Wednesday, May 28, 2008

"Target Seattle" Revisited: 25th Anniversary of Seattle Petitioning Sister City Tashkent in the USSR For Peace

In March 1983 a group from Seattle travelled to the Soviet Union carrying 5,000 petitions with over 42,000 signatures calling for residents of Seattle and its sister city Tashkent to work together to prevent nuclear war. The petition and the trip were offspring of a city-wide teach-in called "Target Seattle" the year before, which brought together U.S. government officials, scholars, experts, clergy and citizens for a week long series of seminars on US – Soviet relations. Although critics complained speakers represented the liberal left, I remember attending sessions that included strong conservative speakers, such as the leading negotiator for the strategic arms limitation agreements, Undersecretary of State Richard Burt, Jeanne Kilpatrick (UN representative of the Reagan Administration) balanced by those who represented the views of "The Peace Movement." Moreover, one gentleman spoke about the benefits of a space based missile defense system, which President Reagan announced in detail to the general public while the Seattle group was in the USSR (much to the surprise of the group as their Soviet guests asked them to comment on the subject!)

A 25th anniversary gives an excuse to pause and reflect on the trip. Was it naïve? What good, if any, came out of it? And most importantly, what has become of the participants? It’s also an excuse to search through the garage and dust off the slides taken by Marlowe Boyer, son of a National Geographic photographer, who learned the art of photography from his father and documented the trip with outstanding photographs. (The photos in the attached article are his; I will post some of Marlowe’s work soon.)

Let’s first revisit those times, starting in 1980. Jimmy Carter is President. The era is referred to as "détente" as the US – USSR hold discussions on limiting nuclear arms production through the SALT (strategic arms limitation treaty) process and cooperation in other fields through CSCE (Committee For Security and Cooperation in Europe). On the other hand, the Soviet Union has recently invaded Afghanistan; moreover, as a provocation to NATO (which at that time was just 15 nations) the USSR has modernized its mid-range nuclear missiles in Europe with SS-20 rockets, which are capable of reaching any European capital. As a response to the Soviet threat, NATO makes the decision to upgrade its medium range missiles as a deterrent to the Soviet threat. The Atlantic Alliance takes a strong, unified position and will not be divided. Some of the citizenry within NATO’s membership, however, have different ideas. In the summer of 1980 in Copenhagen, students – numbered in the thousands, but not a multitude -- gather to begin a peaceful protest march to Paris against the missile modernization. (Of course, there are no demonstrations inside the Iron Curtain). The "Green" Party – supporting environmental issues and peace through non-violent civil disobedience -- are on the rise in Germany, and will soon clear a 5% hurdle in the polls to gain recognition in parliament as an official political party. Ronald Reagan is elected President, dousing fuel on the fires being stirred by the European left. His words against the "Evil Empire" raise concerns among Europeans who fear becoming a battlefield in a so-called "limited nuclear war" between the US and the Soviet Union. On October 10, 1981, a coalition of over 300,000 students, trade unionists, Greens, pacifists and concerned citizens take to the streets in Bonn (the West German capital) in peaceful protest. The "silent majority" in Europe does what it does best – remains silent, as the activists gain attention and make waves. There are stirrings of a similar nature in the US: the old anti-Vietnam War protesters and coalitions awaken as Reagan’s rhetoric generates concerns about a nuclear holocaust. Even Petra Kelly – one of the spokespersons for the German Green Party (whose father was an American soldier) travels to Los Angeles to address a rock concert for "peace" held at the Rose Bowl. (From my observation, the main draw to that event was seeing the likes of Stevie Wonder, Bob Dylan and other stars appear on stage in the spring sunshine of 1982).

In August, 1982 the USS Ohio – the first Trident Class Submarine—makes its maiden home port call to Bremerton, WA – across Puget Sound from Seattle -- with enough fire power, it is claimed, to destroy the world. It is another lightning rod in the debate on how best to keep the peace (through how much strength?) , and becomes a focal point for the Seattle "Peace Movement." In Seattle, a group of citizens from over 60 organizations including the church activists, the media, civic groups, non-governmental organizations and academia decide to put on a community symposium – coordinated by the Metropolitan YMCA in Sept. – Oct. called "Target Seattle" to better inform the public about US Soviet history, foreign relations, Russian culture and to study the consequences of Nuclear War. Seattle had sister city ties with Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan, located in Central Asia (which is now in the news as one of the fronts against the "war on terror" and dealing with Afghani drug lords). One of the topics addressed by Target Seattle is "what can you as a citizen do?" One group comes up with the idea of the petition. Over 30,000 signatures are collected. Permission is given to bring the petitions to Tashkent, with stops in Moscow and Samarkand on the way, and a final stop in Leningrad before leaving.

