The nine Americans went to England to meet their Soviet counterparts--not as world leaders, not as scientists and not as athletes. They went as mothers bearing a simple Quaker message: "World peace will come through the will of ordinary people."
The nine, including three from Montgomery County and two from Northern Virginia, traveled under the sponsorship of Mothers for Peace to meet six Soviet women and discuss the specter of nuclear war.
They are still discussing it--in church halls, in community groups and on television. One woman has taken her crusade a step farther. Deedie Runkel of Silver Spring, a former writer with the federal Commission on Aging, has become states coordinator for Peace Links, Women Against Nuclear War. The organization, founded by Betty Bumpers, wife of Sen. Dale Bumpers (D-Ark.), is a nationwide clearinghouse for information on nuclear war and its effects.
Since returning from the trip to England in late spring, the nine women have faced skepticism, but they remain undaunted.
"For people who believe nothing good can come of this, that nuclear weapons are the only way, perhaps their beliefs are self-fulfilling prophesies," said Kathy Wright, a teacher at Sandy Spring Friends School and a mother of five. "But if you are going to distrust everything anyone says from the Soviet Union, you will find yourself locked in a box you can't get out of."
Said Romaine Blackburn of Silver Spring: "We are conditioned to think the Soviet Union is the enemy. I was shocked to discover that it even took me a long time to build any trust. I smiled. I said the right words, but it still took me time to respond as a friend.
"If there was one lesson I learned, it was this kind of peace effort is really crucial," Blackburn said.
Lucy Behenna also thought it was crucial. Behanna, an 85-year-old English schoolteacher and founder of Mothers for Peace, invited the nine American and six Soviet women to England this year. The trip was one result of a pledge Behanna made to herself to do something for the future of children after she survived an air raid on London during World War II.
Last year, touring Britain, Behenna raised $10,000, invested her own savings and sent four British women to the Soviet Union and four to America to spread the message of arms reduction. This year, she sent letters to Quaker meeting houses and letters to the Soviet Peace Committee, which the Soviet women described as a quasi-governmental agency.
Behenna told the American and Soviet women when they arrived in England that "children are the bond between us and we must work to save the future for them."
Since returning, the American women have addressed church groups, peace groups and just-plain-folks groups. In addition, Blackburn, Wright and Runkel went to New York recently for the massive demonstration against nuclear arms. The message they carry is the one they took with them to England: Only through the efforts of ordinary people will peace be maintained and the use of nuclear weapons averted.
They say that the accusation of naivete--that they may have been duped by a high-powered Soviet propaganda campaign, is hard to turn aside as they try to persuade their American audiences and their friends and families of the sincerity of the Soviet women. But, they quickly add, they are willing to make the effort because they believe their message is important.
Runkel, a mother of two and a member of the Bethesda Friends Meeting, acknowledged, "There is skepticism on almost every level . . . but the trip brought home . . . a way in which you can transcend what you have been taught to think and a way to build a foundation for future peace."
The six Soviet women included the director of a children's education institute, the author of 50 books of poetry, the executive director of the Soviet Women's Peace Committee, a textile weaver who has won the Soviet Union's highest honor (she was named a Hero of Soviet Socialist Labor for her high production level in the textile plant), a teacher of English and a member of the Soviet Women's Committee.
Traveling in groups of five--three Americans and two Russians--the women traversed England, Scotland and Wales, making as many as three stops a day to explain to their British audiences what the peace movements in their countries are doing.
"One day on the train after a large meeting where the Soviet women had had particularly difficult questions, Aksana Brandes turned to us and said, 'Now you three must listen, there is something you must believe' ", said Runkel, recounting the scene in which all five women sat together and wept. " 'I Aksana, and she Tamara Khapaluk would never do anything to hurt you or your families or your children and we believe our government would not do anything to hurt you or your children.'
"Even I, knowing we can irradiate the entire world," continued Runkel, "would never have thought of saying something like that. It touched all of us."
Runkel and two other women who agreed to discuss their trip, Blackburn and Wright of Brookeville, described how the Soviet women talked constantly of the number of Russians killed--20 million--during World War II.
"They said that they, more than any other country, knew the effects of war. It was almost an obsession," Runkel said. "They couldn't understand why the West thought they would be so quick to drop bombs. One woman described how during the war when she was a child her father was killed and his body hung in front of them."
Not all moments on the tour were grim.
"One evening after visiting a retirement home, a man came up to one of the Soviet women and said, 'We've been sold a bill of goods,' " said Wright, repeating what the man had said. " 'We've been told if we don't have more weapons the Soviet Union will invade Britain. Well, I woke up this morning and thought all that equipment is now down in the Falklands and you're the first Soviet I've seen since then. Are you invading us?' "