By Dennis Lamb
In 1965 I traveled the USSR as part of a Russian Studies Program sponsored by the University of Colorado. Our tour of Soviet cities included the Russian city of Novgorod.
There we were supposed to meet with the Komsomol (Communist Youth). As it turned out, however, we found ourselves on a stage with Communist Party members, 40 to 50 years old. The young Komsomol members sat in the audience watching. As we Americans tried to carry on a civil discourse in discussing our different views of world events and political systems, the older Communist Party members tore us apart. It reached the point where one female member of our group stood up and said, “The problem is that we don’t understand each other, we haven’t had enough contact and exchange of ideas to understand each other.”
One of the old Communist Party bulls, however, shot back: “No, we understand you perfectly. You don’t understand us.” This left us all speechless. How does one respond to such comments, such rudeness, such inflexibility?
Our meeting then broke down into one-on-one engagements. In my case, it was three on one as I found myself engaged in conversation with two of the old bulls and a young man who had been in the audience.
In arguing that “they” were the ones who were wrong, I observed that Pravda (the newspaper whose name meant “Truth”) badly distorted world events. The young man laughed and said, “Are you saying that ‘Truth’ does not tell the truth?” Absolutely, I replied. Trying to sound objective, I opted for what I then thought to be a little white lie and observed that whereas American newspapers did not always depict international affairs accurately either, Pravda was really bad at distorting the facts.
The two old bulls continued their verbal abuse, but I noticed that the young worker sat down and stared ahead silently as if he were mesmerized. It was apparent that the idea that Pravda might not be telling the truth had never occurred to him before.
I was pleased with myself for having scored one on the thinking of at least one Soviet and found myself inwardly laughing at his naivete — until I returned to the United States and read our own newspapers in an entirely different light. Weeks of reading Soviet newspapers had taught me how to read between the lines, look for and recognize omissions and connect dots in a way I had never done before.
As a consequence, I came to see Americans as mirror images of their Soviet counterparts — brainwashed by the various forms of news media they thought were free and truthful but in reality were laced with their own biases, omissions, disinformation, and distortions. I then realized that I was as naive as the young Soviet worker I had met.
As we approached last month’s elections, it appeared to me that the Republicans and Democrats were almost as bitterly divided and hostile toward each other as the Soviets and Americans were in 1965 — and for the same reasons.
Perhaps the greatest challenge we face now that the elections are over, whether our preferred candidate won or lost, is keeping an open mind and accepting the possibility that we may not have known all the answers after all, that the other side was well intended and possibly right on some issues.
Abraham Lincoln, the greatest Republican president of all time, noted that “A house divided, cannot stand.” Now that the American people have chosen the person the majority wants to lead us for the next four years as president, Republicans should close ranks behind that person and give him the respect due his office.
For their part, Democrats, like Lincoln, should forgive former foes and try to heal the wounds of the last four years.
Both parties need to learn to work with the other and make concessions. This we owe to our children and grandchildren — and to the nation.
Dennis Lamb, originally from Chelsea, is retired from the CIA in 2002 after serving 30 years in its directorate of operations as a case officer and as an intelligence analyst. Comments: firstname.lastname@example.org