Janos Gereben
Janos Gereben

Fellowship Title:

Salt and Pepper or The Untold Story of the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks

Janos Gereben
December 2, 1969

Fellowship Year

Nov., 1969

Lerchengasse 28/43
1080 Wien, Austria

HELSINKI—Finland is a neutral country. The first proof of that could be seen right at the airport.

Coming through the dense fog permanently eveloping the Finnish capital during its 5-month-long winter, one feels the unexpectedly perfect touchdown of the other-wise quite lousy DC-9 (Caravelles, even Tupoliev 134s, are much better) after endless minutes of not seeing the tip of the wing, much less the airport lights.

Breathing deep sighs of relief (Scandinavian flying is strictly for Rudolph & Co.), the traveler is greeted by the spectacular hostesses of the SALT Press Center and there, on their desk, is the proof positive of Finnish neutrality.

By way of vital information about the city, an illustrated flyer announces:

“Novembertime in Gay Old Fennia. Lunchtime buffet groaning (sic) with all kinds of original Finnish delicacies…
“The French M sex-bomb Muriel Ashford dances naked (!) first at eleven at night…”


What’s neutral about that? Well, on the flip side, the whole message is repeated in RUSSIAN (see proof on the left). After all, this is a Soviet-American conference, so everything is printed in English and Russian.

Welcome to neutral Finland!

The first impression of Helsinki is terribly disappointing, particularly after the genuine charm of Copenhagen and the astonishing spectacle of super-modern Stockholm.

On longer acquaintance, the first impression is confirmed.

If there were a seaport in Kansas, the city around it would look like Helsinki. The city has a turn-of-the century downtown with long rows of slightly dirty three- and four-story buildings featuring the Kansas gingerbread design by way of artistic touch. It all works out in the long run however because you can’t see a thing in the permanent darkness-at-noon climate.

And where is the famous Finnish design and beauty, one may ask.

It’s there, all right, in the department stores (at Fifth Avenue prices), on the streets barely hidden by Arctic fur-minis, and in the beautiful suburbs around Helsinki, built right into the lake-ringed forests.

The textile designs of Marjatta Metsovaara-Van Havere, dresses from Annika Piha, glassware by Kaj Franck (see opposite page), cutlery designed by Tapio Wirkkala, the (suburban) architecture of Alvar Aalto, Erik Bryggman, Viljo Revell, the sculpture of Kalervo Kallio, Aimo Tukiainen… these and so many examples of artistic excellence deny the unfavorable visual impression of Helsinki itself.

But the heavy, graceless, Midwestern capital is there, nevertheless, and it is fortunate that darkness covers it.

The November noon descends here with the foreboding darkness of a stormy summer midnight. The sun—which would be barely above the horizon at noon if it could be seen at all—is permanently covered by dense snow clouds and/or the cold steam rising from the thousand lakes around the city.

Through the damp midday darkness hurry the tall, busy people who have learned to live with the sunless, snowbound winters of sub-Arctic Scandinavia.

Inside, in the warmth and light, under the intricate grill ceiling of the Hotel Marsky banquet hall (used as headquarters and “writing room” of the SALT press center) sit 300 journalists, waiting for a press release that will never come.

They sit there, frustrated, slightly boozed, bored, and wait, and wait…

Two stories under them, there is a communications room with 40 brand-new Siemens teletypes, 12 operators, 40 telephones, six switchboard operators…waiting for the journalists who are waiting for that press release.

The ever-present, ever-helpful Finnish hosts pipe in through that floating ceiling the Voice of America broadcast while three TV sets show the blind camera’s vision of the moon.

Spotlights break the hall’s indirect lighting and newsmen pounce on Finnish girls (multilingual university students assigned to the press center) and interview them about Apollo 12. Others work on features about the popularity of Finnish TV in Estonia, the rest are interviewing each other. Gotta do something, they explain.

