Patterico's Pontifications

7/24/2023

Nixon on Russia: Some Things Never Change

Filed under: General — JVW @ 12:12 pm



[guest post by JVW]

Via Powerline comes a remarkable letter published in the Wall Street Journal and written “Eyes Only” by Richard Nixon to President Bill Clinton on the first day of spring in 1994 (the thirty-seventh President would die just 32 days later). Nearly thirty years on, the letter has been declassified and made available to the public. No matter what you think of Richard Milhous Nixon — whether you think he was an unrepentant warmonger, a dark lord authoritarian, a closet liberal who fell for some of the worst economic ideas of the academic left, or a mixture of one or more of the above — it is undeniable through the man’s voluminous writings that he was a deep-thinker, a shrewd analyst, and an insightful strategist. And what he wrote to the forty-second President, (past) disgraced leader to (future) disgraced leader, resonates with many of the issues vexing us today.

The letter was written by Mr. Nixon shortly after returning from a European jaunt which had taken him to Russia, Ukraine, Germany, and London. He wastes no time with small-talk or idle flattery with his most recent successor, immediately informing the current Chief Executive that “I learned during my years in the White House that the best decisions I made, such as the one to go to China in 1972, were made over the objections of or without the approval of most foreign service officers.” Having set the table, he continues with a warning of Washington’s foreign policy establishment that rings true today:

If you have not already done so, you will find that foreign service officers are seldom ignorant, but almost always arrogant. When they see a report from an outsider, they invariably react by saying, “We knew that. There’s nothing new in it.” Or, at the other extreme, “This is interesting, but we want to study it” … which they proceed to do until it is forgotten. I would urge you always to remember that foreign service officers get to the top by not getting into trouble. They are therefore more interested in covering their asses than in protecting yours.

But the crux of Tricky Dick’s advice to Bubba pertained to Russia. The dissolution of the Soviet Union had been finalized just twenty-seven months earlier, and in the past three years Moscow had seen a coup attempt against Mikhail Gorbachev come from an old-school communist faction led by Gennady Yanayev and Anatoly Lukyanov; the break-up of the Soviet Union into fifteen separate states; and the devolving of power as the President Gorbachev of the Soviet Union gave way to a new President of Russia, Boris Yeltsin. Mere months before Mr. Nixon’s visit, Russia had undergone a constitutional crisis when President Yeltsin had attempted to dissolve the Russian parliament and in turn had been impeached, all of which had brought protesters on both sides into the streets resulting in a death toll which ranged from official estimates of 187 to unofficial estimates of up to 2000. Mr. Nixon delivered a grim assessment of the ability of the Russian President to maintain control:

As one of Yeltsin’s first supporters in this country and as one who continues to admire him for his leadership in the past; I have reluctantly concluded that his situation has rapidly deteriorated since the elections in December, and that the days of his unquestioned leadership of Russia are numbered. [German Chancellor Helmut] Kohl is the only one I met who disagrees with this view. This speaks more for Kohl’s loyalty to an old friend than it does to his usually brilliant political judgment.

Since the December elections, Yeltsin is a changed man. His drinking bouts are longer and his periods of depression are more frequent. Most troublesome, he can no longer deliver on his commitments to you and other Western leaders in an increasingly anti-American environment in the Duma and in the country. I expected this among opposition leaders like Zhirinovskiy, Rutskoi, and Zuganov, but I found the same attitude among middle­-of-the-road and liberal supporters of Yeltsin’s economic and political reforms. He is still the elected head of our most important strategic partner. But those who rely on his commitments will soon find that he no longer has the political strength to deliver.

Though Boris Yeltsin would somehow hang on to office until the final day of the last millennium, proving Chancellor Kohl to be the wiser seer, he never could get a handle on the endemic corruption that permeated Russian society (in fact, he benefitted from it) and his relationship with the U.S. soured when NATO decided to intervene in the Balkan War being waged by Russian ally Slobodan Milošević, another ex-commie leading a basket case of a state. When President Yeltsin stepped down on New Year’s Eve 1999 he was replaced by his hand-picked successor, ex-KGB officer Vladimir Putin.

Even though Mr. Nixon didn’t expect Mr. Yeltsin to last as long as he did, he urged President Clinton to separate his personal regard for his Russian counterpart from a clear-eyed assessment of his utility, and he was not adverse to including a criticism of his former Ambassador to the UN and Republican National Committee Chairman:

All this means not that you should discontinue the positive “Boris-Bill relationship,” which has been widely reported in the media, but that you recognize that Yeltsin plays an increasingly weak hand and that it is necessary to reach out to others who have some power now and may have all of the power sooner than we might like.

