82. Telegram From the Department of State to the Embassy in the Soviet Union1

1550. Subj: Leningrad Trial: Secretary’s Meeting with Jewish Leaders December 30. Following report of conversation is FYI and Noforn.

At 3:00 p.m. December 30, Secretary held one-hour meeting with principal representatives of emergency conference of leaders of major U.S. Jewish organizations, which took place in Washington Dec. 29–30. Attending meeting, which was held at request of Jewish leaders, were: Dr. William Wexler, President of B’nai Brith and Chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations; Rabbi Hershel Schachter, President of American Jewish Conference on Soviet Jewry and Wexler’s predecessor as Chairman of Conference on Presidents; Detroit industrialist Max Fisher, and Washington attorney Herman Edelsburg, head of foreign-affairs section of B’nai Brith. Following the meeting, Secretary took Wexler, Schachter, and Fischer to White House for 40-minute meeting with President Nixon, whence they returned to give short press briefing at State Department.
Jewish groups originally intended to send 19 representatives to meet with Secretary but finally decided to send only three (Edelsburg’s presence was anonymous self-styled “amicus curiae” and was not announced to press). Secretary stated at outset of meeting that he was prepared to receive others if Jewish leaders preferred, but expressed his personal belief that smaller meeting more useful. Rabbi Schachter agreed that usefulness of meeting was most essential consideration and others, some of whom were at Department, were not invited in.
Secretary made several opening comments. First, he expressed certainty that he had no substantive disagreement with Jewish leaders concerning either Leningrad trial or situation of Soviet Jews. He pointed out that both he and President Nixon were very concerned from outset of trial, for they fully realized gravity of situation. He stated that President and he had several long discussions in an attempt to [Page 252] find most effective way to deal with situation and, in first instance, to save lives of Dymshitz and Kuznetsov. Secretary said we had taken action which we considered most effective, but expressed his hope that we would not be compelled to reveal details of action taken. Secretary described McCloskey statement of Dec. 282 as deliberately low-key to avoid giving impression that we were exploiting situation for political purposes. Secretary stated that NY Times article of Dec. 293 treated matter to his satisfaction. (FYI: Washington Post story December 314 contains report that US action was in form of Secretary-Gromyko letter,5 but story has not yet been picked up widely or produced strong pressure on Department to confirm. End FYI)
Secretary also informed Jewish leaders that we had attempted to orchestrate our action with other governments. Rabbi Schachter expressed his belief that this helped to bring sympathetic response in friendly countries. Secretary expressed agreement, but asked cooperation of Jewish leaders in not revealing this coordination.
Secretary stated that he had no reservations concerning actions of private groups such as American Jewish organizations. He expressed belief that responsible activities on part of religious and civic groups in U.S. and abroad constitute most effective method to try to alleviate both Leningrad verdict and plight of Soviet Jewry.
Dr. Wexler asked on what level USG had taken action in effort to mitigate Leningrad verdict. Secretary replied that we are unable to release details, but he expressed certainty that Soviet Government is well aware of our position. Wexler then asked what Secretary foresaw as outcome. Secretary replied that he was uncertain, but expressed his [Page 253] view that the Spanish Government’s decision to commute the Basque sentences would place additional pressure on Soviet Government. Mr. Fisher stated that present situation is one of most delicate in Jewish history. Secretary replied that he knows this.
Secretary revealed our latest information, based on press sources, on appeal proceedings, and expressed his belief that Sakharov’s open role was of possible significance in indicating that death sentences might be commuted.6 He also referred to report by Victor Louis, who is “believed to have good contacts.”7 Secretary cautioned, however, that, although most evidence seemed hopeful, the unusual rapidity of the appeal process in this case could also be interpreted as indicating that the Soviets might want to execute Dymshitz and Kuznetsov forthwith in effort to avoid further build-up in pressure of world opinion.
Secretary expressed his belief that the draft convention on hijacking does not apply to Leningrad case, as there was no attempt to take over an aircraft in flight. He described case as “a probable attempt to steal a plane,” and stated that we would background the press to this effect. Mr. Edelsburg expressed view that the case was “an entrapment to steal a plane,” as the rapid police roundup of Jews in two cities indicated that Soviet authorities were intent upon incriminating persons who were on record as desiring to emigrate to Israel. (FYI: While awaiting the return from the White House of Secretary and others, Edelsburg stated to Deptoff that a detailed brief had been prepared to persuade the Secretary that this was not legally an attempted hijacking, but “the Secretary disarmed us.” End FYI.)
