I grew up in the shadow of nuclear war. During my lifetime, the Soviet Union and the United States fought each other in proxy wars all over the globe from South America to Vietnam.
If the past history of nations and weapons were any guide, the two powers would, at some time, have used their ultimate weapons, and the world would have known nuclear catastrophe.
But it didn’t happen.
Somewhere along the way, a few diplomats and politicians decided to take the first steps away from the chasm and begin tentatively to trust each other.
Some of those people are widely known and some known only by those who closely followed the process. U.S. president Ronald Reagan, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, and diplomats George Schultz and Eduard Shevardnadze were among them.
In an interview published in The Foreign Service Journal (December 2016), George Schultz cited a small, early breakthrough involving successful negotiations between the U.S. and the Soviets for a Christian religious group in Russia. The group had fled to the U.S. embassy in search of freedom to worship as they pleased. The negotiations were successful, and though they did not involve a lot of publicity, they led to the beginning of trust between the Soviets and Americans.
The trust grew until bigger negotiations involving nuclear weapons resulted in a rollback of those weapons.
In the decades since, we have seen a return to suspicion. Armed conflicts have broken out in Ukraine, not to mention the awful slaughter in the Middle East. Hope has too often changed to despair.
Nevertheless, that earlier time remains an example of what can happen when a few leaders are courageous enough to risk small steps toward trusting each other.