by Raymond F. Smith
During the Reagan presidency, “trust, but verify” became the operating principle for negotiations with the Soviet Union on strategic matters, particularly on arms control agreements. The administration’s guidance to those of us in the trenches remained as it had been for previous administrations of both parties. We were to continue to adhere to the principle of reciprocity. In the day-to-day business of managing relations with the Soviet Union, reciprocity essentially meant that if they cut us some slack, we would do the same. Generally, the Soviet Union did not cut us any slack, so we did our best not to cut them any. The top-down authoritarianism of the Soviet system gave them some inherent advantages on these matters, since they faced no pressures to relax the treatment accorded to our diplomats, whereas we frequently did.
In the early 1980s, I oversaw the bilateral relations section of the State Department’s Soviet desk, responsible for managing the nitty-gritty of everyday relations. While serving in Moscow just a few years previously, I had been on the receiving end of Soviet “hospitality” toward American diplomats and was generally immovable on issues of reciprocity.
Which brings us to Shirley Temple. Those of us of a certain age remember her as the irresistible tyke who tap-danced and sang her way into our hearts on the silver screen.
As an adult, Shirley Temple Black developed an interest in international affairs and served as U.S. ambassador to Ghana, then later to Czechoslovakia. And now, on this chilly November day in Washington, my secretary informed me that she was on the phone and wanted to speak to me.
She had, she told me, invited the Soviet consul general in San Francisco to her home in the hilly outskirts of the city for Thanksgiving. She believed that enabling him to experience this quintessential American holiday in a real American home would help him to develop a better understanding and appreciation of our way of life. He had replied that he would be delighted to come, but the State Department would not let him because her home was in an area that Soviet diplomats were not allowed to visit. (At this point, I quietly asked one of my staff to find out whether her home was in a closed area and learned shortly that, in fact, it was.) He had told her that unless she could persuade the State Department to grant him an exception to visit her home he would very regretfully have to decline her generous offer.
I explained to Ambassador Black that many areas of the United States were closed to travel by Soviet diplomats for the simple reason that the Soviet government did not allow U.S. diplomats to travel to large areas of the Soviet Union. Her home was in one of those areas. The Soviet government had been largely unresponsive to our periodic efforts to relax these restrictions reciprocally and we would never be able to persuade them to do so unless we were firm in holding them to the same restrictions our diplomats faced in their country.
She responded graciously that she appreciated and supported our policy in this area but hoped that just this once I could make an exception. Surely only good could come from the Soviet consul general experiencing a Thanksgiving dinner in her home.
By this time, the entire office knew that I was talking on the phone with Shirley Temple and what we were talking about. They had gathered at the door to my office to listen in and find out whether their immovable section chief would budge. To top it off, I knew that the Soviet consul general was playing his own game. He could have requested the closed area exception himself, but in that case his government would have had to grant an exception to one of our diplomats. That would not have been a career-enhancing move for him. On the other hand, if Shirley Temple could get him an exception, the Soviet Foreign Ministry could rebuff our effort to get a reciprocal visit to a closed area on the grounds that it had never asked us to allow the consul general’s visit. He would play up the visit in his report to Moscow and perhaps gain a few points with his superiors.
So, what would you have done? Would you have said no to Shirley Temple on Thanksgiving and abided by our reciprocity policy for closed areas? As for me, I had to settle for hoping that the Soviet consul general got the short end of the wishbone.
Raymond Smith spent more than 30 years at the State Department, retiring from the Senior Foreign Service as a Minister Counselor and then serving as a senior advisor to the Department’s Nonproliferation and Disarmament Fund. He spent six years at the U.S. embassy in Moscow, serving as political counselor from 1988-91, a period that included stints as Acting Deputy Chief of Mission and Charge d’Affaires. He has a doctorate in international relations from Northwestern University and has authored two books, Negotiating with the Soviets and The Craft of Political Analysis for Diplomats, as well as numerous articles.