Alexei Panshin's The Abyss of Wonder


      So where had things gone awry between us?  Where had the line been drawn?

      From Heinlein's side, it had to be the issue of Communism.

      I'd asked Heinlein what could justify bomb tests.  And he'd replied, "The threat of Communist aggression."

      To Heinlein at that hour, this was a sufficient answer to just about any question I might pose.  It was where his line was drawn.

      As he'd put it in the "Who Are the Heirs of Patrick Henry?" ad:

      "For more than a hundred years, ever since the original Communist Manifesto, it has been the unswerving aim of the Communist Party to take over all of this planet.  The only thing blocking their conquest is the fact that the tragically-shrunken free world still possesses nuclear weapons.  They can destroy us...but they know that we can destroy them.
      "So they want us to throw away the equalizer.
      "If we do, we can expect the same 'mercy' that Budapest received.  They will say to us: 'Surrender or be destroyed.'
      " 'God grants liberty only to those who love it and are always ready to guard and defend it.'
                                                 -- Daniel Webster"

      I, on the other hand, was no more convinced of the reality of the Red Menace than the rest of my generation.  That was a fixation of our elders.

      Our attitudes would be expressed by the movies Dr. Strangelove and The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming a few years later.  We thought that through some horrible miscalculation of brinksmanship, the Bomb might go off, but we never expected to see the Red Army march into town.

      Not only did it seem that Heinlein had his tail in a knot over something that wasn't going to happen -- and which, in fact, never did happen in the space-time continuum where he and I lived -- but it also appeared to me that by opposing Communism so singlemindedly and self-righteously, Heinlein had discarded all his previous knowledge and perceptiveness and turned his back on  the broader frame of reference he'd introduced me to in order to revert to a simpler state in which the only thing that mattered was who was to be top dog.

      For me, the line that had been drawn between Heinlein and me wasn't whether or not we ought to confront Communism whatever the cost, but whether being locked into anti-Communist postures skewed our behavior and made us smallminded and self-favoring.

      An example of this distortion effect at work might be Heinlein's slangy use of the word "equalizer" to describe our nuclear weapons in the "Heirs of Patrick Henry" ad -- as though we were nothing more than bystanders in a hostile world doing our best to keep up with the ability of bad guys, bandits and bullies to do us harm.  As comforting and convenient as it might be to think of ourselves in this way, however, that wouldn't make it true, and Heinlein knew very well that it wasn't true.

      If anyone had acted like a bully-boy brandishing a loaded gun, it was us.  We were the ones who'd invented nuclear weapons.  And we were the only ones who'd ever used them.

      At the end of the Second World War, we'd dropped two atom bombs on Japan, at least in part to send Russia the message that we had them and wouldn't hesitate to use them in war.  It was the Russians, not we, who'd been left feeling they had to scramble to come up with an equalizer if they were to survive.

      Our thermonuclear tests hadn't been some desperate attempt on our part to keep abreast of Russia.  Rather, they'd been intended to preserve the advantage that we already had and to keep us ahead of the Russians trying to play catch-up.

      That was the Arms Race.  We'd started it in the first place, and we were the ones who insisted on keeping it going.  And going all the harder once the Russians put Sputnik in orbit in 1957, and it was we who had to play catch-up for a change.

      Contrary to what Heinlein declared in his ad, stopping bomb tests didn't mean throwing away our weapons and then having no choice but to surrender or be destroyed.  Rather, everyone in the room was being asked to stop waving their guns around, put them back in their holsters and simmer down.

      But Heinlein didn't want to simmer down.

      In the spring of 1960, Robert and Virginia Heinlein made a trip to Russia to look the Communist beast in the eye for themselves.  On May Day, one of those major Soviet holidays where tanks and missiles used to pass in review before Communist leaders standing on the tomb of Lenin in Red Square, the Heinleins were in Moscow for the parade.

