‘Glasnost & Goodwill’ highlights Washington’s grassroots Cold War activists

Instructional Pamphlet, 1955. This illustrated booklet published by the Tacoma Civil Defense Committee in 1955 gives citizens advice on what to do before, during and after an atomic attack. Washington State Historical Society collections.

A new exhibit, “Glasnost & Goodwill: Citizen Diplomacy in the Northwest,” will open Oct. 5 at the Washington State History Museum.

By the 1980s, there were thousands of nuclear weapons aimed at the United States, and an equal number targeted at the Soviet Union. The arms race was running out of control and only a vague notion of “mutually assured destruction” stood between war and peace for the world’s superpowers.

Fireworks at the 1986 Goodwill Games. The first Goodwill Games were held in Moscow, Russia in 1986. This image shows one of many spectacular performances put on by Soviet hosts. 

And yet, citizens did not sit idly by. Quietly a movement formed, built by citizen diplomats who reached across the Pacific to engage their neighbors, one conversation at a time. Washingtonians, in particular, saw an opportunity to bring peace with their neighbors through business partnerships, sister-city relationships, and cultural exchanges. Presented by the Washington State Historical Society, “Glasnost & Goodwill: Citizen Diplomacy in the Northwest” is an invigorating plunge into how citizen diplomacy in Washington and the greater Northwest contributed to the thawing of the Cold War.

The Mount Everest Earth Day 20 International Peace Climb, led by Jim Whittaker during Earth Week in 1990, was the first time in history that mountaineers from the United States, Soviet Union and China had roped together to climb a mountain.

“Glasnost & Goodwill” is brought to life through compelling photographs, rare videos, fascinating oral histories, and authentic artifacts that trace the rise of grassroots diplomacy in the Northwest from the late 1930s through the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and beyond. Many of the citizen activists contributed to, and were involved in, creating the exhibition. Their stories reveal the levels of fear and hope that drove their unprecedented actions.

In 1987, Lynne Cox became the first person to swim the Bering Strait between the United States and the Soviet Union. “Deep down, I was scared to death of the Soviets. When I was a child, we’d be drilled by our teachers to duck under our desks and cover our heads. This, we were told, would protect us from nuclear missiles,” she said. “But more than anything, I wanted to believe that the Soviet Union wasn’t the evil empire. Soviet citizens were people like us. Why did they have to be enemies? Why did we have to fear them?”

Visitors will learn about people from Washington traveling behind the Iron Curtain with thousands of letters expressing wishes for peace; fishermen working together in an international business venture, an extraordinary idea at the time; the Mount Everest Earth Day 20 International Peace Climb; and more. These and other initiatives, taken together, shifted the needle from tension toward peace. These efforts culminated in the Goodwill Games, hosted throughout Washington State — a major undertaking that further cemented the special relationship between Washingtonians and the Soviet people.

“Generations born post-Soviet Union may not know a lot about the Cold War. Those of us who experienced the height of the tension between the Soviet Union and the United States may not be aware of the extent of the involvement of ordinary citizens in Washington,” said Gwen Whiting, Washington State History Museum’s Lead Curator.  “Glasnost & Goodwill” explores these individuals’ efforts to build friendship and diminish the crisis.”

Don’t miss an exclusive evening preview party, Thursday, Oct. 5, from 5:30-8 p.m. Be among the first to see this fascinating exhibition before it opens to the public. Hear from esteemed guest speaker, Dr. Richard Scheuerman, Professor Emeritus at Seattle Pacific University, about the remarkable 200-year history of friendship between the people of Russia and the United States. Enjoy sweet and savory treats from Seattle’s Piroshky Bakery and try Elk Rider Vodka from Heritage Distilling in Gig Harbor. A cash bar will be available. The Preview Party is free for members. Nonmember admission is $15 per person. To RSVP or purchase tickets, email Julia.White@wshs.wa.gov or call (253) 798-5894. Other related events include “Glasnost & Goodwill: The Cold War, Washington State, and the Power of Citizen Diplomacy — A Master Teacher Workshop” at University of Washington on Oct. 24, 4:30 p.m.; and a symposium at the History Museum in January, organized by the Historical Society and University of Washington’s Jackson School of International Studies. See WashingtonHistory.org for more details about the exhibition or related events.

“Glasnost & Goodwill” is made possible by Kay Bullitt, the Turner Foundation, Inc., Alaska Airlines Foundation, Wally Pereyra, Jay Platt, Bruce McCaw, Stowe Talbot, Mike Scallon, Ed Parks and the University of Washington’s Jackson School of International Studies.

For more information visit washingtonhistory.org.

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