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."