Editor’s Note: The “V&V Q&A” is an e-publication from the Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College. Each issue will present an interview with an intriguing thinker or opinion-maker that we hope will prove illuminating to readers everywhere. This latest edition is a fascinating blast from the past. Dr. Paul Kengor, executive director of the Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College, interviews Marc Zimmerman, former staff member to Senator Olympia Snowe (R-Maine), and a man whose name and face occupied all the front pages and evening-news broadcasts in America 25 years ago this week. It is our privilege at the Center for Vision & Values to find and mine these nuggets from history in order to educate about the forgotten details of the past and the timeless ideals of the future.
Dr. Paul Kengor: Marc, this is a pleasure. When we typically do our “V&V Q&A,” we interview a well-known expert on some major historical event that everyone remembers. No disrespect intended, but most people who have read this far into this interview are wondering, who is Marc Zimmerman, and what in the world did he do 25 years ago? So, let’s begin with where you were at the start of 1983, before you began your rendezvous with history.
Marc Zimmerman: That’s quite understandable. I occasionally wonder who I am as well. In 1983, however, I was a Legislative Assistant focused on foreign affairs and defense issues for Olympia Snowe from my home state of Maine.
Kengor: At that time, Olympia Snowe was not yet a senator but a member of the House of Representatives.
Zimmerman: That’s right; she sat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
Kengor: Now, everything changed dramatically for you when you got a call one day from a Soviet “visitor” to the United States named Aleksandr Mikheyev. Who was Mikheyev? How did he come to you? How did he know who you were?
Zimmerman: Mikheyev was a Russian who served as a tour guide to my college buddy, Bob McGee, from New York, who had gone on a “Can’t-We-All-Just-Get-Along” excursion to the Soviet Union. Later in the year, Alex Mikheyev came to visit the United States by way of the United Nations and Bob asked me to show Mikheyev around D.C. when he visited. He was there ostensibly, if you can believe it, to compile fertilizer research from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Kengor: You described your friend as a “left-leaning liberal.” Do you think he was easily suckered into believing that his affable Soviet host back at the Potemkin Village was merely a friendly tour guide in the workers’ paradise?
Zimmerman: In retrospect, that’s probably fairly accurate. If McGee had any doubts whatsoever about Mikheyev’s bona fides, he never expressed them to me.
Kengor: So, you and Mikheyev decided to meet. Where? Also, I understand that Mikheyev, upon pumping you for information, kept describing himself repeatedly as a “student of government and history,” but it turns out he was a little more than that.
Zimmerman: We went to lunch on Capitol Hill; I thought it might be appropriate to take him to one of my favorite hangouts, the “Hawk and Dove.” Our discussion started by comparing Moscow and Washington, but he eventually swung the conversation around to his belief that the United States was attempting to destroy the Soviet economy. I remarked that the Soviet Union was already doing a much better job at it then we could possibly imagine.
He prefaced many of his statements or questions by saying, “You know, I am a student of U.S. history and government; as such, it is particularly interesting to me how things actually work here….” So, he continuously probed for behind-the-scenes policy-making mechanisms and the details of how strategic decisions were reached. He did it in a way that was very conversational, almost academic; none of this seemed unusual to me.
Kengor: He was extremely interested in something called NSDD-75, which was a highly classified document signed by President Ronald Reagan on January 17, 1983, and which articulated the very specific, dangerous purpose of trying to not only undermine the Soviet communist system but to reverse communism’s hold on Eastern Europe and the USSR, including through extremely bold forms of economic warfare. The secret directive had been principally authored by Harvard professor of Russian history, Dr. Richard Pipes, shortly before he left the Reagan National Security Council. Pipes was unaware of how the Soviets learned of NSDD-75; that’s a question that he and I have pursued. But you recently solved the riddle for us, thanks to this incident you experienced: You told us that Mikheyev had learned about the directive in the Los Angeles Times of March 16, 1983. Is that correct?
Zimmerman: We’d been comparing the relative health of our economies. After I told him that it was their reliance on a command economic model that was responsible for their citizens’ poverty, rather than letting market forces signal where the factors of production should be allocated, he just shrugged. Mikheyev then stated that he could prove that their problems were the fault of an established U.S. policy to destabilize their economy. Subsequently, he pulled out a photocopy of an LA Times story about NSDD-75, presented it as documented truth-from-on-high and seemed quite pleased with himself.
