RUSSIA: Unhappy Hooliganism

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In the days before Pogo, Li'l Abner and the cold war, one of the best-loved characters in U.S. comic strips was Fred Opper's amiable tramp, Happy Hooligan. Today the grim commissars of Russia use Happy's name to describe a crime they regard as the essence of capitalist decadence. Last week the wife of a U.S. embassy employee in Moscow was officially accused of "hooliganism" and asked to leave the country. According to accounts blared out over Radio Moscow, pert and pretty Mrs. Betty Sommerlatte, whose husband Karl is an embassy second secretary, had viciously punched a Soviet worker in the nose and "brutally pushed" a Russian woman. The abused worker is said to have rejoined: "We, the people of the Soviet Union, are not used to women who use their fists."

U.S. State Department officials called the Russian story as fantastic as the wildest of space-cadet comic strips. What really happened, they said, was that Mrs. Sommerlatte and a friend, the wife of Assistant Naval Attaché Houston Stiff, were out on a quiet, picture-taking stroll when they were pulled into a building by two Soviet secret agents and detained for more than an hour. The Soviet version of the incident, said U.S. Ambassador Charles Bohlen, "is in such flagrant contradiction of the facts that I am sure the Soviet Foreign Ministry will wish to change it." Even after a personal call from Bohlen, however, Foreign Minister Molotov showed no such disposition. Molotov in fact seemed eager to exploit the matter, in marked contrast to a recent hushed-up but far more serious, affair involving two British embassy employees who beat up a couple of Russian policemen, but were allowed to leave the country without fuss.

With both powers sticking fast to their stories, the U.S. had no choice but to follow diplomatic protocol and ask exit visas for Mrs. Sommerlatte and her husband.