It's amazing how "citizen diplomats" around the world manage to keep in touch at just the right moments.
Take Sunday night, for instance, when rumors of the death of Soviet President Konstantin U. Chernenko were flying fast and furious and much of the world was debating the shift in the balance of power.
In Moscow, where it was 5:30 a.m. Monday morning, a group of Soviet citizens had gotten up in the middle of the night to talk with their American buddies--on a telephone whose signal was boosted by sound equipment borrowed from a nearby Gorky Park discotheque.
On the other end of the line were the Americans, who placed the call. Some of them, like Chuck Alton (founder of the U.S. Radio Network that sponsored this and other U.S./U.S.S.R. link-ups) and Cable News Network owner Ted Turner, were sitting in Los Angeles radio station KUSC. Thousands of other Americans were listening in and occasionally participating from about 30 U.S. cities, which carried the live, 90-minute broadcast.
They were mostly people who would be called peaceniks, if this were still the 1960s. Update the peaceniks of the '60s with the slick technology of the '80s and what results is a "Global Town Meeting," a radio show featuring the folks in Moscow and the folks from the United States phoning in from all over: Dallas, San Francisco, Pittsburgh, Eugene and more. There were no such conference calls in the Soviet Union nor was the broadcast to be aired on Soviet radio. But there was, said the Americans, "a possibility of translated segments airing in the U.S.S.R. at a later date."
Calls Flood Moscow
Shortly before the program was to begin, U.S. overseas operators informed the Los Angeles group that they were flooded with calls to Moscow and had heard rumors of Chernenko's death. Despite the fact that the group had reserved two overseas lines at 6 p.m. for their broadcast at 6:30, the Moscow operators were just not answering. Further reports circulated that somber music--now a traditional tip-off to the death of a Soviet leader--was playing on the airwaves throughout the Soviet Union.
But luck was with the citizen diplomats on both sides of the world. A couple of minutes before the broadcast was scheduled to start, the calls went through so "Global Town Meeting" could begin as scheduled.
For the entire 90 minutes of the broadcast, none of the participants mentioned the rumors about Chernenko and only passing reference was made to the Geneva arms reduction negotiations, which began Tuesday. (As it turned out, the dozen or so gathered in the Moscow apartment had not yet heard any of the rumors or news.)
There was plenty to talk about, though, as the citizen diplomats had other things on their minds: International projects in which they are directly involved.
And besides, who's in or out of power is apparently not much of an issue with these people. They predictably look to the peace and friendship that they know exists among ordinary citizens of both countries, particularly during moments that official diplomats consider times of crisis or tension.
These self-appointed peacemakers want to get along with everyone. As Turner put it, "If everybody had the opportunity to see the Soviet people as I did and as I do every day, because of CNN and our bureau over there, there'sno question. If they felt like me, they wouldn't want to drop a bomb. We'd want to be friends. That's why I'm here. I want to be friends with everybody."
Turner was clearly the most plain-spoken and frequently queried personality on the broadcast, which was so dominated by the Americans that when U.S. moderator Joel Schatz asked, "Moscow, are you still there?" the moderator in the Soviet Union replied, "Yeah, Joel, we're waiting to get a word in edgewise here."
(By that time, 11 Americans had been heard from and three individuals from Moscow apartment, only one of whom was a Soviet citizen. The other two were a visiting American composer and the moderator, John Nicolopolous, a Moscow correspondent for the Greek newspaper, the Athens Times, who once taught Russian literature at a U.S. university. As the broadcast continued, more Soviets were heard from, some speaking in English, others using a translator.)
A Level of Peace
But despite the lopsided nature of the broadcast, the point was made repeatedly on both sides that peace does exist between the two nations--at least at the people-to-people level.
Soviet screenwriter Joseph Goldin, for instance, was asked how the interactions between the United States and the Soviet governments can be made more human.
Goldin referred to Lenin's description of politics as "the practical destiny of millions of people."
