Almost lost in the rush of larger events swirling around the U.S.-Soviet showdown over Afghanistan is a little-known project designed to clear up some of the misperceptions the two superpowers have fostered about one another over the Cold War years.
Now, say its leaders, the American-Soviet textbook study project itself may become a victim of the Cold War.
"It's ironic and a little sad," said Howard D. Mehlinger, an Indiana University professor who heads the U.S. team of history and geography scholars who have worked on the unusual project for two years. "We were so close to completing our work and maybe helping each country understand the other a little better."
The U.S. team and a group of 16 Soviet scholars were scheduled to hold their final meeting in Racine, Wis., in March to wrap up two years of effort to eliminate some of the distortions and inaccuracies that have crept into junior and senior high school texts on both sides.
Their concerns range from Lenin's name to whether capitalist cows give more milk then Soviet cows, said Mehlinger.
But recently, when he dropped in on the International Communications Agency, which helps to fund the project, Mehlinger discovered that, along with art exhibits, sports programs, and a host of other quiet low-level efforts at detente, the textbook project had been swept up in current events. In short, he discovered the March meeting had been ordered scrubbed.
"What can you do," he said, heaving a sign of resignation over the ways of the bureaucracy that surely would have drawn understanding from his Soviet counterparts. "They control the visas," he explained.
"We hope the project won't be destroyed by this," said Mehlinger, who was busy later in the week composing an explanatory letter to the group's representatives in the Soviet ministry of education.
"If the delay goes on for more than a year," he said, "it's going to be very difficult to pick up the pieces."
The Soviet and American teams have spent the last two years poring over each other's high school texts, looking for errors and omissions. The U.S. team has had the easier task, Mehlinger said, because teachers in the Soviet Union use only one standardized text per grade for each subject.
"They sent us five of theirs and we sent them 25 of ours," Mehlinger said.
Last June the two sides met in Moscow for a week to discuss their findings.
In general, Mehlinger said, Soviet texts appear to be more political and contain more factual errors than U.S. books.
But the Soviet scholars noted one passage in a high school textbook currently in use here that described agricultural methods practiced in the Soviet Union and said straight-facedly that Soviet cows restricted on collective farms produce less milk than free-roaming western cows.
"It's the most blatantly stupid thing I ever heard," said Ohio State University geographer and U.S. team member George Demko.
The Soviet scholars also complained that U.S. textbooks refer to "Nicolai" Lenin, despite the fact that Lenin never used that name. Lenin's name was Vladimir Illich Lenin, but he once apparently signed "N. Lenin" on a Swiss document possibly to disguise his presence in that country, Demko said.
"Somehow the N became Nicolai and it just stuck there," said Demko.
On the other hand, a Soviet world history textbook, narrating the Cuban missile crisis for 10 graders, describes it in these terms:
"In October of 1962," the book says, "the United States created a crisis which pushed the world to the brink of thermonuclear war."
The book notes that international military conflict was narrowly averted "thanks only to the hard line and decisive measures of the Soviet Union."
"In many ways the book is factually correct," said Mehlinger. "The only thing missing is any mention of the Soviet missiles. Soviet students never learn what caused the whole affair."
Another Soviet history book described an incident in U.S. history involving the distribution of smallpox-infected blankets to Indians in the West by the U.S. calvary, The eight-grade text concludes: "Thus by the 19th century the American military was already using methods of monstrous bacteriological warfare."
Demko said that Soviet schoolbooks also base much of their description of life in the United States on a paper written in 1912 by Lenin. The description includes accounts of "Big Capital" concetrated in the Northeast and hordes of starving blacks in the South and West.
"We told them not even Lenin would use that description anymore," Demko said.