WHEN Nikita Khrushchev visited the US in 1959, he was a rare envoy from a country most Americans saw as distant and forbidding. When Mikhail Gorbachev visited last weekend, thousands of his countrymen had preceded him. These other Soviet travelers talked with Americans about everything from cooperation in space to the proper running of a volunteer fire department. The results, sometimes, are business deals like Chevron's joint venture in Caspian Sea oil fields and IBM's involvement in bringing computers to Soviet classrooms. Often the result is simply grass-roots good will.
At least 100,000 Soviet citizens are expected to visit the United States this year. Five years ago, according to State Department figures, only 7,600 Soviets made the trip - and for much more tightly defined purposes.
Steps to open up US-Soviet trade and triple air links between the two nations will encourage the flow of travelers. The commerce in insights and know-how should boom.
The Soviets' need for business acumen is boundless. A cautious Gorbachev may not embrace suggestions like that offered by economist Thomas Gale Moore in a recent Wall Street Journal column. The Hoover Institution scholar suggested that massive state-owned conglomerates be sold piecemeal to the Soviet public to lay the foundation for a stock market. But some economist in Moscow is probably pondering it.
Soviets have intellectual assets to share, too. In space research, for example. They know a good deal more about prolonged stays in space that Americans do.
Soviet-American contacts at all levels should lay the foundation for greater understanding between two nations that have long been adversaries. The process will have rough spots. Political turbulence in the USSR has already begun to scare away some would-be visitors from the US. But the potential pay-off - in peacemaking, economic gain, and intellectual growth - should keep the exchange lively.