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Who Saved Soviet Jewry?


The recent release of additional Nixon White House presidential documents and tapes produced the usual response. As has become customary, brief excerpts of the tapes – excerpts that invariably show President Nixon and members of his administration in the most unflattering light possible – are pulled from the reams of material and hours of conversations and given broad coverage in the media.

This most recent release has refocused attention on the terrible plight in the early 1970s of Soviet Jewry – the many hundreds of thousands of Jews living in the then-Soviet Union who were subject to persecution by the state and whose attempts to emigrate from the USSR were systematically blocked by Soviet authorities.

Henry Kissinger recently put into context a brief, one-minute exchange he had with the president about this issue that, on its face, is simply appalling. But that’s why context is important. The widely quoted conversational snippet does not reflect the Nixon administration’s efforts to improve the condition of Soviet Jews.

Responding to Kissinger, Gal Beckerman, the author of a recently published book about Soviet Jewry, claims Kissinger was “dismissive” of the Soviet Jewry movement. He seeks to award sole credit to the Soviet Jewry movement for the enormous increase in the number of Jews permitted to leave the Soviet Union during the Nixon years.

Beckerman falls into the trap of believing that the Soviet Union, at the height of its global power, could be swayed in its course by the vigorous expression of public demands by the West, especially by the president of the United States. He appears to forget that the titanic struggle for global dominance between the Communist world and the free world being fought at that time – especially on the battlefields of Vietnam – meant the Soviets would never give an inch when challenged publicly. They dared not risk appearing to yield to the demands of the West, especially given their struggle with China for supremacy of the communist world.

Perhaps those of us who admire President Nixon’s foreign policy achievements should be grateful that people are fighting over the credit for this particular success of détente. Beckerman, however, does the historical record a disservice when he dismisses the Nixon administration’s unprecedented success in substantially increasing the numbers of Soviet Jews who were permitted to leave the Soviet Union as a result of détente.

Nixon’s policy toward the Soviet Union was predicated on engaging the Soviet Union, through diplomacy, on issues in the national interests of both nations. Nixon eschewed the hot rhetoric of the Cold War in favor of an approach that allowed the Soviets to maintain their public countenance of a mighty nation who wouldn’t yield to the public pressures of anyone, anytime, anyplace.

The Soviets maintained their “tough face” for the world even as they found themselves working with the United States to limit the growth of nuclear arms, open their borders to greater numbers and varieties of cultural exchanges, and increase trade. All of this reduced tensions and, ultimately, launched the beginning of the eventual end of the Soviet Union.

The Nixon administration’s approach to the Soviet Union on the matter of Soviet Jewry was informed by the belief – a belief well grounded in Nixon’s own experience and in history – that efforts to publicly embarrass the Soviets in the court of world opinion on matters they considered strictly their own “internal affair” would be counterproductive.

Nixon understood the Soviets would respond to such pressure by digging in their heels. He knew that to maintain their aura of power and invincibility – both domestically and to their “allies” in the Warsaw Pact and beyond – the Soviet leaders believed they had to stand up to such pressure. They always wanted to show that the West could not use the bully pulpit to bully them.

Richard Nixon’s Memoirs is the definitive source for insight into his thinking on the issue of Soviet Jewry:

I have never had any illusions about the brutally repressive nature of Soviet society. But I knew that the more public pressure we placed on Soviet leaders, the more intransigent they would become . I felt that we could accomplish a great deal more on the Jewish emigration issue when we were talking with the Soviets than when we were not. Although we did not publicly challenge the Soviet contention that these questions involved Soviet internal affairs, both Kissinger and I raised them privately with Brezhnev, Gromyko, and Dobrynin. This approach brought results . [T]he statistics are proof of undeniable success: from 1968 to 1971 only 15,000 Jews were allowed to emigrate. In 1972 alone, however, the number jumped to 31,400. In 1973, the last full year of my presidency, nearly 35,000 were permitted to leave. [RN: The Memoirs of Richard Nixon, page 876]

Beckerman in his book identifies 1964 as the beginning of a 25-year Soviet Jewry movement in the United States. Notably, the first five years of the effort brought few results. Prior to the Nixon administration’s policy of détente, the annual number of Soviet Jews permitted to leave for Israel was counted in the hundreds. It is only after Nixon began his private approach – head of state to head of state – that the annual numbers began to be counted in the tens of thousands.

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The recent release of additional Nixon White House presidential documents and tapes produced the usual response. As has become customary, brief excerpts of the tapes – excerpts that invariably show President Nixon and members of his administration in the most unflattering light possible – are pulled from the reams of material and hours of conversations and given broad coverage in the media.

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