      That day, a U.S. spy plane was shot down 1500 miles inside Russian territory.  When the plane went missing and it wasn't yet clear what had happened to it, the U.S. government issued a statement to the world.  We said forthrightly that a weather plane had gone astray.

      When the Russians officially announced the incident on May 5, the Heinleins were in Alma Ata in Kazakhstan.  They were told to report to Intourist, the Russian agency in charge of their travels.  There they were forced to sit in the office of the local Director of Intourist and put up with a long, stern, fatherly lecture on the bad behavior of the United States, culminating with this latest outrage.

      Now, there could be more than one possible way of handling an embarrassing experience like that.

      If, for example, you identified yourself with the United States of America and felt responsible for what it did in the world, then you might honestly hang your head in shame over what had just taken place.  And if you didn't, then you might shake your head instead and marvel at the foolishness of the idiots presently in power in Washington.  You might pass the time wondering how the equivalent scene involving a stray Russian in Dallas might play out if a Soviet spy plane had just been shot down over Kansas City on the Fourth of July.  Or you might sit there in silence waiting for the lecture to finally be over so that you could get on with life.

      Heinlein did none of these things.  Instead, he went ballistic.

      As long as the lecture seemed one more canned lecture, he was able to tolerate it.  But when he heard of the U-2 that had just been shot down, Heinlein felt on the spot.  He'd known about the U-2 spy plane from his friends in the military, and he'd been aware that reconnaissance flights had been going on over the Soviet Union for four years.  And now we'd been caught -- although he didn't believe the Russians when they boasted they'd shot the plane down.

      But he'd be damned if he was going to apologize for it.  As he would declare a few weeks later, "If there is going to be any groveling done it won't be by me."

      Instead, he counterattacked.  He threw a fit.  He deliberately turned red.  A vein stood out on his forehead, and he began to shout.

      As he would say: "It is much better to pretend to lose your temper before things have grown so unbearable that you actually do blow your top; it saves wear and tear on your ulcers and enables you to conduct your tactics more efficiently."

      Heinlein out-shouted the Intourist Director with a list of American grievances against the Soviet Union.  Mrs. Heinlein backed him up by pointing out the location of Soviet slave labor camps on a map hanging in the office.

      Then Heinlein delivered the clincher.  He shook his finger in the official's face, and he shouted, "Nyeh khul-toorrrnee!", hitting the middle syllable and rolling the r.

      That was the most devasting putdown he knew in Russian.  But then, as Heinlein would say in recommending similar behavior to other Americans traveling in Russia: "In a bully-boy society often nothing but bullying will work."

      With that, he and Mrs. Heinlein went stomping indignantly out of the office.  They made it back to their hotel.  Then they gave way to a fit of the shakes.

      When Heinlein reached the West again, he would feel as though he had escaped from the Soviet Union.  While he was still in Finland, and then again several weeks later in Sweden, he would write articles about his experience justifying how he'd behaved.

      In the first, " 'Pravda' Means 'Truth' ", he would assert that the Russians had a flexible and self-serving notion of what it means to tell the truth.  And, as his example, he cited the physical impossibility of their having actually shot the U-2 down.  If they had, he said, then the radio equipment and the pilot wouldn't have survived.  (What actually had happened, later analyses would say, was that the plane had flown above the ability of Russian missiles to hit it directly, but the shockwave from their explosion had still been enough to tear the U-2 apart.)  Heinlein would have nothing to say on the subject of cover stories about strayed weather planes.

      In the second article, "Inside Intourist," Heinlein would generalize from his experience, and advise others to do as he'd done.  "If neither polite stubbornness nor noisy rudeness will work, use the insult direct," he would say.  And, "Even the most arrogant Soviet citizen suffers from an inferiority complex when faced with free citizens of the Western world, especially Americans."

      However, when I read these articles, it seemed to me that it may be one thing to recognize that human beings have some growing up to do, but it's another to actually act wisely and appropriately.  And that while Heinlein had once been able to talk the talk of human maturity, this wasn't walking the walk.


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