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Who Saved Soviet Jewry?


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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