On Aug. 21, the Nixon Presidential Library released the final installment of the 37th president's secret tape recordings in the Oval Office. There’s much of interest in the approximately 3,000 hours of recordings, and the accompanying 140,000 pages of documents, but perhaps the most fascinating find is a conversation that took place between Richard Nixon and Leonid Brezhnev on June 18, 1973.
The Soviet leader arrived in Washington that day for a lengthy visit to the U.S., part of a larger thaw in relations between the two nations. Nixon had made the pilgrimage to Moscow the previous year, spending a week with Brezhnev and signing the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and the first Strategic Arms Limitation Talks Treaty. The two men warmed to each other, though Nixon said he was rattled by Brezhnev’s volatile personality: “I momentarily thought of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde when Brezhnev, who had just been laughing and slapping me on the back, started shouting angrily.”
But when Brezhnev showed up the following year, he was all smiles. The newly released tape recording reveals him to be practically falling over himself in his efforts to ingratiate himself with Nixon. Brezhnev began by informing Nixon that it had rained when he took off from Moscow. This, Brezhnev assured him, was a “good omen,” citing a Russian superstition. That it was raining when he landed, too, made it a “double, extra good omen" and "of enormous significance.”
Nixon, perhaps preoccupied with the Watergate hearings then under way, was unusually quiet. But Brezhnev’s charm offensive continued. He shifted to talking about his grandson, who was taking an entrance examination to Moscow University. The Soviet lamented that his son and daughter-in-law “insist on pacing the corridors,” waiting for the test results. “I keep saying that you can’t help them, anyway, but that’s what they do.” One can almost imagine Brezhnev holding his palms upward and rolling his eyes. Kids!
Although Nixon has always been cast as the master of diplomacy, it’s Brezhnev who shines in this meeting, cracking jokes, flattering the president and inviting him to another trip to the Soviet Union (“You could go down south, see something in the Caucasus"). Brezhnev, whom most people remember for his bushy eyebrows and dour expression, comes across as a larger-than-life character whose personality fills the room.
All of this was in service of détente, which Brezhnev clearly wanted as much if not more than Nixon. In one of the more memorable exchanges -- again, Brezhnev did most of the talking -- the Soviet leader talks about the common destiny of the two nations. Some people believe the two superpowers are out to "foist their will upon others,” Brezhnev complains. “Are we to blame for being strong? What do these people want us to do, become countries–?” Here he stopped, exasperated. “What are we to do? To turn ourselves into some kind of Guinea, or a country like that?” Neither country, he said, “can turn themselves into a Luxembourg where the entire army is made up of 78 policemen.”
For the most part, Nixon remained reserved, rarely talking except to make banal statements about the importance of friendship. But he had other methods of securing Brezhnev’s trust. Unbeknownst to the Soviet leader, there was a present waiting for him at Camp David: a dark blue Lincoln Continental donated by the Ford Motor Co. When the Soviet delegation arrived at the retreat, Brezhnev was ecstatic. He pulled Nixon into the passenger seat and immediately drove off unaccompanied before the Secret Service could stop him, plunging the security detail into crisis mode.
Nixon later recalled how Brezhnev gunned the car onto a one-lane perimeter road encircling Camp David, pushing it past 50 miles per hour. As they careened down the road, Brezhnev still driving like a maniac, the car approached a downhill turn where a sign warned “Slow, Dangerous Curve.” The president begged Brezhnev to slow down, but Brezhnev would have none of it, hurtling down the hill at high speed before he finally hit the brakes and made an expert turn at the bottom. “You are an excellent driver,” Nixon reportedly said. Of the incident, he would later write: “Diplomacy is not always an easy art.”
Brezhnev’s visit was a resounding success: He visited Nixon’s home in California, insisting on staying in Tricia Nixon’s room, filled with white wicker furniture and decorated with frilly wallpaper. The two men got along extraordinarily well, and the trip inaugurated a new era of détente between the two nations, laying the framework for the SALT II Treaty and other diplomatic breakthroughs.
At the heart of this change was the original friendship between the two men, which only intensified as the Watergate hearings continued. Nixon had fewer and fewer friends by 1974, but Brezhnev remained by his side, at one point sending an encouraging and very personal letter expressing confidence that the president wouldn’t “crack under the pressure.”
Brezhnev never understood how his friend could be deposed by what in his mind seemed a trivial offense. That is how Nixon saw things, too. Both men came from humble origins; both had a love of power and a willingness to abuse it. They weren't so different, really, and when they chatted in the Oval Office that rainy day in June, they likely recognized, beneath all their differences, a kindred spirit.
(Stephen Mihm, an associate professor of history at the University of Georgia, is a contributor to the Ticker. Follow him on Twitter.)