The American Exhibits to the U.S.S.R.: 1959-1993

John R. Beyrle
U.S. Ambassador to Russia
Exhibit Guide, 1976-1980
Video Excerpt
Washington, DC
October 1, 2008

Biography View Video | Read Full Transcript

John R. Beyrle, U.S. Ambassador to RussiaAmbassador Beyrle served as an exhibit guide on the "Photography USA" exhibit and then as general services officer for "Agriculture USA" and for all American Exhibits to the U.S.S.R. from 1977 to 1980. Following is the edited excerpt of an interview conducted by Ian Kelly, Director of the Office of Russian Affairs, Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs.

This was very much a social exchange. It was a chance for us to put real live Americans, who spoke the native language, in front of a group of Soviet people and just show them that Americans don’t have horns growing out of their heads, that we have families, that we want peace too.

Over the course of thirty years, from 1959 until 1989, there were hundreds of exhibits, hundreds of exhibit showings. I think we looked at the number of visitors and it totaled well over 4 million, 5 million Soviets. The brochures that we handed out to people who told their friends and ten of their friends about the conversation they had with the American at the exhibit. The multiplier effect of that is impossible to really quantify but I think it had to have made some difference in blunting some of the worst Soviet propaganda about what the United States was really about.

And twenty years later, when I visited Ufa, when I went back to Tsenlinograd, now Astana, I met Soviets, Kazakhs, Bashkir, who had been to the exhibit twenty years earlier. In one case, a guy actually showed me a brochure that I had autographed for him, twenty years earlier. And the fact that people kept these and again – they weren’t holy relics, but they also didn’t get tossed out with the trash two days after the exhibit – showed that, again, the multiplier effect that these exhibits had in terms of getting a message to the Russians, to the Soviet people, that America really does not want war, that we don’t have horns growing out of our heads, that we would like to develop a modus vivendi with the Soviet people, that we needed peaceful coexistence. None of this was intuitively obvious to the Russian people, to the Soviets, and anything that we were able to do up close and personal (this is very much retail diplomacy), it helped us. It helped us in ways that probably we will never be able to quantify. We know how many people visited these exhibits, but how many minds were changed will always be a matter of conjecture. But having been, hopefully, somebody who changed a few minds, or at least got people to think about the world in different ways, I have no doubt at all that it had a significant impact.

But, more importantly, the experience of living in the Soviet Union, in those days, of talking to Russian Soviet people, exposed to me the grand paradox of the Soviet Union, which was a very rich culture, a strong history, and a great people - who were straight-jacketed by this system which was built on hypocrisy and lies. And seeing the Soviet Union, in those days, as the main ideological and potentially a nuclear adversary of the United States, meant that figuring out this paradox [was vital] to understanding how we could go forward with some sort of relationship with the Soviet Union. Of course, in the mid-to-late 1970s, no one thought that things would fall apart as quickly as they did. Trying to get your mind around how that relationship could work, and thinking that you might be able to play a role in that was tremendously appealing to me.

You always need personal human contact to foster a better understanding of what the world’s about. There's a wonderful quote by Senator Fulbright, who said something to the effect of: “In the long history of the world, having someone who understands the way you think buys you more security than another nuclear submarine.” He was really on to something there. Security is trust at its base. And trust is built by interaction, by personal interaction. You can do some of this at the wholesale level, through the media, but there’s no substitute for the value of having a young American, like me, go to Russia and actually live in the bosom of the Soviet Union for three or four years, the way I did, to help understand a little better, to get beyond the stereotypes, to get beyond the sort of superficial understanding you get of things from studying them in an academic sense.

