Main content

Russians win US grain deal

Is it permissible in the United States for a school teacher to spank a child who misbehaves? Is it permissible for a city to try and limit the number of massage parlours that are, in effect, brothels?

These are the burning issues that the nine learned judges of the US Supreme Court are now brooding over and their only guide, as always, is the written constitution of the United States which came into effect in 1789. You might think that the founding fathers had forgotten to provide for such things but there have been 26 amendments written into the constitution since then and it's the claim of the plaintiffs that three of them, the First, the Fifth and the Fourteenth, bear directly on spanking and massage – considered, that is, as separate exercises of human rights. 

But before we got down to these fascinating and vital topics, I ought to report on two graver issues that have taken up most of the headlines and a lot of comment. One is the new agreement signed with the Soviet Union which allows the Russians to buy anywhere between six and eight million tons of American grain a year for the next five years provided the annual American grain crop doesn't fall below a certain weight – 225 million tons. That's the condition that finally satisfied the striking longshoremen and persuaded them to call off their boycott on grain shipments to the Soviet Union. 

When the Russians had a poor crop in 1972, they started buying massive quantities of wheat, especially, from America, and it's now part of American folklore that they were responsible for the following inflation in food prices. This summer, the Soviet Union again suffered a drought and a small crop and, again, it began to place heavy orders here which sprouted a panic about more inflation and caused the longshoremen's refusal to load the ships. However, this has all been ironed out. The Russians will never get more than about four per cent of the American crop and this time we don't have to take reassurances from the administration alone. An economic committee set up by both Houses of Congress has looked into things and concluded that if the Russians buy to the limit of the contract, they will not raise food prices in this country by more than one per cent. 

The second topic is a good deal trickier. Perhaps it's one of those profound historical arguments that come at you in the shape of warnings and are only proved when the worst happens. To put it in its starkest form, the question is, 'Will the present American policy of getting together with the Soviet Union – what the double-domes call 'détente' – be more likely to put off a world war or hasten it?' I hear incredulous cries from the right, left and centre. 'What's that again? Has the man gone mad?' Well, if so, not madder than the Chinese who welcomed Dr Kissinger last week with a nasty warning. 

It's not usual for host nations to greet visiting statesmen with a rebuff. Mr Nixon, you may recall, when he went to China was greeted with sweetness and light and fireworks and dancing but that whole safari was something of a strain, certainly on the credulity of the American reporters who went along. And it may be healthier when war and peace is at stake for a host to say what's on his mind rather than trot out happy children and a guided tour. 

In a word, the Chinese take a very dim view of the American-Russian get together. In what was supposed to be a speech of welcome, the Chinese foreign minister more than hinted that détente posed a threat to China by encouraging Russian expansionism. Dr Kissinger replied by saying – and he was also delicate enough not to mention the Soviet Union by name – he said that American foreign policy would never embrace a second nation at the expense of a third. In other words, American policy to China was not, as the Soviets believe, a threat to the Soviet Union and American policy toward the Soviet Union was no threat to China. 

The truth is that Dr Kissinger is pursuing an ideal and he knows it. Ideally, the now more or less American regular visits, first to Moscow, then to Peking, are meant to encourage what we used to call 'coexistence'. In reality, the friendship the Americans are cultivating with China is intended to keep in check any warlike aims of the Russians. And, similarly, the friendship with Russia is cultivated as an oblique warning to the Chinese not to get too belligerent against the Russians. 

We come up against the old, never solved, problem of diplomacy. Diplomacy is meant to cultivate trust between nations but where there is trust, there is little need for diplomacy. What makes this minuet fascinating and also fearsome is the root fact that the Americans don't absolutely trust the Russians or the Chinese and the other two don't absolutely trust each other or the Americans. If they did, the Chinese would not be earmarking prodigious sums of money to develop nuclear weapons and the Russians and Americans would not be outspending each other on modern armaments. 

