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Peace Mission to Soviet Union: Fools' Errand or Real Breakthrough?

May 14, 1987|BILL MANSON

SAN DIEGO — E.T. thinks the idea is naive and shallow.

"These people think they can go out and spread love and change the world in two weeks! They need to spend a year! Learn the language! In two weeks, they will see what the KGB wants them to see. That's all."

E.T. is a San Diego-based Jewish emigre from the Soviet Union. He asks that only his initials be published because he still has family back home who might suffer because of his views.

"These people" is a group he has been advising, despite his feelings. Sixteen men and women, mainly from San Diego, who want to build peace by spreading love between the Soviet Union and the United States. They will put their money ($2,700 each) where their mouths are and fly to Leningrad and Moscow to "practice peace." Start breaking down East-West barriers, without waiting for governments and their interminable negotiations to pave the way. Just go, meet "the people." Defuse their fears of us. Learn to understand them.

Two weeks before departure, a sign is placed at the entrance to a Point Loma condo complex:

"Citizen Diplomats! Follow arrows!"

Inside the pink, deep-pile plushness of Zelah Kahn's condo, looking over the blue lapping waters by Shelter Island, the citizen diplomats are gathering on this Sunday afternoon. A massage therapist, a mortgage loan officer, a divorcee, a 24-year-old real estate agent, a businessman, a high school junior, the nucleus of the group of 16 here to prepare for what might be the most important trip of their lives. Or, if E.T. is right, another Great Idea that falls flat in the face of reality.

They have each paid up and committed themselves for a two-week Peace Tour of Leningrad and Moscow, under the auspices of the Center for Soviet-American Dialogue, a peace group based in Bellevue, Wash.

The schedule is ambitious: 14 days packed with workshops, school visits, home visits and peace committee dialogues. They'll start with orientation workshops in Helsinki, then go on to Leningrad and "small group dialogue" with the Leningrad Regional Peace Committee.

They'll visit an English-speaking school, a children's ballet class, a theological seminary and artists' studios--as well as tourist "musts" like the Hermitage.

In Moscow, they will "meet informally with Soviet citizens to discuss areas of mutual interest and global concerns." And they'll meet with journalists, writers, educators, artists, musicians and film makers. They have also been informally promised visits with dissident groups, particularly Jewish "refuseniks"--those who have applied for permission to emigrate and have been turned down.

The adventure has attracted a variety of ages and types, united only in their essential middle-classness. Individuals with a modicum of money who for once want to step out of the plowed furrow of their lives and take part in history. Nudge it a little, at least, rather than the usual standing by helplessly as the larger world lurches on without so much as a glance at them.

But with real life and its comforting banalities ever luring them back from this limb they're stepping out on, keeping the crusading flame alive is going to take a lot of group support.

This is why, from a cushion on the floor, flinty, gentle Mel Ingalls is holding forth on world peace:

"People talk about the need for national security. Well, sure. We know what they mean. Lots of weapons, space defense, stockpiling nuclear weapons. Why, we're manufacturing six nuclear warheads every day in this country--three right here in California. If they use 1% of our two countries' stockpiles, there's a guaranteed nuclear winter. And what does this craziness come from? Not national security, national in security. And I believe that what exists between nations stems from what exists between individuals."

He looks around at the dozen people, mainly women, scattered on cushions and sofas around him.

"That's why I think we all should learn at the start to open out our vulnerabilities to each other," he said. "Because peace comes down to trust. Between nations, between individuals. Sure, you and I are apprehensive about this trip. Scared. Dark fears. So let's open out. Tell each other about our fears. Let's just each say our piece, then touch the next person and they can say theirs."

Ingalls, an industrial developer from San Diego, is co-founder of an organization called Celebrate Peace. He wants people to let go of war through a consciousness of love. He was never in any anti-war demonstrations of the '60s. But he got inspired by a peace activist and almost vice presidential candidate named Barbara Marx Hubbard, who led a group on a peace trip to the Soviet Union in January, 1986.

She was working with Rama Vernon, creator of the Center for Soviet-American Dialogue. Vernon's idea was to break down the fears instilled in Americans by the Communist stereotype and try to get through the "fear barrier" by meeting and getting to know Soviet people.

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