation. Grandmother? Sure. Farmer? Of course. Anyone.

But those who embark on this type of journey are not exactly typical Americans. In the 1950’s, Dr. Bernard Lown had memberships in several of the subversive organizations listed in the Walter-McCarran Act. He first journeyed to the Soviet Union in 1968—the year of the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia—after meeting a certain Soviet doctor in India in 1966. In 1985 Lown, on behalf of the IPPNN he helped to cofound with this same Soviet doctor, received a Nobel Peace Prize.

In the mind of Warner & Shuman, Lown is a prototype of the citizen diplomat—an individual citizen who furthered the cause of peace and nuclear disarmament. Perhaps a more realistic interpretation is that he was an alienated American exploited by Moscow professionals to further their foreign policy goals.

The Soviet doctor that Lown met in 1966 in India and in 1968 in Moscow was Yevgeny Chasov. In 1973 Chasov denounced Nobel Peace Laureate Andrei Sakharov in the Soviet press. About the same time he became head physician to the members of the Politburo. Since 1982 Chasov has been a member of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. Clearly, he was under strict party discipline and no private citizen.

Elena Bonner (Alone Together) raises the chilling prospect that Dr. Chasov may well have been personally responsible for the decision to brutally force-feed her husband, Andrei Sakharov, in 1984, when he was on a hunger strike. Given Chasov’s proximity to the Politburo, his field (cardiology), Sakharov’s illness of the heart, and the importance of Dr. Sakharov, Chasov’s involvement seems plausible. Nonetheless, the Soviets scored a great propaganda coup by having their native son, a top party leader, Chasov, receive the Nobel Peace Prize. Then there is the case of grandmother Sharon Tennison, age 50. Her disillusionment with American politics after the assassinations of the Kennedys and Martin Luther King was followed by a religious search. She went through two marriages and passed through two religions to “something universal.” It was around that time that she joined Physicians for Social Responsibility (PSR) and from these experiences determined she had to go to the Soviet Union to see for herself what the Soviets were like. After all, how could she claim they are just like us if she had never been there?

While in the USSR, Mrs. Tennison first learned of Leonard Peltier, an American Indian serving consecutive life sentences in a U.S. federal prison. In the Soviet Union, Mr. Peltier is celebrated as the moral equivalent of Andrei Sakharov in exile. Mrs. Tennison apparently now believes that Mr. Peltier’s human rights have been abused because he was leading the Indians against the U.S. government in a just cause. She does not give credence to his criminal conviction for the deaths of two federal agents. So, the next time we hear of 10,000 or so political prisoners in the Soviet Union, we should remember Mr. Peltier. Soviet guides do not just show visitors the Soviet Union—they also explain the United States to them.

There is a vast literature of visitors to the Soviet Union attempting, like Sharon Tennison, to learn the truth about the Soviets. Paul Hollander (Political Pilgrims) has explained why many alienated Westerners visiting the Soviet Union fail to see even what is apparent. First, there is the dissatisfaction with America followed by the “willing suspension of disbelief” (apologies to Coleridge) upon entering the Soviet Union. This willingness to see the positive is further enhanced by techniques of hospitality. The visitors are catered to as important visiting officials. When the system inevitably fails and the food is rotten, for example, well, just look at how hard these Soviets try! How can one speak ill of them? And then, of course, there are the outright lies and distortions that accompany the effort to show visitors the best the USSR has to offer. For 70 years, returning diplomats, journalists, businessmen, and others skilled in the language have documented Soviet capabilities to deceive. Nonetheless, Grandmother Tennison has led about 20 different groups to the Soviet Union to see what the Soviets are really like and to help others see the same.

Current exchanges, the aftermath of the Reagan/Gorbachev 1985 Summit, have been anything but reciprocal, despite treaty stipulations to that effect. In 1986, 80,000 Americans went to the USSR, while only 6,500 Soviets came here. In 1976 (before Afghanistan), 66,000 Americans went to the Soviet Union, and 12,000 Soviets visited us. The numbers do not tell the whole story—the Soviet visitors are exclusively party members who’ve been rigorously checked, or experts held in line by keeping their family in the Soviet Union or by other behavior-modifying ploys. American visitors are for the most part curious amateurs put on guided tours. Apparently glasnost does not extend to letting average Soviets travel abroad.

In the introduction, the authors try to deal with the objection that citizen diplomacy can’t affect the Soviet government because there is no real public opinion in the USSR. They conclude this section by implying that the Soviets stopped their nuclear testing (since resumed), eliminated the French and British nuclear forces from arms talks with the U.S., and proposed a 50 percent reduction in nuclear weapons because of citizen diplomacy. They do not attempt to show how citizen diplomacy has brought about these results. Nowhere do they credit the Reagan administration or the strong mandate it received from the American people in 1980 and 1984 for any of these changes in Soviet negotiating postures. This last point is rather important since the purported need for citizen diplomacy is based on the ineffectiveness of elected officials and professional diplomats.

Another premise of citizen diplomacy is that a peace web to preclude war can be woven if enough personal and business relations are formed between citizens of the two countries. A high volume of contacts and trade is thus seen as a factor in fostering peace. Yet the number of contacts and the flow of trade between Germany and the Soviet Union just before Germany attacked the USSR in 1941 was never greater. In fact, perhaps those contacts were one reason the Soviets were surprised at the German attack. Rather than preventing war, personal contacts and trade, even the “nonaggression” pact of 1939, likely misled Stalin into thinking Hitler was his ally in carving up Europe. This web of relations was not an obstacle to Hitler’s decision to attack, and there is much evidence to show it was nothing but a smoke screen.

Many citizen diplomats, perhaps bearing a sense of guilt about Mr. Peltier, do not see the lack of human rights in the Soviet Union as an important problem that should concern Americans. The ones who do usually contend that there is a more pressing problem; preventing nuclear war. It is to Andrei Sakharov’s credit that he widely publicized the idea that greater freedom and democracy in the Soviet Union would inhibit Soviet leaders from waging nuclear war. Militant, secretive nations are more apt to go to war than countries with freedom of expression, public opinion, real elections, open emigration, and the like. If this proposition is true, it may well be that Gorbachev’s Soviet Union is less apt to go to war than a Brezhnev-type Soviet Union.

Nonetheless, any conclusions about glasnost and perestroika are premature. After all, Khrushchev’s “public airing” and “restructuring” of the early 1960’s did not prevent the building of the Berlin Wall, the effort to put missiles in Cuba, nor the explosion of a 57 megaton hydrogen bomb, the largest in history, which broke a three-year moratorium. Moreover, party leaders deposed Khrushchev.

These are sober facts to consider in the midst of all the enthusiasm about current developments in the Soviet Union. The American citizen diplomatic corp continues to multiply and whip up even greater excitement. Their trips to the USSR are misrepresented as a cause of seemingly positive developments in the USSR. Yet one can’t help but feel the need for historical perspective and more modesty about the possibility of individual American citizens changing the foreign policies of any major foreign power, least of all the Soviet Union. The Soviet empire’s raison d’etre, its party platform, its social structure, its military force, and its economy since 1917 have all been geared toward the global expansion of their system. And exchanging musicians, bicycling and climbing mountains together, and so on are not likely to change the direction of Soviet foreign policy.


[Citizen Diplomats: Pathfinders in Soviet-American Relations—And How You Can Join Them, by Gale Warner and Michael Shuman; New York: Continuum]