INTERVIEW WITH RICHARD PERLE-30.3.1997
INTERVIEWER: Today is the thirtieth of March, Sunday, 1997. We're interviewing Richard Perle, who in the 1970s was one of Senator Henry 'Scoop' Jackson's principal aides in Congress. I want to take you back to when you first got involved in politics, how did that happen?
RICHARD PERLE: I got involved in politics entirely by accident. I had a telephone call one day from a professor at the University of Chicago, Albert Wallstedder, who was an old friend, who said that the defense debate that was shaping up in the Senate in 1969 was going to turn on the question of the deployment of ballistic missile defenses. Nixon had come in and proposed deploying the ballistic missile defense called the Safeguard System and there was a lot of opposition to it from the Democratic controlled Congress. And Albert asked if I would come to Washington for a week to talk to a number of Senators and Senate aides and write a report on how the issues in that debate were likely to shape up. And I agreed to do that and I came to Washington and one of the Senators I talked to was Henry M. Jackson, 'Scoop' Jackson from Washington State. I was a graduate student at the time and we hit it off instantly, and he said why don't you come to Washington and see what the real world is like and eventually I agreed to do that for what I thought would be a one year break in my studies. It turned out I was there eleven years.
INT: Tell me about 'Scoop' Jackson, what kind of man was he and what was his political set of beliefs?
RP: 'Scoop' was extraordinary and eventually virtually unique, as other Democrats who shared his outlook disappeared from the scene. I mean, Hubert Humphrey was one of the last, although even Hubert, by comparison with 'Scoop', was liberal-left on foreign affairs issues. 'Scoop' came out of a trade union family, his father was a trade union official and a hod carrier, born in Norway. He was from the Pacific Northwest, from the Seattle area, which had a very strong labor movement, the 'wobblies' were based in Seattle. so he had a labor orientation, a left orientation on social issues. But he was deeply anti-totalitarian, anti-Fascist, anti-Communist and it was that predisposition that separated him from the Democratic Party, as the Democratic Party abandoned its own anti-Communist attitudes and became more and more accommodations. It was a little bit in United Kingdom terms like the split between Gaitskell and the left of the Labor Party and 'Scoop' was Gaitskellite and I learned about Gaitskell from him and I met Labor Party parliamentarians who were Gaitskellites through him, that's where he was comfortable, that's where he was at home.
INT: There was a tradition in post-War American politics of people who are quite, let's say, liberal in domestic issues and quite strong in their attitudes towards the Soviet Union, let's say, particularly in the period of the Cold War. Could you comment on that kind of paradox, which perhaps to an outsider looks like a paradox?
RP: Well, outsiders were puzzled by 'Scoop' Jackson because he was liberal on domestic issues, on constitutional questions in particular, matters of civil liberty, on budget and spending matters, he was a big spender. He believed in large welfare programs, for example. He'd be very unfashionable today if he were alive and continued with those views. At the same time, he believed that the Soviet Union was a menace, a threat to the physical survival and well-being of the United States and its principal allies and that it was essential that we man the ramparts to oppose the Soviet Union, not find a way to get along with them, although obviously one wanted to minimize the intensity of the disagreements, but without ever letting down one's guard and because that became a somewhat unconventional position, he became a leader in that effort.
INT: What sort of sense that both he and perhaps you also regarded the Soviet Union in some way as illegitimate?
RP: There's no question that for 'Scoop' the Soviet Union was illegitimate. It had no elected government, and 'Scoop' was a small 'd' democrat as well as a large 'D' Democrat and there was no such thing as a legitimate government that didn't come to power by the electoral process. But this was a particularly illegitimate non-democracy, because of the role of force in demanding from the population the kind of blind support that we saw until the collapse of the Soviet Union.
INT: How then does a democracy, a functioning democracy like the United States, which was also a world power, deal with such an entity?
RP: Well, I think 'Scoop's' view is that when you're confronted with... a Soviet Union, a totalitarian state and in particular one that's powerfully armed, you arm powerfully to balance it out. you contest in every avenue that it chooses to pursue to enlarge its influence and so 'Scoop' was... deeply interested in, involved in all those places around the world where there was a clash between the United States and its democratic allies on the one hand and the Soviet Union on the other. From time to time, you'd have to deal with the thorny problem of dictatorships that were anti-Soviet, but nevertheless undesirable and there, unlike say President Carter, 'Scoop' was capable of recognizing the sometimes tactical necessity to deal even with regimes we didn't like much. But he was never comfortable embracing those regimes and it was always in his mind a necessary evil to be dealt with more decisively at the earliest opportunity.
INT: In 1969, of course, the other big issue facing the United States - and obviously you were deeply aware of and everybody else was - was the war in Vietnam. Now what was Senator Jackson's view on that war?
