Even though Miroslav Medvid, the Soviet sailor who jumped ship Oct. 24, twice tried to escape, even though he had prepared for his swim by wearing shorts, even though he apparently tried to slash his wrists after being returned to his ship and even though a Ukrainian translator said Medvid was seeking aslyum, most of us have chosen to decide otherwise. This is a conspiracy of cynicism.
It is also, of course, a conspiracy driven by political values. In this case, the value is to avoid a showdown with the Soviet Union over the fate of a single sailor. Given conflicting statements, most of us would prefer to think that something aside from a lust for freedom prompted Medvid to twice plunge into the Mississippi. Maybe, someone suggested, he was just seeking to go home on another ship.
This is understandable. It would be tragic if a single incident could derail plans for the upcoming summit conference in Geneva. There is much at stake, including, of course, the promise of an eventual arms control agreement. Medvid apparently forgot that, in life, timing is everything. Had he chosen to jump ship just a year earlier when the president was seeking reelection, he would have been jetted, dripping wet if necessary, to a Rose Garden meeting with the Gipper- in-Chief. But the president's eye is now on the judgment of history, not reelection, and history, alas, cares nothle sailor.
But summit or no summit, a Soviet sailor attempted to defect and was stopped from doing so. Either that, or U.S. authorities so mishandled the situation that the poor seaman, confused and scared, thought better of his plans and decided to remain a Soviet citizen. The ultra-right, so wrong so often on so much, is right on this one. Medvid was Shanghaied in reverse.
As apparent as all of that is, only a few right-wing ideologues are willing to say it. Contrast the present situation with the attempted defection of a Lithuanian seaman off Martha's Vinyard in 1970. After the seaman was forcibly returned to his ship, a chorus of Bronx cheers reigned down on the Nixon adminstration -- with Democrats booing the loudest. With Medvid, though, both political parties (and the press) have largely chosen to look the other way. War is hell -- even cold ones.
But there was never an either/or proposition in Medvid's case -- never a choice between doing the right thing by a sailor or going to the summit. Arms agreements are not favors one nation bestows upon another, but products of national self-interest. The defection of a sailor could only scuttle a summit as a pretext, and in that case almost anything could do -- including, of course, the now-you-see-it, now-you-don't defection of a key KGB official.
The fact remains that either by incompetence or indifference -- or a possible lethal combination of both -- the United States has sent a sailor steaming home to an uncertain fate. Medvid is forgiven for thinking that in the end his choice did not matter. The Soviet Union is not the kind of a country that cares about a single sailor. And now, it appears, neither are we.