A Surprisingly Candid Chat Between Nixon and Brezhnev

Despite Cold War tensions, newly released tapes show the two found plenty of room for jokes in a 1973 meeting.
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Outwardly, Cold War summits between leaders of the United States and the Soviet Union could seem stiff and formal affairs.

But a tape released on August 21 by the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration shows a different side of relations between then-U.S. President Richard Nixon and Soviet General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev.

Nixon and Brezhnev met one-on-one (with just translator Viktor Sukhodrev) in the White House on June 18, 1973, the day before the Washington summit officially began.

Nixon had an automatic taping system installed in the White House, and some 3,700 hours of tapes exist from his 1969-74 presidency. All but 700 hours have now been released to the public.

The two Cold War leaders, meeting for the second time since Nixon became president in 1969, are clearly trying to establish a personal rapport. Nixon tells Brezhnev that their relationship is the "key" that could "change the world."

"It is essential that those two nations, where possible, work together and the key really is in the relationship between Brezhnev and myself. If we decide to work together we can change the world. That's my attitude as we enter these talks," Nixon says.

Brezhnev responds in kind: "Here is what I want to tell you. Even in big politics the personal relationship between country leaders by far does not play a marginal role but sometimes a really important one. I completely agree with you that personal relations, mutual trust, mutual respect, and precision facilitate successful resolutions of various issues."

But much of the rest of the private chat is surprisingly loose and amicable. Brezhnev tells Nixon he thinks it is a "good omen" that it was raining when he left Moscow. He also shows the president a special cigarette case that will only dispense one cigarette every hour.

"That's a way to discipline yourself," Nixon retorts with a chuckle, according to a transcript of the meeting.

Brezhnev also apologizes for not bringing his wife to the United States, saying she was ill. He adds that his son was also unable to come because Brezhnev's grandson is finishing high school and taking his university entrance exams. The Soviet leader also mentions that Nixon's daughter, Tricia, "made a very big impression" on his children.

"They still remember every minute of their meeting," Brezhnev says.

The last phase of the summit was held at Nixon's residence in San Clemente, California, and the two leaders discuss that upcoming trip as well. "I like hearing the sound of the sea," Brezhnev says.

"I always think it is fascinating to hear, in the president's own words, what he is thinking about other presidential leaders," says Gregory Cumming, an archivist at the Nixon Presidential Library and Museum in California. "That is what you get from this -- you get his unvarnished thoughts and his interaction with someone like Brezhnev. It is very interesting and I think it is very important for scholars to hear the discussion of what is going on in the Oval Office regarding these other very important leaders."

On the tape of his meeting with Brezhnev, Nixon can be heard saying that he has "3 1/2 more years" as president and that he hopes to work intensely with Brezhnev during that time. He adds that he hopes Brezhnev will come back to Washington for another meeting in 1975. Brezhnev invites Nixon to Moscow in 1976.

But it was not to be. The clouds of the Watergate scandal were already gathering rapidly around Nixon and a little more than a year after his chat with Brezhnev he would be forced to resign his office.

The two men met for the final time in Moscow in June-July 1974 for a summit during which they signed the Threshold Test Ban Treaty, the last of a string of landmark arms treaties that the two leaders finalized during their three summits.


This post appears courtesy of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.

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