Cold War: Détente (1970s)


Figure 1.--As a result of Détente, the Soviets made concessions on Jewish emmigration. This press photo was taken in Vienna, Austria. The caption read, "Faces of Sorrow: Jewish emmigrant boy from the USSR and his grandmother await transportation to the transit camp at the railway station here this morning when Jews arrived despite the pending closure of the camp." These and other emmigrant Jews were bound for Israel. We are not sure if they were part of a larger family group. An elderly woman and young boy would seem like an unlikely pair to be emigrating alone. The photograph was dated October 3, 1975.

The Cold War which began in the aftermath of World War II, at least Western realization of Sovier policy, included various periods of rising and falling tensions. Both the United States and the Soviet Union had by 1970s built up massive and very expensive nuclear aresenals. Arenals that were capable of destroying the other country. President Nixon advised by Secretary of State Kissengr, while winding down the Vietnam War, decided to pursue Détente with the Soviet Union. The two can be seen as the architects of Détente. This was at the time surprising because Nixon was known as a Cold War warrior. At the same time China emerged from the Cultural Revolution as an increasingly independent actor. This was a key development as it allowed the United States to play each off against the other. Détente refers to Soviet-American relations, but occurred at the same time accomdations were reached with Communist China. The Soviets increasingly concerned with China and a lagging economy, decided to do business with the United States. One of the first steps was the massive Russian Wheat Deal (1972). This was testimony to the failure of Soviet agriculture. The cornerstone of Détente was the Strategic Arms Limitation Treary (SALT) (1972). The Yon Kippur War (1973) almost derailed Détente. President Nixon wrecked his presidency in the Watergate scandal, but Preidents Ford (1973-77) and Carter (1977-81) decided to contine the effort. And there was support in the Democrat-dominated Congress. Another major achievement of Détente was the Helsinki Accords (1975). The Soviets probably underestimated the impact of the human rights provisions. The Soviets mnade concessions on Jewish emigration which had become a major human rights issue. President Carter was committed to continuing Détente. Détente ended with the Soviet invasiion of Afghanistan which shocked President Carter (1979). This was followed by other provative soviet ininiatives, especially forcing Martial Law on Poland to control worker unrest (1981). And finally President Reagan was elected who was committed to more forcibly opposing Soviet provocations, especially introducing IRBMs in Europe. This essentially ended what was left of Détente

Varying Levels of Tensions

The Cold War which began in the aftermath of World War II, at least Western realization of Sovier policy, included various periods of rising and falling tensions. Perhaps the major period of relaxation was waht became known as 'Détente' during the 1070s. This is a French word meaning literally 'release of tensions'. France had nothing to do with Détente. Actually by pulling out of NATO, France Strenhrhened the Soviet hand. But France had been a major power through the 18th century and France had developed as the language of diplomacy.

Nuclear Arsenals

Both the United States and the Soviet Union had by 1970s built up massive and very expensive nuclear aresenals. Arenals that were capable of destroying the other country.

Nixon and Kissenger

Former vice-president Richard Nixon was elected with a promise to end the Vietnam War which had become increasingly unpopular (1968). He was advised by a respected academic, National Security Chief (later Secretary of State) Henry Kissengr. While winding down the Vietnam War, decided to pursue Détente with the Soviet Union. The two can be seen as the architects of Détente. This was at the time surprising because Nixon was known as a Cold War warrior. A major factor here is that Nixon and Kissenger realized that the developing tensions between China and the Soviet Union was laying the foundation for a major shift in the Cold war. Secret back channel communications were opened through Pakistan and Romania. The United States informed China that it was interested in ending its policy of isolating the PRC. At the same time China was beginning to eerge from the Cultural Revolution as an increasingly independent actor. This was a key development as it allowed the United States to play the two Communist powers off against the other. Some of the more optimistic in America hoped that the new relationship could mean a permanent improvement in relations with the Soviet Union. This tended to be the view of those who poorly understood Communist ideology and the character of the Soviet state. We are not entirely sure as to how Détente was viewed in the Kremlin, but suspect it was some of the same geo-political factors that impressed Nixon and Kissenger.

