My last Foreign Service overseas assignment was to Japan in 1985. This was no ordinary assignment to our embassy in Tokyo or one of the U.S. consulates around the country. No, this assignment was to the U.S. Pavilion at an international exposition, Tsukuba Expo ’85 (http://bit.ly/1RweFds), held that summer in Tsukuba Science City, 35 miles northeast of Tokyo. My job? “Director of Events,” responsible, among much else, for developing (on a shoestring budget) the various events to be held on July 4, the U.S. Pavilion’s special day at Expo ’85.
But this post is about one of my unofficial responsibilities – serving as our Pavilion’s liaison with the Soviet Pavilion, thanks to my Russian-language proficiency. The Expo had opened to the public in mid-March, and on April 20 the U.S. Pavilion welcomed its one-millionth visitor. (Yes, all the pavilions actually counted the number of visitors who came to their exhibits.) My colleagues asked me to check with our counterparts at the Soviet Pavilion to see if they had yet received their one-millionth guest. As it turned out, they hadn’t quite reached that milestone, but they promised to let me know when they did.
They hit the magic number five days later. However, it was not quite the routine event that we had experienced at our own Pavilion. I’ll quote from the diplomatic cable I drafted, which we sent to the State Department and the U.S. embassy in Moscow when I learned what had happened. (The cable was not classified, so it’s perfectly legal to quote from it.)
“Soviet Pavilion informed USPAV [U.S. Pavilion] staff [i.e., me] April 30 that it had received its millionth visitor at noon, April 25. Soviets – and Expo Association, as USPAV [Soviet] contacts reported – embarrassed to find that visitor, a young oriental woman in jeans, did not understand them as they greeted and congratulated her in Japanese. It quickly developed that she was a U.S. citizen ‘from one of the cowboy states,’ [от одного из ковбойских штатов] as USPAV contacts put it. They could provide no further details.”
This may go down in history as perhaps the least significant – but one of the more amusing – details of the two superpowers’ Cold War competition. I’m glad to have been there to chronicle it.