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Who Saved Soviet Jewry?


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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.

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.

The depth of Beckerman’s total lack of understanding of the Nixon approach is reflected in comments quoted by Fox News. “Everybody wants to take credit for helping the Jews out, but never in that time did I think I’d hear Henry Kissinger take credit,” Beckerman said. But isn’t that exactly the point? The Nixon approach produced results because neither President Nixon nor Dr. Kissinger nor anyone else crowed about the success of the policy.

For those interested in a deeper understanding of Nixon’s strategy, I suggest listening to the tape of a meeting the president held with Jewish leaders on April 19, 1973. He spent more than an hour briefing the group on the approach the administration was taking to remove barriers to emigration by Soviet Jews. Nixon and Kissinger lay out with clarity, conviction, and candor the reasons for their approach. It makes for fascinating listening (once one gets past the annoying “beep” at the start of the tape).

Shortly after the start of this meeting, Nixon plainly states the choice the United States faces in addressing this issue. He tells these leaders that they have to decide, “whether or not you want the president of the United States to have some influence, maybe not enough, [with the Soviet leaders] or none.” Nixon knew that if he, as president, began making a public issue of the plight of the Soviet Jews, the Soviets would likely shut down.

Some of those in attendance pushed back – respectfully but firmly – urging the president to speak out publicly against the Soviet treatment of the Jews living in the USSR and to publicly endorse Senator Henry Jackson’s efforts to legislate a solution. Nixon listened carefully and empathetically. He responded, with passion and vision. He explained his conviction that his approach was not only the best way to relieve the plight of Soviet Jewry, but was also crucial to the success of his overriding goal: peace. He would not risk the overall success of America’s policy toward the USSR by throwing down the gantlet in public on Soviet Jewry or any other single issue.

In the years that followed, the Soviet Union began to collapse under the weight of its own failures – and the inherent failure of its system. Nixon’s successors would – and could – then publicly link American policy to the plight of Soviet Jews. This would not have been possible, however, had Nixon not put the issue on the bi-lateral agenda in the first place in his private discussion with Soviet leaders.

This meeting shows Nixon at his best. I urge anyone interested in this issue to listen to this tape. It shows, with far greater accuracy than brief out-of-context excerpts ever can, what made Nixon the visionary, formidable leader he was. Someday, the Nixon tapes will be taken in their entirety, and the judgment of history will have to take account of meetings such as this. For many of us, that day cannot come soon enough.

Bob Bostock, a senior adviser to former New Jersey governor and EPA director Christie Todd Whitman, served as an editorial assistant on two of President Nixon’s best-selling books and also wrote much of the exhibit text for the Richard Nixon Presidential Library. A version of this essay appeared on The New Nixon Blog (www.blog.nixonfoundation.org).

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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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