Sino-Soviet Split (1960s)

Détente refers to Soviet-American relations, but occurred at the same time accomdations were reached with Communist China. The Soviets increasingly concerned with China and a lagging economy, decided to do business with the United States. Détente probably would not have occurred without China, more specifically the Sino-Soviet Split. These were the two foremost Communist states. Meo while Stalin lived generally defered to him, especially while the People's Republic (PRC) was very new and neede military support during the Korean War which actually Stalin started (1950-53). Mao had much less respect for Soviet leaders after Stalin died (1953). The United states was slow to appreciate the developing cracks in what had been preceived as world-wide monolithic communism. Actually Stalin was never to supporive of Mao and the Chimnese Communists. We do not know his precise reasoning, perhaps he saw Chang and the Nationalists as a stronger challenge to the West and then the Japanese or was uneay about his inability to control Mao's Communist in contrast to most other national Communist parties. And while he supplied weaponry to China during the Korean War, he demanded payment. The Soviet leadership after Stalin gradually came to the comnclision that Mao was unreliable, meaning they could not control him like the Eastern European Communists they put into power. And worst they began to see China as potential rival. Mao for his part was shocked with the 20th Party Congress and the criticism of Stalin (1956). The break came when the Soviet Union withdrew their support for China's nuclear weapons program. The Chinese proceeded on their own and exploding their first fission bomb (1964) and Fussionn (hydrogen) bomb (1967). The two countries began to contemplate military hostilities. Aa million Soviet troops faced a million Chinese troops across the Ussuri River, this was the easternmost part of their lenthy common border (late-1960s).

Opening to China (1971-72)

President Nixon began the process of publically revealing his developing policy of opening relations with China by lifting its trade embargo with China (April 1971). This had been enacted during the Korean War (1950). At the same time a seemingly minor encounter took place in Japan. Of all things, the World Table Tennis Championships became a feature in the Cold war. Unlike the Soviet Union, the hinese at the time gave little attention to sports, in part for ideological reasons. For some reason, however, ping-pong was a sport thast they were very good at. A member of the American team mistakenly got on a bus carrying the Chinese team, resulting in the totaly unanticipated interaction between team members. The following day, the American team captain suggested that his Chinese counterpart invite the Americans to China for a match. Of course he would not do so without government approval. Unexpectly approval came swiftly. The American ping-pong team thus became the first from their country to be officially welcomed in the People's Republic. The American ping-pong team visit was totally unplanned, but broke the ice. Kissinger secretly visited Beijing (July 1971). He met both Mao and Zhou Enlai. Mao was still in charge, but his stature was significatly reduced by the Cultural Revolution. Kisenger and the Chinese keasers discussed major stumbling blocks like Vietnam and Taiwan. The Chinese invited Nixon to visit. This of course had to be done publically. Kissenger could visit secretly, but not the President. Nixon visited publically with great fanfare (February 1972). He publicly shook hands with Mao, and was toasted by Zhou in the Great Hall of the People. Nixon's trip did not result in immediate practical steps, although it set in motion poliytical and economic processes that wiuld transform China. The impact on the Kremlin was more immediate. It clrarly showed that despite Comminism, China and the United States had common interests. The stareling prospect of improved relations between these two great once formidable enemies caused alarm bells to go off in the Kremlin. A summit between Nixon and Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev was scheduled. And a break through in the SALT talks were finally reached.

Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty--SALT I (1970-72)

The cornerstone of Détente was the Strategic Arms Limitation Treary (SALT). The SALT I negotiations began publically (early-1970). At the same time secret talks began with the Chinese. An Nixon was also attempting to Vietnamize the Vietnam War. The goal was to withdraw American combat troops and replacing them with South Vietnamese troops. To pressure the North Vietnamese, Nixon intensified the conflict by bombing Coomunist forces in Cambodia (April 1970). The target was North Vietnamese supply lines and Khmer Rouge guerillas supporyting them. The Chinese were publicly outraged and privately cancelled the next round of talks. Some Chinese leaders saw the advantages of a rapprochement. An internal struggle within the Chinese Central Committee commenced with the more moderate elements favoring the developing reltiinship with the United States prevailing. The horrors of the Cultural Revolution was an important factor here. The Sino-American contacts were conducted in secret, but the Soviets were well informed about the developing shift in Chinese policy. And it must have affected their SALT negtiations, although to what extent is difficult to tell. Nixon and Brezhnev signed agreements in Moscow--SALT I (May 22). The Treaty curbed the arms race for the first time, far beyonf the Test Ban Treaty. This was followed by the signing of the Basic Principles of Relations between the United States and the U.S.S.R. (May 26). The text agreement called for peaceful co-existence, the avoidance of military confrontations, and no claims of spheres of influence. The later was more difficult to define.

