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Why Kissinger Dismissed the Soviet Jews

Gal Beckerman explains newly revealed ‘gas chambers’ remark

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President Nixon and then-Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, September 1973.(AFP/Getty Images)

The big news from the latest release from the Nixon White House tapes—a.k.a. the gift that keeps on giving—does not come from the man himself (he rants against Jews, blacks, and Italians, surprise surprise), but from his most notorious adviser, at least among the un-indicted ones. On March 1, 1973, President Nixon met with Golda Meir. The Israeli prime minister urged Nixon to pressure the Soviets into letting at least some of her people go. But afterward, Nixon’s national security adviser, Henry Kissinger, expressed that the administration should not heed Meir’s request.

“The emigration of Jews from the Soviet Union is not an objective of American foreign policy,” he said. “And if they put Jews into gas chambers in the Soviet Union, it is not an American concern. Maybe a humanitarian concern.”

Responded Nixon: “I know. We can’t blow up the world because of it.”

After getting over the initial shock at a German-born Jew saying such things, I called Gal Beckerman, a Forward reporter and author of the new When They Come For Us, We’ll Be Gone, a history of the movement to save Soviet Jewry that both The New Yorker and the Washington Post just named among the best books of the year. (Tablet Magazine critic Adam Kirsch liked it, too; I’d further highly recommend Yossi Klein Halevi’s much more personal take in The New Republic.)

Beckerman shared my shock at Kissinger’s choice of imagery, but was unsurprised at the content behind the quip. “In my darkest imaginings, that’s what I thought he was thinking, but I never assumed he was actually articulating it quite that way, or would use the Holocaust language,” he said. “This is not outside of Kissinger’s political philosophy. In fact, it’s almost the perfect distilled example of his realpolitik, except it’s this extreme realpolitik, where basically we have blinders on except for things that concern us geo-strategically, and if it’s a moral issue—a question of what a country is doing to its own citizens—that’s just outside the realm of our consideration as a country.”

The context for the meeting and the remarks, Beckerman explained, was the Jackson-Vanik Amendment, which was then a proposal (it was passed the next year) that linked most-favored-nation status in trade deals with the potential trade partner’s emigration policies. Its prime impetus, of course, was the Soviet Union and its Jews: It was designed to coax the U.S.S.R. into permitting its Jews to leave, with most-favored-nation status as a carrot.

Nixon opposed this strategy. “The future of détente with the Soviet Union is liable to be foiled by the Congress,” Nixon told Meir, Beckerman reports in his book. “Personally I can get better results for you.” (Beckerman notes that Nixon’s realpolitik thinking was largely the result of Kissinger: In his prior political incarnation, Nixon was a hardcore ideological Cold Warrior.)

“At this particular moment,” Beckerman told me, “this is when things were really turning in that direction. [Sen. Henry “Scoop” Jackson, the amendment’s main sponsor,] had a huge amount of congressmen backing him and the whole Jewish organizational world behind him.”

The legacy of Jackson-Vanik goes well beyond its immediate consequences for Soviet-American relations, international trade, and even the question of Soviet Jewry, Beckerman argues. “This was unprecedented,” he said, “that Congress would tell the president, ‘We’re going to sabotage your foreign policy.’” Along with the more activist Congress, according to Beckerman, Jackson-Vanik marked a turn away from the dominance of realpolitik and toward human rights, so famously trumpeted by President Carter in his 1977 inaugural address. Jackson-Vanik, said Beckerman, “was like a grenade in the middle of détente.”

But back to Kissinger. His duplicity regarding Jackson-Vanik, Beckerman told me, would come to involve hiding a secret letter in which the Soviets backed off from a deal under which they would be waived from Jackson-Vanik in exchange for allowing 60,000 Jews to emigrate. (The jig was up only when the Soviets angrily printed the letter in one of their newspapers.) “To give credit to his political philosophy,” Beckerman said, “Kissinger thought that by not dealing with these moral issues but trying to create a more stable world, everyone would benefit. And that’s what Nixon is saying in his retort to Meir.”