Secretary also stated that USG was considering inviting Soviet observers to attend trial of Angela Davis in effort to pressure Soviets to permit Americans to observe any subsequent Soviet trials of this nature. Rabbi Schachter replied that this was a “brilliant idea.”
Rabbi Schachter stated that no single issue has so captured attention of Jews and, to his gratification, many non-Jews as well. He expressed view that trial pointed up need to undergo “an agonizing reappraisal” of U.S. policy toward Soviet Jewry, for, despite our past efforts, situation of Soviet Jews has continually deteriorated. He said that there [Page 254] might be need for more pressure from USG, for perhaps Soviet Government “didn’t get the message” that this issue is of priority concern to “more than just a section” of the American people.
The Secretary replied that it is necessary to differentiate two aspects of problem, namely, the trial and the overall situation of Soviet Jewry. He expressed certainty that we took the most effective action possible in our effort to obtain mitigation of sentences. On more general question of Soviet Jewry, Secretary stated that he is perfectly prepared to discuss alternative courses of action. He cautioned, however, that private organizations have a tendency to exaggerate amount of pressure which USG can bring to bear on Soviet Government in regard to what Soviets consider internal matters. Secretary stated that critical commentary in Soviet press on internal U.S. developments sometimes influences Americans in opposite direction, and he expressed view that the same might be true of U.S. statements on the USSR.
Mr. Fisher replied that to remove any possible misunderstanding, he wanted to assure Secretary that leaders of Jewish community were grateful for fact that Administration “had moved immediately” in response to Leningrad sentences. Mr. Fisher also expressed his appreciation for the Secretary’s positive comments on the efforts of Jewish organizations to arouse public opinion on this issue. Rabbi Schachter, too, expressed appreciation for USG action, but asked whether “one more step” might not be possible. He suggested that one of most effective steps would be to have President receive a small group of Jewish leaders while emergency conference was underway in Washington. Rabbi stated that Jewish leaders would not expect President to make a major statement, but hoped only that he would state publicly that he was pleased to receive delegation and that he “shared their concern.” Mr. Fisher expressed his conviction that both President and Secretary were “one hundred percent with us,” and he stated that such a meeting would therefore have great effect within the American Jewish community.
The Secretary agreed that there were no basic differences of view between the Administration and the delegation, but he expressed his concern that a public statement of concern by President might be misconstrued by Soviets as political exploitation of this delicate situation. The Secretary pointed out that senior U.S. spokesmen at the UN have taken a strong public stand opposing Soviet Union’s discrimination against its Jewish citizens, and he gave his assurances that these efforts will be continued. Secretary cautioned that although he did not doubt fact of discrimination against Jews in the Soviet Union, it was very difficult to present type of evidence which would persuade governments and peoples of other countries. He stated that it is easier to obtain agreement of other nations on principle of free emigration. Secretary [Page 255] expressed view that this principle was at the core of Leningrad case, and he suggested that USG efforts to relieve the situation of Soviet Jews should be based on this principle.
The Secretary cautioned again, however, that a public statement by the President could be interpreted by Soviet leadership as a USG effort to pit itself against the Soviet Government in an attempt to exploit this situation politically. He stated that he would be particularly reluctant to request such a statement because the lives of two men were involved. Secretary stated that if the Jewish leaders were willing to hold a private meeting with the President, following which they could return to Department and state in a low-key manner that they had had a satisfactory meeting with him, he would try to arrange this immediately. Dr. Wexler replied that the very fact that they were able to meet with the President and to express their concern to him would be of considerable importance to the Jewish community.
The Secretary agreed to try to arrange an immediate meeting on this basis. He pointed out, however, that if American Jewish leaders, after further reflection, believed that a public statement from the President or himself was essential to relieve the great concern within Jewish community, he would reluctantly consider such a statement. Mr. Fisher replied that a U.S.-Soviet “showdown” might have adverse consequences for our efforts to obtain commutation of the death sentences against Dymshitz and Kuznetsov. He stated that the Secretary was in a better position to judge how USG should proceed on this matter. Mr. Fisher expressed belief that it would nonetheless be highly useful for President to receive a small delegation of Jewish leaders, particularly in regard to the American Jewish community’s strong concern over the fate of Soviet Jewry, even if no statement were made. Rabbi Schachter agreed that it would be best for any statement to be made by the Jewish leaders themselves.
