Another interesting extracurricular activity while I was Director of the University of Colorado Museum was involvement in the International Geological Congress held in Moscow in 1984.
You may remember that just after he took office in 1981 Ronald Reagan called on JOI to have JOIDES drop the USSR from membership in the Deep Sea Drilling Project. He was obsessed with the idea that international cooperation in science must be a one-way street for information. On the other hand, he had promoted the meeting with Soviet atmospheric scientists in Leningrad that I recounted in the first Chapter of this book. There, we were supposed to ferret out secrets about climate change that the Soviets know more about than we did.
Now I have to tell you a wonderful story. You will remember from Intermezzo XX that the Ocean Margin Drilling program was offered the GLOMAR Explorer as a drilling platform. I hope you recall the whole Howard Hughes-CIA-Submarine Recovery story. In developing the OMD, I would make regular progress reports to the JOIDES Executive and Planning Committees. We not only told them about the offer of the GLOMAR Explorer, but with the concurrence of the US Government, we gave them sets of the construction plans for the Explorer. Our friends in the Government were hedging their bets, and just in case the OMD project failed to materialize, the Explorer might be the ship used for a continuation of the international ocean drilling. Of couse, our Soviet colleagues got a set of the plans too.
After I moved to the CU Museum, I gave all of my records of the meetings for the OMD program, along with the construction drawings for the Glomar Explorer to the University Library, thinking they would be archived. About a year later I received a call from a US company interested in possible use of the vessel. They were trying to locate a set of the plans. Those at the NSF had been discarded, as had those at the participating US Institutions. When I called our library to ask about the set I had deposited with them I found that they too had discarded them, along with all of the other records I had given them. They had been thrown out without checking back with me; a real loss to science history. But I had a suggestion for locating a set. “I’ll bet there is a set in Moscow. Call Nikita Bogdanov at the Academy of Sciences’ Institute of the Lithosphere in Moscow and ask if he can send you a copy.” Nikita had been the Soviet Union’s representative on the JOIDES Planning Committee. He did indeed have his set of the plans and made copies for the US firm.
Just before JOIDES made its break with the USSR, Nikita had asked me to be on the Organizing Committee for the 27th International Geological Congress, to be held in Moscow in 1984. He was in charge of planning the Congress. It was a great honor, but I hesitated to accept. I would mean traveling regularly to Moscow without being on official business for the US. I wondered if that was really a good idea in view of the fact that my co-author on several scientific papers, Pavel Čepek had been convicted of unspecified crimes against the state in Czechoslovakia and was now living in Germany. Also there was the earlier defection of Jiri Jonas in which I had been involved. That was supposed to be secret, but one never knew. I asked Nikita “Nikita, just how much do you know about me?” He laughed “Bill, we know more about you than you do yourself”. I guess I had been thoroughly vetted by the KGB.
The trips to Moscow began after I had moved to the University of Colorado. We not only had meetings concerning all aspects of the Congress, but I would be invited to different institutions to give science lectures, and we had lots of informal sightseeing trips and meals with fellow scientists in the Academy and the Lomonosov University. And at some point I would be informed that Andrei Monin, who had been on the JOIDES Executive Committee, wanted me to visit him at his Institute, the USSR Academy of Sciences’ Shishov Institute of Oceanology. He would send a car to pick me up after our meetings ended.
In Intermezzo XX I described how I first met Andrei, but perhaps I should explain why we got along so well. The communist world and the western world were very different places. But from the time I had spent working with Pavel Čepek st the Czechoslovak Academy of Sciences in Prague I had learned how the communist world worked. Just simple things about how things worked in the west, like how dinner was ordered and paid for in the US was very helpful to Andrei and his assistant Igor Mikhaltsev. Knowing how both systems worked made life much easier.
At those meetings in the Shirshov we had wide-ranging discussions not only of advances in our science, but of politics, economics, and the state of the world in general. Then, toward the end of the meeting, when we were well lubricated with the Scotch whiskey Andrei supplied, he would ask me to take a message back to Washington. One time it was “Tell someone who would be interested that we know how to make submarines run silent”. I explained that I didn’t have any contacts in the Reagan Administration. He just said “But you know your way around”.
I called a contact int the National Science Foundation and gave him the message. “Interesting, I’ll pass it on”. A couple of months later I heard back “That was very interesting. They do indeed know how to make submarines run silent”. In case you were wondering, it was one of those silent submarines that became the star of the movie Red October.
