Trump, Lavrov, and the Long History of Things that Never Happened

Reflections on memcons, memoirs, and the nature of documentary evidence

In an unusual move that highlights the depth of Russia’s involvement in US politics, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced his readiness to provide Congress with a transcript of Foreign Minister’s Sergei Lavrov’s May 10 conversation with President Donald Trump.

A historian of the Cold War, I have spent countless hours poring through untold thousands of pages of transcripts between state leaders: American, Russian, Chinese, Burmese, Mongolian—you name it. Usually, an encounter like Trump’s meeting with Lavrov would be recorded in two versions: in this case, the American and the Russian. These often differ in important details and emphasis. Sometimes participants leave additional records in the form of letters or retrospective recollections.

Consider, for example, Harry S. Truman’s April 23, 1945, meeting with the Soviet Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov. This meeting has a place of honor in Cold War history. President Truman, famously “tired of babying the Soviets,” accused Moscow of violating the Yalta Agreement by denying the Polish people a representative government. According to Truman’s memoir, the meeting ended with Molotov’s remark: “I have never been talked to like that in my life,” to which Truman supposedly replied: “Carry out your agreements and you won’t get talked to like that.” Hence, the historical narrative: Truman firmly rebuffed the Soviets, setting the stage for the Cold War.

Except, maybe, nothing like this ever happened. The US record of the conversation, compiled by Charles Bohlen (who interpreted at the meeting), shows some sharp exchanges on the Polish question but nothing quite as dramatic as what Truman’s memoir claims. Crucially, it lacks any mention of the parting exchange. This has not prevented historians from buying into Truman’s story, in part because Bohlen’s memorandum – as is often the case – is not a verbatim transcript. It is just a summary of what was said.

The Russians have since released their own version of the April 23 conversation, which also has no mention of the dramatic finale. Moreover, the tone of the Russian transcript is decidedly more positive than the American version, showing none of the “great firmness” that Bohlen attributed to the US President. In other words, either Bohlen wanted to present Truman in a tougher light than he really was, or Molotov, taken aback by Truman’s outburst, decided to smooth it over in his record of the conversation lest Stalin – who would scrutinize every word – accuse his Foreign Minister of ruining the alliance with the United States.

These kinds of discrepancies are nothing unusual. Sometimes policymakers deliberately omit key elements of their discussions with a foreign leader in order to cover up some faux pas or some unfortunate concessions, to make themselves look better, or simply to keep their moves secret from their own governments. This is, for instance, what Winston Churchill did in the course of his October 9, 1944, talk with Stalin, when he offered to divide Eastern Europe between the Soviet Union and Great Britain, a deal now known as the “percentage agreement.”

The Russian version of the conversation scandalously has Churchill stating that he:

prepared a fairly dirty and rude document, which shows the distribution of the influence of the Soviet Union and Great Britain in Rumania, Greece, Yugoslavia [and] Bulgaria. He compiled this table in order to show what the British think about this question. The Americans would be shocked by this document. But Marshal Stalin is a realist and he, Churchill, is also not known for his sentimentality, while [Foreign Minister Anthony] Eden is a completely corrupt man. He, Churchill, did not show this document to the British Cabinet but the British Cabinet usually agree to what they, Churchill and Eden, propose.

Now, Churchill’s version, by contrast, omits all of that, saying only that “the Prime Minister then raised the question of the interests of the two governments in the various Balkan countries and the need to work in harmony in each of them.” Churchill did not want the Americans to know about his secret (and blatantly imperialistic) offer to Stalin. And of course he did not want his Cabinet to know that he held them in such low regard. In this case, the Russian version must be seen as more authoritative, especially because it is, unlike the British version, a verbatim transcript. Churchill had a reason to spin a story. Stalin did not.

Or, to take another example: the Nixon/Kissinger duo, fearing leaks, supplied doctored transcripts of their secret conversations with the Chinese to the US State Department. These conversations led to the breakthrough of the Sino-American rapprochement in February 1972. But even the transcripts retained for Nixon’s and Kissinger’s own use occasionally contain omissions. Thus, in February 1973, during his meeting with Henry Kissinger, the Chinese leader Mao Zedong proposed to create a “horizontal line” of countries opposed to the Soviet Union, a pseudo-alliance joining US, Japan, China, Pakistan, Iran, Turkey, and Europe. But Kissinger’s record crucially omitted China from Mao’s “horizontal line.”

It is only in the Chinese transcript that we see that Mao Zedong offered Kissinger to create a de facto Sino-American alliance at the Soviet Union’s expense. In this case, the most likely explanation is that something was lost in translation. Indeed, at the early stages of the Sino-American rapprochement, the Americans did not even have their own interpreters and had to rely on the services of their Chinese hosts.

Both Washington and Moscow also have a practice of creating sanitized but still confidential summaries of meetings, which they proffer to their allies and partners to keep them abreast of what they do. Both the Russians (before the Sino-Soviet split) and the Americans (after the Sino-American rapprochement) kept the Chinese generally appraised of what they were doing in their relations with the other superpower, including by providing readouts from meetings. For example, the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev sent the Chinese a transcript of the failed 1960 Paris summit, so that his allies could read for themselves that he did not betray the revolution. The Chinese, though, failed to reciprocate, famously keeping the Soviets in the dark about the Sino-American ambassadorial talks in Warsaw.

Then, too, not everything makes it into the record. Often, policymakers ask to go off the record, as, for instance, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher did in the September 23, 1989, conversation with the Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. The part that Thatcher did not want recorded concerned her opposition to the reunification of Germany. Thatcher thought that her views on Germany were too politically dangerous to leave a paper trail. Fortunately for historians, the Soviet note-taker helpfully added her “off the record” comments to the transcript.

What, then, can the Russian transcript tell us about what happened on May 10, 2017, in the meeting between Trump and the Russian visitors? It can tell a story—a particular story. Even assuming that Putin could provide an un-doctored transcript (a far-fetched assumption!), the Russian version would recount Russia’s take (or even Lavrov’s take) on the conversation. It might not necessarily agree with what the American version would say, assuming there is one.

In contrast to the Cold War, we live in a remarkably public world. Conversations are leaked right and left. E-mails are disclosed on Wikileaks. Stories are spun on Twitter. Forget the 30-year rule: supposedly private discussions now seep into the public domain days after the event. Some worry that the culture of incessant leaking may actually discourage policymakers from leaving any paper trail at all.

That said, if Trump secretly recorded his conversations, we may yet arrive at something approximating the truth. Nixon’s secret recordings sealed the Watergate investigation, but they also offered historians an unprecedented trove of evidence for mapping America’s foreign relations in the early 1970s. 

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Sergey Radchenko is Professor of International Relations at Cardiff University. 
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