And, of course, working the other way: the more Russians, Bulgarians, or French who come to the United States under any circumstances – whether it's tourists, on the Work and Travel Program, as exchange students – the better. I am firmly convinced that what we have to offer in this country has an elemental appeal. There is a level of personal freedom here, of respect for initiative, for entrepreneurship that is appealing. If that weren’t the case, we wouldn’t have such long lines of people trying to get to the United States at our visa offices, at our consulates around the world. But the more you can do this in an organized way, the more you can open an invitation to people to come that's built around their interest in education and in culture, the better. Because the business side of this will always take care of itself – people will always come to see the Grand Canyon. But the real value of exchanges – and a lot of this comes from my own experience – is based on the fact that people learn more about another culture when they learn in that culture, or in the language itself. And that’s very, very true for what we need to do in the Middle East now. It’s very true for our relationship with China, where I think they don’t have nearly enough American scholars studying there. And I think it’s certainly true about our relationship with Russia, a country which is still hugely important, is a major world power well into this twenty-first century. To the extent that we can make an invitation to the Russian people, to the Russian government, to redress that, the better. And for our own part, by sending our own scholars, students, exchangers to Russia, we’re helping ourselves. And the amount of money you spend on that, in the long history of the world, is a lot less, as Fulbright said, than a submarine or a missile.

Ian Kelly: Ambassador Beyrle I wanted to ask you very quickly about your father, who had just an extraordinary experience in World War II.

Ambassador Beyrle: My father is considered to be one of the few American Veterans of World War II who actually fought both with the Americans and with the Soviets against the Germans. He was a paratrooper. He joined the 101st Airborne, trained in England in 1943, and then jumped into Normandy on D-Day, or the night before D-Day, 1944. But he was very quickly captured by the Germans. The drop sites were scattered and he couldn’t re-link with his units before he was picked up by the Germans. He spent the next four or five months in a succession of German prison camps, starting in France, then German territory itself. By December of 1944, he was in a camp on the Oder River, which is now the border between Germany and Poland, but then it was all German territory. And he made several escapes from these camps, during the summer and fall of 1944, was recaptured both times and put in this final camp, on the Oder River, from which he also attempted and succeeded in escaping in January of 1945. This time the Russians, the second Belorussian front, had pulled very, very close to the Oder River. And through the grapevine, he knew about the Russians, and he could hear the Russian guns, about maybe ten, fifteen miles east of his position, so when he escaped, and eluded the guards and dogs, he just struck out straight east to the sound of the guns. He hid out in a German farmhouse, in a hayloft, until the Soviet tank unit rolled in and then, very, very carefully, after watching – this was a shrewd guy – choosing his moment, he went up to the Soviet soldiers with a pack of Lucky Strikes in his hand, looking like a bedraggled escaped prisoner or something, and said, in Russian, ‘ya Amerikanski tovarish’ He knew those words, and had a pack of Lucky Strikes. The Russians looked at him with disbelief. They found someone who spoke a little English, and he explained that he was an escaped prisoner from [inaudible prison name] 12-C, or 3-C, that he had just escaped from three or four days earlier, and that he had wanted to link-up with the Russians and fight with them towards Berlin.

He felt that he had been cheated out of the war. He joined the Army to defeat Hitler. Hitler had captured him very soon afterwards, and hadn’t treated him very nicely, and so he wanted to get back and be what he had been trained to be: a soldier. The Russians were a little doubtful at first, but somehow my dad was a very persuasive guy. He managed to convince them at least to let him ride along to Berlin. And at that time, in February of 1945, everyone thought the road to Berlin was going to be very quick. It turned out it wasn’t quite that easy. So he actually fought as a gunner. They gave him a Soviet, Russian, machine gun and put him on the back of a tank that he rode as that tank column advanced towards Berlin. But it really didn’t get very far. It maybe went three or four miles from where he joined it and then they were holed up for two or three days and he was wounded. The Germans attacked the position with dive-bombers and he was severely wounded with shrapnel in his leg. The Russian medics patched him up, stopped the bleeding, put a tourniquet on him, and sent him back to a Russian field hospital, where he recuperated for about a week, maybe ten days.

