Flora Lewis

A View From Abroad

VTR Date: August 9, 1984

Guest: Lewis, Flora


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Flora Lewis
Title: “A View from Abroad”
VTR: 10/6/84

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. Now, I think she says it with somewhat more asperity than she might admit, but, whatever, my wife does suggest that if I could take only on thing or person to a desert island, it would, of course, be The New York Times. And I hope it would be an issue carrying the regular column of my guest today, The New York Times distinguished foreign affairs columnist, Flora Lewis. Now, if you followed Ms. Lewis closely – and this time I did so well enough to snare her here while she was on a home visit before going back to the world outside – you particularly value her insights into the follies that fashion all nations’ relations, one with the other. And I was particularly intrigued, not so long ago in fact, by a column datelined Paris, in which Flora Lewis suggested that this nation’s leaders and the Soviets should “Freeze that Blarney”. She quoted George Orwell in an essay on perversion of the political tongue, to the effect that “English becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts”. And Ms. Lewis then urged us to clean up our language in the area of conflict between East and West, because, as she suggested, “Slovenly expression is smooshing our heads”. And I gather that Flora Lewis thinks that our heads are too smooshed in a number of areas.

And so, Miss Lewis, having read you always, and reading you now, I wonder whether you really think that the perversion of our language and the kinds of thinking you were referring to, the kinds of words, are preventing us from dealing realistically with our problems.

LEWIS: Oh, certainly. I think that’s very correct. And in the column you’re referring to I was most especially addressing myself to nuclear issues, and the question – and that’s why I called it “Freeze that Blarney”…


LEWIS: …because the question of what you can do about nuclear strategy and about the nuclear bomb really can’t be addressed with the extravagant and rather meaningless vocabulary that has become the norm.

HEFFNER: We think that sometimes – we are taping this program in what is the beginning of a political campaign – we think of extravagant language domestically in terms of campaigns. Is this true on both sides, East and West?

LEWIS: Oh, obviously. Mr. Reagan stopped talking about “The evil empire”, but clearly that’s what he has in mind still. Now, how more extravagant can you get? And the Soviets are talking; they used to talk about the “running dogs of Wall Street” and the “hyenas of capitalism”. They’ve left out the animals, but all the rest is still there.

HEFFNER: You know, you talk about the “running dogs of capitalism”. Was there ever really a time when the Soviets and we sufficiently let up on the hyperbole we engage in?

LEWIS: Well, that depends what’s sufficient. There have been times when we’ve talked seriously, yes. When we’ve negotiated agreements, when we negotiated, or even sometimes without negotiating but when they were tacit. For example, there has been a certain tacit restraint in the Middle East, and there was a certain tacit restraint in Iran in the period of the revolution. Now that wasn’t a matter of language. But had there been very extravagant language, it would’ve been much more difficult to achieve that implicit sense that both had better stand back because otherwise both would get dragged into really serious trouble. And I think now too the language is really the only vehicle we have. We know what the real problems are. Language sometimes is used quite deliberately in an ambiguous way so that you can appear to agree when you really aren’t. That’s sloppy too, and that causes problems.

HEFFNER: Do you think we’ve been disadvantaged in our efforts to come to some position of, maybe not conciliation, but some position in which we are dealing with the Soviets sufficiently well…and I use the word “sufficiently” again…that we’re disadvantaged with this kind of Aesopian language?

LEWIS: Yes, I think so. I’m not one who says that you can pin down everything precisely, because the relationship is much too difficult, much too complex, much too uncertain. We can’t make very clear, neat rules, as a traffic court can, and say, “That’s what we do, and that’s what you do, and anybody who crosses the line we know exactly”. But we can admit to ourselves, for example, the whole issue of détente. We thought of one thing, and the Russians were thinking of something else. And basically we both knew that, but we didn’t want to admit it, and we didn’t want to admit it to our publics on both sides. So then it was made to seem as thought they were some kind of extravagant gap, much greater than had existed before, when those relations were there.

