Human Rights and Détente: Kissinger's Failed Balancing Act
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Human Rights and Détente: Kissinger's Failed Balancing Act
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On the day before Thanksgiving forty-eight years ago, a human tragedy occurred in the waters off the coast of Massachusetts that quickly became an international incident.

The episode unfolded during the early period of détente with the Soviet Union. U.S. President Richard Nixon and National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger were negotiating the timing and agenda for a summit meeting to launch talks that would lead to the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty. Kissinger, who touted the détente policy as ushering in “a generation of peace,” described the episode in his memoir as one of those “minor issues [that] seemed to arise almost spontaneously to sour things.”

On that day, Nov. 23, 1970, a Soviet fishing vessel was tied up alongside a U.S. Coast Guard cutter off Martha’s Vineyard for official talks on fishing rights.Late that morning, after furtively signaling to the Americans an intention to defect, a Lithuanian sailor jumped off his trawler and boarded the USCGC Vigilant. In his broken English, Simas Kudirka immediately begged for political asylum. 

Thus began a tense, day-long ordeal during which the Soviet captain angrily demanded the sailor’s immediate return while Coast Guard officers and Edward Killham, a Soviet expert at the State Department, dilly-dallied by telephone about what to do with the man. 

After ten hours of erratic communications among Coast Guard officers, and  with State failing to offer any practical guidance, the acting commander of the First Coast Guard District in Boston directed that the man be forcibly returned to the Soviets. 

When the stunned captain of the Vigilant expressed opposition to the idea, he was bluntly told: “You have no discretion. You have your orders. Use whatever force is necessary. Do not let an incident occur.”

The Soviet officers, who were already aboard the Vigilant for the talks, were allowed to call in reinforcements from the Soviet ship. They overcame the screaming seaman’s desperate resistance with violent force. Kudirka was beaten, kicked, and choked. He was finally bound and dragged in a bloody blanket back to his ship, where he was further beaten until he lay senseless on the open deck.

On Thanksgiving morning, U.S. Transportation Secretary John Volpe, whose department included the Coast Guard, convened an emergency meeting of his staff and ordered a formal investigation of the incident. On the sideline of the gathering, a mid-level DoT public affairs official was heard to say matter-of-factly that “Kissinger wanted him sent back.” He did not indicate whether his comment reflected conversations with his White House counterparts or was simply personal speculation. 

Volpe told the press that returning the sailor to the Russians was a “serious error” and added: “I regret that the proud history of the U.S. Coast Guard, which has given shelter to hundreds of political refugees, was not upheld in this tragic incident.”

Meanwhile, a political firestorm erupted. A New York Times editorial called it “surely one of the most disgraceful incidents ever to occur on a ship carrying the American flag.”  The Washington Post declared that “[n]o more sickening and humiliating an episode in international relations has taken place in recent memory.” Protests erupted in several major U.S. cities as well as abroad. The press reported that Nixon was receiving “a flood of protests.” One newspaper headline read “Coast Guard Returned Red Defector When State Department Failed to Act.” Another called the episode “[o]ne of the biggest U.S. blunders in memory.” The United Nations Office for Refugees complained to the United States for violating its tradition of asylum. 

Nixon called the sailor’s return “outrageous” and expressed frustration that no one had told him about the incident at the time it was happening. He asked Kissinger whether “we dropped the ball on this.” We don’t know how Kissinger responded, but he wrote in his 1979 memoir that the event “enraged Nixon and me, but it was over long before any high officials were aware of the incident or could intervene.” In his 1994 book, Diplomacy, Kissinger’s discussion of the détente period makes no mention of the incident.

The State Department placed complete blame on the Coast Guard. “If the Department had been told that a defection had actually occurred, I am confident that things would have been handled—or things would have developed differently,” spokesman Robert McCloskey said.  

A memo did in fact circulate within the department and reached Arthur Downey, a Kissinger aide who later said he did not pass it on because the incident had apparently ended. Nor did State officials send it anywhere else in the chain of command because, they explained, it was the day before Thanksgiving.

Twenty years after the event, Kilham was interviewed for a history project by another State Department official. One of the interviewer’s questions linked the Kudirka incident to a widely held perception that high-level political State appointees were overly sensitive to Moscow’s concerns. So wrote the interviewer:

In general, I have always felt that the Soviet Desk was composed of officers who had served in the Soviet Union and tended to be very strong on defending reciprocity and assuring that the Soviets did not have great opportunities for security breaches. However, there would be great pressures from senior people who were impressed by the Dobrynins of this world. We might go into a discussion of that ship case if you would like?  

