Thirty years ago, when Ronald Reagan met with Mikhail Gorbachev in Moscow and said that he no longer considered the Soviet Union an “evil empire,” many observers began declaring that the Cold War was over. While the important roles of Reagan and Gorbachev in the ending of Soviet-American enmity are widely remembered, it is often forgotten that Soviet and American citizens played active roles in overcoming the suspicion and hostility that had marred relations between the two countries for decades. Today, when American-Russian relations have deteriorated so badly that many now speak of a “new cold war,” it is important to remember how citizens made a difference in the ending of the old Cold War.
Even before Reagan and Gorbachev met for the first time at Geneva in November 1985, many Americans and Soviets launched initiatives to try to ease tensions between their nations. American and Soviet citizens were thus not merely observers of the end of the Cold War; they helped to make it happen in their own homes and communities.
In 1982 Betty Bumpers, wife of Senator Dale Bumpers, founded Peace Links, based in Arkansas, which grew to have scores of affiliates across the United States and more than 150 supporters among congressional spouses. In 1985 Bumpers invited the Soviet Women’s Committee to send a delegation of fifteen women to the United States, where they split into groups of three that each visited several cities. Further Peace Links exchanges followed. As one Soviet participant later recalled, the dialogue and friendships that developed helped foster the climate that led to the end of the Soviet-American stalemate.
Moved, like Bumpers, by worries about nuclear war, in 1982 a group of Silicon Valley professionals and housewives formed an organization called Beyond War, with headquarters in Palo Alto, California. It rapidly expanded to have local groups in 25 states and 18,000 subscribers to its newsletter. After sending small delegations to the Soviet Union for several years, in 1987 Beyond War collaborated with prominent Soviet academics on a book about “new thinking” concerning nuclear weapons and Soviet-American relations. Fifteen thousand copies of the book were sold in the U.S. and 30,000 copies were printed in the U.S.S.R. The Soviet and American authors then promoted the book with ambitious tours across the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. in 1988 that led to the publication of hundreds of articles and editorials in newspapers about the possibility of a dramatic change in thinking about international relations. (Beyond War later deposited many of its papers at the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation.)
Many other organizations became involved. They included the US-USSR Youth Exchange Program, which organized joint Soviet-American wilderness adventures and educational exchanges; the Center for Soviet-American Dialogue; the Chautauqua Institute, which sponsored major exchanges of government officials and opinion leaders; and Sister Cities International.
The explosion of citizen diplomacy, especially from 1987 to 1989, led to hundreds of thousands of face-to-face encounters between Americans and Soviets that often challenged their preconceptions about their erstwhile enemies and frequently led to the forming of fond friendships. The impact of the individual encounters was magnified by extensive coverage on the front pages of local newspapers and in numerous broadcasts by local and regional radio and television stations who treated the Soviet visits as major news stories.
The most ambitious of the many citizen diplomacy projects was the “Soviets Meet Middle America!” project. This was a joint effort by the Center for U.S.-U.S.S.R. Initiatives (CUUI), the Soviet Peace Committee, and non-governmental activists in the Soviet Union that brought 400 Soviet citizens to 240 towns and cities across the United States between January 1988 and early 1989.
Participants in the “Soviets, Meet Middle America!” project – including many in southern California — believed that they were playing important roles in the broader process of warming American- Soviet relations. After a grass-roots “mini-summit” in July 1988, for example, the editor of the Ojai Valley News glowed: “The people of the Ojai Valley probably accomplished more in the past two weeks than President Reagan did on his recent visit to the Soviet Union.”
Long before the disintegration of the Soviet Union in December 1991, then, citizen diplomacy broke down many Americans’ and Soviets’ negative stereotypes of the other people, erased old barriers of suspicion, and dissipated longstanding hostility. Remembering how American activists helped to dispel images of the Soviet Union as an “evil empire” and to encourage a dramatic expansion of communication between the two countries offers important inspiration for today, when American politicians have reverted to calling Russia’s leader “evil” and have made it more difficult for the two nuclear-armed nations to engage in dialogue about their differences.