Another example is the Helsinki Accord. We knew what the Russians wanted out of the Helsinki Accords. It’s the substitute for a European peace treaty. There’s never been a peace treaty with Germany because it’s not possible to agree either on the partition or the reunification of Germany. So, Helsinki was a way of saying, “All right, the borders as they came out of World War II are now accepted, will not be challenged by force”. On the other hand, the West extracted from the Soviet Union certain promises of human rights, of exchange in people, or trade. And both sides knew perfectly well how far that was supposed to go. But then trying to sell the Helsinki Accords, a big to-do was made here as though that was suddenly going to turn the Soviet Union into nice people and wipe out the KGB. And of course that led to tremendous disillusion. And then people were saying, “Well, you better throw out Helsinki because it didn’t serve any purpose”. And that’s not true.

HEFFNER: Yes, but the “smoosh”, to use your word, the “smooshiness” of all that was purposeful, wasn’t it? Wasn’t it designed to bring those who had not negotiated treaties or agreements into the fold? If you were extravagant in your statement of what could be accomplished, maybe you could get something though a Senate, maybe you could get approval.

LEWIS: Well, in that case, the Senate needs to learn the vocabulary too. I’d like to say where I took the word “smoosh” from, though. It isn’t my own. It came because I was also complaining about the language of the anti-nuclear people, the nuclear freeze people. And they’re always setting up these extraordinary quotes they say are from children about how awful it’s going to be. And one of them said, “And everything is going to be smooshed”.

HEFFNER: But you, I remember your feeling that the extravagance of the claims – and again, as you say, the extravagance of the language leads us into a Never-Never Land where nothing can be rationally thought out or worked out – what thought was so extravagant about that claim? Why was it smoosh?

LEWIS: Because this comes from an anti-nuclear group, and there are several like it, which seems to feel that the way to get people thinking seriously and effectively about nuclear weapons is to terrify them, and particularly to terrify their children. Now, I’m very concerned about the Star Wars program of President Reagan. The more I look into it, and the more I read the justifications that the administration is offering to the Congress and to the public, the more I’ve come to feel that what must have been in the back of their minds was we are going to have trouble over our nuclear program because people want us to do something. So here’s what we’ll do: We’ll tell them we’re going to defend them, and then they won’t worry about nuclear weapons anymore. So both sides are being misleading.

HEFFNER: Well, let’s go to both sides. I come back to the question of whether the extravagance of the claims of the anti-nuclear people…

LEWIS: I don’t say they’re extravagant in saying how bad it would be.


LEWIS: I’m saying that that is not a way to address the problem. It doesn’t move us on. It doesn’t solve anything.

HEFFNER: You don’t’ think people move or are moved in terms of what they fear?

LEWIS: Yes, but what do they think they can do? The nuclear weapon is not going to go away, can’t be disinvented.

HEFFNER: Then what would you suggest…

LEWIS: It has to be negotiated.

HEFFNER: Then what would you suggest that the anti-nuclear people – and that, I am sure, includes us all to some degree or other – what would you suggest that their strategy be?

LEWIS: Well, I am very much in favor of the build-down, which Congressman Gore and Senator Cohen and so on have proposed. That is, ways to reduce the level of nuclear weapons, but very, very important, in such a way that you provide incentives for reduction, and they you provide for the reductions to be balanced so that you do not go through a period where one side so much outweighs the other side that they get nervous and you have a real risk of preemptive war.

HEFFNER: Ms. Lewis, in th4e very real sense, you are the historian of our times in terms of America’s diplomatic relations. What chance do you think we stand to bring about the kinds of changes you look for?

