It was 35 years ago this summer that the conservative movement found itself in a defining, epic moral struggle not with the liberal left but with the moderate wing of the Republican Party. It’s an issue worth revisiting, not merely because it’s intriguing history, but because it reminds conservatives to always fight the good fight and be willing to stand against the establishment, even when that establishment is the GOP.
Here was the context: Soviet dissident Alexander Solzhenitsyn had published (in English) his majestic Gulag Archipelago, blowing the whistle on the brutality of the Soviet system, a chilling, lengthy account by an eyewitness, himself a survivor. (See: “Witness: Solzhenitsyn vs. evil.”) It was a stirring demonstration of the power of the pen and truth, casting light upon the darkness of what another unafraid anti-communist would dub an “Evil Empire.”
Pravda judged the masterful testimony “slanderous.” For his transgression, Solzhenitsyn was arrested by the KGB, stripped of Soviet citizenship, and charged with treason. Unable to vanish or shoot him because of his international celebrity, the Kremlin’s thugs, repulsed as they were by decency, expelled the great moralist to West Germany. The writer made his way further westward still, taking residence in the United States — in Vermont.
Of course, everyone in America wanted to talk with him, to be with him, to meet with him. (Well, not everyone … more on that in a moment.) Such attention did not come naturally to the writer, more accustomed to expressing his thoughts in private — in seclusion.
Then came the intense summer of 1975. On June 30, Solzhenitsyn acquiesced to a request from George Meany, the stalwart anti-communist labor leader, to speak at an AFL-CIO dinner in Washington. There, the former prisoner cut loose, freely blasting away not merely at the USSR but at any effort to accommodate it. Solzhenitsyn told the 2,000-plus labor delegates:
I have tried to convey to your countrymen the constrained breathing of the inhabitants of Eastern Europe in these weeks when an amicable agreement of diplomatic shovels will inter in a common grave bodies that are still breathing. I have tried to explain to Americans that 1973, the tender dawn of détente, was precisely the year when the starvation rations in Soviet prisons and concentration camps were reduced even further. And in recent months, when more and more Western speechmakers have pointed to the beneficial consequences of détente, the Soviet Union has adopted a novel and important improvement in its system of punishment: to retain their glorious supremacy in the invention of forced-labor camps, Soviet prison specialists have now established a new form of solitary confinement — forced labor in solitary cells. That means cold, hunger, lack of fresh air, insufficient light, and impossible work norms; the failure to fulfill these norms is punished by confinement under even more brutal conditions.
This was naked reality. Its expression enraged the Kremlin and its hatchet-men and lackey propagandists, who viciously attacked the truth-teller in a series of brutal press releases and articles in their government-controlled media.
As this quote also suggests, Solzhenitsyn had much to say for America. He told the AFL-CIO that America was “a country of tremendous breadth of spirit; a country of generosity; a country of magnanimity.” More trenchantly, he gravely warned against “unprincipled compromises,” about sacrificing “conscience,” and about making “deals with evil.”
Here, more context is required: Notably, this was mere weeks before the Helsinki conference, where some 30-40 nations — the United States among them — met in Finland to sign a declaration to improve “relations” between the West and the communist world. On the surface, that may have sounded good. At closer inspection, however, it was capitulation.
Most hideous among the 10 points in the Helsinki declaration were the first and the sixth which, respectively, called for each side to respect the sovereign rights of the other and for “non-intervention in internal affairs.” This was the not-so-clever language incessantly employed by the communist world to silence the West, to goad the likes of America into not protesting the jailing and executing and general repressions of hundreds of millions held captive behind the Iron Curtain.
Rubbing salt into the wounds, points seven and eight of the declaration pledged respect for basic freedoms among all parties, including “thought, conscience, belief” and “equal rights and self-determination.”
The Soviets were not about to fulfill any part of the bargain.
Nonetheless, there lending support to this historical farce was America’s president, Gerald Ford, signing the document alongside Western dupes like Helmut Schmidt of West Germany and Pierre Trudeau of Canada, as attendees like the hideous Erich Honecker of East Germany and Romania’s insane Nicolai Ceausescu — among other Eastern bloc tyrants — licked their chops at the stunning display of naïveté. The pitiful scene reminded of Whittaker Chambers’ observation that communists looked upon Western elites with “sneering contempt,” cynically amazed at their willingness to fall prey to their own victimization.
Helsinki was the perfect byproduct, the wretched bastard child, of détente, perpetuated by the accommodationist Republican triumvirate of Nixon-Ford-Kissinger. This was not “rollback” or undermining of the Soviet empire, as Ronald Reagan would later pursue. It was not “We win, they lose,” as Reagan ultimately dedicated himself and his country. No, this was pure accommodation, in its most quixotic, pathetic form.
As the likes of ex-governor Reagan publicly noted at the time, all of this — Helsinki, détente, “non-intervention,” respect for sovereignty and “territorial integrity” and so-called freedom of thought — was merely a sham, a “one-way street” for the Soviets to continue to hold half of Europe in slavery and export communism around the globe without Western resistance. Worse still, it meant that the West, from Americans to Western Europeans, were complicit, essentially selling their brethren in Eastern Europe down the river. Détente was flatly “immoral,” said Reagan.
Alas, and so said Solzhenitsyn — and then some. As a former inhabitant of the gulag, Solzhenitsyn could criticize these things with a credibility few others possessed. He had survived his persecutors, and lived to tell the world.
Thus, everyone in America wanted to meet with Solzhenitsyn that summer of 1975, to gather his wisdom; everyone, that is, except the sitting president of the United States, Republican Gerald R. Ford.
