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The US does need more Soviet experts

Charles Bohlen, the dean of US Foreign Service specialists in Soviet affairs, used to say that there were ''no experts on the Soviet Union, only varying degrees of ignorance.'' But Chip Bohlen would have been the first to argue: the less ignorance, the better.

Today some voices suggest that the United States has enough Soviet experts, in government and out. But we need to take a broader view of the utility of Soviet training.

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True, jobs strictly for ''Soviet types'' are now limited in number. But the need is very great for Americans with firsthand knowledge of Soviet affairs who do not necessarily make ''Sovietology'' their sole or even principal endeavor. In an era when peace, even survival, depends upon relations between the two superpower rivals, it is essential that we have more Americans who can see the USSR through Soviet eyes.

Frankly, it is not of major concern whether the Soviet Union has surpassed the US in the number of ''experts'' employed full-time as experts. The Soviet system is so different from ours that comparisons of such numbers mean little. What is important, and vitally so, is how much each country knows about the other, and how that knowledge is folded into the policymaking and decision-making system of each country. In that respect, the Soviets have indeed overtaken and surpassed the US, creating not an ''expert gap'' but rather a gap in utilized knowledge.

When I began studying Soviet affairs in 1951, the Soviets' knowledge of the US system, mired as they were in Stalinist fears and superstitions, was abysmally poor. Their governmental decisionmaking was based in large part on preconceptions and mistaken assumptions when it came to American policy. But they soon became aware of their ignorance. They moved to correct it. They built up an embassy in Washington that learned the intimate inside lessons of how US society and government operates. They created academic institutions dedicated to learning American affairs inside out. And - what is remarkable - they elevated men with knowledge of American affairs to positions of responsibility, while their policymaking increasingly reflected real knowledge, not false assumptions, about our system. The effect of their efforts is written in the record.

What were we Americans doing in the meantime? To a considerable extent, going backward.

After World War II we had a strong cadre of Soviet specialists in the foreign service, men like Bohlen and George Kennan and Llewellyn Thompson. We had academics like Geroid Robinson and Phillip Mosely launching the Russian Institute at Columbia University, and others like them elsewhere. When I studied Soviet affairs at the Russian Institute in the '50s, American academia had a strong grasp of Soviet affairs; and when I entered the foreign service in 1959, I found the 'Moscow Club'' of Soviet specialists strong and influential.

That changed. Our system gradually ceased to incorporate those with practical and academic knowledge of the USSR into our policymaking structure. (Those who had preconceptions became more acceptable.) Inside the foreign service, the ''Moscow Club'' was largely disbanded as an influential group, owing in good part to appointments of outsiders without Soviet experience in place of career Soviet specialists who spoke Russian and had lived in Moscow. Increasingly, US political leaders came to rely on those with an acceptable ideological view of the Soviet Union, rather than with practical experience of that country. Again, the record will show the result.

Meanwhile many American organizations and industries took the position that rather than employ those with Soviet experience they would take their own people and give them a crash course in Russian and in Soviet affairs - a triumph of the narrow over the broad view of what kind of Soviet knowledge is needed. Good students began to turn away from the Soviet field because the rewards did not seem commensurate with the hard work involved. We seemed to enter an era when those who knew the Soviet Union as a real country with real problems and ambitions were shunted aside, while those involved in Soviet affairs were those who looked on the USSR in abstract, preconceived ways. Yet wise policy is usually based on real things, not abstractions.

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It was this situation which Averell Harriman sought to help turn around with his important gift to the Russian Institute, now the Harriman Institute, while Harvard and other centers of Soviet studies are also making major efforts to increase their reach and effectiveness. Marshall Shulman, the widely respected head of the Harriman Institute, has made clear his dedication to the ideal of broadening Soviet studies, so that more Americans in many fields will have the kind of knowledge of Soviet reality that can equip them to deal with a world dominated by this rivalry. The aim, which all men of goodwill ought to share, is to create a large, influential group of men and women who know the Soviets well, from experience, and who will incorporate that knowledge into their regular activities in whatever area - in journalism, in academia, in business, and certainly in government.

Basing ourselves on Bohlen's saying, we should not worry too much about job limitations for Soviet ''experts,'' since by his definition such ''experts'' do not exist anyway - and we can certainly hope that job opportunities will widen. What concerns us most is the great need for more people with knowledge of Soviet affairs in positions of authority, so that decisions taken throughout our society and government are based not on ignorance but on real knowledge of this all-too-real country.

The challenge from the Soviet Union will endure for a long time. We are obliged to know our rival. In this light, we need not fewer people with Soviet training, but many more.

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