The release of the most recent set of Nixon White House tapes last week apparently did not produce any dramatic revelations. It is, after all, widely known that President Richard Nixon was not particularly politically correct when it came to racial and ethnic slurs. But these tapes remind us of the heated debates in those days about how American Jews should weigh their specifically Jewish interests — especially concerning Israel but also concerning Soviet Jews — against the perceived American interest. In so doing, the tapes enable us to grasp the unfolding of history in hindsight.
Speaking with Kissinger on April 19, 1973, on the eve of a meeting with Soviet premier Leonid Brezhnev in Washington, President Nixon threatened that if American Jews dared spoil this summit, they would pay for it. “Let me say, Henry, it’s gonna be the worst thing that happened to Jews in American history,” the president said. “They put the Jewish interest above America’s interest, and it’s about goddamn time that the Jew in America realizes he’s an American first and a Jew second.”
Reading this conversation took me straight back to those tense days at the beginning of the 1970s. In those days, all of us who fought for human rights behind the Iron Curtain, and especially those of us active in the Soviet Jewry movement, were torn between our wholehearted belief in the American ideal of freedom and our fear that, in our case, some American leaders were not ready to fight for that ideal. It was clear to us that without American public support, our struggle for the freedom of Soviet Jews would be doomed. But it was also eminently clear to us that there was a direct connection between the deprivation of our rights behind the Iron Curtain and the threat to the American national interest signaled by such Soviet provocations as the dispatch of tanks to Prague, missiles to Cuba, troops to Nicaragua and Angola, and support for anti-Western terrorism all over the world. We asked ourselves with deep concern whether it was possible that the American leadership simply didn’t understand the connection.
But I was also reminded of my own meeting, 14 years later, with another American president prior to his summit with another Soviet leader. In 1987, two months before Mikhail Gorbachev’s first visit to Washington and a planned mass demonstration protesting the treatment of Soviet Jews, I met President Ronald Reagan in the White House. Responding to the fears voiced by some American Jewish leaders that the demonstration might be seen by the American public, or by the administration itself, as a provocative intrusion into the delicate sphere of American-Soviet relations, Reagan exclaimed: “Do you think I am interested in a friendship with the Soviets if they continue to keep their people in prison? You do what you believe is right.”
Two months later, after 250,000 people demonstrated in Washington on the day of the summit, the late Rep. Tom Lantos (D-Calif.), a Holocaust survivor and lifelong champion of human rights, was congratulated by his colleagues on Capitol Hill who told him that all Americans should learn from American Jews how to fight for American ideals.
Today, after the fall of the Iron Curtain, after the freeing of Soviet Jews, after the demise of the Soviet Union and the West’s great victory in the Cold War (without a single shot having been fired in the final confrontation), I believe it is not only former Soviet Jews but the American people as a whole who owe a debt of gratitude to those American Jews who over the course of a quarter-century, whatever their president may have privately felt or said, led an uncompromising struggle for their brothers and sisters in the Soviet Union. They thereby performed an inestimable service both to the American national interest and to the cause of freedom, the founding American ideal.
Natan Sharansky is chairman of the executive of the Jewish Agency, former human rights activist and political prisoner in the Soviet Union.