Bush made a mistake in sticking too long to Gorbachev because of his close personal relationship. You must avoid making that same mistake in your very good personal relationship with Yeltsin.

Richard Nixon being Richard Nixon, he also gave a pretty blunt assessment of the Clinton Administration’s Russian policy thus far:

Understandably, you might have reservations about any criticism of your Administration in the Wall Street Journal. However, the article on foreign aid to which you referred in our telephone conversation is unfortunately on target. The entire foreign aid program to Russia is a mess. This ranges from the IMF’s stubbornness and stupidity in continuing to treat Russia like Upper Volta (which no longer exists, incidentally). [. . .]

And he issued a timeless reminder of what happens when you send money into a thieves’ den like Russia, including a dig at an egocentric economist who happened to be a notorious Friend of Bill:

American and Russian businessmen are ripping off the aid programs shamelessly. In the past two years, Russians have sent over $25 billion to Switzerland and other safe havens. This money will not come back until there is a better climate for investment in Russia. The quick answer from those like Jeffrey Sachs that what is needed is an increase in government aid is irrelevant. [. . .]

He also addressed the rise of China, suggesting that another self-regarding Clinton ally (even one whom Mr. Nixon purported to respect) might not be suited for tasks beyond his portfolio:

As you know, China has by far the highest growth rate of any major country in the world. This has been accomplished with hardly any government foreign aid whatsoever. We face the ironic fact that a communist capitalist economy in China is more attractive for foreign investment than a democratic capitalist economy in Russia.

This brings me to a very painful recommendation. As I am sure you know, I share your respect and affection for Strobe Talbott. This goes back to the time when I totally supported his then controversial view about Israeli-Arab relations. He is an outstanding political officer. His strong suit, however, is not economics. What we need now is a new program, such as the one we had during the Marshall Plan, where aid is administered by a top­flight businessman reporting directly to the President. Strobe has to be big enough to accept this idea and not to insist that everything go through him and his staff.
It has been my experience that foreign service officers are very good on political issues but economics is not their strong suit. Like most politicians, they know very little about economics and much of what they do know is wrong. [. . .]

And finally, after a couple of paragraphs worrying that Ukraine is even more hopeless as a hotbed of political dysfunction and corruption than Russia is, and a warning that our embassy in Kyiv is inadequately staffed and poorly led since all of the best diplomats seek out cushy posts in places like Paris, Rome, and London when they are in fact needed in “combat zones like Ukraine,” Mr. Nixon warns the President about being very careful where he chooses to allocate precious funding:

You will be urged to scatter the available aid money all over the former Soviet Union. This would be a mistake. You have very limited funds. All the other nations in the near abroad are important. But Ukraine is in a different class — it is indispensable.

This post is way long, but there is so much more to this interesting letter: some thoughts on which Russian he thinks would be a good successor to Boris Yeltsin (as previously mentioned, Mr. Yeltsin would somehow hang on for nearly six more years; in March 1994 Vladimir Putin had just been appointed a deputy chairman in the local government of St. Petersburg and thus was on nobody’s radar screen) and his overall impressions of Helmut Kohl (positive). It’s a long letter, but it’s a fascinating glimpse into the workings of a very facile and shrewd mind. Mr. Nixon obviously relished the opportunity to be seen as an elder statesman, and no doubt some of his impetus for writing was motivated by personal ambition and vanity, but overall the letter struck me as a largely sincere effort for an old warhorse to give helpful advice to a young Chief Executive, even one who had started off his political career in virulent opposition to him. Perhaps that was Mr. Nixon’s way of getting even, by co-opting the snotty Baby Boomer at a point when the job was seemingly overwhelming him. In any case, Bill Clinton later said the letter was the best foreign policy analysis he had ever read.

Give it a read if you’re nostalgic for a day when Presidents could actually hold complex ideas and think strategically.

– JVW

26 Responses to “Nixon on Russia: Some Things Never Change”

  1. It would be interesting to hear what Mr. Nixon had to say about Putin and Xi, were he around today to share his opinion (and I would be way more interested in his off-the-record opinion than his on-the-record opinion).

    JVW (08e2bf)

  2. Richard Milhous Nixon: Nixon wanted to be taken seriously, as an ordinary ex-presidentm so this was his best and most honest work. (in 1967, Nixon also delivered a quite good speech about the draft so he was capable of things)

    The surprising thing is that he reported that Yeltsin was not likely to stay in power much longer – as we know he lasted until December 31, 1999 but this is maybe not wrong.

