A Brezhnev Fourth
Memories of meeting with Soviet leader still vivid
Most of us have memories and recollections we associate with the Fourth of July: family gatherings, fireworks, picnics and cookouts, baseball, swimming, fishing, the “Capitol Fourth” on the mall in Washington, in person or on TV.
I remember the bicentennial in 1976 when it rained in Austin, Texas, from dawn to dusk, a steady downpour, so soggy even sparklers wouldn’t ignite. I remember as a teenager taking on too much Spring River water and sun, putting in jeopardy an on-time departure for the Boy Scout jamboree in California. Happily, I got a last-minute OK from the doctor.
I also remember years when I found myself in distant lands on Independence Day, particularly when I served as foreign/defense policy adviser to Senate Majority Leader Robert Byrd. With Congress normally in recess during the July 4 time period, he often traveled abroad during that time. Byrd believed the Senate needed to reassert its constitutional role in foreign policy and thought it important for the majority leader to be a significant figure in international relations and national security. There were a number of key issues at the time, many of them revolving around arms control and U.S.-Soviet relations.
Early on the morning of July 4, 1979, along with Byrd and a State Department interpreter, I boarded a Soviet aircraft at Moscow, headed to a meeting with Soviet President Leonid Brezhnev. From the outside, it looked like any other Soviet plane. However, the interior was, as Byrd commented, very plush, with everything appropriately covered in bright red. A 90-minute flight took us to Simferopol in the Crimean region (currently subject of a dispute between Ukraine and Russia). After a brief meeting with local leaders we were driven to Brezhnev’s summer residence, near Yalta. Brezhnev had sent his car to take us on the drive through lush coastal mountainsides with stunning views of the Black Sea coastline. As we proceeded toward Yalta, it became obvious that all traffic had been stopped in both directions. Absolutely nothing was moving besides our three-car motorcade.
In the car with us was Viktor Sukhodrev, who recalled having served as interpreter at U.S.-Soviet summit meetings beginning with Kennedy and Khrushchev in 1961. We talked about Richard Nixon, whom he respected, saying that Russians, despite Nixon’s anti-communist background, believed he had been able to improve relations. And the Watergate scandal had little meaning for the Soviets, he said. Along the route, Sukhodrev pointed out some locations where the Big Three (Stalin, Roosevelt, Churchill) Yalta meetings had taken place in World War II., a reminder of the long and arduous diplomatic negotiations between our countries.
We arrived at Lower Oreanda, where we would await the meeting with Brezhnev in several hours. After lunch, we took an elevator down from the high cliffs to the Black Sea beach below. We enjoyed the sunny day and for a while sat on a dock dangling our feet in the sea. At one point, Byrd, talking more to himself than to me, asked “Who would ever have thought when I was a boy that I would be spending the Fourth of July being here to meet with the leader of the Soviet Union?” I might have asked the same.
Time came for the Brezhnev meeting and we were taken on a short drive through a heavily wooded pine forest to the compound where Brezhnev was staying. I particularly remember that we drove in the opposite direction of a one-way sign and then rounded a curve and saw Brezhnev sitting in a lawn chair. After formalities, two hours of back-andforth discussion began in an adjacent meeting facility — focused primarily on the pending SALT II arms control treaty. Byrd emphasized that it was essential for the Soviets to understand the important role the Senate played in the treaty process. And he cited several areas of concern in the treaty that would be problematic. We concluded with Brezhnev offering a toast to “the occasion of American Independence Day.”
Following the meeting, we flew back to Moscow, arriving at our hotel well after midnight. I recorded some observations on the remarkable day before dozing off. A few hours later the phone in my Sovietskaya Hotel room rang. I hadn’t even noticed that there was a phone in the room. It was a Soviet diplomat I had known in Washington calling to tell me my photo — alongside Byrd and opposite Brezhnev — was on the front page of Pravda, the main Soviet newspaper.
Although the two nations adhered to the treaty principles, it turned out, that SALT II treaty was side-tracked by other events, with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan sealing the treaty’s doom. (It should be noted that the Soviets eventually left Afghanistan, but the United States military has been there almost 16 years.) There is, of course, no longer a Soviet Union, the Cold War having ended and communism collapsed.
However the Russia of today is in many respects a replacement for the Soviet Union and as a U.S. adversary. Russia and Vladimir Putin, its authoritarian, ambitious and corrupt leader, are major factors in today’s foreign policy and, indeed, in American politics. Today, we are concerned not just about strategic military capabilities, but cyber-warfare as well.
Thinking about all that led me to reflect on the events of a July Fourth years ago and how things have changed and remained the same.