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If we could talk with Leonid

December 16, 1980



We wish we could have a heart-to-heart talk with Leonid Brezhnev. For the moment at least the fear of an imminent Soviet intervention in Poland seems to have subsided. the Russians have rumbled their weaponry in threatening tones. NATO has responded with forceful, if not unanimous, voice on what it would do if such a dark event actually happened. East and West both have fully weighed the consequences to each in terms of detente, trade, gas pipelines, and the like. Yet we feel something more might be said on the subject, and if by some remarkable feat we could walk into the Kremlin and chat with the Soviet leader this is what we would like to say:

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"Leonid Ilyich! We in the West are very troubled by the events in Poland. We know you are, too, though for different reasons, and we wonder how deeply you and your colleagues have thought through the future. Your contry really stands at a crossroads. For it must decide whether ti will continue to hold together its alliance by military power alone, or whether it will take the risk of a posture of restraint and begin to build the kind of solidarity and friendship with allies that rest on mutual confidence and respect. That really would be an alliance -- a strong one because it wouldn't be based on force!

"Yes, we know the risks for you. And your fears. Many in the West are familiar with Russia's history and they appreciate the dangers your country must feel as it remembers the terrible record of aggression and hatred directed against it over the centuries. The Russian nation was brutalized by the Mongols. It was invaded by Germans, not once or twice but many times. By the French and by the Swedes. Nor were the Poles themselves kindly to you in the days of Polish kings and princes. So we understand why you feel safer surrounded by states and governments loyal to the communist system and bound together by a military pact. And why you're determined to keep that alliance from falling apart.

"Sure, you can move into Poland now -- by whatever subtle means -- and bolster the communist party's control there. But aren't you, then, merely postponing the problem? Will not the Poles' yearning for greater freedom continue to burn within, and explode again -- if not now then tomorrow or the day after? More to the point, how long can Russians tolerate the hostility and fear they instill in their neighbors, and is this the legacy you want for your own people? It is no accomplishment at all to exert influence at the point of a gun. Any thug can do that. But to influence by force of example -- that is much harder and, yet, the only effective and rewarding influence.

"Leonid Ilyich, what we're trying to say is that the Russian people are a great people, and yet the world seems to see mostly the worst aspects of their character -- a talent for bullying others. Surely you want them to have a constructive role in the world, one which invites respect and admiration. Isn't that a better way to bring honor to the USSR? We have in mind, for instance, the splendid part the Soviet Union played in mediating the Indo-Pakistani dispute over Kashmir back in 1966. The Tashkent conference is a high point in Soviet diplomacy that won worldwide acclaim. We can think of other problems and regions of the world where your government could similarly help further the cause of peace. We see in small ways, too, how effectively Russians can cooperate with others -- in scientific development, for example.

"No, we don't have our heads in the clouds. You have a communist system and you think it is superior to all others. You talk about the 'correlation of forces' in the world now being on your side. We doubt that. But, fine, let's go on competing and see what happens. Can you seriously think, though, that you can solve the problems of your system (and you admit there are many) without making some changes? Without trying new things, experimenting a little? And, above all, giving the Poles (and others) the leeway to experiment? Is there only one way to run a socialist economy? Who knows, some of the things the Poles try just might help you out in the long run too.

"Well, that's what you're most worried about -- those 'alien' ideas spilling over the border. And not just your border, but into East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Hungary. Yes, it's risky all right. You never know where it all ends. But we get back to our original point, and that is that in the long run it may be riskier not to let the Poles work out their own way of doing things. For, if we're certain of anything, it's that the spirit of independence and pursuit of national freedom is a force no tank or missile can ever extinguish. Russians, who so impassionedly love their homeland, should understand this above all peoples.

"If you decide to intervene in Poland, our hearts will be heavy. Not only for the Poles, who seek no threat to the powerful Soviet Union. But for the Russian people, who have a capacity for good as boundless as the Siberian expanses but who will again have turned to instincts ignoble. They, too, will be the losers. Hatred is the worst enemy to face and, when it comes from within the family fold, ti is even harder to live with, and conquer.

"These, Leonid Ilyich, are some of our thoughts. What do youm thind?"