    There was one person he quoted as saying in answer to a question that Nixon asked that Yeltsin would not be removed in a coup or by an election but would become more or less a figurehead (paraphrase)

    This person used to talk to Yeltsin frequently but lately had not been able to get him on the phone. (Nixon also quoted him as saying he could not get elected – but wasn’t this person president of Ukraine?)

    The problem with what Nixon wrote is that he did not stick with this (Yeltsin becomes a figurehead) as his main conclusion. It wasn’t emphasized enough. It should have been the lead.

    And this may be what actually happened to Boris Yeltsin (and it passed by many people especially those, like me, not paying the closest attention) except he was not a complete figurehead.

    But he had a tendency to get drunk and was surrounded by people who controlled him –including Vladimir Putin eventually. This could explain the Chechen wars.

    https://www.history.com/news/bill-clinton-boris-yeltsin-drunk-1994-russian-state-visit

    During Yeltsin’s presidency from 1991 to 1999, his alcoholism worsened to the point where he was frequently stumbling and falling over. He also exhibited inappropriate behavior on camera, such as when he pinched a couple of female secretaries in front of reporters. These antics have now become a part of his legacy as a world leader.

    By the way, Yeltsin got a lot of help from the U.S. or people working in US politics in getting re-elected in 1996.

    Here is what Nixon said in public at that time:
    https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-1994-03-17-mn-35227-story.html

    Sammy FInkelman (1d215a)

  3. Nixon took Vladimir V. Zhirinovsky too seriously – ay ace value although he thought that Zhirinovsky was only an opportunistic anti-Semite. Zhirinovsky was a fake opposition – someone put up to lose – one of several.

    Though Boris Yeltsin would somehow hang on to office until the final day of the last millennium, proving Chancellor Kohl to be the wiser seer,

    Not necessarily. Nixon quoted someone as predicting something close to this – that Yeltsin would not be the person actually making most of the major decisions.

    He [Kravchuk] said..the Russian power brokers will surround him and elevate him into a highly ceremonial post, as the Tunisians did with Bourguiba

    Not quite what happened – Yeltsin never became officially ceremonial – but in retrospect somewhat close and this could explain the Chechen wars..

    in March 1994 Vladimir Putin had just been appointed a deputy chairman in the local government of St. Petersburg and thus was on nobody’s radar screen)

    https://www.britannica.com/biography/Vladimir-Putin

    In 1996 Putin moved to Moscow, where he joined the presidential staff as deputy to Pavel Borodin, the Kremlin’s chief administrator. Putin grew close to fellow Leningrader Anatoly Chubais and moved up in administrative positions. In July 1998 Pres. Boris Yeltsin made Putin director of the Federal Security Service (FSB; the KGB’s domestic successor), and shortly thereafter he became secretary of the influential Security Council. Yeltsin, who was searching for an heir to assume his mantle, appointed Putin prime minister in 1999.

    Sammy Finkelman (1d215a)

  4. Mere months before Mr. Nixon’s visit, Russia had undergone a constitutional crisis when President Yeltsin had attempted to dissolve the Russian parliament and in turn had been impeached, all of which had brought protesters on both sides into the streets resulting in a death toll which ranged from official estimates of 187 to unofficial estimates of up to 2000.

    I think maybe this gave somebody [Putin] the idea for breaking into the Capitol, in the hope that Trump could be manipulated into staging a self-coup. Mike Flynn had tried to get Trump to do a little something along these ideas. (seize voting machines which would be a start)

    But the United States wasn’t Russia and Donald Trump was not Boris Yeltsin.

    The thing is, only somebody not too familiar with the United States politics could think that barging into the Capitol was a good idea.

    And there is a Russian connection to some people involved with some of those groups involved. More than the FBI that’s for sure.

    https://www.splcenter.org/hatewatch/2021/09/01/far-right-propagandist-turns-moscow-after-jan-6

    Russia Insider founder Charles Bausman traveled from his home in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, to Washington, D.C., on Jan. 6, and video appears to show him among the insurrectionists that breached the building’s walls. Soon after, he left the country for Moscow…

    …Bausman’s older sister, Mary Watkins, who says she loves her brother but opposes his fascist politics, told Hatewatch she watched online as his wife, Kristina Bausman, originally from the rural community of Mednogorsk, Russia, posted a video to Facebook of what looked to her like a live scene from the Trump rally that descended into violence.

