On May 22, 1972, Richard Nixon became the first American president to visit Moscow, the capital and largest city of what was then the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. The nine-day summit came on the heels of Nixon’s more famous visit to China earlier in the year, when he and Chairman Mao reinitiated Chinese-American relations and began a long process of reintegrating the two societies’ political, cultural, and economic institutions. (Nixon, in 1959, visited Moscow as vice-president, something I’ll write about it July, so stay tuned!)
So why did Nixon, one of the most ardent anti-Communists in American politics during the late 1960s and early 1970s, go to Moscow at the height of the Cold War? How was he able to even pull it off? The counterintuitive answer is that it was because he was so hawkish. Only Nixon could go to the Soviet Union (and China earlier in 1972).
Nixon’s anti-Communist credentials were so sound that he could spend political capital making inroads with Communist enemies. His actions were viewed as safe by the American electorate because, for better or worse, the public saw Nixon as somebody who would not betray American values at the negotiating table with the Soviets. Nixon’s hawkishness provided moral cover for America’s withdrawal from Vietnam, and its peaceful overtures to the two most powerful and aggressively anti-capitalist regimes in the world (China and the USSR).
This dynamic plays out in a number of examples in the world today, too. Donald Trump comes to mind, of course, but so does Narendra Modi’s populist regime in India (relations between India and Pakistan have never been so peaceful). Xi Jinping’s China can also be viewed in this light. At home, Chairman Xi is a strident nationalist, but abroad, he and his policymakers have been vigorously building multilateral relationships with Asia, Africa, Latin America, Europe, and even the United States using that hawkishness at home as one of its diplomatic cards at the negotiating table. In the past, Otto von Bismarck’s German federation achieved peace on the European continent through strength.
Anecdotally, Republicans from California tend to be a bit more hawkish than their national counterparts. Nixon and Reagan come to mind, but so do many of California’s GOP members in the House of Representatives today. This is due, in part, to the fact that California is so far to the left that GOP operatives have to distinguish their differences with Democrats in a more pronounced manner. California’s Democrats are, for better or worse, viewed as the standard-bearers for all things left-wing today: big government, open immigration (whether legal or not), and world peace. This is a caricature, of course, since people like Nancy Pelosi and Babs Boxer have easily traceable hawkish records on policies like foreign affairs, but that’s just the nature of electoral politics in one-party states and of the narrative of our media establishment. California’s Republicans, outnumbered and always under attack, have no other option but to oppose instinctively their counterparts’ public aura. If the Democrats there are in favor of peace with communists (even if their voting record says otherwise), the Republicans have to go to their constituents and say they are against it.
Nixon was the first president to visit Moscow. FDR had visited the Soviet Union in 1945, but the conference he attended, along with Winston Churchill and Josef Stalin, was held at Yalta, a resort town in present-day Crimea. The Moscow Summit itself was rather interesting, too. Nixon signed numerous accords with the Soviet Union while there, but he did so with numerous heads of Soviet bureaucracies rather than solely with Brezhnev. What this can tell us is that the Soviet Union was far more decentralized in 1972 than many hawkish (and ideological) observers claimed.
After Stalin’s butcherous rein, Khrushchev came to power and tried to eliminate the brutal elements of Stalin’s regime while simultaneously wielding the power Stalin had held. But power thrives on fear and violence, and reformers took advantage of Khrushchev’s less brutal approach to institute a number of reforms in governance, including the dismantling of the General Secretary’s omnipotent position in the USSR’s political hierarchy. What emerged by the time Khrushchev’s successor, Brezhnev, came to govern was a much more decentralized political structure that sought to realize a true union of Soviet socialist republics. The fact that this realization still failed to replace capitalism as a superior producer of goods, services, and human freedom should not shroud the fact that reform was achieved in the Soviet Union. Indeed, the fact that hard-fought reform in Soviet civil and political life failed to achieve any of the USSR’s economic goals is a strength when pointing out socialism’s long list of failures.
Incidentally, one of the reasons I didn’t include Gorbachev in the list of dictators who “gave up” power is because he wasn’t a dictator. Gorbachev inherited a political system that was decentralized and dedicated to representativeness. If anything, the executive branch of the USSR was more decentralized than its American counterpart, a fact illustrated best by Nixon having to sign accords with a number of high-ranking Soviet officials.
So what can all this history teach us about today’s world? I look at hawks and doves. Hawks may make boorish claims, and they may say stupid things, but maybe, just maybe, we should give the hawks a chance.