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#AskCokie: U.S.-Russia Relations


The United States has sent more than 60 Russian officials packing. President Trump joined the leaders of more than two dozen other countries in expelling Russian diplomats. It's being seen as retaliation for the poisoning of a former Russian spy in Britain. Of course, this is not the first time that U.S. relations with Russia have hit a low point. Think back to the Cold War and President Ronald Reagan's 1987 visit to a divided Berlin.


RONALD REAGAN: Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.

KING: And the wall did come down, bringing an end to USSR-style Communism in Germany. For more on this occasionally frosty relationship, we're going to ask Cokie Roberts about the history of U.S.-Russia relations. Commentator Cokie Roberts joins us every week to talk about how the government works. Good morning, Cokie.

COKIE ROBERTS, BYLINE: Good morning, Noel, so nice to talk to you.

KING: You, too. All right. Let's jump right in and get to our first question.

PAUL WEIMER: Hi. My name is Paul Weimer from Roseville, Minn. I would like to ask Cokie about our ambassadorial relationship with Russia. Who was our first ambassador there? What were their experiences like?

ROBERTS: Well, the first official ambassador was John Quincy Adams in 1809. But he had gone as a 14-year-old to serve as the interpreter for Francis Dana, the man the fledgling United States tried to appoint as a representative in 1781. But Catherine the Great, the empress, would not receive him because she didn't want to alienate Britain, and we were still at war. John Quincy Adams' experience with the young Czar Alexander was very different. And fortunately, Noel, we have his wife's diary to give us a really wonderfully vivid picture of what their experiences were like.

KING: No kidding, she wrote a diary? What do we know? What did she write?

ROBERTS: Well, she wrote that the married czar was quite taken with her and with her unmarried sister, which could be a bit dicey. But he and his wife were very welcoming to the American couple. And their 2-year-old, Charles Francis Adams, was invited to a costume ball at midnight when the toddlers were all served champagne. But they had a lot of fun. But then huge sadness when they lost their infant daughter there. And that American child, the descendant of presidents, is buried in Russia.

KING: Oh, wow.


KING: All right. This next question gets us a little bit closer to the present day.

PETER KUEBECK: Hi. My name's Peter Kuebeck. I'm from Perrysburg, Ohio. Who was the first president to make a state visit to Russia?

ROBERTS: Well, that would be Franklin Roosevelt in 1945 for the Yalta Conference. Yalta in Crimea. But then, of course, it was part of the Soviet Union, which was a World War II ally. The last president, by the way, was President Obama. The most famous probably was Ronald Reagan in 1988 after that Berlin Wall speech. And despite his lectures on human rights and religious freedom - or maybe because of them - he was well-received by the Russian people.

KING: All right. Last up, we have this question from Nancy von Meyer. Nancy writes - how frequently and under what circumstances has the red phone been used since the Berlin Wall came down?

ROBERTS: Well, first of all, there's no red phone.

KING: No red phone?

ROBERTS: Sorry, Dr. Strangelove and the makers of campaign ads. But there is a direct hotline between Washington and Moscow, which was created after the Cuban missile crisis. The technology of what that hotline is has changed over the years. It was first teletype machines. They were installed in the Pentagon. And that's where the system is still housed today, Noel. It's not on the president's desk at the White House. It's only been used a few times, first with LBJ during the Six-Day War in the Middle East. And the last time, as far as we know, was Obama on October 31, 2016, right before the election, warning Russia that disruption of the U.S. election was a, quote, "grave matter." So it brings us right up to today.

KING: All right. Thanks, Cokie.

ROBERTS: OK. Good to talk to you.

KING: That's commentator Cokie Roberts. You can ask Cokie your questions about how politics and government work by tweeting us with the hashtag #askcokie.

(SOUNDBITE OF ANDREW BIRD'S "ELLIPSES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.