    “I messaged her as everything was happening and said, ‘You’re not there, are you?’ She said, ‘No, no, we’re here in Lancaster,’” Watkins recalled of Jan. 6…

    …Neighbors told Hatewatch that Bausman moved into their community in 2018, shortly after relocating from Russia. He promoted hard-right causes, including the anti-lockdown protests during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic. He involved himself in #StoptheSteal activism perpetuating the lie of a stolen election alongside others in the far right, such as members of the gun-worshipping Unification Church cult. He hyped the Jan. 6 event on social media. Then he seemed to disappear from Lancaster, leaving his 2020 Christmas lights and a Betsy Ross-style American flag dangling from his porch.

    I don’t know that special counsel Jack Smith, or the Republicans in Congress, seem to be interested in investigating this angle.

    Sammy Finkelman (1d215a)

  5. They didn’t call him tricky dick for nothing. But he could never fool himself of what he was.

    asset (430da4)

  6. I linked this yesterday, but yes, it’s a very interesting letter.

    https://patterico.com/2023/07/21/weekend-open-thread-185/#comment-2723481

    Kevin M (2d6744)

  7. For all Nixon’s many faults, he was more responsible for our conduct of the Cold War than any other individual, including Reagan, Shultz or “X”. His masterful removal of China from the Soviet orbit was probably the biggest step in winning the War, even more than Reagan’s “Star Wars” swindle that broke the Soviets.

    Kevin M (2d6744)

  8. Whatever you think about Nixon, there is no doubt that he was a patriot, trying to help The President succeed without respect to party. Then again, he comes from an era where there were consensus goals in foreign policy, and one did not badmouth another American while traveling abroad.

    Comparing Nixon to Trump (or to a lesser extent, Biden) we can only see how far we have fallen.

    Kevin M (2d6744)

  9. “I learned during my years in the White House that the best decisions I made, such as the one to go to China in 1972, were made over the objections of or without the approval of most foreign service officers.”

    Reagan could say the same thing.

    Kevin M (2d6744)

  10. I read the letter via the link on Power Line. My question is: Who did the underlining? Was it Bill Clinton or someone else?

    Charlie Davis (03f4c9)

  11. Kevin M (2d6744) — 7/24/2023 @ 1:45 pm

    His masterful removal of China from the Soviet orbit was probably the biggest step in winning the War, even more than Reagan’s “Star Wars” swindle that broke the Soviets.

    China was already separate from the Soviet bloc back in the early 1960s. Nixon and Kissinger didn’t have to do a single thing. And they didn’t need to do much to recognize reality. Nixon describing his trip to China as one of his bet decisons is completely wrong.

    At least he did not de-recognize Taiwan and tear up the mutual defense treaty. He left that to Jimmy Carter.

    Red China still remained one of the most evil governments on the planet – remember they supported the Khmer Rouge. The stole them from the North Vietnamese.

    And economic liberalization and some more freedom followed the near Hungarian style revolution that occurred in April 1976, (which unlike Tiananmen Square seems to have been forgotten) and the death of Mao, not any cange in U.S. policy.

    Sammy Finkelman (1d215a)

  12. 10.

    My question is: Who did the underlining? Was it Bill Clinton or someone else?

    I don’t know but it says on the bottom what appears to be rubber stamping saying:

    PHOTOCOPY WJC HANDWRIZTING

    WJC = William Jefferson Clinton.

    I don’t know that there’s any other handwritten marks except this underlining. I don’t know how authoritative that rubber stamp should be taken to be, though.

    Sammy Finkelman (1d215a)

  13. Wonderful posting, JVW. I perused the letter also, and I echo your conclusions.

    felipe (5879c1)

  14. Sammy, your sweating of the minutia is most endearing.

    felipe (5879c1)

  15. Sammy, you’re wrong.

    Sure, Mao was upset with Russia after the Korean War (he had wanted Stalin to get involved), but there was really nowhere for them to go as long as the US remained hostile. What Nixon did was offer them access to the West, which led directly to Deng et al overcoming Mao’s heirs after he died. And they never looked back.

    Xi is making moves again wrt Russia, but it seems more that he wants access to Siberia than he wants to be buddies with Putin. After Putin goes, we’ll see, but under no conditions does Xi want to be cut off from the West.

