Sunday, August 30, 2009

Safire on Nixon, Khrushchev -- "They Were Deadly Serious..."

In the second part of his comments about the Nixon-Khrushchev "Kitchen Debate," noted columnist and author William Safire talks about the broader context in which the showdown took place, pointing out that it is often forgotten today "how close a race it was" between the two superpowers, since what now appears as the inevitable victory of capitalism and democracy was by no means so certain 50 years ago. Safire tells his audience at the GWU "Face-off to Facebook" conference that the most important breakthrough of that Moscow Cold War summer was in fact in the realm of public diplomacy -- namely, that for the first time an American leader was able to speak directly, on television and radio, to the Soviet public.

Bill Safire -- "It Was My Kitchen..."

Noted columnist and author William Safire joined us for the July 23 "Face-off to Facebook" conference, and presented a fascinating eyewitness account of the Nixon-Khrushchev "Kitchen Debate." Safire's long and celebrated association with former President Nixon began rather implausibly that summer in Moscow, where Safire was working as a publicist for the model kitchen where the two leaders stopped and argued.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Jim Matisoff -- "...The Richest, Most Intense, Most Passionate Weeks of My Life"

Jim Matisoff's tenure as a guide at the American exhibition ended sooner than that of others, but in a way his story is illustrative of one of the more bizarre aspects of the Cold War -- namely, the strict barriers erected on both sides against close friendships and romantic liaisons across the ideological trenches. The American guides had been warned repeatedly to avoid developing personal relationships with Soviet citizens, who might simply be probing for individual weaknesses, and looking for an opportunity to create "provocations" to embarrass the American visitors. It is clear that Jim was only one of a significant number of guides who tested the limits to fraternization, and who forged friendships -- occasionally more -- with young people they met that summer. Jim, who was all of twenty years old, was probably less judicious than most of his fellow guides, and before long got himself in trouble.

Only three weeks after the exhibition's opening, Jim was caught, as he himself describes it, "in flagrante delicto" by Soviet militia in an escapade with an Armenian girl in the Sokolniki woods. His penalty for this indiscretion was a one-way plane ticket out of the USSR, since exhibition managers and the U.S. Embassy feared that the Soviet media might try to make a cause celebre out of Jim's ill-starred assignation in the woods.

Jim next found himself in Paris on a fellowship, where he wrote a multi-part series for a French newspaper about the Sokolniki exhibition. At the same time, he wrote a 300-page memoir in French which contains a great deal of interesting information about the recruitment, training and preparation of the guides, and which conveys very well the heady excitement of the opening days of the exhibition. He even recounts his awkward encounters with the Soviet opposite sex -- a facet of his youthful memoir which may or may not hold the same interest to today's reader.

Jim went on to forge a successful scholarly career in linguistics at UC Berkeley, where he became a leading expert on Southeast Asian languages. We were delighted to have him join us last month for the "Face-off to Facebook" conference, even if he wryly described himself as "the Black Sheep" of the exhibition.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Sergei Khrushchev on Sokolniki Exhibition -- "They Remembered What They Could Touch..."

Brown University's Prof. Sergei Khrushchev took part in the first panel at GWU's "Face-off to Facebook" conference on July 23. What had an impact on Soviet visitors to the Sokolniki exhibition, he explains, were the tangible artifacts of American life, like the books on display, the Pepsi samples (which he said did not win over his friends), chewing gum and the like. The expectations of Soviet visitors were so high, Khrushchev observes, that many felt a sense of disappointment when they discovered that America was not necessarily a utopia, and Americans were not demigods. They saw "it was not a dream...they were real people," he recalled. Yet the exhibition and President Eisenhower's emphasis on public diplomacy were "very important" all the same.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Face-off to Facebook: Walter Roberts Remembers

Dr. Walter Roberts, a former senior USIA and VOA official whose work in public diplomacy stretches back to the early days of World War II, kicked off the "Face-off to Facebook" conference on July 23. Following an introduction by Prof. Sean Aday, Director of GWU's Institute for Public Diplomacy and Global Communication, Roberts recalls how Nikita Khrushchev's new, more open approach to world affairs set the stage for more contacts and exchanges with the West, and how the 1958 U.S.-Soviet cultural agreement led to the first reciprocal U.S.-Soviet public diplomacy initiatives, including the American national exhibition at Sokolniki Park.