Yesterday, President Trump suggested in a Reuters interview that there wasn’t anything surprising or wrong about his son’s enthusiasm for learning secrets that he had been told were part of a Russian effort to help Trump’s presidential campaign. He said:
I think many people would have held that meeting. … Most of the phony politicians who are Democrats who I watched over the last couple of days — most of those phonies that act holier-than-thou, if the same thing happened to them, they would have taken that meeting in a heartbeat.
Trump is right that foreign powers have tried to influence U.S. politicians in the past. Foreign powers have many ways to exercise influence in representative democracies. Some of these may be public, and others surreptitious. 2016 certainly wasn’t the first time the Kremlin tried to influence a U.S. election, and Moscow is by no means alone in attempting to sway U.S. politics. However, these efforts have worked in complicated ways, and American politicians have not been as quick to accept their help as Trump suggests.
Russia tried – and failed – to support the Democrats in 1968
In 1968, Moscow feared that the staunchly anti-communist Richard M. Nixon would be elected. To forestall that, the Kremlin decided to reach out to Vice President and Democratic presidential candidate Hubert H. Humphrey. As Anatoly Dobrynin, the Soviet ambassador to the United States from John F. Kennedy to Ronald Reagan, revealed in his memoir, “In Confidence,” two decades ago: “The top Soviet leaders took an extraordinary step, unprecedented in the history of Soviet-American relations, by secretly offering Humphrey any conceivable help in his election campaign — including financial aid.” Dobrynin explained:
I received a top-secret instruction to that effect from [Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei] Gromyko personally and did my utmost to dissuade him from embarking on such a dangerous venture, which if discovered certainly would have backfired and ensured Humphrey’s defeat, to say nothing of the real trouble it would have caused for Soviet-American relations. Gromyko answered laconically, “There is a decision, you carry it out.”
The opportunity soon arose for the well-connected ambassador at a breakfast at Humphrey’s home. Dobrynin subtly raised the issue of Humphrey’s campaign finances during a discussion of the election, but the vice president deflected the issue. “Humphrey, I must say,” Dobrynin wrote, “was not only a very intelligent but also a very clever man. He knew at once what was going on.” Humphrey told Dobrynin that “it was more than enough for him to have Moscow’s good wishes which he highly appreciated.” Dobrynin felt relieved that he had followed his orders and Humphrey had avoided the potentially explosive issue.
Humphrey did not mention the Soviet election outreach or even Dobrynin in his 1991 memoir, “The Education of a Public Man: My Life and Politics.”
Russia had tried to hurt Nixon’s chances in 1960
Russian worries about Nixon’s anti-communism did not begin in 1968. At their first face-to-face meeting in Vienna, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev “joked” with the new U.S. president, John F. Kennedy, that the Soviet Union “had cast the deciding ballot in [Kennedy’s] election to the Presidency over that son-of-a-bitch Richard Nixon,” in 1960. When Kennedy asked for clarification, Khrushchev explained that he had waited until after the U.S. election to release Francis Gary Powers, a U-2 spy-plane pilot shot down over the Soviet Union on May 1, 1960, to undercut Nixon’s claim that he could work with the Soviets.
Khrushchev may have conflated Powers’s release — which didn’t happen until 1962 — with two American survivors of an RB-47H spy plane that was shot down in July 1960. Both Nixon and Kennedy had called upon the Soviet Union to release the American pilots. Nevertheless, as Adam Taylor previously wrote in The Washington Post:
Noting that the two candidates were at a “stalemate,” Khrushchev recalled saying that if Powers or the other Americans were released before the election, it could give Nixon a boost. It would be better to wait until after the election, the Soviet premier thought.
“My comrades agreed, and we did not release Powers,” he wrote. “As it turned out, we’d done the right thing. Kennedy won the election by a majority of only 200,000 or so votes, a negligible margin if you consider the huge population of the United States. The slightest nudge either way would have been decisive.”
Even 57 years later, the consequences of Khrushchev’s actions remain difficult to assess. However, the Soviet Union’s activities apparently were indirect, and did not involve any quid-pro-quo.
China possibly tried to influence U.S. politics in 1996
Moscow isn’t the only foreign power that has probably tried to influence U.S. politics. The “China Lobby” — the efforts of the Republic of China (Taiwan) under the Kuomintang — has been well-documented (for example) as soliciting political, economic and military support from the 1940s to the 1970s for Chiang Kai-shek and Taiwan in opposition to Mao Zedong and the People’s Republic of China. In addition to Taiwan’s efforts, and possibly to counter them, the PRC may have been involved in U.S. congressional and presidential elections during the 1990s.
In February 1997, Bob Woodward of Watergate fame and Brian Duffy wrote of alleged efforts by the PRC to direct contributions from foreign sources to the Democratic National Committee before the 1996 presidential campaign. The 1996 U.S. campaign finance controversy resulted in congressional and FBI investigations but did not lead to the appointment of an independent counsel. The People’s Republic of China consistently denied any involvement in the U.S. election campaign.
These are the games nations play
In his interview with Reuters, Trump also said: “I am not a person who goes around trusting lots of people. But [Putin’s] the leader of Russia. It is the second most powerful nuclear power on earth. I am the leader of the United States. I love my country. He loves his country.” It should come as no surprise that Russian leaders saw it in their interests to support him.
Trump’s statement suggests that countries will pursue their interests when and where they can. This reflects the pragmatic “realpolitik” (devotion to interests above ideals) embodied by Lord Palmerston’s famous quip in 1848: “We have no eternal allies, and we have no perpetual enemies. Our interests are eternal and perpetual, and those interests it is our duty to follow.”
In its influence campaign and possibly more direct efforts to shape the 2016 election, Russian leaders were almost certainly opposing a candidate, Hillary Clinton, who they saw as an impediment to their interests, much as the Kremlin opposed Richard Nixon in 1960 and 1968. One of the ironies of history is that the Soviet Union was able to achieve a relaxation of tensions — détente — with the United States with the very person it had opposed, Nixon.
Other great powers have attempted to influence or have actually influenced elections — including the United States in places like France and Italy in 1948, Latin America and elsewhere. Great powers will do so as long as it is in their interests and as long as they feel they can get away with it.
The problem is that if you are caught doing it, you, and the politicians you support, may face serious blowback, as Anatoly Dobrynin recognized in 1968 when he did his “utmost” to dissuade the Kremlin from attempting to support Hubert Humphrey.
Richard A. Moss is an associate research professor at the U.S. Naval War College’s Center for Naval Warfare Studies. He is grateful to John B. Turner Jr. of Memphis for reminding him about the section of Dobrynin’s memoir on the 1968 election
Author’s note: The views presented here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the Defense Department or its components.