    Kevin M (2d6744)

  16. Nixon committed treason with south vietam with anna chenault as the go between. LBJ secretly recorded the treason and played it for rep. sen. dirksen. Similar to the treason reagan and bill casey committed with Iran to hold the hostages till after the election with the help of john connelly. This was the start of the Iran/contra treason and drug smuggling.

    asset (230fd0)

  17. After Putin goes, we’ll see, but under no conditions does Xi want to be cut off from the West

    Missed opportunity in the latter half no COVID part of the Trump presidency…though there’s that whole Opium diplomacy period, I think China would (and probably has to some degree already) halt both it’s it’s precursor to Mexico and finished Fentanyl traffic, if leaned in on strongly. I think they (the commercial elite at least) have less of a “para chingar” attitude toward the US than the southern neighbor.

    urbanleftbehind (1dd6d7)

  18. Nixon committed treason with south vietam with anna chenault as the go between. LBJ secretly recorded the treason and played it for rep. sen. dirksen. Similar to the treason reagan and bill casey committed with Iran to hold the hostages till after the election with the help of john connelly. This was the start of the Iran/contra treason and drug smuggling.

    Drivel.

    Kevin M (2d6744)

  19. @18 How does the word drivel refute documented history. You can’t say they didn’t happen I have heard the lbj recording. it was played on the news.

    asset (230fd0)

  20. Fascinating.
    Funny that Nixon mentioned Sachs, who turned out to be a mewling pro-Putin hack.

    Paul Montagu (8f0dc7)

  21. Funny that Nixon mentioned Sachs, who turned out to be a mewling pro-Putin hack.

    He’s also Gawd-awful on China. Easily one of of the most overrated “public intellectuals” of the last 50 years.

    JVW (71df31)

  22. 19. asset (230fd0) — 7/24/2023 @ 6:51 pm

    You can’t say they didn’t happen I have heard the lbj recording. it was played on the news.

    Treason?

    Reagan and Bill Casey agreeing with Iran to hold the hostages till after the election with the help of John Connally?

    Iran/contra and drug smuggling?

    That can definitely be called drivel.

    The Johnson Dirksen treason comment was this:

    https://lbjtapes.org/conversation/treason

    Three days before the 1968 presidential election, President Johnson contacted Senate Minority Leader Everett M. Dirksen [R–Illinois] to inform him that the White House had received hard evidence from the Federal Bureau of Investigation that the campaign of Republican presidential candidate Richard M. “Dick” Nixon was interfering with Johnson’s efforts to start peace talks to end the Vietnam War. In this call, Johnson referred to contacts between Nixon’s campaign and South Vietnamese president Nguyễn Văn Thiệu that urged Thiệu to thwart any such negotiations.

    Date: November 2, 1968
    Topic: 1968 Bombing Halt, Chennault Affair
    Location LBJ Ranch
    Conversation
    WH6811-01-13706

    his was just encouragement, on the part of some people who supported Nixon, mainly the old China lobby, to Thieu that should wait till after the election to play along. There was a real fear of being sold out.

    Sammy Finkelman (1d215a)

  23. Kevin M (2d6744) — 7/24/2023 @ 4:17 pm

    What Nixon did was offer them access to the West, which led directly to Deng et al overcoming Mao’s heirs after he died. And they never looked back.

    China was anyway split from the USSR going back to at east 1973 – they had even been in combat around 1969. I don’t think the end of a boycott by the United States led to Deng taking power. And China remains an adversary and an untrustworthy government,

    Sammy Finkelman (1d215a)

  24. Great post. Thanks to JVW for bringing this letter to our attention.

    Dana (560c99)

  25. 10.12. The rubber stamping appears to be only on pages that have marks.

    The first one page says:

    Photocopy Misc. Handwriting

    and probably refers to the line added at the top:

    Dear Mr. President

    It differ from the rubber stamping or whatever on some other pages in that it is not in ALL CAPS like

    PHOTOCOPY WJC HANDWRITING

    at the bottom of pages 2-6.

    Page 7, which has a signature, which could be RN, also has

    Photocopy Misc. Handwriting

    Clinton also made some marks on the side.

    Sammy Finkelman (1d215a)

  26. Nixon mentioned Hank Greenberg. I think that’s the same Hank Greenberg who was forced out of AIG in 2008, [correction – he retired in 2005 but maybe was prevented from rejoining. There’s too little in the Wikipedia article] after which it went bankrupt. {I think]

    https://www.reuters.com/article/us-aig-bailout/ex-aig-ceo-greenberg-loses-appeal-over-2008-bailout-idUSKBN1851OU

    I see his actual first name was Maurice:

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maurice_R._Greenberg

    Sammy Finkelman (1d215a)


Powered by WordPress.

Page loaded in: 0.0934 secs.