LEWIS: Immediately, not much. I think the most hopeful chance of negotiation right now is on the issue of space, because that’s one that the Russians are interested in. They got themselves in a box with this proposal for a meeting in Vienna. I think they stumbled there. They expected that Mr. Reagan would not accept. Mr. Reagan expected that he would, he could go and he wouldn’t have to do anything. So, for the moment, that’s a very difficult, it’s an impasse. But I think we certainly can start preparing right away, because these things take a very long time to work out, to negotiate inside the American government because there are a lot of points of view, so that we can come up with a proposal. I’m in favor of a moratorium both on anti-satellite weapons, the United States is not really behind, and certainly on investigating, on going beyond the just beginning research, basic research, on this co-called strategic defense. That means anti-missile, a way of shooting down missiles. And I would like to see a proposal to share that research at a fairly early stage, because there is an argument that can be made for trying to find a defense against missiles which will never be perfect, but that could help against either third-party missiles, that’s to say a few missiles by some very irresponsible state, or even accidental shooting of our own missiles. If one goes off, that’s bad, now. We can’t stop it. And I think there is a real mutual interest of both the Soviet Union and the United States, and they would be less frightened if there was a more joint approach to saying at least can there be a defense, a way to shoot down a few missiles that some third country might decide to launch, or an accidental launch.

HEFFNER: Reading you, one knows that you’re tough-minded. As a tough-minded person, what chance do you think that there will be this kind of, or could be this kind of joint research?

LEWIS: Well, we’re really looking ahead. It’s quite some years. So I don’t think that the immediate climate is an absolute barrier. But it’s so complicated, so intricate, the technical side is so delicate, that it’s something that has to be planned a number of years ahead. We did have a joint space mission, the Apollo-Soyuz join-up. And it very much hoped at that time that certain kinds of efforts, particularly in space, would be able to continue on a more cooperative basis. I think that could be started again.

HEFFNER: If the administration, if the present administration is re-elected, President Reagan should serve another four years, do you see some windows of opportunity opening there for relations renewed with the Soviets?

LEWIS: Yes, I do, except that we always look at our own calendar. The Russians have theirs. And they are now in a period of transition where it’s very much more difficult for them to act. We wasted the time when Brezhnev, the last years of Brezhnev, when I think he would have been very pleased to climax his career with some that important agreement. Now I think the Russians are bewildered. They don’t know where they want to go. They know they have to make domestic changes. They’re afraid to do it. They can’t settle on a person to do it. Chernyenko is clearly an interim leader. They’ll have to go through this whole thing of consolidation, of picking somebody and consolidating again in a couple of years. It looks as though it’s going to be Gorbachev, but that’s never settled until it’s settled. And during this period, they also are going to be paralyzed, or paralyzed in the way we are during the campaign.

HEFFNER: Well, it does take two to tango and you seem to be suggesting that even if we should, if the Reagan Administration should be willing to enter that dance in the next four years, the Russians might not.

LEWIS: I don’t know. We can’t see that far ahead. But I’m saying that we should certainly prepare for it, and do what we can to be ready if the Russians reach a point where they find themselves able to enter into serious negotiations. Because, otherwise, each side, when Mr. Reagan became President, when he was inaugurated, he said while he wasn’t going to do any negotiating, he wasn’t going to talk to the Russians until the United States arms buildup had reached a stage that he thought was satisfactory, and he was going to review the whole position, and only then would he begin to think up ideas. Well, we wasted a couple of years. But the end of that time, the Russians weren’t ready anymore. And that can go on indefinitely…

HEFFNER: You know, I…

LEWIS: …back and forth.

HEFFNER: …I was, I underlined, again in the column you entitled “Moscow is Overheated”, you said, “Its very hard to tell how much of this is propaganda and how much reflects a real sense of vulnerability”, talking about the Soviets themselves. “It seems ludicrous to hear a senior Soviet official, who is supposed to know a lot about the US say America has a master plan to overwhelm the Soviet Union. When I heard that, I had trouble not laughing at this echo of our cry that the Russians are coming”. It wasn’t meant as a joke. Is it taken very seriously?

LEWIS: Well, as I tried to say, how do we know?

HEFFNER: What do you think?

LEWIS: I think it’s both. It’s used for propaganda, primarily for internal purposes, and especially now because there is this sense of disarray and uncertainty and where to go. It’s nearly 70 years since the revolution, and the society’s just not moving. It’s just stagnating. And they know something has to be done. And so this danger from outside gives an excuse. It helps justify why everybody has to shut up and work harder and try harder because we’re under threat. But I think there is also some reality there, that they do feel threatened.

