MY FRIEND, RICHARD NIXON

Two well-dressed, middle-aged foreigners, dodging their Russian escorts through Moscow’s streets at midnight to search for Nikita Khrushchov. One was a Canadian premier, one a future president of the U. S. Were they spying? Were they drunk?

PREMIER JOSEPH R. SMALLWOOD May 1 1969

MY FRIEND, RICHARD NIXON

Two well-dressed, middle-aged foreigners, dodging their Russian escorts through Moscow’s streets at midnight to search for Nikita Khrushchov. One was a Canadian premier, one a future president of the U. S. Were they spying? Were they drunk?

PREMIER JOSEPH R. SMALLWOOD May 1 1969

RICHARD M. NIXON and I, that night in Moscow when we went looking for Nikita Khrushchov, were said later by some newspapers to have been drunk, or at any rate tipsy. Not so. Mr. Nixon is a very abstemious drinker, and I am a total abstainer. We were cold sober. Why would you have to be under the influence of liquor to go looking for Khrushchov? All Nixon wanted was to have a brief chat with him — nothing more. As he told me, “We are both out of a job.” Khrushchov was at that moment, in April 1965, a “non person.” He was in retirement, and little was ever heard of him in Moscow. Nixon had been defeated for the presidency. They were both of them men who lacked the authority of office. Of the three of us, I was the only one who still had a little authority.

Several times throughout that busy day in Moscow Nixon had confided to me that he’d like to see old Khrushchov and renew acquaintance with him. They had not met since their famous kitchen debate, when a large part of the world looked and listened in fascination while the Vice-President of the United States and the leader of one quarter of a billion people in the Soviet Union slugged it out orally the relative merits of the free-enterprise system and the Communist way of life. That was a famous battle, and now Nixon, finding himself in Moscow, wanted to say hello to his old adversary. He knew that this would not be easy, for ex-leaders in the Soviet Union are supposed to be little seen and not heard at all.

To make it worse, we were accompanied by two staunch ladies from Intourist every minute of the day, from the moment we got off the train in Moscow that morning. There were some in our group who thought that the ladies might have had even more powerful connections — that they represented, indeed, not merely Intourist but the secret police of the Soviet Union. They were enormously efficient, friendly and disarming. Perhaps they were only Intourist officials, after all, although the one assigned to me had the rank of colonel, and told me that she had acted as interpreter for her government in half a dozen countries around the world. Secret agents or not, they kept a sharp eye on us, and scarcely ever let us out of their sight. The slightest move to see Khrushchov would surely have been noted and promptly reported. Nixon assumed that a meeting with Khrushchov was one of the last things the Soviet authorities wanted for him. But he mentioned it to me several times through the day, and I could see that he really was anxious to meet Khrushchov.

We were in the Moscow Hotel that Saturday night, five or six of us gathered at the one table for a late dinner, around 10 o’clock. We were enjoying the meal when I was called to the telephone. It was David Levy, then the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s resident correspondent in Moscow. He asked me if he could come and see me. When he did, I pulled up a chair for him at the table and we chatted. I was sitting next to Richard Nixon, and Levy next to me, and I whispered to him Nixon’s wish that he meet Khrushchov. David Levy said he thought this could be done. He knew where Khrushchov lived in Moscow, and I asked him if he would lead us there. He said he would, and told me that he spoke and understood Russian pretty fluently. I asked him how we were going to shake any surveillance we might be under; he said he thought that should not be too difficult. I whispered the situation to Nixon and he agreed promptly that we should give it a try.

Levy had his portable recording outfit with him, so he soon after spoke up and asked Nixon and me if we would go out of the dining room and do a recorded interview. All three of us went out into the lobby and, without coats or hats, went out to the curb and got aboard a taxi. We drove to the apartment building where David Levy had his home, two or three miles away, went in and killed a little time chatting with Levy and his wife. Then we telephoned for another taxi. Judging the time, we went to the corner of the building and boarded the taxi just as it arrived. We drove to the Canadian Embassy, and paid off the taxi and went inside. We killed a little time in there, then the three of us came out and walked down the street. The big apartment building in which Khrushchov had his flat was in that very same block. We noticed several men lounging nonchalantly about the block, and we agreed they were probably plainclothes policemen.

