- A declassified 1994 letter to Bill Clinton shows how well the former president understood the Russians.
When Bill Clinton eulogized Richard Nixon on April 27, 1994, he spoke of the former president’s “wise counsel, especially with regard to Russia . . . based on our last phone conversation and the letter he wrote me just a month ago.” For nearly 30 years, the content of that letter remained a secret. Thanks to its declassification this week through Mr. Clinton’s presidential library, it is hidden no longer.
What is most striking about the seven-page, single-spaced letter dated March 21, 1994, is that Nixon anticipated a more belligerent Russia, the rise of someone like Vladimir Putin, and worsening relations between Moscow and Kyiv. Nixon, who was 81, had just returned from a two-week trip to Russia and Ukraine. In 1972 he became the first sitting president to visit Moscow, where he signed the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty. After leaving office he continued to have access to elites in governments and opposition leaders around the world. That Mr. Clinton was a Democrat and Nixon a Republican made no difference. The ultimate Cold Warrior was an elder statesman interested in the contours of the post-Cold War era.
Nixon warned that Boris Yeltsin’s brief experiment with democracy was already over. “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,” Nixon wrote to Mr. Clinton. “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.”
Nixon also said that Moscow’s relationship with Kyiv would worsen. Though the dynamic had improved during Yeltsin’s tenure, the situation in Ukraine was “highly explosive.” “If it is allowed to get out of control,” Nixon warned, “it will make Bosnia look like a PTA garden party.”
The former president didn’t think American diplomats were taking the issue seriously enough. “Because of the importance of Ukraine, I reluctantly urge that you immediately strengthen our diplomatic representation in Kiev,” he wrote. It was equally important that the U.S. anticipate Yeltsin’s potential successor. “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.”
It wasn’t clear who that successor might be. “There is still no one who is in Yeltsin’s class as a potential leader in Russia,” Nixon wrote. “The Russians are serious people. One of the reasons Khrushchev was put on the shelf back in 1964 is that the proud Russians became ashamed of his crude antics at the U.N. and in other international forums.” In other words, if the U.S. didn’t act promptly to cultivate Yeltsin’s successor, Russia could again shift to a more nationalist, hard-line leader, as when Leonid Brezhnev succeeded Khrushchev.
Nixon also warned Mr. Clinton about presidential personnel. “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,” he wrote. Nixon evidently didn’t think Mr. Clinton was being served well by his own people. “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.” Always inspired by the big play—the lunar landing, the unilateral ending of the gold standard, and trips to China and Russia—Nixon encouraged Mr. Clinton to do the same. That would require that the best ideas not be stifled by his administration.
Mr. Putin has sparred with five presidents to date, but it was Nixon who saw him coming. “After he died, I found myself wishing I could pick up the phone and ask President Nixon what he thought about this issue or that problem, particularly if it involved Russia,” Mr. Clinton said in 2013. Nixon didn’t live to see Mr. Putin succeed Yeltsin, but his newly declassified correspondence with Mr. Clinton shows that he wouldn’t be surprised by Russia today.
Luke A. Nichter is a professor of history at Chapman University and author of “The Year That Broke Politics: Chaos and Collusion in the Presidential Election of 1968,” forthcoming in August. Energiesnet.com does not necessarily share these views.
Editor’s Note: This article was originally appeared in the WSJ July 21, 2023, All comments posted and published on EnergiesNet or Petroleumworld, do not reflect either for or against the opinion expressed in the comment as an endorsement of EnergiesNet or Petroleumworld.
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energiesnet.com 07 24 2023