HEFFNER: You said, you wrote in this piece, you talked about the echo of our cry that the Russians are coming. But it’s not such an echo, is it? One can almost hear it now, not the echo of it. You referred tot the President’s statement about the empire of evil. So the Russians are hearing that. Now, I wanted to ask you whether…

LEWIS: Oh, it’s more than that. For example, one of the big justifications for the arms buildup was that we can outspend the Russians. We will force them to cry, “Uncle”. Well, how do you feel if you’re in the Kremlin and you’re told we’re going to beat you down until you change your system? Their whole purpose is to preserve their system, just as our purpose is to preserve ours.

HEFFNER: Do you think we really believe that the Soviets now would say, if they were going public, “We will bury you”, even if they didn’t bang their shoes on the table?

LEWIS: No, no. It can’t be said anymore because it’s not credible. When Khrushchev said that, that was about 25 years ago. It was just the emergence of the period after Stalin died, just the emergence of a new period of growth, a new period of energy. Things were starting up. And I think they really believed that they were going to be able to continue on that very optimistic and effective scale. And, of course, they haven’t been able, and they know now that it won’t work.

HEFFNER: But what do we think? What do we really think?

LEWIS: About what?

HEFFNER: About the possibility that the Russians are coming? Now, that’s, we can’t say, well, how do we know what the Kremlin thinks. What do we think?

LEWIS: Well we, you mean the President, the Congress, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, me?

HEFFNER: Dealer’s choice. The American people.

LEWIS: I think they’re confused. That’s back to your initial, your very initial question, we’re smooshing ourselves by not making, by not…What do we mean by, “The Russians are coming?” We’re not saying. Do we really think they’re going to invade? No. Do we really think they’re going to launch an all-out missile attack? No.

HEFFNER: You don’t think that our Joint Chiefs or responsible military figures are thinking in those terms?

LEWIS: Oh, I’m sure they’re not. That doesn’t mean that they don’t have, it’s their job to make contingency plans, to know what we would do if one chance out of a hundred thousand, a million, some such thing happened. But I’m sure they don’t expect it.

HEFFNER: Do you think then that it is a political…

LEWIS: If they did, the atmosphere in the country would be totally different, I can assure you.

HEFFNER: Well, effectively, how would it be different? We’re not diminishing our…

LEWIS: We would be nearly on a war footing. We would be on a footing that war will break out any minute, and all sorts of things that we’re doing and assuming would be different.

HEFFNER: Yes, but we live at a time of a huge federal deficit. We live at a time when the President of the United States and his opponents too seem to be saying there’s a limit to how much we can cut back because we’re not going to cut back military spending all that much. That must be a reflection of some fear, some concern.

LEWIS: Oh, that’s another pet subject of mine, because I think that it’s utter nonsense, this idea that you measure security in dollars, in money. Our security, our defense establishment is pouring out…The New York Times had a n excellent article a few days ago by our defense correspondent, Richard Halloran, pointing out that we’ve bought a…You know, this administration, since 1981, has had the authority to spend $888.8 billion on defense.

HEFFNER: A lot of money.

LEWIS: $888.8 billion. Now think what that means to the deficit. And he says they have bought guns but not bullets. By that’s…something of a metaphor. But it means something that I’ve been aware of for quite a long time, and a lot of other people who pay close attention to defense realize. And that is that we’re buying a lot of hardware, but we’re not buying the systems that will make it usable. That’s to say, spare parts, adequate training, adequate transport, adequate medical care for the battlefield, and so on. Everything is going on the big jewelry, if you want, of defense, whereas effective defense depends on something quite different.

HEFFNER: Well, what does that mean, as far as you’re concerned?

LEWIS: It means we have to take another look at that defense budget in a much more serious way. There is a small group of congressmen: Senator Hart is one, he has, what I think are some quite good ideas about it. There are others; Les Aspen, Gore is another, Senator Nunn of Georgia, who have made an effort to look very closely at the defense budget, and who can tell you how much is going on Cadillacs.

