A little over a month ago I received an invitation to attend a press conference at the Soviet Embassy in Washington, D.C. I, naturally, accepted the invitation.
The occasion was the announcement of an agreement between the Soviet Union's airline Aeroflot, and two U.S. companies - the Marriott Corporation and the Huntsman Chemical Corporation.The agreement on the surface was quite simple. The Marriott Corporation was to provide the food service for Aeroflot served on the plastic trays and eaten with the plastic utensils provided by the Huntsman Chemical Corporation. In order to accomplish this, both American companies were going to modernize or build food service and petrochemical facilities within the Soviet Union.
I found all of this a curious undertaking - a capitalistic joint venture with Socialist Russia. I had read General Secretary Gorbachev's remarkable talk before the United Nations in early December of 1988. I wondered if it would have any real effect upon the underlying Russian suspicion of the West. Would the comments and efforts of this promising new Soviet leader alter in any way the hard facts that the West did much to undermine the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917 and correspondingly did little to aid the Russians in those bleak early years of the Second World War.
It would appear that the General Secretary wished to move ahead and finally set aside, if not remove forever, these old suspicions of the West. His statesmanlike talk at the U.N. strongly suggested that the Cold War had finally come to a close and that the Iron Curtain was slowly, cautiously, beginning to lift itself to the free world.
This rare press conference at the Soviet Embassy was a clear indication that a new sense of mutual trust and cooperation was at last beginning to manifest itself between the United States and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.
The Soviet Embassy is located on 16th Street near the heart of downtown Washington. It is a magnificent, old, turn-of-the-century mansion with classical architectural lines. It differed from the other buildings and old mansions on the street because the roof of this three-storied structure supported an elaborate array of sophisticated short-wave radio antennae.
I was told the press conference would begin promptly at noon so, to play it safe, I arrived at 11:40 a.m. I stood on the sidewalk outside the Embassy's tall, iron fence that faced the street. The front gate was open to the Embassy, but I wanted to take a closer look at the antennae on the roof before entering. I wondered if this was the same equipment that carried the tense exchanges between President Kennedy and Premier Khrushchev in those crisis-laden days of late October in 1962. It appeared to be such a simple apparatus - shiny wire strung between a number of metallic aerials. And yet, from it coded messages were sent and received 26 years ago that took the world to the brink of nuclear devastation. I was grateful both leaders had shown such unprecedented restraint in their decisions.
Just inside the main entrance to the Embassy was the document and material section that carried numerous English language brochures on the Soviet Union. I selected a number of them for later reading. Three dealt with speeches given by Mikhail Gorbachev in India, Germany and at the US-USSR Trade and Economic Council at the Kremlin. The fourth was titled, "Suffering Shared by All - Armenia, December 1988." Inside this pamphlet was an interesting picture of an American military transport unloading medicine and hospital equipment at the Yerevan Airport.
A uniformed, young Soviet soldier sat behind a bullet-proof glass approximately 35 feet beyond the entrance. When he was not watching those who came in the front entrance, he was staring at 14 television monitors that gave him a clear picture of every room in the Embassy and all exits.
I was welcomed to the Embassy by a Soviet staff member. He was short, spectacled and had a head of hair that appeared to have never been combed. He introduced himself and then directed me where to hang my overcoat. He then pointed me in the direction of a large, white, marble staircase that led to the second floor where the press conference was to take place.
(To be continued.)