In a Dec. 22, 1970, memorandum describing a meeting between Nixon and Soviet Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin, Kissinger described the lingering effect of the incident in U.S.-Soviet relations. 

Dobrynin then mentioned the Soviet irritation at …  the treatment of the defecting incident of the Soviet sailor.  He said he could not understand the American performance. If we had given asylum to the Soviet sailor, he would have had to make a protest, and the matter would have been forgotten within 24 hours. But, first, to return him to the Soviet ship, and then to announce daily how profoundly concerned the president was, filled Moscow with outrage. For all these reasons, there was now profound distrust in the Soviet Union.

Kissinger doesn’t report the full conversation, but Dobrynin clearly implied that the decision to return Kudirka to the Soviet ship had been made at the highest level of the U.S. government. There is no clear evidence that this was the case. Yet it may be true that Killham, the Soviet desk officer at State, reached a higher-up in his department or at the National Security Council and was told to let the situation play out with the sailor’s return, thereby giving the administration plausible deniability of any involvement in the decision. It is also possible that someone at Foggy Bottom or the White House communicated directly with the Coast Guard’s Boston headquarters and ordered it to “not let an incident occur.” 

Both scenarios are conjecture, but either one would explain three things: State’s failure to get back to the Coast Guard with the promised guidance; the denial by Kissinger’s staffer that he passed information to Kissinger or to anyone else in a position to inform him; and the surprisingly vehement position of the acting commandant to order Kudirka’s return, as well as his refusal over the protracted ten-hour period to notify his superiors on an issue he recognized as being fraught with diplomatic implications.

It is also possible that Kissinger’s staff needed no specific guidance. Well-ingrained with his strategic priorities and understanding how important it was not to upset U.S.-Soviet relations at a delicate time in the SALT negotiations, they may have been confident that they were in line with their boss’s wishes.

Based on Kissinger’s memorandum of the meeting with Dobrynin, the lesson the Soviets seemed to draw from the episode was that in an era of fraught U.S.-Soviet relations, domestic political considerations could get in the way of larger issues. That was certainly Kissinger’s position as well, but ironically Dobrynin’s little lecture in the Oval Office suggested that Washington would have avoided a larger brouhaha by just keeping Kudirka. Dobrynin effectively told thepresident and secretaryto posture as they must on moral and human rights, then let’s get back to more important business.

Kissinger surely appreciated both the directness and the subtlety of Dobrynin’s message. Yet he failed to apply it either in the aftermath of the Kudirka episode or in another Washington-Moscow human rights dilemma that erupted that same year.

After Nixon’s resignation in 1974, Vice President Gerald Ford became president and retained Kissinger as secretary of state. Kudirka had languished in a Soviet prison in the years since his failed defection, and there was steady public pressure to get him back to America, especially among Baltic and other ethnic populations in politically important Midwestern and Northeastern states. Several members of Congress got involved in the case and urged the new Ford administration to retrieve the Lithuanian sailor. 

Ford saw the issue in moral and domestic political terms, but for Kissinger, Soviet détente was still the geostrategic imperative and “minor” irritants in U.S.-Soviet relations were still to be avoided. When Kissinger prepared Ford for his first meeting as President with Dobrynin, just days after Nixon’s departure, the Kudirka case was on Ford’s mind and he wanted to raise it with the Soviet ambassador.

Kissinger, having been burned by his Department’s botched handling of the aborted defection, cautioned Ford that the matter was better left in non-presidential hands.

Their Aug. 12, 1974 conversation to prepare Ford for the meeting went as follows:

Ford: I got involved in the Kudirka case. They wanted me to talk to Nixon. I talked to John Dean—someone told me to. Dean told me to write a letter to Dobrynin.

Kissinger: May I suggest the following: They will turn down a formal proposal. But when Dobrynin comes back, I will do it quietly as a personal request. 

Ford:  That would be most helpful.

Kissinger:  If it doesn’t get into their bureaucracy. We have great opportunities with the Soviets now.

Ford:  Dobrynin never answered and I didn’t follow up.

