Signed into law by U.S. President Gerald Ford in 1975, the Jackson-Vanik Amendment to the Trade Act of 1974 was instrumental in eliminating barriers to the emigration of Soviet Jewry. Officially known as the [Wilbur] Mills–[Charles] Vanik Bill in the House of Representatives and as the [Henry] Jackson Amendment in the Senate, this amendment required that nonmarket economy countries comply with specific free emigration criteria as a prerequisite for receiving economic benefits in trade relations with the United States. These benefits included Most Favored Nation (MFN) status—now known as Normal Trade Relations—and access to U.S. government financial facilities.
The administration of President Richard M. Nixon regarded the struggle to pass the amendment as a challenge to its policy of détente; to the American Jewish community, it was a litmus test for U.S. commitment to Soviet Jewish emigration. Moscow perceived the amendment as an illegitimate intervention in its domestic affairs.
In part, the Jackson initiative was a response to the Soviet–American comprehensive trade agreement signed in October 1972. It was Jacob Javits, senator from New York, who made the first public reference to possibly linking trade benefits to Soviet Jewish emigration. Following up, Senators Jackson, Abraham Ribicoff, and Hubert Humphrey began formulating an overall strategy, bringing together a coalition of liberals and conservatives. The amendment would refuse nonmarket economy countries MFN treatment, credits, and credit and investment guarantees if they denied their citizens the right to emigrate or imposed more than a nominal tax on emigration or exit visas. Indeed, the immediate trigger to concern had been the so-called “diploma tax” decreed by Moscow in August 1972, requiring would-be emigrants to repay the Soviet state prior to departure for such higher education as they had received. Responsibility for determining a country’s eligibility for MFN status would lie with the president, who would report compliance to Congress. In January 1973, Congressman Charles Vanik began enlisting representatives to sponsor similar legislation and within a month had assembled a majority of the members of Congress, including chair of the House Ways and Means Committee Wilbur Mills.
The Soviets sent a delegation to the United States to cajole the business community into opposing the amendment. Among its arguments, the delegation threatened that the legislation would increase antisemitism in the Soviet Union and would adversely affect the 90 percent of Jews who sought to remain; it likewise alluded to the potential for growth in anti-Jewish feelings within the United States. The Nixon administration, for its part, advocated “quiet diplomacy” as the optimal means to influence Moscow, which in March indicated that while it would not alter legislation because of foreign pressure, it would not implement the diploma tax. This partial concession temporarily imperiled Jackson’s coalition; some of his ardent supporters, including Jewish leaders, wavered in view of their own adherence to détente and of Nixon’s general commitment to Soviet Jewry and Israel.
At that point, Soviet Jewish activists entered the fray with approaches to both Congress and American Jewish organizations, insisting that the United States not be misled by apparent Kremlin concessions. In face of this adamant campaign and of grassroots pressure within the American Jewish community, the American Jewish leadership reverted to supporting the amendment unequivocally.
The polarization of forces for and against the amendment persisted. Leonid Brezhnev, the Soviet leader, sought to exert influence on Congress both during and immediately prior to his June 1973 U.S. visit, stressing that the amendment jeopardized the very essence of détente, and holding out great expectations for the benefits of enhanced and free trade. This stance was supported by Henry Kissinger, who in September became secretary of state and emphasized that détente transcended human rights issues.
By contrast, Andrei Sakharov, head of the Committee on Human Rights in the USSR, underscored in an open letter to Congress that legislative action to attach a “minimal condition” for the consummation of détente agreements involving trade was appropriate, reflecting Congress’s obligation to assume its “historical responsibility before mankind.” Sakharov appealed for an endorsement of the amendment and urged Congress not to abandon “democratic principles in the face of blackmail.”
In October it seemed that Kissinger and Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko had reached an informal agreement on the emigration of some 45,000 Jews in return for a waiver of the amendment. Eventually, however, the Jackson Amendment was enacted by a large majority in both houses. Jackson wanted Moscow to realize that “the American people, above all, are committed to a human détente—to the free movement of men and ideas on which a stable and more lasting peace must be based.”
In 1974, the Stevenson Amendment further stymied American–Soviet trade relations, limiting credits to the Soviet Union to $300 million. The president could lift that ceiling with congressional approval that would depend on Soviet concessions toward Soviet Jews and other aspects of Soviet–American relations. Faced with these credit limitations, which had greater practical significance than MFN status, Moscow repudiated the October 1972 trade agreement. Periodically, moves were initiated to consider rescinding both amendments, but the American Jewish community, again buttressed by Soviet Jewish activists, proved inflexible, and Jackson-Vanik remained in force after the Soviet Union broke up and was applied to that country’s successor states, although there was no longer an issue of Jewish or other emigration. In 2003 Senator Richard Lugar, chairman of the Senate International Affairs Committee, proposed rescinding it regarding Russia and in 2005 Congressman Joseph Crowley proposed rescinding it regarding Ukraine.
Robert O. Freedman, “Soviet Jewry and Soviet-American Relations,” in Soviet Jewry in the Decisive Decade, 1971–1980, pp. 38–67 (Durham, N.C., 1984); Robert O. Freedman, ed., Soviet Jewry in the 1980s: The Politics of Anti-Semitism and Emigration and the Dynamics of Resettlement (Durham, N.C., 1989); William Korey, “The Struggle over Jackson-Mills-Vanik,” American Jewish Yearbook (1974–1975): 199–234.