**IN DEFENSE OF FINNISH DESIGN—Examples of work that more than balance the drabness of central Helsinki. On the opposite page: a section of Tapiola, one of the capital’s beautiful suburbs.

John Chancellor sits in one corner, Erik Sevareid in another, Western correspondents stationed in Moscow and brought in for the occasion bunch together discussing things they cannot talk about back “home.” Then a tsunami of excitement runs through the crowd and everybody rushes to the bulletin board where somebody has just put up a notice.

“The American and Soviet negotiators met today for one hour and 35 minutes,” it reads in its entirety.

The correspondents look at each other, despairing. “When is the next flight out of here,” one asks furtively, not expecting an answer.

They all know that the talks have meaning and promise only so long as there is no information coming from them.

The minute one delegation starts “leaking” stories, it will all revert back to the many propaganda-flooded talks Moscow and Washington had before.

Only, the newsmen keep asking themselves, “what are we doing here?”

The Finns (who told the diplomats at the opening ceremony that “now we will leave you alone so you can do your work”) and the two governments’ embassies are desperately trying to do something to keep the newsmen occupied, so there are two receptions per day in the city’s best hotels and restaurants.

Champagne is flowing freely and there is plenty of reindeer tongue, but the newsmen find the same faces (those of their colleagues) at reception after reception, and soon they decide to stay at Marsky’s watering holes where perhaps “something will happen.”

Finnair, too, is doing its best to keep people occupied and it offers a 50 percent discount on all domestic air routes with special tours to Tampere, Rovaniemi (“reindeer barbecue, dancing, roulette, Arctic Diploma, etc.”), Saimaa, Hameenlinne (birthplace of Sibelius), and even Leningrad.

Then there is an icebreaker cruise, but it requires a great deal of creative imagination because there is no ice yet.

**WAITING FOR “SOMETHING” (opposite page) — Scenes from the Hotel Marsky: top and bottom, the teletype room; second, telephone switchboard; third, the central “waiting room.”

The newsmen however dare not risk being away from where the action isn’t, and keep hanging around, waiting, waiting.

Those fiddling around on the short-wave to spend the time may find a station coming in loud and clear blaring American rock. Then, there is an intriguing announcement:

“How did you first hear of Lenin and what does his name mean to you?

“Tell us in 400 words or less.

“There will be four prizes of one-week, expense-paid trips to Prague, and one SUPER prize for a trip to Moscow.

“All contestants will receive a post card with the picture of Lenin…”

It is Radio Prague, which now resumes California Soul for the benefit of “our dear listeners in Asia and Africa.”

Some of the correspondents start working on those 400 words (that’s one way to get into Prague, they say), others venture out briefly into the Helsinki night (which looks precisely like the noon scene) for some diversion.

What do they find? Not much. The “Month in Helsinki” features the close of the hunting season on elk for this day as the most significant event.

At the Opera (this one looks more like Alaska than Kansas, with a building right out of the days of the Goldrush), Turandot is on with the once-great Anita Valkki (great no more, alas) and a tenor by the name of Pekka Nuotio who should be deported back to Lapland. The saving grace of the evening is an American guest artist, Veronica Tyler, singing Liu. The sets are interesting (Scandinavian Chinese) but the stage is so small that only a dozen people from the choir gets on it—the rest sing off stage and (perhaps as a result) slightly off key.

**CULTURAL NEUTRALITY—A Soviet production of the Russian classic and “Midnight Cowboy” provide but one juxtaposition of “neutral” cultural intake. The fact is that only 4% of films playing in Finland come from Russia vs. 14% for the U.S., 16% for England, 11% for France. A very healthy 40% of the films are Finnish while the traditional dislike for Sweden is clearly evident from an otherwise surprising 3% for Scandinavia. Below: an example of the unfathomable Finnish language.

**HEROIC PAST…PEACEFUL PRESENT—Scenes of the 1939 Winter War contrast with views of Helsinki streets in 1969. After centuries of suffering defeat and occupation, the Finns have reached a peaceful modus vivendi with Russia by observing strict neutrality.

