IT’S THE CULTURE, COMRADE!
Review by Jack R. Perry
Cultural Exchange and the Cold War: Raising the Iron Curtain. By Yale Richmond. (University Park, PA: Penn State University Press, 2003. Pp. xiv, 249. $35 cloth.)
“Yale Richmond’s book argues that the penetration of the Iron Curtain by Western culture and ideals was in large part responsible for the breakup of the Soviet empire under Mikhail Gorbachev.”
The idea that the West or Ronald Reagan won the Cold War was always a political idea that has had no standing among those active participants of that protracted conflict. More important to understanding this struggle between East and West has been the question of what caused it to end so unexpectedly. In this important contribution to answering that question, Yale Richmond, a career U. S. Information Agency officer with extensive experience in East-West cultural exchanges, provides a thorough, lucid, and provocative account of the key factors leading to the end of the Cold War. Richmond argues that the gradual penetration of the Iron Curtain by Western culture and ideals in the post-Stalinist era was in large part responsible for glasnost, the weakening of belief in Marxist-Leninist ideology, and the breakup of the Soviet empire under Mikhail Gorbachev.
A major participant in East-West exchanges during the Cold War, Richmond writes with confidence on the many aspects of these exchanges, from direct government-sponsored grand exhibits, distribution of Amerika magazine, and academic exchanges to the non-government activities of journalists, film-makers, writers, and visitors. The author provides a wealth of material about these variegated aspects of exchanges and presents it clearly. While he gives full attention to government activities affecting the weakening of Moscow’s empire, he also includes cultural influences like the election of a Polish pope and the popular appeal of the Beatles’ music.
Richmond points out that the British often led the way in diplomatic ground-breaking. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s famous line to President Reagan after entertaining Gorbachev: “We can do business with this man.” It should come as no surprise, therefore, that Washington began negotiations for a governmental agreement with Moscow in 1957, shortly after London signed its first cultural exchange agreement with the Soviet state. The so-called Lacy-Zarubin agreement–the official umbrella over exchanges signed in late January 1958–remained in effect throughout the Cold War, despite a number of tense moments between the U. S. and the U. S. S. R.
Those involved in Soviet-American exchanges in the early sixties, when mutual suspicions, spy-mania, and Soviet nervousness about openess made life in the “exchange world” unusually difficult, will appreciate the accurate picture Richmond paints of the grimness of those early days. Many such veterans may remember Ralph A. Jones’ outburst during the 1962 negotiations for a protocol to the Exchange Agreement. The deputy director of the Soviet Exchanges Staff at State blew up at still another Soviet refusal to entertain exchanges that would provide its citizens with more free news. Noting the patriotism of the Soviet people, Jones lectured the startled Soviet negotiators that one day they would realize that their people could handle the truth and entrust them with facts instead of lies.
Richmond’s chapter on “Scholarly Exchanges” is especially telling. Here he recounts the complicated history of academic exchanges (both students and faculty), which was one of the most important aspects of cultural exchanges with the Russians. Soviet academics describe in their own words how living in the United States affected their subsequent political development.
In another trenchant chapter, “Obmen or Obman?”, the author uses the Russian words for “exchange” and “deception.” He begins this chapter with a sharp quotation from Gail Lapidus and Alexander Dallin about Gorbachev’s “new political thinking.” Some have claimed that this was “the indirect result of a long-term process that includes both U. S. containment after World War II and the detente of the 1970s, which exposed an influential segment of the Soviet elite to Western achievements and values.” Here the author challenges the views of anti-Soviet critics of cultural exchanges like Richard Perle, who maintained that they were an exercise in futility since Moscow received the lion’s share of the benefits. Carefully and comprehensively, Richmond demonstrates the error of this view and explains how the exchanges led to the collapse of Communism.
Richmond closes his volume with a quote from novelist John Le Carré: “One day, history may tell us who really won [the Cold War]. If a democratic Russia emerges–why then, Russia will have been the winner.” In this signal contribution to the history of the Cold War, Richmond makes clear that it was the underlying influences that turned out to be far more decisive in ending the conflict than nuclear weapons and missiles.