People to People: Eisenhower's Vision of Peace

Posted by A Colin Treadwell on 10/18/2018
Posted in: Musings From Colin Treadwell
Tags: Travel, Tauck, WWII, World War 2, Cuba, Russia, Eisenhower

Since 2000 I have been aware of President Bill Clinton’s People to People program because it provided the opportunity for Americans to travel to Cuba for the first time in decades. It created a way for Americans to travel legally to Cuba even though our government has maintained an embargo on Cuba since the early ‘60s.

For decades we observed an iron curtain in the 90-mile space between Florida and Cuba. The two countries were artificially separated from each other in spite of their close proximity and historical kinship.

I loved the People to People program because I was one who traveled to Cuba and it was one of the most moving travel experiences I have ever had.

I was happy to see that thousands of other Americans were also getting their first chance to see Cuba. And the Cuban people were also benefiting from the exchange with American visitors.

Once Upon a Time
People to People: Eisenhower's Vision of PeaceBut it was only recently that I discovered that Clinton’s People to People initiative was not the first. The first People to People program was an initiative of President Eisenhower in the mid-1950s. And the country it concerned was Russia, then known as the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.

It’s a good time to reconsider this historical fact because relations between the American and Russian governments have soured again. In recent years I have often been personally angered over some of Vladimir Putin’s policies, and that has caused me to wonder whether Russia should be a place for me to travel. Some say that if you oppose a country’s government, you shouldn’t travel there. Going there and spending money would be supporting a government you dislike, or so goes the argument for the ban on travel to Cuba.

This is a serious enough question that I felt I had to consider it. Should one avoid travel to a country where one does not approve of the government?

There are many governments I don’t like much. If I were to eliminate those countries from my travel map, my travel horizons would be greatly diminished. But I would do that if I believed it was the right thing to do.

But as I searched my soul in regard to this question, in the end I came down on the side of the affirmative, the belief that it is actually good to travel to a country whose government you don’t agree with. Or conversely, not liking the government of a country is not a reason to refrain from traveling there.

Eisenhower’s People to People program was part of what convinced me.

Full Circle
Even before I found out about Eisenhower’s People to People program, I had learned that Eisenhower supported travel to the USSR from Alexander Harris, the founder of General Tours.

Harris was a Polish Jew who had fought as a soldier for Poland against the Nazis and had been a Nazi prisoner of war. After his bitter war experiences, he dedicated himself to doing what he could to promote understanding among the peoples of different countries in hopes that it might help to diffuse tensions that might lead to another world war.

In 1954 Harris wrote to Eisenhower and proposed taking Americans on tour to the USSR. He received a warm letter of support from the President and became the first American tour operator granted the authority to take Americans on tour into the USSR.

Relations at that time between the US and the USSR were extremely tense. But even in the midst of all that tension, Eisenhower still supported travel to Russia.

Reflections of a War Hero
As the Supreme Allied Commander of the invasion that led to the defeat of the Nazis, Eisenhower had seen the ravages of war about as closely as anyone. Even so, when Eisenhower encountered the first of the more than 1,000 Nazi death camps that were liberated by the allies, he was deeply shocked.

In his memoir, he wrote, “I have never felt able to describe my emotional reactions when I first came face to face with indisputable evidence of Nazi brutality and ruthless disregard of every shred of decency. Up to that time I had known about it only generally or through secondary sources. I am certain, however that I have never at any other time experienced an equal sense of shock.”

Eisenhower believed that the ordinary citizens of the world wanted peace, even when their leaders wanted war. He thought more contact between the ordinary citizens of different countries would help maintain good relations. With that objective, he set up the People to People initiative in 1956.

“If we are going to take advantage of the assumption that all people want peace,” he said in a speech, “then the problem is for people to get together and to leap governments – if necessary to evade governments – to work out not one method but thousands of methods by which people can gradually learn a little bit more of each other.”

A White House press release explained Eisenhower’s wish to foster “people to people contacts (as distinct from Government contacts) designed to create understanding among peoples and build a common effort to advance world peace.”

Eisenhower believed that if people around the world saw for themselves the benefits of a free society that Americans enjoy, that the democratic way of life would on its own merit win over people around the world. But it would take more than the diplomatic corps to effectively communicate that message.

“There will never be enough diplomats and information officers at work in the world to get the job done without the help of the rest of us. Indeed, if our American ideology is eventually to win out in the great struggle being waged between two opposing ways of life, it must have the active support of thousands of independent private groups and institutions and of millions of individual Americans acting through person-to-person communication in foreign lands.”

That was the spirit of People to People. I found this to be about as high an endorsement of travel as an instrument of world peace as one could ever hope to find. President Eisenhower, arguably the greatest war hero of the 20th Century, encouraged travel to the USSR during the searingly hot tensions between the Soviet Union and the US in the 1950s.

Setting Foot in the Country
I recently traveled to Russia in spite of my bad feelings for Vladimir Putin, and I was glad to discover that his existence had practically no bearing on my experience there. I experienced a Russia that has evolved for hundreds of years and will continue to evolve when Putin has passed out of the scene. So I was glad I went. I was glad I didn’t pay heed to feelings of negativity about politics, because ultimately I do believe Eisenhower’s contention about people-to-people relations.

It may sound a little high flown to give so much credit to the travel industry, but I think the credit is deserved. I believe that travel back and forth among the regular rank-and-file citizens of different countries is one of the things that helps keep the world in harmony, to the extent that it is. And when you look at how much cooperation there is among the nations of the world today, it is actually pretty remarkable, especially viewed in a historical perspective.

I have seen the argument put forth persuasively, but what I have seen myself is enough to convince me of the truth of the premise.

The statement, rightly or wrongly attributed to Gandhi, “Be the change you want to see in the world,” is actualized by world travel.

I think we as a species are seeing the awakening of an understanding globally that the survival of all of us requires us to cooperate to face the major challenges that confront us now. Travel is one of the grassroots contributors to the friendly relations between countries.

We have our diplomatic corps, which is so important, but it is also important that our regular citizens have direct relationships with the people of other countries.

So on General Eisenhower’s authority, I encourage you to get out there and be a good ambassador for your country, wherever you go.

Your humble reporter,

A. Colin Treadwell



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