Mark Talisman -A Tribute

by Stephen Bryen

Mark Talisman passed away July 11, 2019 at his home in Chevy Chase, Maryland. He was 77 years old. On Thursday, October 24 a memorial service was held for him at the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington D.C. Richard Perle, his colleague, friend and neighbor gave a eulogy for Mark.

Mark Talisman in his beloved home garden
(photo by Lois Raimondo, Frederick News Post)

Mark was an old colleague and friend. While he did many important things, above all his greatest contribution was to provide the leadership to get the Jackson-Vanik amendment through the Congress. Jackson, of course was Henry “Scoop Jackson, the powerful Washington-state Democratic Senator and cold warrior, who actually authored the Jackson-Vanik amendment. Charlie Vanik was a Cleveland Ohio Democratic congressman who served in the House of representatives between 1955 and 1969. Mark was his legislative aide.

The Jackson-Vanik amendment turned into a major challenge to the “detente” program promoted principally by Henry Kissinger and Richard Nixon. The essence of their detente approach was to award the Soviet Union with big credit loans and technology transfers as a way of “moderating” Soviet behavior.

By the early 1970’s the USSR was in the middle of a major build up of its military forces aimed at forcing major concessions from NATO or, if that failed attacking NATO countries. Most NATO planners anticipated an attack through the Fulda Gap in Germany. Predictions at the time expected the Soviet attack would be successful if it happened.

Adding to the threat of a massive Soviet attack on NATO was the fear that the Soviets also were dominating in the nuclear arms race, with long range precision intercontinental ballistic missiles, “boomer” nuclear missile submarines and numerous tactical nuclear weapons that could be used against our allies and US forces in Europe.

At the time of the rapid rise in Soviet power, the US was not terribly well prepared. The Vietnam war had bled the United States militarily and emotionally; defense budgets were down, and increasingly it looked like Russia was in the cat bird seat. Because of southeast Asia, growing Soviet- promoted threats in the Middle East, and an overall lack of American enthusiasm for any overseas commitments after Vietnam, the approach of Nixon and Kissinger was deeply pessimistic and defeatist. (Sound familiar?)

Which helps explain why Kissinger cooked up detente to paper over America’s perceived vulnerabilities and –it was postulated– to show to Russia’s leaders that they could become rich and prosperous if, in the process, they would alter their behavior and be less aggressive.

Russia, then and even today, was a country with limited productivity and, at the time was considered a non-market economy because it did not have real competitive markets internally and it barely participated in commerce externally. Its two main products –still the case today– were military weapons and oil. In fact, Kissinger’s foreign policy detente proposal is precisely the same policy President Trump is pushing for North Korea today. Its premise is “we can make you rich if you cooperate.”

The economic keys to detente were big loans from the US Export Import Bank to finance major technology transfers, such as the Kama River Truck plant and an urea manufacturing plant that could make fertilizer or material for explosives. But perhaps the biggest project Kissinger had in mind was a multi-billion dollar Siberian gas deal which would bring liquefied natural gas to America by ship.

A key component of Nixon-Kissinger policy was to extend most favored nation status (MFN) to the Soviet Union. MFN would mean that trade barriers and tariffs that penalized the USSR would be dropped and the USSR would be treated the same way other good trading partners were.

The Jackson-Vanik amendment was designed to tie the granting of MFN status for the USSR to free emigration from the USSR. Unless there was free emigration, no MFN for any “non-market” country. At the time the Soviets were putting severe restrictions on the emigration of Soviet Jews and on other dissidents. Not only were exit visas being denied, but even to apply for a visa required a heavy tax to be paid up front. Beyond that, anyone who asked to leave would almost immediately lose their job, might find that they could no longer stay in their home or apartment, and would be put under pressure by police and prosecutors. Some of the most active wound up in psychiatric institutions or put in gulags. From the Soviet point of view, dissidents and Jews who wanted to leave were enemies of the state.

Much of the American Jewish community was outraged by Soviet behavior. The only practical means to address the issue was the Jackson-Vanik amendment, something that Mark worked very hard to get passed by the Congress ( which finally was approved by Congress and signed by President Ford on 3 January, 1975).

Many of us worked with Mark to get support for getting the Jackson-Vanik amendment through the House and Senate. Mark organized and headed weekly strategy meetings. I participated in these and, I hope contributed some useful ideas.

Mark’s boss was a Democrat, so was Scoop Jackson, but the Jackson-Vanik amendment had very strong bipartisan support, even though House and Senate members had to buck the administration and take on the underlying detente policy advocated by Nixon and Kissinger. That was no easy task. Kissinger was probably the most influential Secretary of State in modern history, and he was persuasive and an effective operator. He put much heat on top members of the House and Senate to stall any action on the amendment, saying it would derail sensitive arms control and other negotiations with the Soviets.

Mark did many other important things including his great dedication to what became the Holocaust museum and his work on teaching new members of Congress on how the “process” of our democratic system works.

In person Mark was a short and rotund guy. I liked it very much when he addressed a new audience, starting his talk by saying “When I first came to Washington, I was six foot six inches tall.”

He was.