Kissinger: We have a channel privately and not in writing. I think we have a good channel with the Soviet Union on everything. They are waiting for a sign.

On Aug. 14, the day of Dobrynin’s courtesy visit, Kissinger sent Ford a memo instructing him on the approach he should take: “Be very friendly, maintain an interest in keeping the private channel open between Dobrynin and me to the president. You could say Dobrynin and I should work out the meeting with [Soviet Premier] Brezhnev.” 

But it did not happen that way. 

In his first meeting with the Soviets, Ford shocked his staff, including Henry Kissinger, by disregarding its advice and requesting the Soviets release Kudirka.  

While the President’s Daily Diary notes the meeting, it also states: “No substantive record of the conversation has been found.” However, Ford reports the event in his own memoir, and his description confirms that he did not follow Kissinger’s script:

On Wednesday, August 14, I welcomed Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin to the Oval Office with Henry Kissinger. I told him I would consider it a personal favor if his government would agree to release Simas Kudirka, a Lithuanian seaman who had jumped aboard a United States Coast Guard vessel only to be turned back to the Soviets by the American captain. Dobrynin said he would see what he could do. (Three months later, Kudirka was given permission to leave the Soviet Union.)

Dobrynin’s own account of the meeting with Kissinger and Ford is interesting. Unaware that Ford had just violated Kissinger’s stage-managed directions, he saw a strengthening of the advisor’s position in the administration: “I had an impression, and then a subconscious conviction, that the new president was going to let Kissinger direct American foreign policy.” He made the same point in his public remarks, such as this one cited by U.S. News and World Report in August of 1978: “Foreign affairs will get low priority—too many problems at home.  Mr. Ford will rely on Henry Kissinger to carry on what’s already under way.”

The obscurantist maneuvering favored by Kissinger and/or his subordinates at State was repudiated at the beginning of the Kudirka crisis by Dobrynin’s cynical, ultra-realist approach, and now at its denouement by Ford’s Midwestern common sense and instinct for doing the right thing.

The careers of several high-level Coast Guard officers were damaged or destroyed. There is no record of any repercussions at State. On the contrary, within two years of the event, Killham, the State official initially contacted by the Coast Guard, was invited to work with Kissinger at the Geneva START talks, which survived the incident.

 With two strikes on his approach to balancing American human rights values with Cold War geopolitical realities, Kissinger took his third swing at it. The results were even more chaotic.

In February 1974, the famed Soviet dissident Alexander Solzhenitsyn, a victim of the Soviet Union’s gulag system who later became its chronicler, was exiled from the Soviet Union after years of Congressional pressure and administration requests. He was honored by American human rights and labor organizations in Washington and was supported by those groups and members of Congress in his expressed desire to visit the White House.

Kissinger immediately went into his hyper-defensive realist crouch. Ford and National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft initially decided not to meet with 

Solzhenitsyn because of a scheduling conflict. Kissinger was on vacation in the Virgin Islands but was consulted and approved the decision. “This did not stop the media and Ford’s anti-détente critics from making me the villain of the piece,” Kissinger later wrote.

Kissinger didn’t seem to mind playing the role of the villain. During a July 16 press conference he said that while scheduling had been the initial reason for declining the visit, “I supported Ford’s decision for reasons of foreign policy.” He told reporters, “From the point of view of foreign policy the symbolic effect of that can be disadvantageous—which has nothing to do with a respect either for the man or for his message.” Kissinger devoted several pages to the Solzhenitsyn episodein his memoirs,and concluded with the same lesson Dobrynin had counseled in the Kudirka incident:

In retrospect, I believe we would have been wise to … schedule a meeting with the President . . . in as unobtrusive and dignified a manner as possible -- even if Solzhenitsyn and his sponsors had moved heaven and earth to prevent a low-key approach. As it was, our ability to conduct a balanced Soviet policy was far more damaged than it would have been had we found some way to meet with this great and courageous champion of freedom.

In both the Kudirka and Solzhenitsyn cases, official over-sensitivity to “avoid creating an incident” that might upset U.S.-Soviet relations ended up creating more of an issue than would have occurred by doing the right thing for human rights in the first place. As a result, we got the worst of both worlds --squandering an opportunity to convey America's moral values while demonstrating ineptness and lack of strategic will to our Soviet adversary. For today’s leaders, these episodes from the détente era may offer useful lessons.