Russian Wheat Deal (July-August 1972)

One of the first steps in Détente was the massive Russian Wheat Deal (1972). This was testimony to the failure of Soviet agriculture. The Tsarist Empire before the Revolution had been bread basket of Europe. The highly productive black soil areas, especially the Ukraine produced boutiful harvests that not only fully supplied domestic demand, but was exported to Europe. The Revolution and even more so Stalin's collectivization and enginered Ukranian famine destroyed all this. Soviet agriculture became the Achilles heal of the Soviet economy and the impact was still being felt in the 1970s. The Soviets needed to import grain. Nixon suggested to the Soviets that they purchase American grain. It was in part a deal designed to build political support in farm belt for the 1972 election. The Soviets responded favorably. A purchase of 400 million bushels of wheat, was arranged at a price of $0.7 billion. This was a substantial portion of the American grain reserve. Favorable credit terms were arranged. The price was below market values. The purchase was so large it affected American food prices.

Ostpolitik

About the same time that Mixon had conceived of Détent, Social Democrat (SPD) Willy Brandt came to power in West Germany (1969). The SPD was a Socialist party with left-wing afinities. He conceived of a kind of German analog to Détente--Ostpolitik. Brandt began a policy of normalizing relations with East Germany. Brandt personally visited East Germany. He signed a non-aggression pact with Moscow and a treaty with Poland recognizing Poland's postwar border on the Oder-Neisse. The two German states signed a treaty of mutual recognition (December 1972). .

Brezhnev Visit (June 1973)

Brezhnev visited the United States for a second summit with Nixon (June 1973). Brezhnev during the talks warned Nixon that United tates support for Israel was putting a strain on Détente in the Middle East. Of course the Sovirets at the time wrre shipping enormous quantities of modern weapons to the Arabs.

Yon Kippur War (October 1973)

The Yon Kippur War broke out with an Egyptian attack acroos the Suez Canal (October 1973). The Egyptians eith modern Soviet-supplied weapons surprised Isreal with a lighting crossing of the Suez defenses on the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur (October 6, 1973). The Isrealis relied heavily on signals intelligence which the Egyptians avoided and was a major factor in the Egyptian ability to surprise the Isreali Defense Force (IDF). The Syrians attacked in the north. This time, however, the Jordanians did not participate in the attack on Israel. Large numbers of Isreli tanks and planes were destroyed as a result of new anti-tank missles weaponery provided by the Soviets and for which the IDF was unprepared. The Isreali air force was also hit by Soviet surface to air (SAM) missles. During the 19 days of fighting the Isrealis lost 109 planes which was 35 percent of their air force. Had the war contunued the Isreali Air Force would have been destroyed. Because the Isreali defense strategy relied heavily on air and armor forces, Isreali could have been defeated. The War nearly derailed Détente. Both superpowers were aiding their allies in the region and for a while, Soviet intervention and even confrontation seemed a destinct possibility.

Jackson-Vanik Act (1974)

Wahington Senator Henry Jackson was determined to make human rights an integral element in the United States-Soviet relationship. There was no way of convining the Soviets tht human rights was important, but Jackson had a trump card. The Soviets who were having invreasing economic problems, wanted the economic benefits that could come through Détente. But this was in large measure would require 'most-favored nation' trade status. And this required Congressional approval. The passage of the Jackson-Vanik Act (1974) required both the Soviet and American administrations to address the civil rights issue as part of the bilateral relationship. The Act required the Soviet Union to endcrestrictions on emigration if they wanted most faborable nation trade status. While some saw this as tilting at winfmills, we now know more about the Soviet economic decline and that access to the U.S. market was indeed important to the Soviets. The Soviets at the time rejected this as unwaranted interference and refused the trade deals. But the price for 'most-favored nation status' would be Soviet concesions on human rights and Jewish emigration. Senator Jackson made sure that the issue of Soviet treatment of its Jewish population and other political dissidents remained a well publicized issue.