After a 40-minute meeting with the President,8 to which they were personally escorted by the Secretary, the Jewish leaders returned to the Department, where they made a short statement to the press. Dr. Wexler told the press that the delegation met for an hour with [Page 256] Secretary and was “very gratified with his concern.” He said “it was suggested during this meeting that we go to the White House.” Rabbi Schachter stated that the delegation was “heartened by the President’s deep understanding and continuing concern for the problems of Soviet Jewry and of religious minorities throughout the world.” He stated that the discussion with the President focused primarily upon the trial “and the fact that Jews in the USSR are denied elementary cultural and religious rights.” Asked whether delegation had been informed of the action taken by USG, Rabbi Schachter replied negatively but reiterated that they were “heartened” by Administration’s “continuing interest and concern.” Asked if they were satisfied, Rabbi Schachter stated that delegation was departing with “a much happier feeling.” Dr. Wexler stated that they did not wish to discuss in any further detail their meetings with either the President or the Secretary. Press then asked if Jewish leaders had received any response to their request to meet with Soviet officials, and Rabbi Schachter replied, “We can’t comment.”9
  1. Source: National Archives, RG 59, Central Files 1970–73, POL 28 USSR. Confidential. Drafted by Steiner (EUR/SOV) on January 4; cleared by Dubs, McCloskey, Curran (S/S), Herz (IO), Taylor (S), and Davies (NEA); and approved by Davies (EUR). Pouched for information to USUN, Paris, Bonn, Tel Aviv, The Hague, London, Ottawa, Brussels, USNATO, Rome, Bern, Stockholm, and Luxembourg. At the request of the White House, Eliot forwarded a copy of the telegram to Kissinger on January 6 and informed him that no memorandum of conversation—either with Rogers or with Nixon—had been prepared. (Ibid., Nixon Presidential Materials, White House Special Files, Staff Member and Office Files, President’s Office Files, Memoranda for the President, Beginning December 27, 1970)
  2. During the daily news briefing on December 28, McCloskey was asked whether Washington had made “any representations” to Moscow concerning the Leningrad trial. McCloskey replied: “We say only, that in light of the severity of the sentences handed down in that trial, that this matter has received serious consideration in Washington. The Secretary discussed it at length on at least two occasions over the weekend with the President. We have taken steps which we hope will be helpful. Now I’m not prepared to say anything beyond that at this time.” (Ibid., RG 59, Records of the Office of News, Transcripts of Daily News Conferences of the Department of State, Vol. 56)
  3. Bernard Gwertzman, “Moscow Terms Severe Sentences ‘in Spirit’ of Antihijacking Pact; Moscow Defends Hijacking Sentences,” New York Times, December 29, 1970, pp. 1–2.
  4. Carl Bernstein, “U.S. Appeals to Soviet Union Over Jews as Protests Mount,” Washington Post, December 31, 1970, p. A6.
  5. During a meeting with Dobrynin on December 28, 1970, Rogers gave him a letter to Gromyko, appealing for leniency in the Leningrad trial. (Telegram 211168 to Moscow, December 30; National Archives, RG 59, Central Files 1970–73, POL 29 USSR) Kissinger cleared the letter, but not before modifying its tone, including removing a passage stating that the execution of the defendants “could affect the prospects for improving relations between our two countries.” (Draft telegram, December 26; ibid., Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 714, Country Files, Europe, USSR, Vol. XI)
  6. Sakharov sent an “open appeal” to Podgorny and Nixon on December 31, 1970, calling for clemency not only for Dymshits and Kuznetsov but also for Angela Davis, the African-American militant charged in California with murder and kidnapping. (Telegram 7812 from Moscow, December 31; National Archives, RG 59, Central Files 1970–73, POL 29 USSR)
  7. Louis, a correspondent for the London Evening News (and reputed KGB operative), predicted in an article on December 30, 1970, that the death sentences would be commuted. (Telegram 7790 from Moscow, December 30; ibid.)
  8. Ehrlichman called Kissinger in San Clemente at 10:10 a.m. (PST) on December 31, 1970, to discuss the meeting. According to a transcript, the conversation included the following exchange: “E: You should have been around for the meeting with the Jewish leaders. Shultz and I were in there doing budget stuff and Bill Rogers pranced in with the Jewish leaders and we got roped into attending the meeting. K: The President called me last night. He thought it went extraordinarily well. I don’t know … E: It did. It was a very good meeting.” After Ehrlichman told an anecdote, Kissinger commented: “He [Nixon] was all charged up about it and wanted to make a statement but I told him I didn’t think it was a good idea.” (Ibid., Nixon Presidential Materials, Henry Kissinger Telephone Conversation Transcripts, Box 8, Chronological File)
  9. The Supreme Court of the Russian Republic commuted the death sentences of Dymshits and Kuznetsov on December 31. (“Soviets Spare 2 Jews From Death Sentences,” Washington Post, January 1, 1971, p. A1)