**Photos by Janos Gereben

Other possibilities include the viewing of that famous Muriel Ashford or the specially-imported talents of a girl from Brooklyn in another night club’s one-act (count ‘em) “program,” spending a deadly hour or two in a sauna (it’s just like August in New York minus the traffic)—and that’s about it. You’ve done the town.

Two questions emerge: why Helsinki in the first place and, more significantly, why all the talk about switching SALT to Vienna or Geneva?

Both questions have political answers. It was the Russians who insisted on Finland and they did it because they are profoundly unhappy with the Austrians; Moscow wanted Helsinki so that it wouldn’t be Vienna.

Both Finland and Austria are neutral, but the former is more neutral to the East and the latter is more neutral to the West. The Finns have a long border with the Soviet Union and were defeated by Czarist and Soviet armies many times—this they cannot ever disregard. The Austrians have been and are less afraid of the Russians.

And so Finland was silent on the Soviet invasion of Hungary (“relatives?”) and Czechoslovakia while Austria made as much noise as any other Western government while serving as a haven for refugees in 1956 and 1969. Moscow and Prague are very angry with Austria because of this (and a number of other, mostly imagined, factors), so much so that they even forced the Czech-Hungarian soccer championship game from Vienna (which is equidistant from Budapest and Prague) to far-away Marseille. Vienna is really out, from Moscow’s point of view.

All right, so Washington gave in on this silly question of location and the talks began—which is the only important thing anyway. But now, the second question arises and the constant American campaign about moving the negotiators after an “exploratory period.” (SALT is a misleading name; it should be SALTTT—talks about the location for talks about the possibility of talks to reduce strategic armaments).

Helsinki, the State Department claims, is “too small and unable to provide the facilities Vienna, for example, can offer.” The first point is irrelevant and the second is untrue. The Finns proved that by caring (which the Vienna government cannot or will not do), they can provide facilities and a communications setup the Austrians couldn’t dream of.

As to the size of the city, that cannot be a serious point. This report is quite clear about the lack of diversion in Helsinki but no complaint is made and diplomats shouldn’t think otherwise. The obvious reply to the American moving fever on this point is that the negotiators are there to negotiate, not to have a greater variety of entertainment.

The last European security conference, for example, held in Vienna in 1815, completely bogged down in the imperial city’s entertainment attractions with the

delegates dancing day and night. There is a limited number of things one can do in the well-heated rooms of Helsinki—and WORK is one of the possibilities.

Helsinki, it is contended here, is the ideal place for the kind of long, difficult, time-consuming, conference the real SALT is going to be, once the exploratory period is over. Unfortunately, SALT will move (why should logic prevail in this one instance of international relations?) and move south, in the wrong direction. For the sake of disarmament and peace, it should move north, for even greater isolation and lack of diversion. Say, Lapland…


EAST EUROPEAN FOOTNOTE TO SALT: One interesting aspect of the conference is information made available about military expenditures. Statistics from the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, reproduced on these two pages, reveal for example that Hungary, alone in East Europe, ranks higher in GNP than in military expenditures. Both Hungry and Romania spend more on public education and public health than on the military (the U.S. record is quite astonishing on this point). These figures are from 1966 and in the ensuing three years this trend must have become far more marked. Romania (very loudly) and Hungary (quietly) are deviating from the Moscow line on the ratio of guns and butter, but Romania may yet have to reverse this precisely because Bucharest chose the public road to “independence” from Moscow while Budapest carefully covers up its movement with loyal but empty slogans about “eternal friendship.”


Received in New York on December 2, 1969.

Mr. Gereben is an Alicia Patterson Fund award winner, on leave from the Honolulu Star-Bulletin. This article may be published with credit to Janos Gereben, the Honolulu Star-Bulletin, and the Alicia Patterson Fund.