It was 35 years ago this summer that the conservative movement found itself in a defining moral struggle not with the liberal Left but with the establishment wing of the Republican Party.
Here was the context: Soviet dissident Alexander Solzhenitsyn had published his majestic Gulag Archipelago, blowing the whistle on the brutality of the Soviet system, a chilling account by an eyewitness, himself a survivor. (See: “Witness: Solzhenitsyn vs. Evil.”) It was a stirring demonstration of the power of the pen and truth, casting light upon the darkness of an evil empire.
Pravda judged the masterful testimony “slanderous.” For his transgression, Solzhenitsyn was arrested by the KGB, stripped of Soviet citizenship, and charged with treason. Unable to vanish or shoot him because of his international celebrity, the Kremlin’s thugs, repulsed as they were by decency, expelled the great moralist. The writer made his way west, eventually taking residence in the United States.
Of course, everyone in America wanted to hear from him. On June 30, 1975, Solzhenitsyn accepted a request from George Meany, the stalwart anti-communist labor leader, to speak at an AFL-CIO dinner in Washington. There, the former prisoner cut loose, freely blasting away not merely at the USSR but at any effort to accommodate it, particularly through the prevailing policy of détente.
Solzhenitsyn told the AFL-CIO that America was “a country of generosity; a country of magnanimity.” He gravely warned America about “unprincipled compromises,” about sacrificing “conscience,” and about making “deals with evil.” He was especially concerned that America would be duped into trusting phony Soviet human-rights promises at the Helsinki conference, just weeks away.
Again, given Solzhenitsyn’s credibility, everyone in America wanted to meet with him in 1975, to gather his wisdom.
Well, maybe not everyone …. The one exception was the president of the United States, Republican Gerald Ford.
With Solzhenitsyn in town to speak to the AFL-CIO, he was literally down the block from the White House. It was an opportune time for Ford to meet with him. Conservatives, from Republicans like Ronald Reagan, Jack Kemp, and Jesse Helms, to anti-communist Democrats like Scoop Jackson, urged the president to do so.
Ford refused. He was backed by his right-hand man in foreign policy, Henry Kissinger. The Ford administration was so wedded to détente, and to getting along with the Soviets, that it dare not offend the Brezhnev regime by meeting with Kremlin Public Enemy No. 1. And so, Solzhenitsyn was thrown under the bus. Ford desired to please Leonid Brezhnev more than displease Alexander Solzhenitsyn.
On Ford’s refusal, several items of evidence have since emerged, including minutes from two specific Cabinet meetings. (Click here and here.) Those minutes are painful to read, as Ford made clear he would not jeopardize “progress” and the “continuation of détente” because of the dissident.
More distasteful, as recorded by historian Douglas Brinkley, Ford privately slammed Solzhenitsyn as “a god d–n horse’s ass.” Brinkley stated: “Ford complained that the dissident Russian writer wanted to visit the White House primarily to publicize his books and drum up lecture dates.”
To be blunt, this was a stunningly idiotic assessment of a man who was both moralist and recluse.
If you want a gauge of how awful was Ford’s snub, consider that it angered even the New York Times and Jimmy Carter. “Does President Ford know the difference between détente and appeasement?” asked the liberal Times in an editorial. As for Carter, he openly criticized Ford during a presidential debate.
Generally, Gerald Ford had been so bad that the editorial board at William F. Buckley’s National Review actually considered endorsing Jimmy Carter in 1976. As Lee Edwards notes in his excellent new biography of Buckley, NR’s editors (specifically James Burnham) at least considered that endorsement.
Likewise, Ronald Reagan was so upset that he challenged Ford for the Republican presidential nomination the next summer. The Solzhenitsyn snub was one of the final straws for Reagan.
Alas, one saving grace from this sad episode is that it helped produce the death of détente and the birth of the Reagan presidency, but only after an even more painful period, namely four horrendous years under President Jimmy Carter—made possible by Gerald Ford. Ford gave way to Reagan. And with the advent of that sea-change at the head of the GOP, accommodation was out and “rollback”—i.e., the goal of undermining the USSR—was in. It was that tectonic shift at the Republican helm that sealed the fate of the Soviet empire.
What a difference four years can make, especially for conservatives who stick to principle. Could history soon repeat itself?
[A lengthier version of this article first appeared in The American Spectator.]