American relations with Russia have been chilly from the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 to the current issue of election tampering. In the interim, what became known as the Cold War threatened to turn hot on several occasions.
During that contentious, sometimes perilous time, opportunities for levity were rare for American diplomats. As a Foreign Service officer assigned to the U.S. Mission in Geneva, Switzerland, however, I had a rare opportunity to witness one lighter moment — at least from the American perspective.
In the spring of 1963, only a few months after the Soviet-American faceoff of the Cuban missile crisis, the United Nations sponsored an economic conference in Geneva for the purpose of promoting economic cooperation among nations. Once again, the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. opposed each other.
While our delegation prepared to describe the virtues of American capitalism, the Soviets planned to do likewise with their system of communism.
I was assigned to take notes as speakers described the economic achievements of their respective countries.
The first speaker on the program was Nikolai Molykov, the head of the Soviet delegation. My pencil was sharp and ready as we were particularly interested in the economic circumstances of our Cold War rival.
Molykov carried a small package wrapped in brown paper as he stepped to the podium. I wondered what the contents of the mysterious package might be. I soon found out.
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The sober, mustachioed Molykov spoke in a confident, boastful manner as he held the brown paper package aloft. “Herein,” he proclaimed, “are the details of the tremendous progress our socialist state has made with our latest Five-Year Plan. We have already surpassed our original goals, and are only halfway through. No capitalist system can make such a claim.”
Molykov paused for a moment, apparently expecting applause. The only clapping hands, however, were those of the delegates from Soviet Bloc countries.
Molykov continued, “I will be happy to share the precise results when our plan is completed. But for now, you will have to be patient. We do not want to release anything until the final figures are compiled.”
The Soviet chief delegate rambled on another thirty minutes. When he finally finished his boasting, my notebook remained blank. Molykov had offered nothing of substance, only bluster and bravado. I possessed nothing of value to report to Washington.
After a noon recess, our chief delegate, George Tesoro, stepped to the podium. With no notes to take, I relaxed and listened.
George also carried a package wrapped in brown paper, this one the size of the Manhattan phone book. The contents were a mystery to me. We hadn’t discussed anything of this sort in our delegation meetings.
Instead of describing the GDP or unemployment rates of the U.S., Tesoro, with some effort, hoisted his heavy parcel above his head and waved it back and forth to gain everyone’s attention.
With twinkling eyes and a broad grin, Tesoro began his speech. “In my hand I hold but one indication of the success of the American economic system,” he announced. “We have no five-year plan. Ours is an everyday system operated not by the government, but by hardworking, enterprising, private individuals. And we do not wait five years to show the results to the rest of the world. We have no such secrets. Indeed, I would like to present these results as a gift to Comrade Molykov.”
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Tesoro handed the package to me for delivery to his Soviet counterpart. Molykov, seemingly as curious about the contents as others, unwittingly opened the “gift” in full view of the assembly.
Much to the amusement of most everyone but Molykov, he had unwrapped a Sears and Roebuck catalog.
Carroll McKibbin is a native Iowan who lives in San Luis Obispo, Calif., as a retired Cal Poly dean. He has written two books: “Apron Strings,” a humorous memoir of an Iowa upbringing, and “Lillian’s Legacy,” the true story of a supposedly unsolved murder in a small Iowa town. Comments: firstname.lastname@example.org