HEFFNER: Well, I come back again…

LEWIS: And that don’t provide transportation.

HEFFNER: I come back again though, I must ask you what, in the moments when you sit down and try and figure out what it all means, what does it mean that an administration that has been pushing so hard on the question of national security what does it mean when, as you suggest, we have the guns but not the bullets?

LEWIS: It means they haven’t been efficient in drawing up their budget. It means they have succumbed to this enormous complexity, variety of pressures from each defense contractor, from each defense service, from each section of each service, each one saying, “Well, if there’s more going, let’s us have some of it”. And there hasn’t been a real managerial look as how all these things fit together and what’s worthwhile.

HEFFNER: But, Ms. Lewis, that presupposes that we have a bunch of dummies in the administration. And presumably we have a business-oriented…

LEWIS: It’s not easy to do.

HEFFNER: Would you give any credence to the thought that perhaps they’re not as concerned about “the Russians are coming” as they pretend? And that the military budget provides something else? What it is, I don’t know. But it seems that if we are not doing it wisely…

LEWIS: Well, there’s also an argument which the President keeps making and the Secretary of Defense, that if the Russians see us buying a whole lot, they’ll get scared and give up.

HEFFNER: Yeah, but then The New York Times has a story that indicates that you don’t have to give up; they’ve bought the guns but not the bullets. They must know that.

LEWIS: Well, one, it’s pretty obvious, because we discuss it openly. But secondly, there’s a much worse side to that kind of thinking, to my mind. I don’t want the Russians to get scared, because I don’t think they’d give up. I think then we would risk a real miscalculation and a venture.

HEFFNER: Would somebody, a cynic perhaps, then say, “They know that, and we know that. And what we’re involved in here is something else? Maybe something for domestic consumption?”

LEWIS: This is all true enough as arms. We’re sitting quietly at the table and the world outside is the way it is and no drastic news has happened since we’ve sat down. But where it becomes dangerous is when unforeseen incidents – you had the little thing, the Korean airliner, for example – something could happen in Iran, and Iran/Iraq war. There are lots of trouble spots in the world that are beyond the control of either the United States or the Soviet Union. And it’s always possible that they begin to heat things up, and people get more suspicious and more tense, and say, “Well, we’ve got to show them we’re not giving in. We’ve got to show them we can be tough about this one”. And the other side feels the same way. And you risk, the kind of buildup where this cool reason that you’re talking about goes out the window.

HEFFNER: And then we get this smoosh that you were talking about.

LEWIS: And there it is. Smoosh.

HEFFNER: We just have a couple of minutes left. I want to ask you about the empire of evil. Is it such an exaggeration?

LEWIS: Well, those are biblical terms. This is not a biblical country, the Soviet Union. It is a country that has a whole lot of things wrong with it, but people, real people do live there. They live there under all sorts of conditions that I for one couldn’t tolerate. But they are alive and they do have aspirations, and they do have needs, and they do gradually change. It’s nothing like what it was under Stalin. That’s already something. People are somewhat better off. And simply, that country is very big and very strong, and we have to share this planet with it. To denounce it as Hell and say come, that we are up above in Paradise and have nothing to do with it is not going to save anyone.

HEFFNER: Well, we do have to live on the same planet with them, and we do want to survive. But the question is, it seems to me, as to whether the description that it’s Hell is accurate enough, whether it’s a wise thing to say.

LEWIS: I don’t think it’s accurate. It often depends what our vision of Hell is. As I say, I think it is very unpleasant, and I would hate to have to live there. But people do live, and they do have the kind of lives, they have children, they go to theater and concerts, they have sports, they travel a little bit, some of them, they write books, they do a whole lot of things that remain living.

HEFFNER: Ms. Lewis, unfortunately I’m getting the signal that our time is up, but I do want to thank you for joining me today on THE OPEN MIND.

And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope that you will join us here again next time on THE OPEN MIND. Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night, and good luck”.