Last week, a committee of the House trimmed $7.5 billion from the defence budget and the Secretary of Defense instantly protested that the cut was savage, deep and arbitrary. It was, in fact, little over seven billion in 98 billions and the Congress doesn't see that that's going to leave America's defences savagely impaired – $90 billion is higher than the defence budget when America had 500,000 men in Vietnam and a posse of congressmen was ready to make the most of that argument. This ignores the sad fact that in the last ten years the cost of what is tactfully called 'military hardware' has gone soaring up, along with the materiel costs and the labour costs of everything else. And that the defence department regularly finds that it budgets a missile or a supersonic fighter, or whatever, at a certain figure and by the time it's delivered, it has cost several billions more. 

A disgusted young man who's involved in campaigning for a Democratic candidate showed me the other week a magazine report about a rather hair-raising exhibition that was unveiled here by the defence department. It was, frankly, like the motor show, a proud display of its products. Like the motor show, it had adorable girls but lolling around some of the glistening, lethal weapons. If this had been a sequence in a movie we'd have shuddered at it as a tasteless and needlessly brutal bit of radical satire. As it was, I'm sure that some Russian went incognito in there and would come away not feeling more reassured about America's peaceful intentions. The Pentagon could reply – but doesn't – that the Russians have at least an equal range of equally deadly weapons but don't allow the populace to see them since they control public opinion by exposing it only to those sides of Russian life it wants them to see. 

And surely the Russian people have been thoroughly instructed in the belief that it's the Americans, and the Chinese even more, who are developing their technology for war. The Russians use their scientists for human projects in medicine, agriculture and the coming prosperity of the workers. I wonder, by the way, if the Russians ever publish their defence budget. 

Anyway, the game of elaborate, public reassurance and unflagging private research goes round and round. The only really silly people, it seems to me, are those grim intellects at either end of the political spectrum who adduce all the facts and only the facts to prove that their favourite country, whether America, Russia or China, is striving to build Utopia while one, or both, of the others are wickedly plotting the big war. 

Some years ago, I knew an Englishman who'd been in the diplomatic service for eight or nine years in China. He came to Washington just at the time we were all learning that the Russians and the Chinese really hated each other and some of us with sufficiently long memories got a shameful, guilty hope out of this, as in the 1930s some of us had done out of the demonstrable fact that if there were two nations in the world that loathed and execrated each other, they were Nazi Germany and Communist Russia. 

This Englishman was one of those shrewd and scholarly types that used, at any rate, to go into the diplomatic service. He was almost shockingly serene when he maintained, and he went on maintaining against all the testimony to the contrary, that the Soviet Union and China, in spite of all the growing venom between them, would one day get together and confront the rest of the world with an accomplished and awful fact. 

I have no strong feelings about this prophecy one way or the other, but as a cautionary tale I do recall the stupefied weekend in August 1939 when, having been trained for years in the facts of Nazi-Soviet loathing, Mr Ribbentrop and Mr Molotov suddenly appeared side by side signing an eternal pact of Nazi-Soviet friendship. The spectacular somersault performed by our local Communists and fellow travellers within a few days of this catastrophe was to say that it served us right – the Russians had been begging for a sainted Anglo-French-Soviet alliance for a year or more and since they didn't get it, they'd had to sign a security pact with the devil. 

Well, today, nobody in power in Washington or, I guess, in Peking or Moscow, is going to say that unless the United States begins to form a firm military alliance with the Chinese, that the Chinese will have to revise their ideology and marry the Russians. But this nightmare and the alternative nightmare of the Russians getting in the end impatient with the American-Chinese love affair, they're both active at the back of some minds. It all seems ridiculous, doesn't it? To the point of paranoia. 

But the defence department of every nation has to have tucked away contingency plans even against the most ridiculous contingency. As it is, this triple mistrust is something we have to live with, something Dr Kissinger believes it is his life's mission to soften. 

I’m sorry if you've been fidgeting from side to side waiting to hear how the Supreme Court stands on spanking and massage parlours, but the way this talk went, I'm afraid you'll have to fidget for another week.

This transcript was typed from a recording of the original BBC broadcast (© BBC) and not copied from an original script. Because of the risk of mishearing, the BBC cannot vouch for its complete accuracy.

Letter from America audio recordings of broadcasts ©BBC

Letter from America scripts © Cooke Americas, RLLP. All rights reserved.