The 1976 Tripartite Conference was held in the Quaker Centre at Ben Lomond, Northern California. This is the 14th year the Tripartite has taken place, and as usual it was attended by groups of young people from Britain, America and the USSR. Unfortunately, this must be the shortest Tripartite on record, as the Soviet group had to leave a week early, after only a fortnight.
A theme had been set for the Tripartite Conference: `The Role of Youth in our Societies` and before we all met each group worked out a number of sub-topics which they particularly wanted to discuss. The topics were introduced by short papers and then the discussions were thrown open.
One question which dominated the first days of our discussions was that of détente and disarmament – which the Soviets arguing hotly that America was abusing the Helsinki agreement and using Soviet good will as a means of regaining their lead in the arms race. The US view was that there was a greater pacifist movement in the United States than in the Soviet Union, particularly since Vietnam and the abolition of compulsory national service. In this match, the British group seemed to be playing for the `rest of the world`. We pointed out that the conflicts between the US and the Soviet Union always took place in other countries (Africa, the Middle East, Europe) and that the presence of the two big powers might be resented there. To our surprise, the US group defended their presence abroad as hotly as the Soviets denied theirs.
Other questions which absorbed a lot of our time were: the control of science and technology; and the role of education, which developed into a very interesting discussion of censorship. The Soviet point of view sounded old-fashioned to a Western ear: they had implicit faith in specialists, admired technical progress for itself and had no concern for the environment. As for censorship – they argued that if Mein Kampf had been banned, Hitler would never have risen to power. The British and American groups produced several ingenious arguments to the contrary, and this I think proved to be the most heated and absorbing discussion we had.
A major difference emerged between West and East: the group from the USSR had a strong sense of purpose (building Communism) and trusted their government to take decisions for them. The Americans on the other hand rather lacked national purpose, distrusted government and believed in giving the individual as much information as possible so that he can make up his own mind. The British fell somewhere in the middle.
The people who took part in the Tripartite were mostly in their twenties and between us we represented places as far flung as Mexico, Uzbekistan and Scotland. The Soviet participants had been appointed by the Communist Youth Organisation, whilst the rest of us had applied through Quaker channels. Our Tripartite was the first for three years to include work projects, such as chopping wood and trail blazing, and I thought this idea was a success. Whereas our discussions tended to high light our differences, the time we spent working, swimming, dancing and arranging our national evening together made us grow close very quickly, and we were all sorry to break off after only a fortnight.
American Friends laid on superb hospitality for us. Local Quakers entertained us to two barbecues and had us to stay one night in their private homes in Palo Alto. We also had a very busy programme telescoped into a fortnight which included a visit to the United Farm Workers at Salinas, a visit to a strawberry cooperative and trips to Stanford University and the University of California. We also had a two day trip to San Francisco, where we saw the De Lancey Street Drug Rehabilitation Centre, run by John Maher, an ex-convict.
I find it difficult to evaluate the Tripartite. From a personal point of view, I am sure it was a success for everyone. It must be rare for a group of twenty-four people from different backgrounds to become so attached to each other – without any sense of deliberate camaraderie, and without splitting into smaller groups.
From a general point of view, the British group found a little hard to justify their place of honour with the two `big powers`. We felt perhaps that if the Tripartite is to stay relevant, it should possibly be widened into a four sided conference, to include a group from China.
Lastly, I was nagged by the suspicion that the Tripartite might be one of those cultural exchanges that actually confirms the status quo in the Soviet Union – like sending rugby teams to play white South Africans. This is not intended as a criticism of the Soviet participants, who were personally very likeable, and genuinely had no cause to criticise the Soviet regime. However several of us were struck by the ambiguity of our position, particularly when we were taken jn a tour of San Quentin Prison, where we were shown the prisoners` living quarters, before being treated to a trip to the gas chamber. The visit produced a dismal impression, but brought home to me, for one, how greatly prisoners of conscience must suffer. I think if we are to justify our participation in schemes like the Tripartite, we must always keep these people uppermost in our minds. The next Tripartite is to be held in the Soviet Union.