One’s opinion of the trip to the USSR at that time depended largely on one’s ideological frame of reference. For those with a hard-line view, the trip was seen as no good and could only serve Soviet propaganda efforts. The Seattle FBI certainly took interest in it. For those going –no one was naïve nor expected political breakthroughs-- it was an opportunity to further educate oneself , and to try and foster more dialog between people. This delegation included "the good earth" of Seattle citizenry. It was not a "political" delegation headed by the mayor and full of politicians on a political junket, although the delegation included the wife of a future Congressman (Virginia McDermott). It represented an eclectic mix of Seattle citizenry, including: the director of the municipal league (Kay Bullitt), a school teacher (Linda Straley), a cancer doctor (Hugh Straley), a travel agent, a university professor & Rhodes Scholar and his family (Aldon, Elisabeth and Ruth Bell), a graduate college student (Mary Reichert, who had majored in Russian and was the group’s unofficial interpreter and "secret weapon" – who could sing folk songs in Russian and recite verses from Pushkin and disarm any Soviet official with her charm), a pediatrician (Rosh Doan), an agronomist (Roy Wiebe), a photographer (Marlowe Boyer), a Minister who served as Pacific Northwest Regional Director of the Congregational Church (James Halfaker) and his son (Jon), an engineer (Paul Cooke), an insurance salesman (Nick Licata) and others, including a journalist (Craig Justice).

My career would take me away from Seattle to Japan and working with Asia Pacific countries before settling of all places in California (a land loathed by Seattleites at the time). One regret in my life is losing touch with this group. With the power of e-mail and blogs, let’s see if this post will flush out and bring back others who were on this trip, so that memories and lessons learned may be shared.

Since the break-up of the Soviet Empire, the corruption Uzbekistan’s rulers has come to light. One wonders that the hell was really going on in that country when we visited 25 years ago and ate caviar, downed vodka toasts and dined on lamb pilaf with our hosts?

How about the religious leader, the "grand mufti" the Amim Hatib whom we met outside of Samarkand? I remember him speaking about the importance of peace to his faith… what has happened to him and his madrassa since the fall of communism and the right to practice Islam openly?

How about the InTourist guide Vladimir who accompanied us? What became of him?

When the butterfly flaps its wings in Seattle the wind stirs in Beijing. Did this peace voyage prevent a nuclear war? Of course not. Did a group of citizens better educate themselves? Absolutely! Did they become better citizens of the world for it? Let’s find out.

In November after the trip, many in the group helped organize a 9-day series of lectures, workshops and drama called "Target Seattle: Soviet Realities." The focus this time was on the Soviet Union, and included 22 well-informed speakers represnting different views who debated the Soviet military threat, US policy options, negotiating strategies while describing policital, social and econmic conditions in the USSR. "We are asking a very great deal of our citizens -- to confront the issues," said Don Bell, Target Seattle's chairman who had lead the trip to Tashkent earlier in the year. As part of that program, on a Sunday evening, a few thousand residents gathered in more than 550 homes across the city to discuss their perceptions of the Soviet Union, and actions that they could take as individuals to reduce the threat of nuclear war. They met again one week later. According to Bell, Target Seattle inspired similar, though smaller, events in a dozen other communities including Vancouver (Canada), Birmingham, AL and Hartford, CT.

In the years that followed, Seattle and Tashkent exchanged several delgations at the mayoral level and the people-to-people level, which is described by delegation member Dr. Rosh Doan.

Now let us praise famous men and women, the ordinary people of that delegation who lived their lives, and accomplished magnificent things, whom, it seems, were taken away from us before their time. First was Marlowe Boyer, the photographer, who put together a multi-media slide show of the trip (this was long before Al Gore and I had invented the LCD projector which would have made the enterprise much easier). Marlowe wrote in his will that when he died, he hoped "the slide show" would be shown at a gathering of his friends at a memorial service. Who could have imagined that such a young spirit would fall so early to leukemia. He was gone within 2 years of making the trip. Don Bell, Professor of History at the University of Washington, the "leader of the delegation" – such a generous and welcoming man – taken by the Lord (Absalom, Absalom cried the letter informing us of his passing from his wife) within a few years of the event.

And the rest of you – how did the trip to the USSR impact your lives? Looking forward to learning the rest of the story.

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