On May 22, 1972, Richard Nixon went to Moscow. The Historiat has already covered at historic visit here, but there is plenty more to glean from the encounter.
The Kitchen Debate of 1959, for example, where Nixon, ever the lawyer from California, got into an impromptu debate with Nikita Khrushchev (ever the socialist) over the merits of their different systems of governance and economy. Nixon’s 1959 trip so impressed the Soviet First Secretary that Khrushchev later declared he did everything in his power to prevent Nixon from being elected President in 1960.
There is also the eternal unanswered question: Why Nixon? How did the staunch anti-communist end up making two trips to the Soviet Union in the heat of the Cold War? Perhaps it is because only warriors can make a lasting peace. Or maybe, as Rick Brownell recently argued, it’s because Nixon was actually a Progressive. Trump himself, after all, said that Republicans and Conservatives are two different animals, and the Progressive tradition has a long history of operating within the GOP.
On May 28 of that eventful 1972 summit, Nixon became the first American president to address the Soviet people directly. He did so on live radio and television, two mediums where he had mixed success in the past, and in English. In his memoirs, Nixon stated that he wanted to reach the Soviet people as plainly as he could, with no interpreters to muck up his message, and no censors. The Cold War lasted another 20 years after that speech, so it has been easy for Nixon’s detractors to downplay the significance of the 1972 speech.
However, the fact that the democratically elected leader of the most powerful country on the planet wanted to speak to the Soviets himself, with no aides or Party men at his side, is one of the more subtle American victories of the Cold War. A functioning democracy that protects rights and operates under a rule of law requires humility of its leadership, no matter how powerful the positions are. Nixon’s address gave the Soviets a dose of the liberalism that guides the American constitution.
Liberalism is above all else a humble creed, and a lone, powerful man speaking to foreign people plainly about friendship, gave the Soviets a glimpse of how their own leaders would behave if Soviet politicians were constrained by a rule of law and democratic consent.