But that is about all the credit Beckerman, who a few years ago published an excellent review about the history and psychology behind Kissinger’s views, can muster. “If anybody was going to understand!” he told me. “Kissinger got out in the ‘30s, and then he went back with the Army after the war to be part of the occupation. When he’s talking about gas chambers, it’s not an abstract concept. He lost family.”

“The amazing part about that quote,” Beckerman added, “is the word ‘maybe.’ It’s ‘maybe a humanitarian concern.’”

In Tapes, Nixon Rails About Jews and Blacks [NYT]
Related: Last Exit [Tablet Magazine]
Glory [TNR]
Kissinger, Unearthed [Forward]

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The sad part about this that there are many Kissingers among us today.

Daniel Steinmetz says:

Well, at this point no one can defend Kissinger on anything by saying he wouldn’t do something monstrous.” Clearly, nothing was out of bounds as long as he felt it advanced American interests or his career.

I do wonder if he said it to get Nixon to feel he was a trustworthy house Jew.

I am wondering how many Jewish Republicans will now turn on Kissinger, especially those who insist that the US has humanitarian obligations to Israel.

There must be a special place in hell for Kissinger’s realpolitik. In 1938, he was one of the fortunate few German Jews to reach the U.S. But for my Soviet Jewish family, he wouldn’t lift a finger. What a disgusting man.

Anyone who would take Nixon’s anti-Jew abuses day after day being called a Jew Boy should be shot. We Jews were once feared as tough. Look at history. It was the Jews who the Romans most hated because we would not bow down to their Gods. We revolted twice against them. Did the French, the Irish, the Spanish etc. We Jews were tough and we should be tough again where anti-Jews are afraid of us. Kisinger should be punched in the face because it was German Jews like him who didn’t stop Hitler in 1920 not 1933. The various factions in Germany were mostly anti-Jew but the Nazis and Hitler told us what they were going to do.
Why wait to have your family murdered or tortured or medically experimented on? No one is afraid of Jews. They should be.

Contact me Bill Levy

LazerBeam says:

The most important question is why Kissinger (K) felt compelled to argue for nonintervention on behalf of Soviet Jewry even in the extreme of a Soviet Holocaust. (In fact, more Soviet citizens died in the Gulag under Stalin than died at the hands of the Nazis in WWII.) Clearly, K’s vaulting ambition and his malleable ethics under his realpolitik required him to prove his loyalty to the U.S. and his President over his brethren. Is this a reprehensible act? If one applies the same ethical standard to K as is now being applied to George Soros, without the mitigating condition of Soros’ youth and the reality of the Nazi Holocaust, then K should be excoriated for his Kapo-like sell-out of his people.

However, in context, neither Nixon’s overt anti-Semitism nor K’s acquiescence to it are new, even in the face of overt Jewish suffering. It was the German Jews who told the American Jews not to organize a boycott against Nazi Germany, because that would just aggravate Hitler and prove his point that Germany had been, was being and would be hamstrung by a world-wide Jewish conspiracy. When then Treasury Secretary, Henry Morgenthau, went to Roosevelt early in WWII and asked him to allow European Jews to immigrate en masse, he was rebuffed. Like many in his cabinet, Roosevelt was an anti-Semite, albeit a polite one. Later in WWII, when Jewish groups asked the Allies to bomb rail lines to the camps to slow down the final solution, neither Roosevelt nor Churchill would divert one bomber for that purpose, because the final solution was diverting Nazi war resources away from the fronts. Nor did French, Polish, or Lithuanian undergrounds offer to take them out. Not when the Nazis were doing God’s work. After the creation of the War Refugee Board in January 1944, a token 200,000 Jews eventually emigrated to the U.S. to assuage the nation’s conscience and Roosevelt’s Jewish constituency. Too little, too late.

So what is K’s crime? Disloyalty? To whom? Not his adopted country!

Henry Kissinger: Let my people die

Yaakov Hillel says:

We had antisemitic Jews two and three thousand years ago, You find them through out the Talmud and the various books of the Bible. Kissenger is a hot air balloon historically speaking. As an Antsemite really nothing special. He would have been special maybe, had he not have been an antisemite or what we call a self hating Jew.

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Why Kissinger Dismissed the Soviet Jews

Gal Beckerman explains newly revealed ‘gas chambers’ remark

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