Never So Close to War

 

The year: 1983. The scene: our living room in Washington’s Wesley Heights. Our dinner guests: Soviet Ambassador Dobrynin, U.S. House Speaker Tom Foley, Indiana Congressman Lee Hamilton, Senator Charles McC. Mathias of Maryland, and their wives.

           

The evening was prompted by President Reagan’s casual reference to Russia as the “evil empire,” and Ambassador Dobrynin’s mournful reaction, “My work is done here; I shall be leaving.” Dobrynin’s long tenure in his post had made him Washington’s ranking ambassador, dean of the diplomatic corps. We had first met twenty years earlier during the Cuban Missile Crisis. As that drama unfolded, he engaged in a series of meetings with my then boss, Attorney General Robert Kennedy. As Bob’s administrative assistant, I would meet Dobrynin in the private elevator and escort him to the office. On one such occasion, we exchanged phonograph records. I was the lucky recipient of Shostakovich’s cello sonata featuring Mstislav Rostropovich, with piano accompaniment by the composer. In return for this remarkable keepsake, Dobrynin had to settle for An Evening on Buford Mountain, a collection of folk songs I had recorded in Missouri.

           

In the 1960s, children routinely learned to take cover under their desks during air raid drills simulating a nuclear attack. Dobrynin’s comment two decades later in our dining room was a reminder of that perilous time. I had just concluded a toast to the art of diplomacy and to the ambassador’s consummate skills in that department when he rose and said as solemnly, “Thank you, Jimmy, for your kind words, but our two countries [have been] never so close to war.”

           

This unsmiling observation brought Sylvia to her feet with an announcement, “Time now for some music.” Mrs. Dobrynin went right to the piano and pounded out a Russian military march, which featured her jumping up from the piano stool and pretending to shoot us. Startled, Mac Mathias fell off his chair. There were no other casualties. Sylvia then took her turn at the piano, and the evening concluded with our soothing rendition of the latter-day folksong “Moscow Nights.”