The Jackson-Vanik Amendment: The Back Story

By Kurtis, Arlene; Goldberg, Sandra | Midstream, September-October 2005 | Go to article overview

The Jackson-Vanik Amendment: The Back Story


Kurtis, Arlene, Goldberg, Sandra, Midstream


The Jackson-Vanik Amendment to the Trade Reform Act of 1974 has been called the most important human rights legislation ever passed by the U.S. Congress. It stated that the coveted Most Favored Nation trade status would be withheld from those nations that ignored human rights, denied the right to emigrate to their citizens and thwarted the reunification of families. Loans, if made, would carry a higher interest rate, a provision that hopefully would cause the Soviet Union to look twice at their diploma tax and other restrictions placed on those applying for exit visas. Jackson-Vanik made clear that the U.S. was committed to promoting human rights, and that to be able to "graduate" from the Amendment's restrictions, fundamental changes would have to be made.

The historic act evolved through the serendipitous confluence of forceful personalities and a grassroots Soviet Jewry Movement that blossomed in the United States from the 1960s to the 1990s.

To Americans accustomed to allowing their nationals to visit foreign countries, to emigrate without hindrance and to return at will, restrictions on Soviet nationals seemed medieval. The diploma tax demanded payment of thousands of rubles by those applying for exit visas, a payback for their education in Communist Russia. In 1967, when immigration requests mounted, the Soviet First Secretary Leonid Brezhnev, with his own agenda in mind, favored Richard Nixon for U.S. President. He made some concessions for would-be emigres in order to shine a favorable light on the Republican candidate. Once Nixon was elected, however, restrictions and exit taxes remained in place.

The U.S. wished to improve relations with the Soviets because they were aware that in addition to Jews in the U.S.S.R. who desired to go to Israel, ethnic Germans, Armenians and Pentecostals desperately wanted to return to their former homes. President Nixon offered a carrot of Most Favored Nation status to the Soviet Chairman if restrictions could be eased, but Congress refused to grant the privilege. Rather than serving carrots, many in Congress wanted to exact penalties on Moscow for its abridgement of human rights. Legislation was called for. But what form should it take?

Senator Jacob Javits of New York had been in the loop of those who were actively concerned about Soviet harsh treatment of Jews and he sought a way to break the immigration impasse. He suggested linking arms control to human rights. Representative Bertram Podell, of Brooklyn, broached the idea, in 1972, of coupling trade with human rights, instead. But it took a particularly angry congressman of Czech heritage and his Jewish legislative assistant to come up with an initiative to force the Soviets' hand.

Their answer was to have a lasting effect on human rights, not only in Russia, but also in all countries with repressive regimes. Although its results were not always immediately apparent, Jackson-Vanikjump-started an avalanche of sentiment for human rights here and abroad. Who were the architects of this transforming piece of legislation?

Congressman Charles Vanik of Ohio, born in 1913, graduated from law school at 23. While in school, this Christian young man worked for a Jewish social service agency in charge of placing orphaned children in suitable homes. It was the depth of the depression, 1931, and Charles Vanik saw his share of poverty during those years as he worked with desperate widows and widowers to find a place for their children until they could get on their feet. A Democrat, Vanik later became a municipal judge. He resigned his judgeship in order to campaign for a seat in Congress in 1954 representing Cleveland's blue-collar district. He was re-elected for a second term.

Short chubby Mark Talisman, born in Cleveland, had gone from a Jewish elementary day school to high school in the representative's district. He volunteered at Vanik's Cleveland office during school vacations.

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