Down the Mississippi River
In 1986, we agreed that it was time for the Soviets to visit the United States on a peace cruise just like the Volga cruises. Promoting Enduring Peace organized the cruise to travel down the Mississippi River from St. Paul to St. Louis on the legendary Delta Queen steamboat. The trip included one hundred twenty-seven Americans from twenty-seven states and forty-seven Soviet citizens from eight cities and four republics.
There were many memorable moments on this trip, although it got off to a shaky start at a press conference in Minneapolis when some right-wing goons tried to break up the meeting. But later that night, all the participants of the peace boat were invited as special guests to the premiere concert of Canto General. This is a work by the Greek composer Mikis Theodorakis based on verses of the great Chilean poet Pablo Neruda. A symphonic orchestra and chorus performed the concert. Before the program began, the Soviet participants were introduced and given a standing ovation by the two thousand people in the audience as a gesture of friendship and peace.
The morning we began the voyage, a giant Mississippi River thunderstorm threatened our departure. We didn’t expect anyone to be waiting to greet the boat at the first stop. But to our surprise, hundreds of people were waiting to greet the Soviet guests and the citizen diplomacy mission. And just as we arrived, the sun suddenly broke through the clouds, and it became a beautiful day. This was an omen for the rest of the trip, which was very successful.
All along the way, thousands of people came to greet the boat to extend their own message of peace and friendship. They often waited for hours in pouring rain or searing heat with homemade signs, handshakes, and countless smiles. They did this at every town the boat passed by from Minnesota to Wisconsin, to Iowa, and on to Missouri. At each town there was an official ceremony complete with folk singers, dancers, high school bands, and speeches by elected officials.
At Davenport Mayor Thomas Hart had a Soviet and American delegation to his home for lunch. At Dubuque, Governor Terry Branstad gave the greetings and spoke at a lavish picnic in honor of the peace boat. I’ll always remember the conclusion of Governor Branstad’s speech, when an elderly, well-dressed gentleman came up to me and said how happy he was to be attending this event because he had never seen a Russian before, and he realized that they are just like us. A bit later he asked where I was from. He said he had never seen a Californian before, but he didn’t say they are just like us. That’s asking for too much, I suppose.
All the peace boat delegates were invited to tour the impressive John Deere factory in Dubuque, where the Soviets had a great time inspecting and playing with the huge tractors made in the factory. When the tour was over and we left the factory, I got on the bus carrying most of the Soviet delegates. As we got ready to depart, a young Dubuque police officer with a broad smile entered the bus and apologized to the Soviet delegates because they had showered him with souvenirs and he had nothing to give them in return. At this point, retired Soviet General Michhail Milshtein, a recent guest on the CBS “60 Minutes” television program, asked the young policeman if he could have a bullet from his gun as a souvenir. The young officer was happy to give the general one of his bullets, but now all of the Soviets on the bus wanted a bullet. Always smiling, but worried what his superiors were going to say, the policeman gave away all of the bullets in his gun and then his cartridge belt. At this point, the Russian General jumped to his feet and proclaimed this was a historic moment, the first step in unilateral disarmament between our two countries. This comment was greeted with great laughter from everyone, including the young police officer, who departed the bus amid cheers.
Goodwill and entertainment continued at each town we visited along the great river. The Soviets brought their nationally known singer, Tatyana Petrova, who at every occasion brought the crowd to its feet with cheers and pleas for more songs.
Perhaps the most impressive parts of the trip occurred at the many locks where the Delta Queen stopped along the river. Here hundreds of people, after learning through television and newspapers that the peace boat was coming, would wait to convey their own message of peace. This occurred at all hours, often late into the night, but always with a spontaneous response of folk and antiwar songs. Typical was the lock near Red Wing, Minnesota. Here, the Soviet cosmonaut Gregory Grechko leaped over the boat’s railing to shake hands with the crowd. Grechko was a national hero in the Soviet Union, but the reception he received in Red Wing, Minnesota could not have been more sincere if he had landed his space capsule in the middle of Red Square.
One of the American speakers, Rear Admiral Gene LaRocque (U.S. Navy Ret.) said, “Our goal is to avert nuclear war. If we take even one step in that direction, it will be worth it.” The trip was more than worth it, and with the Soviet delegation that, along with Grechko, included a famous retired general now working for peace, a famous actress and poetess, journalists, writers, and a milkmaid who was also a member of parliament. They all went back to tell their citizens that Americans want peace. A Soviet TV crew was aboard the boat to film a documentary that was shown on primetime Soviet television. An Australian TV crew and two independent American film crews were also on board to make films of the trip.
The logo of the Mississippi Peace Cruise is a drawing of the Alexander Pushkin and Delta Queen joined together with American and Soviet flags waving together, representing the notion that we are all “in the same boat.” And this slogan remains true today, as we will either sink together in an eventual war, or we will have the wisdom to swim together to build a better, safer world.
Now the great difference between the Mississippi Peace Cruise and the Volga cruise was that the U.S. media covered the former extensively. They followed the boat all along the way with reports that were positive and broadcast on all the national television news, as well as many newspapers across the country and a two-page article in Time magazine. We were on the CBS Morning show and on the NBC Today show, where I substituted for Admiral LaRocque (who had to leave for a meeting in Washington, D.C.) and interviewed together with retired Soviet General Mikhail Milshtein.
A humorous incident occurred as the general and I were being set up with a microphone for the Today show. The interview was held outside the boat, and with a helicopter hovering overhead, it was very noisy. As the small microphones were attached to our shirts, we were instructed to talk to the technicians in the sound truck to make certain the sound was clear. This lasted for several minutes, and during this time, I mentioned to the general that I was happy that another host was going to interview us rather than the regular host for the program (I’ll skip the name) because he often asks silly questions. At the time, I didn’t know our microphones were open to the station studio in New York City and heard by everyone there, including the regular program host. The technicians in the sound truck thought this was funny. Now what’s interesting is that when you are on the Today show, a company takes a photograph from the recording, and you can buy it for a small fee. I paid the fee and waited several weeks for the photograph to arrive by mail, but it never came. Eventually a letter arrived from the company stating that for unknown reasons the records for the day I was on the show were missing. Strange!
Exert from my book "Looking for Square Two"