Putin’s covert support for Donald Trump has not been the first time Russia aspired to influence an American presidential election. Forty-two years ago, a Russian leader privately pledged his government’s support for a president’s reelection: “We for our part will do everything we can to make that happen,” Leonid Brezhnev said to Gerald Ford. I know, because I’m the last surviving participant in those events.
In August 1975, President Gerald Ford travelled to Helsinki to participate in the largest summit of world leaders ever held: 35 European heads of state meeting to sign the Helsinki Accords at the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe Summit. The Accords are the only official written settlement of World War II. Russia wanted the agreement because it seemed to ratify its expanded boundaries. In return, the West extracted a prohibition against any future changing of borders by force (which, ironically, Russia became the only state to violate when it annexed Crimea from Ukraine in 2014). The West also got Russia’s commitment to loosen access to western media and to observe its own citizens’ human rights, provisions which became something of a turning point in overcoming Soviet oppression.
I was a member of President Ford’s small policy team in Helsinki. My main role was as the arms-control expert. While the Helsinki conference did not play a large role in arms control, we had scheduled two bilateral side meetings with Russia’s leader, Leonid Brezhnev, to work on a second Strategic Arms Limitations Treaty (SALT II). I had been at the initial SALT II discussions with Ford and Brezhnev in Vladivostok nine months earlier and had led interagency preparations within the U.S. government for this follow-on.