After Ronald Reagan launched his massive buildup of military hardware, Andrei told me that the USSR would not follow suit. They knew it was a ploy to try to break the Soviet economy, and they had other priorities. There were already more than enough weapons in the world. Soviet scientists were becoming successful in convincing the leadership that nuclear war was unthinkable; it would mean the end of civilization. On the other hand, Pat Robertson was trying to convince Reagan that it was time to fulfill the biblical prophecy of Armageddon by launching an all out nuclear war. Fortunately calmer heads prevailed in Washington.
Perhaps the most interesting of the messages was “Please tell someone that Mr. Brezhnev would like to meet with Mr. Reagan”. I used my NSF contact to pass the message on. A few months later “When you go back to Moscow, please tell Andrei that Mr. Reagan does not wish to meet with Mr Brezhnev”. It was not until many years later, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, that I learned that Andrei had always been a member of the Central Committee of the Communist Party and that these messages were indeed coming from the top. Why they were not sent through the usual diplomatic channels I don’t know.
At the Geological Congress I was given a special role in making a major address to the opening session. It was on the role of Scientific Ocean drilling in advancing our science. It was broadcast nationwide. I was also interviewed on Soviet TV by one of their best known journalists, Sergei Kapitsa. Nikita Bogdanov wanted to be sure the funding for participation in the Ocean Drilling program would be available should they be allowed to rejoin the program.
I was now familiar enough with Moscow that I didn’t use the congress busses to get from one venue to another, but walked or used the Metro or city buses. Over the past couple of years the attitudes of the people on the street had changed. Even with my meager Russian I was aware that there was a lot more discussion about how things were going and a lot more freedom. People often smiled; that was new.
On one occasion I was invited to lunch by two drilling engineers. They had designed the operations for the Kola Super Deep Borehole. The drill site is located on the northern part of the Kola Peninsula on Europe’s Arctic margin. The hole was drilled for purely scientific reasons, to explore conditions deep within the continental crust. The granite rock of the crust is exposed at the surface. The Kola Borehole was originally intended to extend to a depth of 15 km (49,000 ft.). By late 1983 it had reached a depth of 12 km and drilling was paused to evaluate the conditions in the hole. It had been expected that it would drill through dry rock but instead had encountered large amounts of water. This was not groundwater, originating at the surface, by water from Earth’s interior unable to move upward because of impermeable rock layers.
Most of the Kola well was cored, using the same wire line technique as ad been developed for the Glomar Challenger. But there was a big difference in the drilling technique. The Kola well was drilled with retractable drill bits. Instead of needing to pull up the entire drill string to change the bit, my luncheon hosts had invented a folding bit that could be lowered down through the pipe and would then unfold to be like a normal bit at the bottom of the drill string. Similarly, it could be refolded and pulled back up through the pipe when it had worn out. This was a big advance in drilling technology, and my hosts wanted to know about how to market it in the west. Free enterprise on the march.
I was able to participate in field trips to the Crimea, Caucasus, Georgia, Uzbekistan and Azerbaijan. We were in a hotel in the Caucasus the night of August 11, 1984, when Ronald Reagan, thinking the microphone was just being tested made a joke: “My fellow Americans, I’m pleased to tell you today that I’ve signed legislation that will outlaw Russia forever. We begin bombing in five minutes”. The statement was broadcast but the idea that it was just a joke was not made clear. It had enormous impact on the local people who thought we were surely in for a nuclear war. But there was another aspect of the ‘joke’ that was even more ominous, He said ‘Russia’ rather than ‘the USSR’. There is a huge difference, and it was interpreted as meaning that the US argument was with Russia and the Russian people, not with communism.
From traveling through different parts of the USSR it was clear to me that the genie had been let out of the bottle. People moved about much more freely that before, and topics taboo a decade earlier were openly discussed. And the changes were not just in Moscow, they were everywhere. In short, the same things that I had seen happen in Czechoslovakia in the 1960s were happening throughout the Soviet Union. Change was on its way, and it was unstoppable.
In the fall of 1984, after I returned to the US, the CIA contacted me wanting an interview. I will never forget that lunch in the dining room of the Boulderado Hotel. I told my interviewer about the earlier visits preparatory to the Congress and about how changes that were steadily occurring. I had seen so much on the Congress field trips, and had been very impressed with the freedom with which the people were now moving about. I told him about my experiences in Czechoslovakia 20 years earlier. “The same things that happened in Czechoslovaia then are happening in the USSR now. I give the system about five more years, and then it will collapse—in 1989”. He looked at me and smiled. I realized that although his notebook was open he had not written anything down for some time. “That’s very interesting. Unfortunately I can’t report it. It is not what we want to hear”. To this day I can still hear him say those words. Our chief intelligence gathering agency was passing on only what someone higher up, presumably the Administration, wanted to hear.
He wasn’t kidding. In 1989 the collapse of the Soviet Union caught the US completely by surprise.