Kengor: The article in the Times was written by Robert Toth, who had a major scoop, compliments of one of the unknown serial leakers in the Reagan White House. And, so, Mikheyev was hoping that you, as a legislative aide on foreign policy and national security to a member of Congress, might be able to procure a copy or details of NSDD-75 for him?
Zimmerman: He was very indirect about it. He asked, after I read the article, how I would brief the Congresswoman on NSDD-75. First off, I told him that the LA Times was just trying to sell newspapers by being sensational, which was distinctly different from Moscow’s Pravda, a government run propaganda sheet. Since I didn’t put much stock in the LA Times, I said that this would not be a subject that I would bring to Snowe’s attention. He then inquired, as a student of government and history, hypothetically, if I wanted to inform her, how I would go about researching NSDD-75. I told him that I would try the State Department and see if they would brief me.
Kengor: Was this rather obsessive interest in NSDD-75 by this casual “student of government and history,” the reason you decided to inform the FBI?
Zimmerman: I had a natural distrust of any Soviet government official since I had studied the history of the Soviet Union and Marxism in college. Stalin murdered tens of millions of his own citizens that disagreed with him; their system of government denied freedoms that I held dear (speech, religion, market economics) and threw people in jail for violations. Additionally, I had recently applied for a security clearance from the Department of Defense and had given approval to have my background investigated.
Considering all of this, after I agreed to meet Mikheyev for lunch, I preemptively called the FBI to let them know that Alex and I were going to have a meal. They dropped by for a chat.
Kengor: So, the FBI took over, turning you into a major Cold War asset to gather more information from Mikheyev. Explain what happened.
Zimmerman: They agreed that it was likely a personal visit, but told me to watch out for a few indicators that might suggest he had other motives. It shocked me that at the end of our lunch the two specific gestures the FBI asked me to be on guard for, occurred.
Kengor: You told me that a plan was devised to feed a phony version of NSDD-75 to Mikheyev—classic Cold War disinformation.
Zimmerman: The aim was that the FBI would construct a fake, legalese-infested document that, without hours of study, would appear to be the real McCoy. I was going to hand it over just before he descended the escalator at the Metro station. The FBI planned to grab him with the document at the base of the stairs before he could get on the subway.
Kengor: What happened to this innocent lamb—this simple Soviet “student” on a quick stop-over in Washington—who turned out, in fact, to be a KGB agent? Was he expelled from the United States?
Zimmerman: Somehow, Mikheyev got wind that something was up and unexpectedly headed for JFK to catch a plane back to Moscow. The FBI grabbed him at the airport in New York, brought him before Jeanne Kirkpatrick (U.S. ambassador to the United Nations), and she kicked him out of the country.
Kengor: That was when the American media caught wind of this, right? You held a major press conference that ended up on all the front pages. I have articles on this from the front pages of the New York Times and Washington Post on April 22, 1983.
Zimmerman: Believe me, it was quite a spectacle.
Kengor: How about your liberal friend who started all of this? What did he think when he read about it in his New York Times?
Zimmerman: He called me at 6:00 a.m. after the Times hit his front door. I told him I couldn’t speak with him for a few weeks and he’d soon know why. The FBI pulled him in for a series of “meetings” to determine if he was a scout for U.S. citizens who would spy for the Soviets. He and I convinced them that he was nothing of the sort.
Kengor: Because of space limitations, I know you’ve held back on the many fascinating details in this story. I understand that you’ve turned this into a screenplay for a movie?
Zimmerman: Yes, Russian to Judgment illustrates the craziness and other bizarre incidents that occurred in the midst of a fairly stressful episode in my life.
Kengor: How about a book manuscript? Have you considered selling your story to a publisher?
Zimmerman: I always listen to offers.
Kengor: You walked away from it all, fed up with Washington. You told me that you moved to the West coast to get as far away from Washington, DC as possible.
Zimmerman: I had a great run, but 15 years in D.C. was plenty.
Kengor: Do you ever sit back and sort of philosophize about this, thinking “why me?” and “what was the reason for all that?”
Zimmerman: No; anything can happen to anyone in this life.
Kengor: Marc, 25 years ago you had quite a ride. Good luck and God bless you as you continue your life.
Zimmerman: It was my pleasure.