Bill Clinton was one of thousands of students, wealthy retirees and other American sightseers who poured into the Soviet Union in 1969 as entry barriers were easing dramatically, those associated with the country said Thursday after President Bush made Clinton's trip a campaign issue.
"There was simply nothing extraordinary about visiting the Soviet Union in 1969," said Allen Kassof, former director of the International Research and Exchanges Board, a large U.S.-Soviet student exchange organization. "If you were to walk down the street and ask an American tourist his party affiliation, it was probably conservative Republican."
Mrs. Jacob Beam, wife of the U.S. ambassador to Moscow under then-President Richard M. Nixon, recalls that most of the Americans who visited the Soviet Union in 1969 were just "darn curious" and not there because of any affinity for communism.
"I feel very angry about what Mr. Bush is doing," she said hours after the President raised questions on a TV call-in show about Clinton's trip to Moscow.
Some Republican defenders of Bush suggested that the Clinton trip was, indeed, unusual and deserved close scrutiny. Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.), who was secretary of the Navy at the time of the trip, said Thursday: "As far as I know, travel to Moscow in those days was primarily official business."
On the other hand, Robert German, a retired foreign service officer who served in the Moscow Embassy during the 1960s, said in an interview: "It certainly wasn't very extraordinary for students on vacation to visit Russia in those days. There were no restrictions at all on our side, though there were some bureaucratic problems getting visas on the Soviet side."
Kassof said that during that period, thousands of Americans "were going to Russia as tourists, ranging from young people to wealthy people, retirees and scholars who were not on exchange programs."
Several former Rhodes scholars said it was commonplace for such students to travel to the Soviet Union and other countries in Europe during breaks in their studies.
Frank Sieverts, a former Rhodes scholar and foreign service officer who is now on the staff of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said that any Rhodes scholar "who didn't take off from his studies and see the world was very stick-in-the-mud."
Sen. Bill Bradley (D-N.J.) said he took a "great trip" to the Soviet Union while he was a Rhodes scholar in 1966.
"I saw totalitarianism up close--and was revolted by it," Bradley recalled in a Senate floor speech. "I met hundreds of Russians and Ukrainians and found them warm and open people who I hoped ultimately would triumph, as they have, in throwing off the yoke of communism.
"That summer I drove and camped about 1,100 miles through Byelorussia, Russia and Ukraine," Bradley continued. "I went with three fellow students from Oxford--one English and two American--one of whom went on to become an assistant to Henry Kissinger and work in the Reagan State Department.
"What does the President imply . . . that anybody who as a student traveled to Russia is unpatriotic? What hogwash. I thought education was learning about the world first-hand as well as from books."
A congressional aide recalled that during the 1960s the CIA was secretly subsidizing the U.S. National Student Assn. for purposes of sending Americans to youth festivals in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe.
"The idea was to send 'good' Americans who would prevent the Communists from dominating this kind of activity," the official recalled. "The student association was forced to fold when this was disclosed. So there was nothing intrinsically wrong about Clinton taking a trip to Moscow on his own."
Travel author Frank W. Rounds Jr. said in a magazine interview at the time that: "The Russian government is putting on the most massive tourist drive imaginable. . . . In 1968, there were 23,000 American visitors to Russia. In the first 10 months of 1969, the total was 40,000 Americans."