President Donald Trump has been roundly criticized for holding a diplomatic summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin after Russia’s ostensibly unforgivable “attack on democracy” by “hacking” the 2016 election.
Leaving aside that critics hysterically overestimated Russia’s influence on the election and very little actual “hacking” was involved, the simple fact is that American presidents of both parties have conducted diplomacy with Russia after far worse and more obvious provocations.
Stealing the atomic bomb: To some extent, America’s habit of returning to the diplomatic table after every Russian outrage has been a consequence of nuclear detente. The prospect of fighting another superpower conflict with only conventional weapons became a global nightmare after the two World Wars, but once both sides had nuclear arsenals, it became an existential crisis with the fate of humanity hanging in the balance.
The American left routinely criticized conservatives in the most extreme language for flirting with nuclear Armageddon by talking tough with the Soviet Union. One of the most notorious political ads in American history implied Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater was a genocidal maniac who wanted to start a nuclear war with the Russians.
President Ronald Reagan was savaged on similar grounds by the left every time he stood up to Moscow; he gave them panic attacks by calling the Soviet Union an “evil empire” and joking that he would begin bombing Russia five minutes after signing legislation to outlaw it. An entire generation of left-wingers was raised to believe Mikhail Gorbachev is the leader who “won” the Cold War and saved mankind from the war fever of Ronnie Raygun. This is the history President Barack Obama alluded to when he infamously chided his 2012 rival Mitt Romney for advocating an anti-Russian foreign policy from the 1980s.
So let’s remember that Russia got The Bomb through the spy ring managed by Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who many on the left defended as victims of anticommunist hysteria duly executed in 1953. We kept talking to Russia after they stole the secret of atomic weapons, even though every future conversation and the course of world history was shaped by that theft.
The Cuban Missile Crisis: Some of Russia’s nuclear weapons ended up in the most inconvenient places. The United States kept talking to Russia even as they worked furiously to subvert Latin American countries and build up a communist threat right in America’s backyard. They eventually gave Cuban tyrant Fidel Castro a lot more than a load of fake news stories to threaten the United States with.
U.S. intelligence caught the Soviets secretly installing nuclear missiles in Cuba to forestall the possibility of a U.S. invasion in 1962, precipitating a crisis that could easily have escalated into a nuclear war. Russia’s actions were utterly indefensible, from its strategic decision to position nuclear weapons just off the U.S. coast to its horrifying realization that it had given doomsday weapons to the lunatic dictator Castro—who, by the way, was lionized throughout his life by many of the same people currently railing at President Trump for going soft on Putin.
Not only did the U.S. continue to pursue improved relations with Russia after this incident, but the Cuban Missile Crisis has often been cited as evidence that lines of cordial communication must be kept open with the Russians at all times. The crisis has been presented for decades as an argument for close relations and solid mutual understanding between the leaders of the United States and Russia.
Cold War spying and propaganda: Whatever the Russians were up to in 2016, it utterly pales in comparison to the enormous network of spies and agents of influence the Soviet Union maintained in the United States throughout the Cold War.
One might say the project of manipulating American politics was more manpower-intensive in the pre-Internet era, but Russia’s goals in those days were also far more ambitious. The Soviet Union was very good at exploiting America’s internal political divisions with propaganda. There really were communists at work in Hollywood and Washington, even if the effort to hunt them down went off the rails.
The length and subtlety of Russia’s effort to shape American culture throughout the Cold War dwarf modern notions of “election meddling” by several orders of magnitude. Much of the American left was either passively or actively on Russia’s side at every turn. Some of those fellow travelers were firmly convinced that anti-communists were unfairly hard on the Russians or unreasonably belligerent, prone to starting a world war by pushing the USSR too hard on anything from geopolitics to arms control.
Despite the best efforts of the Soviet Union’s allies and stooges in the West, we knew all the way through the fall of the Berlin Wall that Russia was hard at work recruiting agents in America and subverting our politicians, including some major players on the political scene.
The Berlin Wall: Speaking of which, the Russians chopped Berlin in half with a gruesome wall that became a symbol of communist evil, consecrated with the blood of those killed trying to flee westward. West Germans had to watch in horror as a young man who tried to cross the Wall was pumped full of machine gun bullets, got back up, climbed the wall again, and howled in agony as more bullets slammed into his back. West Germans threw him bandages, but the communist East German guards let him bleed out anyway.
There is a museum in Berlin called the “Palace of Tears” dedicated to families separated when the Wall came down. Countless lives were ruined and Germany’s history was vandalized by the Wall. We kept talking to Russia for decades despite the persistence of this atrocity. When President Reagan spoke to the ages and challenged Gorbachev to tear it down, Western media did not universally praise his speech or even find it terribly newsworthy at first. Some thought Reagan went too far or wasted American prestige on a demand the Soviets would simply ignore.
Russia invades Afghanistan: Syria is not the first Middle Eastern hot spot to attract Moscow’s attention. Russia’s invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 to conquer it for world socialism was denounced by just about every nation that was not firmly in the Soviet orbit.
The Russian invasion was explicitly ideological, unlike America’s response to the 9/11 attack decades later. Soviet President Leonid Brezhnev formulated a doctrine that said it was legally and morally acceptable for the USSR to intervene with military force whenever a communist government was in danger of falling, as was the case in Kabul at the time. The idea was to chisel in stone the notion that converting to communism was a one-way process, so no territory taken into the global hive of communism could ever be taken back.
The Reagan administration’s CIA program to arm Afghan rebels against the Soviet invaders was not universally supported at the time. Some worried it could provoke Soviet reprisals in other parts of the Middle East, spark a wider conflict with the Russians, or simply waste American money and prestige on a hopeless effort to kick Russia out of Afghanistan. The importance of continuing diplomatic engagement with the Russians throughout their decade in Afghanistan was consistently stressed.
Shooting down passenger planes: Russia’s downing of Flight MH17 over Ukraine in 2014 was not the first time they murdered an airliner full of civilians. In 1983, Korean Airlines Flight 007 strayed into Russian airspace during a flight from New York to Seoul and was shot down by a Russian fighter, killing 269 people.
The Soviets alternately claimed they did not know KAL 007 was a civilian aircraft and insisted it was a spy plane conducting surveillance activity over Russian military installations on the Kamchatka Peninsula. Reagan was criticized for going too far by calling the shootdown an “act of barbarism,” temporarily halting flights to the U.S. from Soviet states, and building up the American military in response. (He was downright mocked for believing he could bankrupt Russia or outmaneuver it with missile defenses.)
Russia and Georgia: Russia’s invasion of former Soviet republic Georgia in 2008 was a subject of much political controversy in the United States at the time, although it might seem like ancient history today. To make a long story short, it was a naked act of aggression by Moscow, and the outgoing Bush administration has been criticized for being either too soft or too hard in response.
The Obama administration certainly did not think it was a good idea to freeze diplomacy with the Russians over Georgia. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s infamous “reset button” fiasco, where she handed Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov a literal red button that was supposed to say “reset” but it was actually labeled with the Russian word for “overcharged,” was intended to restore friendly U.S.-Russia relations because the Bush team supposedly became too hostile over the invasion of Georgia.
The “reset” concept was actually presented by Vice President Joe Biden about a month before Clinton presented Lavrov with the mislabeled button, in a speech where Biden insisted, “The United States and Russia can disagree and still work together where our interests coincide, and they coincide in many places.” Presumably, Biden would be savaged by the rest of his party as a Putin puppet for talking that way today.