While he was in that Soviet field hospital, Marshal Zhukov, who was the Commander of all Soviet Forces, was in the area, while the offensive was stalled. He visited the hospital on an inspection tour, and heard that there was an American escaped POW who’d been fighting with the Russians, and came up to see him, and through an interpreter asked, “how you doing, son? Is there anything I can do for you?” And my dad said, “Yeah, I’m pretty banged up now and I’m not going to make it to Berlin with you guys. I’d like to go, but I think I probably should go back home. Can you give me some sort of identification that will help me get to the American Embassy in Warsaw?” The Germans had taken his dog tags when he was taken prisoner. So Zhukov, as my dad said, made some sort of gesture to somebody, the way generals do, and the next day a colonel showed up with a letter, which my dad could not read as it was all in Russian. He described it as a magic piece of paper, with which he was discharged from the hospital and put on a troop convoy going to Warsaw. He always got the best seat; he always got a hot meal. Whatever was written on that letter, signed by Zhukov, presumably, did the trick. But, of course, when he got to Warsaw, there was no American Embassy there – nothing but just a pile of smoking rubble, as he used to say. And so he got on a train, and other conveyances, made his way to Moscow, and in February of 1945, was picked up on the outskirts of Moscow by the NKVD, who obviously had heard that this guy was coming with the Zhukov letter. They delivered him to the American Embassy in Moscow, which at that time was located next to the National Hotel across from the Kremlin. They unfortunately took the Zhukov letter from him when they delivered him. (We’ve looked for that letter through the archives for many years, but have never found it.) He turned himself into the Embassy, it was really the military mission in those days, guarded by Marines, and gave them his name, rank, and serial number. They took him in, gave him a bed and a hot meal, and patched him up as he was still wounded and his wounds were still giving him trouble.

But they woke him up the next morning and said, “I’m sorry, but you’re going to have to leave.” Because the telegram they had sent back to the War Department came back with a flag, saying Joseph Beyrle was reported killed in action, in July of 1944, a month after D-Day. We don’t know who this guy is. Who delivered him? Well, the NKVD delivered him. Did he have any documents? No, they took his documents away. All that we have is his face. So, they said, until we get this cleared up, he can’t stay in the mission. So they put him under house arrest in the Metropole Hotel. They actually had a Marine Guard go and sort of stay with him until they could establish his bona fides. They sent more information back and he gave fingerprints, which were somehow sent back (however they sent things back in those days) and after two or three days, coming back to the Embassy for interrogation and for questioning. A cable came back from the War Department saying what everyone in Moscow already knew: this guy clearly was an American. He was repatriated back through Odessa, got on a ship that went to Naples and Cairo, and eventually ended up in New York. He actually celebrated VE Day, 1945, in Chicago.


A career officer in the senior Foreign Service at the rank of Minister-Counselor, Ambassador Beyrle has held assignments with an emphasis on U.S. relations with Central and Eastern Europe, Russia, and the U.S.S.R. since joining the State Department in 1983. He was the U.S. Ambassador to Bulgaria from 2005 to 2008. His overseas service has included two tours at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, most recently as Deputy Chief of Mission. He was Counselor for Political and Economic Affairs at the U.S. Embassy in Prague, and a member of the U.S. Delegation to the CFE Negotiations in Vienna. He served an earlier tour at the U.S. Embassy in Bulgaria, 1985-87. His Washington assignments include Acting Special Adviser to the Secretary of State for the New Independent States, and Director for Russian, Ukrainian and Eurasian Affairs at the National Security Council.

A native of Muskegon, Michigan, Ambassador Beyrle received a B.A. degree with honors from Grand Valley State University, and an M.S. degree as a Distinguished Graduate of the National War College, where he later taught as a Visiting Professor of National Security Studies. He speaks Bulgarian, Czech, French, German and Russian. Ambassador Beyrle is the recipient of the Presidential Meritorious Service Award, the Sinclaire Award for excellence in hard language study and has been awarded the State Department’s Superior Honor Award for outstanding performance four times. He is married to Jocelyn Greene, a fellow Foreign Service Officer whom he met on the USIA exhibits. They have two daughters.