I pulled out my old VHS copy of “The Russians are Coming! The Russians are Coming!” the other night and gave it a watch.
The film came out in 1966 but is still cool for important social and political reasons. I can’t watch it without choking up, no kidding.
Alan Arkin debuts in this film. Briefly, the movie is about a Soviet submarine that gets stuck on a sandbar off New England because the captain is too busy ogling the scenery to watch where he’s going.
Why is he ogling? He’s never seen America.
Some of his crew goes ashore to find a boat to pull the sub free. The thrust of the movie is that everyone, Americans and Russians, are so scared of each other that they darn near blow each other up.
What stops them?
A little kid gets caught on a church steeple. Everyone teams up, the kid is saved, all are friends, the end.
It’s a corny ending to a corny movie, but you have to know the times. 1966 was the heart of the Cold War. The Berlin Wall was five years old, the Cuban Missile Crisis only four years in the past.
I am told that young people today have no idea what the Cold War was.
So, kiddies: Politicians today wet their pants at the idea of Iran having one nuclear weapon. In 1966, the Soviet Union and United States hated and feared each other so much that they each had something like 30,000 nuclear weapons, aimed at each other.
Locked and loaded, serious stuff.
This effort to prevent war was called Mutually Assured Destruction, or MAD.
What was really MAD was that none of us had ever seen each other. Someone told us to hate and fear Russians. Someone told Russians to hate and fear Americans. That was that.
Seeing this movie, when I was in high school, planted a seed: Could the evil Russians be human?
About 1980, I saw real Russians in Ogden. I was walking near our offices, then on 23rd Street, and noticed two guys in bad suits with military haircuts carrying what I knew to be East German cameras.
How? Camera collecting: Useful source of international intelligence.
We checked. Sure enough. They were observers from Russia inspecting missiles at Hill Air Force Base as part of ongoing disarmament agreements.
Russians in Utah was big news. We did a story.
The first time I met a Russian was 1990.
The Berlin Wall had been down a year. I visited Germany and Ogden’s sister city, Hof, on a journalism exchange. It was a junket. I didn’t care. I got a free trip to Germany.
One stop was Potsdam, near Berlin. In the palace where the agreement dividing Germany after World War II was signed, I saw a man, a woman, a child, taking a break.
The father wore a Soviet Army uniform. Russian? I asked. Da.
I said “Hi.” They said “Hi.”
Sprechen sie Deutsch? Nein. Speak English? A leettle.
I chatted, I smiled. They chatted, they smiled. I said, “Bye!” They said, “Bye!”
The horrible, evil Russians turned out to be tired tourists with a whiny kid. The evil Amerikanski? I am sure I was a disappointment, too.
Russians I’ve met since have been pretty normal, so the movie was right.
Which is why when some politician tells me now “Be afraid! Hate!” I hold back.
I’ll decide who to hate, thanks very much. Waiting to meet them is time well spent.