During the second half of the 20th century, the world watched as the United States and the Soviet Union clashed in a Cold War struggle that had many fronts: military, economic, cultural, and ideological. Periods of relative calm were often shattered by spikes in belligerent rhetoric and thinly veiled threats of nuclear strikes. For more than 40 years, the mutual distrust between the two superpowers tested the limits of diplomacy in an age of massive retaliation. But by the mid-1980s, that chilly relationship began to thaw as leaders in both countries engaged in renewed dialogue. Recognizing an opportune moment, Congresswoman Claudine Schneider of Rhode Island and a few of her House colleagues hoped to bridge the divide between the two nations by using new technology to open communication between Moscow and Washington.
Elected in 1980, Schneider, the first and only woman to represent Rhode Island in Congress, surprised many experts with her entrée to politics. As a Republican in a historically Democratic state and a young woman with little political background, Schneider appealed to the voters of her district with an independent streak and willingness to take on local and national issues. Schneider viewed herself as a “problem solver” and tackled global questions from her seat in Congress. Concerned with the threat of nuclear holocaust, Schneider pondered ways that she and her congressional colleagues could improve relations between America and the Soviet Union. “I started waking up in the middle of the night thinking, ‘Oh my God. Here I am in this position of power. What am I supposed to do to help prevent war?’ ” she recalled. “And that is what gave birth to Congressbridge.”
The House has traditionally taken a supporting role to the Senate on foreign policy issues—the Senate, after all, has the constitutional power to confirm international treaties. But Schneider teamed up with another House Member, Representative George Brown of California, a colleague on the Science and Technology Committee, to develop a landmark series of televised conversations between American and Soviet lawmakers called Congressbridge.
A key, somewhat unlikely, partnership emerged between Schneider and Brown. Schneider was a moderate Republican from the East Coast, and had worked as a television producer and talk show host before coming to Congress. Brown was almost 30 years older, a liberal Democrat born and raised in California, who had a well-respected passion for science. As a Member of Congress, he popularized a new technology called “spacebridge” which opened satellite links between countries to facilitate communication. Schneider and Brown, encouraged by the Soviet willingness to pull back the Iron Curtain, felt the time was right to put the technology to use so they built support in and out of Congress for the innovative project.
“For too long, technology has been used to heighten confrontation between the United States and the U.S.S.R.,” Schneider reminded her colleagues on the House Floor. “For too long, we have seen each other only as rivals, barbarians, and warmongers. Decisionmakers and their constituents in both nations know little of each other. The time is right for new ways of thinking. If there is, in fact, movement in the Soviet Union toward reform and openness, let us take this opportunity to initiate new ways of addressing mutual problems.”
Although the House did not authorize funds for Congressbridge, a bipartisan steering committee formed in 1986—co-chaired by Schneider and Brown—to hash out the details of the long-distance discussion. The House invited the Supreme Soviet of the Soviet Union, the main legislative body of the communist nation, to participate. Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O’Neill of Massachusetts backed the “historical interchange” and personally reached out to his Soviet counterpart to encourage him to participate. “I hope we can work together through the benefit of this technology to further understanding between our governments,” O’Neill remarked. The Russian lawmakers accepted the invitation and Congressbridge quickly evolved from a creative idea to an unprecedented technological experiment.
In December 1986, a group of Members hosted a Soviet delegation to discuss the parameters and logistics of Congressbridge. A few months later in April 1987, Schneider and Brown traveled to the USSR to finalize the agreement for the exchange and to prepare for a series of live televised programs. Congressbridge seemed to inspire people across America: in California, for instance, students exchanged letters with Soviet children, and in Rhode Island pupils participated in an essay contest, “What I would tell the Soviets about the U.S. Constitution.”
On April 25, 1987, the first broadcast, “Getting to Know You,” took place between American and Soviet lawmakers. Planned as a “closed circuit warm-up,” American networks did not air the transmission. The segment cautiously tested the waters steering away from controversial topics, and instead focused on comparing the two governments and sharing ideas on how to improve communication between the two nations. “I came on this show thinking we were going to find a cure for insomnia,” Representative Eugene Clay Shaw of Florida joked. At the conclusion of the production, though, Shaw and the other participants reflected on its usefulness and the value of doing another segment.
Bolstered by the enthusiasm for Congressbridge in both Washington and Moscow, the momentum to produce a second show strengthened. Schneider used her television contacts to reach out to the major broadcasting networks with the idea of airing a live, unedited version of Congressbridge. After viewing the introductory test show, ABC decided to broadcast three more installments. Promoting the series as “Capital to Capital,” ABC selected Peter Jennings as the American moderator.
The three episodes focused on topics ranging from international security to human rights. In each program, a small group of Representatives and Senators answered questions and conversed with their Soviet counterparts. Interested Members not featured as panelists gathered in the audience. The House hosted the exchanges—two of which took place in the Public Works and Transportation Committee room and the other in the Ways and Means Committee room. Representative Claude Pepper of Florida, one of the Representatives who starred in the U.S.-Soviet discussion on mutual security, praised Congressbridge for its effectiveness. “We need much more of that kind of thing building bridges of understanding between two great nations and strengthening the ties for peace,” Pepper said. Representative Les Aspin of Wisconsin echoed that praise. “I was honored to be part of the first show in the ‘Capital to Capital’ series,” remarked Aspin, who would later serve as Secretary of Defense. “To borrow the words of another . . . ‘It was a great step for mankind.’”
Of course, simply airing Congressbridge meant overcoming a number of challenges and obstacles. Though satellites had been available for more than two decades, they were nevertheless unreliable and often unpredictable during live international broadcasts. Additionally, cultural barriers threatened to cause friction. An example frequently cited in the press was the tendency of American legislators to interrupt and speak over each other. Acceptable in American politics, this dialogue wasn’t common in the Soviet Union. Moreover, even though network producers touted Congressbridge as a free exchange of ideas, concerns surfaced that the participants—especially the Soviet representatives—would ignore the ground rules and read prepared statements. “If this could somehow come off as if we were all sitting around somebody’s kitchen table,” Peter Jennings mused before his first broadcast, “I would be really thrilled.”
The live forums also offered tantalizing possibilities. As the first recorded public dialogue between Members of Congress and the Supreme Soviet, the American and Soviet people had access to a rare, impromptu exchange of ideas and information. Representative Brown noted that Congressbridge could help challenge long-held assumptions about the U.S. reinforced by Soviet propaganda. “Their leadership has continued to portray the United States as some kind of an ogre dominated by Wall Street capitalists,” Brown observed. “If we can begin to ease that image, if they can see that we are real people, that we have some desire to understand their system, that may help to accelerate the process of change over there.”
During the Cold War, the summitry in which American Presidents and their Soviet counterparts engaged often dominated the media’s coverage of the Cold War. Congressbridge offered another form of dialogue on Russo-American relations, one featuring the legislative voices of the United States and the USSR. Meant to thaw the superpowers’ icy relations, the bold experiment had fostered communication and eased mutual suspicions.
Sources: Los Angeles Times, 22 September 1987; USA Today, 22 September 1987; New York Times, 12 April 1987, 29 November 1987; Washington Post, 28 December 1986; Sun Sentinel (Ft. Lauderdale, FL), 26 April 1987; Congressional Record, 100th Cong., 1st sess. (9 April 1987): 8573; Hon. Claudine Schneider, “A Congressbridge to Understanding: An Experiment in Televised Dialogues Between U.S. and Soviet Legislators,” Government Publications Review 15 (1988): 301–321.Follow @USHouseHistory