Skip to: Content
Skip to: Site Navigation
Skip to: Search

Detente's Determined Defenders

By Richard M. HarleyStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / April 10, 1980


As an American, Joseph Birman feels his full share of outrage over the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. As a physics professor at City College of New York, he is outraged over the exiling of physicist Andrei Sakharov by Soviet authorities to a remote town in the Soviet Union.

Skip to next paragraph

But he is part of a select network of American and Soviet citizens who still refuse to concede that the sun is setting on detente. Twenty years of contacts with Russians convince him that there is too much to lose.

It is not just the conferences with Soviet scientists that he has come to relish, for professional reasons. Not just the harvests from his continuing correspondence with dozens of Russian scientists. What he prizes most are the times when dialogue has unexpectedly revealed mutual interests between Americans and Russians that appear to transcend national differences.

Look, he says, at last year's binational physics symposium in Moscow.

"Twenty of us American physicists were to meet with Soviet physicists at a beautiful old building called the Scientists' House. It looked like something out of the film 'War and Peace.'"

As the meeting convened in a high-ceilinged hall with old-fashioned windows and drapes, Dr. Herman Cummins, a colleague of Professor Birman', stood to report on his testing of the theory of another prominent Russian physicist, Academician Vitali Ginsburg. His words instantly sparked excited, heated, but friendly debate that ultimately brought the academician himself to his feet.

"I'll never forget," Mr. Birman says, "how the tall, distinguished, bushy-eyebrowed Professor Ginsburg thrust his finger toward Cummins, a man of rather short stature, and said in great mock anger, 'Professor Cummins, you have knocked down my theory.' The whole crowd broke out in a tremendous laugh together, because this was the culmination of work on both sides. It was all said in great good spirits."

Advances in theory and experimentation were the eventual result.

"You see the vital usefulness of these discussions," says a fervent Mr. Birman. "Professor Ginsburg has become a close friend, both scientifically and personally.I respect him. I think most physicists do. We are able to criticize each other openly. It confirms our common understanding that science has no national boundaries. You see why I am deeply concerned about the threat of political tensions to the benefits of detente."

Dr. Birman is not alone in this view. In fact, hundreds of American and Soviet scholars, artists, scientists, religionists, and artists have quietly been visiting one another's countries on nongovernmental exchange programs for more than two decades. Even now dozens of Soviet scientists and scholars are in the United States, dozens of Americans in the USSR. Colleges like Middlebury in Vermont and Ohio State University continue to send students each semester to study in the Soviet Union. And religionists in both countries have set up channels of communications -- overt and covert.

The result has been hundreds of professional and personal ties that these private citizens are not about to relegate to the casualty list of political tensions.

Planners of the exchanges now worry that their programs may be held hostage to the political climate. Many warn of the danger of cutting ties to score political points.

"These are crucial channels of communication at the best of times, and therefore even more important in the worst of times," argues Daniel Matuszewski of the International Research and Exchange Board in New York (IREX), which has arranged exchanges between Soviets and Americans since 1968.