We got to the apartment building and entered the main door. There were two women sitting in the lobby, one in her 60s and the other considerably younger. The older woman appeared to be in charge. They both wore heavy top coats, and the older one, especially, did not let her guard down for a moment. We were quite evidently suspicious characters, especially after David Levy told her in Russian who Nixon was and the purpose of our visit. She shook her head, but Levy insisted sharply and she finally agreed to report to the building superintendent. She sent the younger woman off, and we waited.

The younger woman returned after an absence of nearly 10 minutes (long enough to have telephone calls made and instructions received) and told us that Khrushchov was not in his apartment. He was at his dacha, his country house outside Moscow. That ended our hope of meeting Khrushchov. Nixon got a sheet of paper from Levy and wrote on it, in English, a brief note: “Dear Mr. Khrushchov: I called on you to renew our acquaintance, but am sorry to find you are not at home. My wife and I send you our greetings, and hope that Mrs. Khrushchov is well.” He signed it Richard M. Nixon. I think that Levy wrote something in Russian on the other side, possibly a translation of Nixon’s note. Nixon gave it to the older woman and Levy translated his wish that the note be delivered to Khrushchov. We strolled back to the Canadian Embassy, sent for a cab, and were driven at breakneck speed (the normal speed of Moscow taxis, I am told) back to the hotel. It was by now well past midnight.

It was Saturday night, it was past midnight, and an editorial writer in a Canadian newspaper later suggested that this was a very familiar situation: a couple of men out on the town, feeling just right and deciding suddenly: “Let’s go out and call on Khrushchov.” But I repeat, we were stone sober.

What a day that was in Moscow! It included a visit to the spectacular Moscow University, whose vast complex of buildings sprawling over a huge acreage is surmounted by a skyscraper going 30-odd stories into the air. I had previously seen a beautiful model of this university in the Soviet Union exhibition at the World’s Fair in Brussels, when the four Atlantic Provinces’ premiers were the guests of the late Lord Beaverbrook. I was looking forward eagerly to the visit, but I got more than I had bargained for.

We were ushered in through the main entrance of the skyscraper section and taken in an elevator to what must have been the top floor. There we got off and were ushered into a large room, to be met by the vicerector of the university, the rector himself being away at the time. We were seated at a table. There were perhaps 40 or 50 other persons present, some of whom appeared to be students. Our Intourist ladies were with us and my colonel acted as the interpreter.

The vice-rector began by expressing what he described as warm greetings to the visitors, and said that he welcomed especially the presence of Mr. Nixon, because he hoped that this visit would enable him to find out something from Nixon that puzzled people in the Soviet Union. How was it possible for the President of the United States to be assassinated? How was it possible for such a thing as the John Birch Society to exist? How could there be such a thing as the Ku Klux Klan? These questions were considerably embellished with remarks that, I could see, made Nixon angry. I looked at him out of the corner of my eye (we sat together) and I was afraid that he was going to lose his temper in his reply. He didn’t, however; instead, he replied courteously and calmly.

Yes, he admitted, the assassination of President Kennedy was a terrible thing and all Americans were ashamed and humiliated by it. Yes, it was difficult to explain such institutions as the John Birch Society, the Ku Klux Klan and similar manifestations in the United States. But although he was not able to explain satisfactorily these unpleasant sides to American life, he thought he should endeavor to get answers to some questions that were troubling people in the United States when they looked at the Soviet Union. What happened to Beria? What about the secret police? Why was Khrushchov silenced? And so on and so on, half a dozen questions which made me feel a little embarrassed, not for my own sake (after all, I had had nothing to do with those matters) but for the sake of the vice-rector. However, the vice-rector made no reply, except to ask me to say a word. I said that I came from a small country, Canada, small from the population standpoint — a mere 20 million; though in geographical size something between the Soviet Union and the United States. I remarked that Canada had to live between these two great giants, and that our greatest hope was that peace could be maintained between them.

