While superpower leaders growled across the oceans, a plain-folks summit of Soviet Georgians and American Georgians made peace here today over fried chicken, potato salad and sweet potato pie in this quiet north Georgia mountain resort.
There was little talk of Reagan or Gorbachev, just the rat-tat-tat of woodpeckers in the pines, a potluck buffet, a cloggers' hoedown, bluegrass music and a little praying at a chapel in the woods.
Some Soviets bowed their heads as locals craned their necks to see if, in fact, they were actually praying, or just going along with a curious foreign custom. "I think they were just being polite," said an 83-year-old grandmother, "but they seemed happy. They were smiling."
Before it was over, a red clay TV cameraman surrendered his notion that "Russians had two heads." And Elizabeth Bloodworth, 11, marveled that "they're not as mean or hostile as you'd think. They don't seem much different from us."
As for the 10 visitors, translator in tow, they raved about peace, southern hospitality and new American friends. "I trust them," declared Tbilisi toy plant manager Michael Gvasalia, white haired at 72. A retired Soviet army colonel, he once embraced American soldiers at the Elbe River after the Nazis were pushed back. "Let's start where we left off," he said.
"You could say the 'Reds' and the 'rednecks' saw eye to eye," beamed jovial free-lance diplomat Wayne Smith, 51, founder of The Friendship Force, a private, Atlanta-based group that sponsors thousands of citizen exchanges in 40 countries. A former missionary to South America and a Presbyterian minister, Smith brought the two groups of Georgians together, along with Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter, to pitch for peace beneath the yellow pines.
"All we've heard out of Washington, D.C., for the last four years is distrust and divisiveness," said Carter on this Blue Ridge mountaintop. "This is just a tiny way to open up another avenue of understanding between Soviets and Americans."
Indeed, as the sun beat down on sweating guests and tables groaning under grits, casseroles, squash souffle's, corn bread and cherry cobbler, Smith sidled up to a microphone and launched a strategy for disarmament.
"HUG A RUSSIAN!" he urged his neighbors, a budding Buscaglia of diplomacy. "HUG A GEORGIAN!" And dozens of solid, red clay anticommunists stepped forth to throw bear hugs about their guests.
He calls it his "ARMS" program -- which stands for "American-Russian Mutual Survival" -- "using the arms God gave us to hug our enemies, not kill them." But don't get the impression that Smith is some brand of naive, knee-jerk pinko bent on self-defeat. He's a conservative Republican who believes in military might, but touts his people-to-people program as one way to bust open the SALT logjam.
After dispatching 2,500 Americans to visit the Soviet Union in the last three years, he finally persuaded the Soviets to send a group of everyday people to stay in American homes. They arrived last week, with the sole purpose of "making friends," not mere tourists with a dash of cultural exchange thrown in.
There was a council member from Georgia, a Soviet republic bounded by Azerbaijan, Armenia, Turkey, the Caucasus mountains and the Black Sea that boasts 5 million people, a strong farm economy, textiles, steel, Stalin and George Balanchine as native sons and weather like, well, Georgia, U.S.A. There was a journalist, a top steelworker who wore his gold medal as a hero of the people, an official with Intourist (the government travel bureau), a chain-smoking cardiologist and a quartet of folk singers.
They toured Atlanta's Cyclorama -- a display of Civil War fighting in the round -- a carpet mill and the gravesite of Martin Luther King Jr., and dined with a wealthy Chattanooga entrepreneur, a Romanian immigrant who symbolized the American dream. None would admit to finding such capitalist trappings distasteful.
"Someone has more, someone has a little less," shrugged Michael Mtsuravishvili, 40, Tbilisi choirmaster. "Our relations shouldn't suffer."
Everyone was on best behavior, with locals musing only in jest about winning Soviet hearts and minds forever. "If you're gonna defect over food, this would have swayed a lot of people," bragged Charlene Terrell, rightfully immodest over a tasty squash casserole and homemade cheesecake.
"Detente is one thing," allowed Ed Metcalf, 43, an Atlanta college professor. "But pressing the flesh and saying, 'Try some ribs' is another."
And tour leader Gela Charkviani, deputy chairman of the Georgian Friendship Society, worked the crowd like a pro. "We want to make the world safe for him," he said, pausing to preach peace over the baby carriage of David Brown, 3 months old.
"He likes Russians," said his mother, Jill Harris-Brown, an Atlanta free-lance graphic artist.
Smith was downright ebullient, praying that his Hugorama might pay off down the road: he dreams of 5,000 visitors a year hunkering down in homes on both sides of the Iron Curtain. And if Hug-a-Russian catches on, he believes he can coax 50 million Americans into a one-time donation of $1 and 50 million Soviets into each forking over one ruble (about $1.10). The interest alone would generate $10 million a year, making it possible to exchange visitors, rich and poor.
"We don't want them to talk politics," he says. "We want them to talk about fishing, children, grandchildren, how to grow cabbage. If you've got a dog, what's his name, just create a climate for good will.
"Here we are about to blow ourselves to hell and no one can do anything about it except a handful of people in the Kremlin and the Pentagon. But this is a way to get people involved, change the way we think about each other: 'All Russians are KGB agents and wear fur hats. All Americans wear six-guns, like to shoot people, get mugged every time they walk out of a hotel.' Neither is true."
But hugs? "Don't see any harm in it," shrugged Gary Brendall, 38, a Jasper, Ga., machinist who was busy eating when hugging time was announced. He hung back. After all, he'd served an army tour in Korea, staring at Soviet-backed troops. He knew the score.
"I'm just not going to get carried away," he said.