It was 1994, and Bill Clinton had a problem. His foreign aid program to Russia, which he had inherited from the administration of his predecessor, George H. W. Bush, was faltering and under attack from all sides. According to the Russians, the aid was not enough. According to some Americans, including the rising Republican Party, the aid was being wasted by the Russians and was generally too high. At the same time, his ally and sometimes friend, Russian President Boris Yeltsin, had just received a flattening in Russia’s legislative elections. Plus, the situation in the former Soviet Union was extremely fluid; after all, none of the newly created post-Soviet countries was more than five years old. No one could predict what would come next.
Well, almost no one. There was one person who America’s 41st president could turn to for advice: its 37th, Richard Nixon. That advice took the form of a seven-page memo, the contents of which were, until recently, never revealed. Nixon died just over a month after writing it, and while Clinton has spoken repeatedly about the brilliance of the memo, it had until now remained confidential. However, a FOIA request by this author has allowed it to be released to the public. And its contents are shocking.
Nixon, over 81 years old and a month from death, had written a prescient piece full of warnings and pertinent advice, almost all of which went tragically unheeded. The memo capped a half-decade of Nixon’s attempts to get succeeding presidential administrations to see reason regarding Russia. The story of his crusade is worth telling, not only for its historical importance but for its future importance as well.
After his presidency’s premature end, Richard Nixon rather quickly adopted the role of an elder statesman, traveling the world and burnishing his credentials as one whom American officials and foreign officials could trust. (He even went so far as to sign away his post-presidential Secret Service protection in order to travel more easily). By the 1980s, he was back in the Top 10 of Gallup’s poll of Most Admired Men. He was even more admired around the world than some incumbent presidents were; during his visit to the United States in 1979, Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping reportedly refused to go to the White House to meet with then-incumbent President Jimmy Carter—unless Nixon was likewise invited.
By 1994, the last year of his life, Nixon was still going strong. In March, he embarked on a trip to Russia, Ukraine, Germany, and the United Kingdom. These countries were not picked at random. Ever since the Cold War’s effective end in 1989, the West had watched Russia and the former Soviet bloc with worried eyes. In five years, the Soviet Union and its successor state, the Russian Federation, had witnessed two attempted military coups and massive instability. In an effort to stave off collapse and introduce Russia into the world economy, America had undertaken a massive campaign of aid funding to beef up Russia’s private sector and advisors to help it develop.
Almost immediately, the program encountered problems. Under the administration of George H.W. Bush, the plan seemed almost an afterthought, with little care given to how money was being spent. Although he had quietly urged action to rectify this, Nixon’s advice had gone unheeded.
In 1992 he, pushed to his wits’ end over Bush’s failure to take the aid program seriously, had launched a respectful but forceful public attack on the administration’s inaction on Russia in a memorandum that received relatively wide circulation. Specifically, Nixon wrote, that the U.S. had undertaken a “pathetically inadequate response” to the troubles in the former communist bloc.
Shortly after the memo circulated, he held an event at the Nixon Library and spoke—with Bush giving the keynote address. Without more significant actions, which Nixon saw as ranging from opening Western markets to Russian exports to the creation of an organization overseeing a Marshall Plan–esque financial rescue of Russia, Nixon predicted that Yeltsin would fail and that “the leaders of a new despotism…will stoke nationalist passions and exploit the tendency of the Russian people to turn to the strong hand—even to dictatorship—during times of troubles.” He predicted war, as new Russian despots would “use force to restore the ‘historical borders’” of Russia, that China would “breathe a sigh of relief,” and that Russia would “cozy up to…Iraq, Syria, Libya, and North Korea.”
Today, this is rightly seen as prescient. But at the time, President Bush—who had, to Nixon’s chagrin, staked much of his policy on a personal relationship with Gorbachev—took offense at Nixon’s comments, later offering a pithy response dismissing Nixon’s suggestions: “I will think about [it].”
But Bush would not have much more time to do so, as the 1992 presidential election brought a change of administrations. Whereas Bush had a long history in foreign affairs, and therefore may have felt he did not need advice, newly elected Bill Clinton had no foreign policy experience whatsoever. Nixon soon forged a genuinely personal relationship with Clinton, and the latter began to regularly contact the former for advice.
It is not impossible to imagine that Nixon saw a second chance to get the United States government to take the aid program seriously. Indeed, before Nixon embarked on his March 1994 trip, Clinton called Nixon, asking him to convey some messages and to also report back his findings. His advisors, prepping Clinton before the call, also made sure to point out that Nixon’s critique of Bush in 1992 had been politically damaging for the 41st president.
Nixon obliged Clinton upon his return, reporting his findings in the form of the now newly-released memo to Clinton. Nixon, perhaps sensing that this was his last chance to alter America’s aid policy, did not hold back.
He began the memo with a stark warning to his successor: Push aside the foreign service. “Foreign service officers are seldom ignorant,” Nixon wrote, “but almost always arrogant.” They “get to the top by not getting into trouble” and “are more interested in covering their a*ses than in protecting yours.”
While starting it with the good news—that Clinton was roundly respected by Nixon’s hosts—Nixon quickly got to the bad, starting with a discussion on the Russian president. Yeltsin’s “days of unquestioned leadership” were numbered. “His drinking bouts are longer and his periods of depression are more frequent.” What was extremely alarming to Nixon was that Clinton’s Ambassador to Russia, Thomas Pickering, believed stories that Yeltsin was in good shape; this Nixon flatly and correctly labeled “bullsh*t.”