Then I tried a joke on them. It fell flatter than any joke in human history. I suggested that it might be an idea if, in the interests of peace and understanding between the peoples of the two great powers, there was an exchange of these out-of-office personalities, Nixon and Khrushchov. How would it be if Khrushchov went over to the United States and ran for president, and Nixon came to the Soviet Union and ran for premier? If the vice-rector had had a glass eye it might have shown a little more human understanding, even a wee bit of amusement. My wit was greeted with stony silence.

It was only three days before this that I met Nixon for the first time. It was in Helsinki, and we were both there on the same business; he as lawyer for John M. Shaheen’s firm, which was trying to get a pulp-and-paper mill built in Newfoundland, and I as the one who was egging him on to that purpose. We were negotiating with a large paper-mill company in Finland with a view to having the Finnish firm build and manage the paper mill in Newfoundland. Nixon’s firm represented the Shaheen company and we came from different directions to Helsinki. I arrived a few hours after the others, and I had no sooner got into my room than there was a knock on the door and there was Richard Nixon with hand outstretched in greeting. I found instantly that he was a man of charming friendliness, absolutely natural and friendly, and like thousands of-men you might meet in any hotel or home or on the street anywhere. There was not the slightest sign of stuffed shirt, high hat; he was just a natural human being, affable and unaffected. I took to him at once, and I noticed whenever we met thereafter he was the same plain, unaffected, friendly American.

It was in Finland that I got my first taste of Nixon as a speaker. We were being entertained in the home of a paper-mill executive, and there were 30 to 40 persons present. There was a short, informal speech of welcome from our host, and I was the first to reply, very briefly. Nixon made a speech that surprised me. He was talking about the Finns, and the gallant story of the Finnish nation. I actually saw tears in the eyes of some of those hard-bitten Finnish businessmen, and I realized that Richard Nixon was himself a man of no little emotion. That wasn’t acting.

I heard him speak several times afterward. In Montreal he and I were guests at a luncheon meeting, and he held that audience enthralled. His subject was the Vietnam war, and I am free to confess that, though I have been personally opposed to that war, I just couldn’t help being impressed by the enormous skill and very evident sincerity of Nixon’s argument in favor of the United States’ position. It was one of the most competent speeches I have ever heard, and it was the only time when for even a moment I faltered in my personal opposition to that war. It was the only real defense I have ever heard of the American position.

Another time I heard Nixon speak was in New York, and again it was a luncheon meeting, at the Union League Club, I think. Again he and I were the speakers, and again I saw the man’s enormous talent in speaking. It is not only that he has great clarity of expression, and excellent reasoning, but it is that the man himself is one of the most convincing persons I ever heard speak, and I have heard a lot. On all these occasions the man’s sincerity came through, and somehow I couldn’t help remembering how it used to be said of Lester B. Pearson that he was at his best in small groups. I had, of course, seen and heard Nixon on television during the Kennedy-Nixon presidential contest, but in these small groups he seemed to be an entirely different man. Different, and altogether attractive.

Nixon went to Ottawa and met with the highest members of the government of that day, and one of them, a close personal friend of mine, who had no use for Nixon before, admitted to me later that he was deeply impressed, as were all of his colleagues, by Richard Nixon’s personality. I saw him at close quarters in his New York apartment, when I was one of the guests at a small party. He was full of fun, cracking jokes, and all of it (unless I am easy to fool) straight and natural and genuine. It was easy to see that the other guests were fond of him, and that he was fond of them. Here was no political candidate on the make, but a very genuine, friendly man.