With Solzhenitsyn in town to speak to the AFL-CIO at the Washington Hilton, he was literally down the block from the White House. It was an opportune time for Ford to meet with him. Conservatives, from Republicans like Jesse Helms and Jack Kemp to anti-communist Democrats like Scoop Jackson, urged the president to do so. Senators Helms and Strom Thurmond issued a joint statement on July 2 urging their Republican leader to meet with Solzhenitsyn before he headed back to the hills of Vermont.
Ford refused. He had been so counseled by his chief adviser, Henry Kissinger, with whom he was in full agreement, each man reinforcing the other.
The Ford administration was so wedded to détente, and to getting along with the Soviets, that it dare not offend them by meeting with Kremlin Public Enemy No. 1. The president dare not endanger détente. And so, he threw Solzhenitsyn under the bus. Ford desired to please Leonid Brezhnev more than displease Alexander Solzhenitsyn.
On Ford’s refusal, several items of evidence have since emerged. Among them are the minutes from two Cabinet meetings.
In the first of these, held February 21, 1974, well before his actual snub of Solzhenitsyn, Ford telegraphed his position. He made clear he would not jeopardize “progress” and the “continuation of détente” because of the dissident. In fact, mused Ford, Solzhenitsyn ought to consider himself fortunate: This kinder, gentler Soviet regime “at least let Solzhenitsyn and his family out — earlier [under previous regimes] the punishment was liquidation.”
In the second Cabinet meeting, March 8, 1974, dominated by Ford and Kissinger, Kissinger dismissed Solzhenitsyn as “far right of Goldwater” and “a Slavophile and a Czarist.” Ford chimed in, waxing literary, opining that the Soviet writer “isn’t as good as Tolstoy.” The president insisted: “We won’t give up our ideals, but we will talk with our potential enemies because the alternative is a runaway arms race and a possible catastrophe.”
In reality, what this meant was that Ford’s and Kissinger’s America — holding fast to its “ideals” — would talk to Solzhenitsyn’s tormentors but not to Solzhenitsyn. The president’s men would talk with Brezhnev’s boys at great length, in detailed negotiations, extolling to the planet the various “freedoms” to be honored, while spurning even a 30-minute sit-down with the world’s most renowned ex-prisoner of conscience.
Ford should have told Brezhnev and the boys that — holding fast to America’s ideals — he would meet with Solzhenitsyn, a test of their sudden alleged seriousness about human rights. Then he would learn about the regime’s commitment to Helsinki and détente.
Ford’s appraisal couldn’t have been worse.
Most distasteful, as noted by historian Douglas Brinkley, Ford privately slammed Solzhenitsyn as “a goddamn horse’s ass.” Quoting Ford’s press secretary, Ron Nessen, Brinkley recorded: “Ford complained that the dissident Russian writer wanted to visit the White House primarily to publicize his books and drum up lecture dates.”
This was a stunningly stupid assessment of a man who was both moralist and recluse.
If you want a gauge of just how awful was Ford’s snub, consider that it angered even the New York Times and Jimmy Carter (not to mention men of the left like Christopher Hitchens).
“Does President Ford know the difference between détente and appeasement?” asked the Times in an editorial, quite correctly. “This unlikely question arises in light of the news that President Ford decided not to receive Nobel Laureate Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn because to do so would be inconsistent with détente.”
As for Carter, in the October 6, 1976 presidential debate, he rightly complained of Ford: “He’s also shown a weakness in yielding to pressure. The Soviet Union, for instance, put pressure on Mr. Ford, and he refused to see a symbol of human freedom recognized around the world — Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.”
Yes, when it came to appeasing the Soviets, Gerald Ford, Republican, was to the left of the New York Times and Jimmy Carter.
Is it any wonder that Ronald Reagan challenged the incumbent Republican for the party’s presidential nomination the next year?
Not coincidentally, as the Republican convention approached in August 1976, Reagan and his supporters sought to add a plank titled “morality in foreign policy” to the party platform, which included these choice words:
We recognize and commend that great beacon of human courage and morality, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, for his compelling message that we must face the world with no illusions about the nature of tyranny. Ours will be a foreign policy that keeps this ever in mind…. Agreements that are negotiated, such as the one signed in Helsinki, must not take from those who do not have freedom the hope of one day gaining it.
The plank was widely reported (including in the August 17, 1976 New York Times) as a repudiation of Ford-Kissinger foreign policy, which indeed it was.
Such nonsense from Ford was so bad that the editorial board at Bill Buckley’s National Review actually considered endorsing Jimmy Carter in 1976 rather than the Republican incumbent. As Lee Edwards notes in his excellent new biography of Buckley, NR‘s editors (specifically James Burnham) at least considered endorsing Carter, given their grave disappointment with Ford. (In the end, they endorsed Ford.)
Alas, the one saving grace from this sordid episode is that it helped produce the death of détente and the birth of the Reagan presidency, but only after an even more painful period, namely four horrendous years under President Jimmy Carter — made possible by Gerald Ford. We wouldn’t have gotten Reagan without Carter and Ford. With the advent of that sea-change at the head of the Republican Party, accommodation was out and rollback was in. It would be the death knell for an empire that the new Republican president and an esteemed Russian dissident mutually agreed was the embodiment of evil. And it was that tectonic shift at the helm of the Republican Party that sealed the fate of the Soviet empire, ultimately announced worldwide by the collapse of the Berlin Wall in the fall of 1989.
The difference between the fall of 1989 and summer of 1975 was black-and-white and life-and-death, from mere rhetoric about freedom to genuine freedom. Today, most of its players — Ford, Solzhenitsyn, Reagan — are gone. Yet, the fight for what’s right, for conscience, for rejecting “unprincipled compromises” and “deals with evil,” for embracing Solzhenitsyn and what he stood for, remain as timeless as ever.