This led Nixon to his first concrete piece of policy advice: “Bush,” the 37th president wrote, “made a mistake in sticking too long to Gorbachev because of his close personal relationship. You must avoid making the same mistake in your very good personal relationship with Yeltsin.” While not telling him to break things off wholesale with his Russian opposite, Nixon was clearly urging Clinton to not put the weight of the American-Russian relationship on his personal relationship with Yeltsin.
His next topic was the state of America’s aid, which he deemed “a mess.” Businessmen from both countries were “ripping off the aid programs shamelessly,” and the IMF was acting with “stubbornness and stupidity.” Nixon derided “quick answers” like an increase in aid, and instead urged Clinton to better target and more efficiently administer the programs which already existed. In doing so, the elder statesman politely but firmly urged Clinton to fire Strobe Talbott, a personal friend of Clinton’s whom he had put in charge of the aid program.
After briefly urging Clinton to not appoint a foreign service officer in Talbott’s stead—“[foreign service officers] know very little about economics and much of what they do know is wrong”—Nixon moved on to his next subject: Ukraine. He was extremely concerned about the state of the country, calling it explosive and on the verge of making Bosnia “look like a PTA garden party.” While the then-discussed limits to nuclear arms were good, Nixon argued that it would be better to focus on what could lead to their use.
America’s 37th president had good things to say about Ukrainian President Leonid Kravchuk, though he was quick to point out that Kravchuk possessed “political honesty,” not financial honesty. At the time, Ukraine had only privatized 2–5 percent of its economy, and Nixon felt that this sluggishness was the fault of Ukraine’s parliament, which he called “worse than the Russian Duma.”
This all led him to his next piece of advice: A reluctant urging to rearrange America’s representation in Ukraine. Our embassy, according to businessmen Nixon met with in Kyiv, was “piss-poor,” “pathetic,” and “understaffed and inadequately led.” Before moving on from Ukraine, he urged Clinton to give the country more attention, calling it “indispensable.”
Before ending the memo, Nixon briefly moved back to Russia in order to recommend that the Clinton administration attempt to bring together some of the workable members of the Russian opposition into a “united front for responsible reform.”
Nixon did not live to see the results of his memo. He died just about a month after writing it, to the end a firm believer in a realist foreign policy and a prophet of what could go wrong if America were to take a different tack.
Unlike his advice to Bush, it seems apparent that some of Nixon’s advice was followed. Clinton’s friend Talbott was seemingly “fired by promotion.” Soon after Clinton received the memo, Talbott was removed from oversight of America’s Russia aid and promoted to Deputy Secretary of State.
However, Clinton appears to have failed to listen to any of Nixon’s other advice. Both ambassadors whom Nixon critiqued stayed in their posts for years; Pickering stayed in Moscow until 1996 and Miller in Kyiv until 1998.
Even with Talbott’s removal, Clinton does not seem to have changed his aid policy—nor does he even today seem to think much of it. In a defense of his Russia policy published in the Atlantic shortly after Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in early 2022, Clinton elaborated on his attempts to set Russia on the right path. Yet, in his long discussion, the aid program is mentioned only once. Nixon’s point that more money would be irrelevant—and that “better targeting and better administering…and an entirely new approach” is what would truly be needed—was clearly dismissed. In 1999, the Wall Street Journal reported that the Clinton admin’s policy was “Give [money] until it hurts.” It does not appear that the Clinton administration was closely watching where that money ended up.
The most serious ignoring of Nixon’s advice, however, was Clinton’s insistence on putting weight on the Boris-Bill relationship. In his Atlantic piece, Clinton defended his Russia policy by pointing out that he “met with Yeltsin 18 times,” stressing that that number was “just three short of all the U.S.-U.S.S.R. leaders’ meetings from 1943 through 1991.” But this was exactly contrary to what Nixon warned in his memo. Instead of heeding his warning, Clinton seems to have bet it all on Yeltsin. When he was floundering in the 1996 Russian presidential elections with an approval below 10%, Yeltsin demanded American aid, threatening that the Communist Party candidate, if he were to win, would invade Ukraine and take back Crimea. The White House seems to have sanctioned—or at least refused to stop—a team of American political advisors going to Moscow to beef up Yeltsin’s campaign in response. Yeltsin ultimately “won” the election by stealing it (as confirmed by his eventual successor, Dmitry Medvedev); the Clinton administration’s complicity in the actual theft remains a mystery, though it is highly unlikely the administration was not at least aware of it.
What did Clinton get for his insistence on personal diplomacy? Well, Yeltsin would, on future presidential trips, go on to run around DC at night drunk in his underwear, looking for pizza. “Yeltsin drunk is better than most of the alternatives sober,” Clinton would say at one point.
Get weekly emails in your inbox
Looking back, it’s unclear if that was truly the case. By aiding and potentially abetting Yeltsin’s stolen election, Clinton’s administration made a mockery of America’s commitment to political freedom. By failing to take the aid program seriously, both the Clinton and Bush administrations made a mockery of economic freedom. In doing so, Clinton ignored Nixon’s final warning in the memo: The protection of “political and economic freedom…in Russia” would be “the most important foreign policy issue the nation will face for the balance of this century.”
Nearly 30 years later, it is abundantly clear that both the Bush and Clinton administrations failed in their relationship with Russia. This is not to draw a direct line to today’s Russo–Ukrainian War; once Russia was lost, it was Vladimir Putin’s choice, and no one else’s, to descend further into the wilderness. But the United States did not need to do all it could to push it off the path.
There is no question as to whether or not the world would be better off today had America’s 1990s-era leadership taken Richard Nixon’s advice to stick to our principles and a realist path: The answer is an emphatic yes. The question that remains before America’s 2020s-era leadership is whether it will listen now.