Show Gorbachev the real America
MIKHAIL GORBACHEV is expected to visit the United States this fall for the first time, and Ronald Reagan will be his host. What should the President show his Soviet guest to give him a better understanding of this country, its people, and its values? Planning itineraries for foreign leaders is always difficult. The visit is usually short - a week at the most. There are protocol requirements - a formal meeting and state dinner at the White House, a return dinner hosted by the visitor, and the signing of agreements, in this case the long-sought nuclear arms accord. The Soviets will probably want an address to the Congress to demonstrate Mr. Gorbachev's reason and charm to doubting legislators, and laying a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknowns in Arlington Cemetery to show his desire for peace rather than war.
The competing demands on his limited time will be intense. Like most foreign dignitaries, Gorbachev will want to visit certain cities - New York to see Manhattan and address the United Nations; San Francisco, everybody's favorite city and the site of an early Russian settlement; Los Angeles, with Hollywood, Disneyland, and a large international business community; Houston and the space center; and bustling Chicago, which has always fascinated Russians.
In each city there will also be a program for Gorbachev's wife, the chic, intelligent, and sophisticated Raisa, who will presumably accompany him. Itineraries for spouses usually include children's hospitals, schools, fashion shows, and, with Nancy Reagan in the White House, drug treatment centers.
But is this the America that Gorbachev should see in order to better understand this country?
Having helped to arrange itineraries for hundreds of Soviet visitors to the US during my years at the State Department - high officials as well as the Ivan Ivanoviches - here are my suggestions for President Reagan's consideration.
A farm visit is a must. Russia has been, and still is in many ways, an agricultural society. Most Russians, including Gorbachev, are only one or two generations removed from a farm. They have a love of the land that is a part of their heritage. And agriculture today is the weakest part of the Soviet economy. Gorbachev should see not just a huge corporate farm but also a small family farm to show how small scale can also mean high productivity.
A factory visit is also a must to meet not only the capitalist ``ruling class'' but also the working class whose cars fill factory parking lots. Equally important is a small high-tech firm to show how, in a market economy, a good idea can be developed into a successful business.
A university visit is suggested to see the educational opportunities for our young. There is always pressure to show prestigious schools, the Harvards and Stanfords, but I would suggest a state university or a community college to show the broad opportunities available to the average young person without exceptional means.
Computers and the information revolution are subjects of great interest to the Soviets, who lag far behind the West in these areas. Gorbachev should see how computers are used in business, manufacturing, science, government, schools, and the home, and how they facilitate access to information and knowledge.
A small town is also a must - that ``typical'' American town we all know. Most foreign visitors resist going to a small town. They regard the US as a country of big cities, and Russians, in particular, believe everything will be terribly provincial, as it is in the Soviet Union. A Soviet deputy minister once told me, after he had reluctantly visited Houston and Minneapolis - certainly not small towns in our order of things - how impressed he was with our ``provincial cities.''
Gorbachev should meet with average Americans, including minorities. The highlight of a 1970s visit by a delegation of Soviet officials was a conversation with a Midwest farmer, seated around his kitchen table, sipping tea and exchanging views on farming into the night.
A supermarket and shopping mall will be on everyone's list. Most Soviets, on seeing their first supermarket, think it is a Potemkin village, staged to impress them. Only when they discover that these supermarkets are everywhere do they fully understand America's abundance.
Social activism and volunteerism are phenomena unique to this country - how Americans help themselves and others through volunteer community programs. Lenin preached ``All power to the people.'' Gorbachev should see how Americans use that power.
Human rights and religion, a concern of all Americans, should also be included. They need not be labeled as such, and the Soviets will resist any attempt to do so. But human rights and religion are a part of American culture, and are all around us. With thoughtful planning, Gorbachev can be made aware of how Americans feel about these issues that bear on US-Soviet relations.
This is my dream itinerary. In the real world it would have to face the conflicting demands of US politics, White House staff, State Department, Soviet Embassy, Gorbachev and Reagan themselves, and security requirements. I hope they will all resist the temptations of media events and photo opportunities, and try instead for more substance. Gorbachev's visit provides a unique occasion to help overcome some Soviet misunderstandings that have for so long marked US-Soviet relations.
Yale Richmond, author of ``U.S.-Soviet Cultural Relations: 1958-1986: Who Wins?'' (Westview), is editing a guide on playing host to Soviet visitors.