"So if you have something to share with millions of people, be it a musician, poet, architect, composer, you are a political figure," he said. "It's a rather untraditional approach, but frankly, we are facing this approach as a challenge. Right now, we are planning to make a film called 'Bridges' with American film makers who just arrived in Moscow....We expect to meet a hundred Americans in Moscow from all walks of life and give them the direct experience of a hundred Muscovites. . . .We'll be filming it, giving them a sharing of each . . . . The film will be shown to audiences on both sides of the ocean."
Goldin was responsible for arranging the Soviet participation in all three of the U.S. network's "Global Town Meetings," the first of which occurred last August, marking the 39th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima, Japan. That first broadcast connected people in Europe, Japan, the United States and the Soviet Union.
Both the second broadcast and the third, held Sunday evening, have been exclusively between the United States and the Soviet Union. American guests on the programs have included singer Richie Havens, U.S. Reps. George Brown (D-Colton) and James Leach (R-Iowa), "Megatrends" author John Naisbitt, California businessman Harold Willens (author of "The Trim Tab Factor: How Business Executives Can Help Solve the Nuclear Weapons Crisis"), management consultant and "Inner Game of Tennis" creator Tim Gallwey, businessman Don Carlson (chairman of Business Executives for National Security), authors George Leonard ("The End of Sex") and Marilyn Ferguson ("The Aquarian Conspiracy") and Daanan Parry, a conflict resolutionist and former nuclear physicist who worked with the Atomic Energy Commission.
Indeed, there are so many people actively involved in this emerging, global peace network that the broadcast contained far more communication from its member (pre-linked to the station on a multi-party conference call) than from other calls throughout the country.
One Montana caller who did manage to get on the air, however, said he was "an idealist and an optimist down deep" but he was "worried about the short term." He maintained that many Americans are still haunted by the "We will bury you" threat of the late Nikita Khrushchev.
"What reassurance can you give us that your country is not bent on global domination," the man wanted to know.
"What he (Khrushchev) meant was that the Soviet Union was going to surpass the West economically, particularly the United States," replied moderator Nicolopolous, comparing the famous statement to a "Let's get'em" pep talk of a football coach.
"War was always a last resort, the was was always defensive," Nicolopolous continued, " Any kind of aggression on the border of this empire was undertaken as a last resort when things became extremely difficult and an immediate threat to the security of the country was perceived."
That exchange--and a remark by Turner that the media of both the United States and the Soviet Union (with the exception of CNN) tend to concentrate on negative, unbalanced, sensational stories about the opposite countries--was about as confrontational as things got. Turner added that in September, Soviet television will begin an arrangement with CNN to air CNN broadcasts.
Other discussions focused on the meaning of love, children as exceptional citizen diplomats, the ease with which American participants have connected with Soviet citizens during trips to the Soviet Union, how the Soviets listen to foreign broadcasts on shortwave radios, and citizen diplomacy projects currently in progress.
In fact, there were so many reports about these projects during the course of the broadcast, it seemed that their updating was designed to be as much a part of the proceedings as was the dialogue between citizens of the two countries.
A toll-free telephone number for people looking to get involved with an unspecified peace organization was plugged. So was a U.S. network contest to select two citizen diplomats (based on their letters to the leaders of the United States and the Soviet Union) who would win free, one-week trips to the Soviet Union and then report on the results during an upcoming Global Town Meeting.
One caller, apparently having heard so many other projects promoted, went ahead and publicized her project, even though she had been instructed to ask the Soviets a question. "We are here to sponsor the Global Town Meeting and the Planetary Congress of 1986. . .We hope that the Soviet Union will join us," she said and then cued a group of listeners at a residence in Los Angels to begin singing a song with the words "We are one."
At the end of the show, there were toasts. In Los Angeles, glasses filled with Russian vodka were lifted as actor Dennis Weaver called in and announced,"My toast is to let us realize that we are one people living on one planet and may we learn to protect it and care for it for the benefit of all that each of us may live a productive and peaceful life."
From Moscow, there followed a toast with glasses filled with California wine. "We want to drink to a regular exchange of this type," Nicolopolous declared. "We want to promise that we will always have a group o f people who will get up at 3 or 4 a.m. and be here to meet you guys and to drink with you to better understanding and world peace."