RP: Well, 'Scoop' had been a hawk on Vietnam, and in particular he was hawkish on the question of whether, having made the investment that we had made by 1969, when I first got to know him, we could then simply pack up and leave. So he was a strong supporter of the Nixon administration policy of attempting to extricate ourselves in an honorable way. He was not ready to cut and run and cut and run was a term that he used frequently. So he invariably voted with the Republican administration against efforts by Democrats in Congress. And I would have said liberals in Congress, but some of the opponents of the war were decidedly unilateral, Bill Fulbright for example, Senator Fulbright who's often thought of as a liberal, was in fact on matters of race and budget and social and constitutional questions, deeply conservative, right wing. So he was the exact opposite of Jackson. But 'Scoop' would take to the floor of the Senate and vigorously oppose efforts either to cut the budget or in other ways force the administration to beat a retreat from Vietnam, that he thought would be a dishonorable defeat.
INT: Was he in favor of the policy of Vietnamisation, for example?
RP: Yes, he supported Vietnamisation. He realized that as a practical matter, the United States couldn't win that war for the Vietnamese, so he was quite eager to see a strategy in which the Vietnamese were helped to help themselves and he was prepared to... both to extend the period of American involvement in order to permit that to happen and to vote the budgets necessary to make it happen.
INT: President Nixon was perhaps one of the most partisan politicians who ever took office in the White House, what was Senator Jackson's attitude towards him, as a man and a politician?
RP: 'Scoop's' attitude toward Nixon was an interesting one and he told me a story about Nixon that I've never forgotten, because it helped to explain why, despite Nixon's intense partisanship, 'Scoop', who was a very partisan Democrat, who had served as Chairman of the Democratic National Committee, nevertheless had no difficulty working with Nixon and the story had to do with the 1960 presidential campaign, when Jack Kennedy was running against Nixon. And Nixon had an office in the Senate, as did Jackson, and their offices were located in such a way that at certain times when there was a conversation taking place in N's office on one floor and the door to the loo was lopen, the ventilation system was such that the voices would carry and you could hear every word in Jackson's office, and vice versa. And 'Scoop' discovered this one day when the phone rang and it was Richard Nixon and then Vice President Nixon said, 'Scoop', if you guys are going to discuss campaign strategy, you'd better shut the door to the loo, because I can hear every word. Now, that this is the same Richard Nixon who was destroyed by a bugging at Watergate is really quite astonishing. And how deeply that affected 'Scoop's' view of Nixon, I don't know, but I remember him telling me that story as a way of emphasizing that Nixon was a pretty complex character.
INT: Was there any sense that when Nixon first came to power in 1969 that he was going to overturn certain precepts of American foreign policy that had been around since 1945 in relation to China and also to reach some rapprochement with the Soviet Union? Was that in the offing at all?
RP: there were some early signs from President Nixon that he was willing to explore a new policy with respect to China and this is something of which 'Scoop' hardly approved, in fact he was way ahead of Nixon. He gave speeches urging an opening to China, he talked privately to Nixon about an opening to China, he was quite eager to see that develop and nurtured it when it first began and supported it to the very end. When Jackson died, the Chinese government made a contribution to the Jackson Foundation, a cash contribution, which was extraordinary for them and I think they recognized his very important role in encouraging that. Now in the beginning it had some deeply tactical as well as broader strategic objectives. he was eager to contain the Soviet Union by any possible means and one of those was by strengthening [inaudible] China. Where he differed, differed profoundly with Nixon was in the rapprochement, if you will, with the Soviet Union. He didn't think it was merited, he didn't think it was wise and so he was a very early opponent of the Nixon-Kissinger concept of détente.
INT: Arguably, the Chinese and Soviet regimes were founded on similar power principles, how could Senator Jackson differentiate between the two?
RP: I mean, 'Scoop' realized that China was weak, that it was incapable of extending itself, even in its own region, much less globally. It was very barely a nuclear power and it had such immense internal problems and demands that he did not believe that they posed a significant threat to the United States or to our principal allies. The Soviet Union, on the other hand, was a menace. It was a clear threat to Western Europe, it occupied countries of Eastern Europe, so it was a geo-political judgement as to where the danger lay and in 'Scoop's' view it lay with a strong and robust Soviet Union and a weak China could not be an effective balancing element in the triangular relationship.
INT: Now, Nixon's principal lieutenant in foreign policy, of course, was Henry Kissinger, what was Senator Jackson's attitude towards Kissinger and how were his relations with the man?
RP: Well, the Jackson-Kissinger relationship was not a warm and cordial one, although 'Scoop' greatly admired Kissinger's intellect and his abilities and in some ways he rather liked Kissinger, but they fought over a number of issues and there were serious, quite intense battles and I think, looking back on it, Kissinger has persuaded himself that the differences were tactical in nature and not fundamental or philosophical. Only Kissinger knows what was in Kissinger's mind. what 'Scoop' knew, what I knew as his assistant on these matters, was what the administration was saying and doing and we didn't like what they were saying and doing, we didn't like the bear hugs with Brezhnev, we didn't like the agreements that s...