Not many would remember the name Norris Poulson.

I was 15 when first secretary of the Communist Party of the USSR Nikita Sergeyevich Khrushchev made his historic visit to the United States in September 1959. There was little love lost then between the two rival superpowers, and the confrontational enmity only grew and grew. Three years later — for 13 long days — the USSR and the U.S. took the world to the brink of nuclear destruction in what came to be known as the Cuban missile crisis … 40 years ago this month.

Though I was still a youngster, I had started to teach myself Russian at age 13 after following the path of the first artificial satellite, the Soviet Union’s Sputnik, across the skies of the city I lived in: Los Angeles. It didn’t take an adult insight to be aware of the tense atmosphere surrounding Khrushchev’s visit.

Washington D.C., the nation’s capital, had refused to fly the flag of the USSR on Pennsylvania Avenue (where the White House stands). The irony of that was pointed out by the brilliant and iconoclastic journalist I.F. Stone in his weekly newsletter: “Every bantamweight visiting dictator from Latin America sees his flag hung from the lampposts between the Capitol and the White House … “

When Khrushchev arrived in Los Angeles, the reception was not much better. Disneyland, which had opened its gates four years earlier, refused to allow him to visit. “What do they have there,” said the Soviet leader who was in the habit of mincing his enemies but not his words, “a platform for launching rockets?”

Norris Poulson (1895-1982) was the mayor of Los Angeles when Khrushchev came calling. I should mention that one of the Soviet leader’s less propitious remarks regarding the U.S. was his promise: “We will bury you.” As you can imagine, that didn’t go down well in America, whose people have, at times in their history, not been averse to nearly burying themselves — but wish to reserve the privilege.

At a banquet for Khrushchev in Los Angeles on Sept. 19, 1959, Poulson infuriated his visitor by criticizing his claim on America’s burial rites. Khrushchev promptly threatened to fly home at once and skip the scheduled meeting with President Dwight Eisenhower at the Camp David country retreat in Maryland. Fortunately, his reception in San Francisco was much friendlier. He smiled and yelled “spasibo” (thank you) to the crowds there. Asked if he wanted to buy land in the city, he replied, “Can’t do. They’d throw me out of the Party.” In fact, he was ousted from his job in October 1964 — not for buying land, but for, among other things, wrecking the Soviet economy.

I bring up these colorful footnotes to history because they illustrate a point: Don’t let local officials meddle in foreign policy.

In April of this year, Nagoya Mayor Takashi Kawamura made claims denying that the Nanjing Massacre of 1937, in which hundreds of thousands of Chinese civilians were killed by Japanese troops, and untold numbers raped, actually occurred. As a result, Nanjing canceled the annual middle school volleyball exchange between itself and Nagoya, sister cities since 1984.

Brash remarks in August by the mayor of Osaka, Toru Hashimoto, that “there is no evidence that comfort women were assaulted and threatened by the (Japanese) military and dragged off” incensed Koreans, for whom this issue of sex slavery — “comfort woman” is a Japanese euphemism for wartime sex slave — is very much alive in the public debate of that country.

This was certainly one of the factors that led to Korean President Lee Myung Bak’s aggressive stance over — and visit to — the disputed islet known as Takeshima in Japan and Dokdo in Korea.

But the effect of those two mayoral denials pales in significance against the statements and actions of the Great Spoiler, Gov. Shintaro Ishihara of Tokyo.

On July 27, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government took out an advert covering two-thirds of a page in the Wall Street Journal asking for American support of “our purchase of the Senkaku Islands.”

Tokyo was then in talks to buy those rocky outcrops in the East China Sea known to the Chinese as the Diaoyu Islands, and long disputed between Japan, China and Taiwan, from the Japanese man who claimed private ownership.

It was the move by Ishihara that forced the hand of the Japanese government to take over the purchase and thereby nationalize the uninhabited islets; and it was the nationalization, considered illegal by the Chinese, both in China and Taiwan, that induced the Chinese government to incite their people to riot against Japanese interests in their country.

The result of Ishihara’s brazen intervention, publicized as it was in a weighty conservative American daily newspaper, was a gush of bad blood between Japan and China that not only injured their bilateral relations but also increased tensions in an already tense maritime region of the world.

However, unlike Poulson in 1959, who turned all contrite and shook hands with Khrushchev — who, for his part, explained that he had only referred to America’s “burial” in a metaphorical sense — Ishihara must be gloating. He didn’t get the islands, but he got everything else he was wishing for: Chinese chauvinism has reared one of its uglier heads; Japanese rightists and nationalists have reacted angrily, calling for revenge; and the Liberal Democratic Party, positioning itself to regain power after a three-year spell in opposition, has chosen as its leader the revanchist Shinzo Abe, a former prime minister dedicated to reconstituting Japan’s military along prewar lines.

It is clear that Ishihara’s prime goal was to polarize public opinion and make it look like Japan, without the ability to strike out against anyone violating “rightful” Japanese territory, was lost.

What is also clear, however, is that territorial issues affecting these various rocks between Japan and the Asian mainland will never be solved by force.

This will only lead to a seriously dangerous escalation of hostility with inevitable loss of life. Is this what Ishihara desires — a spilling of Japanese and foreign blood to justify what he calls the “defense” of the nation?

The only way out for all sides is to sit down at the table and work through the hard graft of diplomacy.

This is precisely what Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda and Russian President Vladimir Putin plan to do in December, when Noda flies to Moscow to discuss the fate of the island group off the north coast of Hokkaido.

Etorofu, Kunashiri and Shikotan islands and the Habomai islet group have been disputed territory since the end of World War II in 1945. Indeed, this issue has kept the two countries from signing a peace treaty.

Last month, Japanese Foreign Minister Koichiro Gemba met with his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, in New York. “Let’s move forward discussions on the territorial issue as part of bilateral cooperation,” said Gemba. Lavrov expressed a willingness to find a solution acceptable to both Russia and Japan. This is a good start for a sensible and realistic dialogue in December between the two leaders.

And it should be the template for an approach to territorial issues between Japan and China and Taiwan on the one hand, and Japan and Korea on the other. Diplomatic hard graft is the only way — however trying, however prolonged, however frustrating — to make peace between nations.

It’s a cinch to provoke nationalist sentiments through offensive statements and provocative actions, especially when you’re a mayor or a governor who can push the consequences of those statements and actions “upstairs” and achieve the belligerent effect you wish for.

It is not so easy to follow the Russian precept — smienitie gniev na milost (transform anger into kindness), or, if you can’t muster kindness, then at least reasonability.

That is what Los Angeles Mayor Norris Poulson did back in 1959; and he and Khrushchev became friends, even though the Russian premier never did get to meet Mickey Mouse, Dumbo and Goofy.

Maybe, that’s why the Soviet leader felt, as he reportedly did, that he never did get to see the real America.

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