Perhaps the most interesting contact I had with Nixon was in Paris. I was there on business when he arrived, accompanied by his wife and two daughters and some friends. That was the first time I met the members of Nixon’s family. After his wife and daughters went sight-seeing or shopping, Nixon and his two friends and I were left alone in the room, and after we had chatted about this and that for a while, Nixon turned to one of his American friends and asked him quite frankly, “How would you go about seeking the Republican nomination if you were I?”

The man went into an extremely interesting account of what he thought Nixon should do, what positions he should take, to win the nomination. They discussed that back and forth, and then Nixon turned to his other friend, also an American. This other friend was quite an intimate of his, and this friend spoke very candidly and, to my ears, very interestingly of what he thought Nixon should do to get the nomination. I happened to know that this man was a bit of a politician himself, and a very strong supporter of Nixon. That was a fascinating conversation, and you can imagine the interest with which I, a Canadian, listened in on it. But my turn was to come next, when Nixon turned to me and said, “What would you do, Mr. Premier, if you were in my shoes?”

“Oh,” said I, “my opinion is not worth anything to you. I know nothing about American politics, and I’m the last one to advise you.”

“I don’t believe a word of it,” said Nixon; “that be hanged for a yarn. You’re one of the most successful politicians I know, and I really would like to have your impression.”

I only needed to be pressed a little, so I launched into an expression of my opinion.

“Mr. Nixon, you more than any public man I know have expressed your opinion on the question of the Vietnam war. You have made your position very clear. In my own opinion, the American public are going to get increasingly fed up with the Vietnam war, and if I were in your shoes, seeking the Republican Party’s nomination, I would just drop all further reference to the Vietnam war. I wouldn’t change the position I had taken, unless I really did have a change of heart, but I just wouldn’t go on talking any more about it.”

We went on from there, all four of us, in an animated discussion of the Vietnam war and the American position in it, and the position that Richard Nixon ought to take. We didn’t resolve the problem!

When we had finished I turned to Nixon and said, “You haven't told us what you think yourself.”

He said, “No,” and then slowly began to outline his own conception of the situation. It was one of the most interesting statements I ever heard in my life.

I have remarked on the naturalness, the down-to-earth friendliness of Richard Nixon. I saw that displayed very well in Moscow. I was in the United States Embassy, where we were visiting briefly and being entertained. The embassy building had not long before been attacked by a mob of young Moscovites, and those who had been in the building at the time told us about it. Someone came to me and told me I was wanted on the telephone. Startled, I went to the phone and found that it was a call from a radio station in St. John’s, Newfoundland. The connection was made and the voice came through quite clearly, that of a reporter wanting to know how I had made out on the paper mill in Finland. I told him, and remarked that Nixon had been with me and was now with me at that moment. The reporter asked me if I thought Nixon would talk to him. I told him I’d find out. While St. John’s held the line, I moved back into the group and asked Nixon if he could come and speak to the station. He came, and not only spoke, but told the story of our visit to Finland and of our negotiations with the paper-mill company there. He wound up assuring the reporter of the “fine job your Premier has been doing to get this paper mill for Newfoundland.” It was the one time I had an ex-Vice-President and future President of the United States as my public-relations officer.

One disappointment, however, I’ve had in my dealings with Nixon: He asked me in Moscow if I had ever been to Communist China. I told him I had not, and he admitted that he had not. He asked me if I thought I’d like to go, and of course I said I would. Furthermore, I would like to go while China was still exciting. He said so would he, but pointed out that as an American citizen he would not be permitted to go. He added, thoughtfully, that if someone engaged him as a lawyer to go in a purely professional capacity it would be lawful for him to do so. I promptly remarked that this was quite a coincidence, because as I was planning to go anyhow and badly needed a lawyer to accompany me, I was delighted to know that he would be available. And so that strictly businesslike deal was promptly made! I was going to Red China to have a look, and Richard Nixon would come as my legal adviser. The trouble was that we never did find a time that was suitable to both of us to make the trip, and now I fear that I shall never have Richard Nixon as my legal adviser on my forthcoming visit to Red China.