President of the USA
Dear Mr. President: Sophomores for Peace (SOPH)
I propose a strategy and a program, entitled ``Sophomores for Peace,'' for resolving the current nuclear war stalemate between the United States and the Soviet Union. In this program each year the entire college sophomore class of the United States would be exchanged for that of the Soviet Union. Consequently, there would be a constant population (although each year the individuals change) of a million or so American sophomores in the USSR, and vice versa.
The argument is that with the cream of our youth exchanged, there would be two major effects. The first is that such a population exchange would constitute a more effective deterrent to nuclear war than the current balance of terror. Such population exchanges between warring tribes are not unknown in history. The second effect is that the major problem between the USA and the USSR is really that of goodwill, not nuclear weapons. The impact of a million American sophomores in the USSR and vice versa, with the myriad of individual human emotions, feelings, and relationships that ensue, deals with the source of the problem and cannot help but create a sense of greater cohesiveness and friendliness between the two countries. True, exchange programs between the two countries have occurred before, but these have had little impact because they were too small. It is a case where adequate quantity makes a change in the quality of the total interaction.
It would seem that the present irreconcilable nuclear confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union is locked in, and exacerbated by all attempts at communicating on the level of reduction of these weapons. Given the amount of ill will and bad feelings and the vicious cycle of action (cruise and Pershing missiles) and reaction (Iron Curtain emplacement), such negotiations seem interminable, if not hopeless. There are too many dimensions to argue about: throw-weight and number of missiles, land vs. sea-based, American high accuracy vs. Soviet low accuracy, missile systems behind or in front of the Urals, past nuclear agreements, counting British and French missiles, etc., etc., etc.
What is needed is to jump out of the vicious cycle (the only way to resolve it) onto a new, fresh level which can reach out and energize the latent shrunken pockets of goodwill. Such an approach must be dramatic, massive, abrupt, and preferably naive, and yet not be vulnerable to existing paranoiac fears.
The present sophisticated, technological, and highly intellectually balanced technocratic approach has proven sterile.
Let's stop focusing only on weapons; let's talk ``sophomores.'' The sophomores would love their Russian year abroad. The Russians might be intrigued with such a proposal.
Perhaps, the President reflected, that was how history was made -- the right thing at the right time. The readiness was all. In the first half of the '80s decade the nuclear freeze movement had achieved legitimacy and political acceptance. This had left in place an existent infrastructure of organizations, the peace movement, the women's lib groups, the European Green structures, etc., all fundamentally waiting for the next step. There was also disseminated through society this great emotional need for action and for dedication to something larger than the individual. . . . Consequently, the Sophomores for Peace (SOPH) program found ready-made the vitality, the tension for action, the leaders, and the organizations with the requisite communication channels open for coordinated action. . . .
The churches supported SOPH even more quickly than the peace organizations, just as they had been in the forefront of the nuclear freeze movement. . . .
When the then President of the United States made the SOPH offer to the Russians, it may have been a purely political move for domestic consumption or a move to embarrass the Russians. Perhaps he did not even believe in SOPH. No one will ever know if he felt surprised or even trapped when the Russians accepted the proposal. But why did the Russians buy into such a concept? Why had they accepted the President's offer? The American think tanks, East Coast and West Coast alike, who had secretly vetted the concept, had said to a man, ``They will laugh at you, they will think you are crazy.'' Again, was it that the timing was right? . . .
When the then-President of the US, in a Christmas address to the nation carried overseas and to Russia by every satellite and European communication channel, proposed SOPH, public opinion in the US had already been prepared, whereas in Russia SOPH as a formal proposal came as a surprise. The Russian censorship system had always been erratic and inconsistent. At that time, bizarrely, Michael Jackson was the biggest musical sensation in the USSR. Even the KGB had been unable to stop the penetration of his music. The Soviet system had accommodated to the playing of Michael's music everywhere, in Gorky Park, in the elevators in the Hotel Ukraine, even on Soviet TV. As the SOPH ideas began to move throughout Russia through unjammed radio, through visitors, through word-of-mouth, and through the Iron Curtain countries, there was incredulity, then amazement, that the Americans, that the American President, had actually proposed sending each year a million young Americans to Russia and taking similarly a million young Russian students into the American schools.
Slowly the belief spread that the Americans were for real. A new focus, a new consciousness, a new way of thinking began to establish itself in the Russian mind. The Russian people responded in a spontaneous surge. SOPH tickled their sense of fun, their imagination, and their represssed need for daring to go beyond their daily lives. Soon the composers began to write SOPH songs. ``The Sophomores Are Coming,'' sung to the accompaniment of a balalaika, became a favorite in the caf'es.
. . . The Soviet bureaucracy was at first confused. Its initial response had been to ignore SOPH, to laugh at it as another temporary, decadent capitalist import. At the same time their geopolitical theorists attempted to calculate on their outmoded computers its significance in the cold war with much difficulty.
As the SOPH movement became stronger and the calculations proved recalcitrant, a policy foray into repressive measures was initiated involving the arrest of a few bolder poets in conjunction with a counterpropagandist program launched in the Soviet media. However, this proved already too late and already a mistake. The Soviet poeple had seized on SOPH with a spirit of fun and almost a Dadaistic bravado. The repressive actions made SOPH ``real and serious'' and added a deep tonality of stubbornness to their already complex feelings. By then SOPH had become a movement clever enough to mimic the Polish Solidarity movement with its strength through passivity and its submerged leadership.
It was at this juncture that something truly remarkable, something perversely human, something truly worthy of a Dostoyevsky happened. The newly appointed Russian premier, the former ascendant star as picked by Western pundits, announced that the Politburo had accepted the SOPH proposal. The intelligence reports read that while it had been the new young premier who had initiated the policy review, it had been the residual gerontocracy who pushed the hardest for acceptance. The old men must have known that agreeing to the sophomore exchange was more than that -- that they were voting to change the Soviet system (just as the American posture would change). But then, they must have believed that Russia needed to change, that nothing was forever, just like their own lives.
Perhaps the grand and naive American gesture -- it was more than a signal -- had penetrated through the layers of Russian paranoia (as the Americans saw it) or the legitimate fears of attack (as the Russians saw it). The Russians ran no military risk, since their missiles were still to be in place and there were no requirements for gutting their defense systems. Perhaps even in as strongly centralized a system as the Soviet one, even those critical decision neurons at the top had to respond to overwhelming signals from the body proper below. Or perhaps deep in their hearts the old men had somehow really wanted peace.
This simple announcement, with details to be worked out at staff level, that Russia had accepted SOPH was the key that opened the door to a multiplicity of cascading events at every level. . . .