American Political Environmnt

President Nixon wrecked his presidency in the Watergate scandal, but Preidents Fod (1973-77) and Carter (1977-81) decided to contine the effort. And there was support in the Democrat-dominated Congress. Tgere was oposition from those who thought SALT a bad deal and did not trust the Soviets, but there was for the most part continued support for D(tente. There was, hwever, an important shift. TheNixon-Kissenbger concept of Détente was basically a Real Politic approach, the same pribciples under which the Soviets operated. The Democrats in Congress and then President Carter when he was elected (1976) introduced human rights into the equation. This essentially unbalanced Détente because it was something the Soiviets would not agree to in contrast to Real Politics. This was acrtually ironcical, the same liberal Democrats who wanted an accomodating approch to the Soviets in esence thrugh a monkey wrench into the process by introducing human rifghts.

Ford Visit to the Soviet Union (November 1974)

President Nixon despite his foreign policy achievements was forced to resign in disgrace because of the Watergate relevations (August 1974). President Gerald Ford, the former House minority leader, who suceeded him made it clear that his Administration was still committed to Détente. In an official visit, he met with Brezhnev in Vladivostok (November 1974). There the two leaders reached agreement in principle for a new arms limitation treaty--SALT II. It would be years and a new generation of leaders, however, until the agreement on the precise details was reached abd a new Treaty actially ratified. This would prove far more difficult than either leader envisioned.

Helsinki Accords (June 1975)

Another major achievement of Détente was the Helsinki Accords (1975). The Soviets probably underestimated the impact of the human rights provisions. After more than 2 years of difficult discussion, the representatives of Canada, the United States, and 33 European countries met in Helsinki, Finland. The expressed purpse was formalize the post-World war II borders. The formal name of the occssion was the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe. The Helsinki ccords consisted of three 'baskets'. The first basket consisted of practical measures regarding security. The existing borders were confirmed and the parties pledged peaceful settlements of any future disputes. The second basket dealt with cooperation in trade, culture, science, and industry. The third bsket addressed humanitarian concerns and called for free movement of peoples and circulation of ideas. The first two baskets were largely acceptable to all sides and resulted in substantial benefits to all sides. The third basket was very different. The United States and the Soviets viewed the three baskets differently, especially the thirdd basket. The United states, especially after the election of President Carter, was very serious about the third basket. The Soviets were fairly pleased with the first two baskets, deeing benefits for the struggling economy. And they considerefd the third backet a public relations exercise. It could be useful in criticizing the West in its propaganda and simply ignored behind its own inukated borders. After all Stalin had pledged democratic elections during the Yalta Conference at the end of World war II. Soviet negotiators saw no reason why they could not do the same. The agreement was signed (August 1, 1975). American negotiators about essentially recognize Soviet hegemony in Eastern Europe and annexation of the Baltic Republics, but believed on balancethat the Treaty would have a positive impact. Many in the human rights community, however, greeted it with skepticism if not open cynicism. They argued that the Soviets had obtained their political objectives of non-interference and would simply ignore the provisions of the Agreement which addressed human rights. This certainly was what the Soviets thought that they had achieved. Something entirely unexpected occurred. The human-rights provisions resulted in the creation of Helsinki Watch committees throughout the Soviet Union and the Eastern European satellites. This inspired dissent which developed into important movements that gradually represent major challenges to Communism. Natan Sharansky argues that dissent was not possible under Stalin. The cost of dissent was death. That is why there was no notable dissenters during the Stalinist era. Once the cost of dissent became less draconian, a human rights movement could develop. [Sharansky and Dermer] The movement took various forms in different countries. In Czechoslovakia Charter 77 was created which launched a human rights campaign beginning with a declaration signed by 243 intellectuals, journalists, and reform communists who had been purged during the 1968 Soviet intervention.

Carter Election (November 1976)

President Carter like his predecesors was comitted to Détente, but he was also committed to human rights. And if the Soviets were going to gain some of the desired benedits of Détente, there was going to be a price to pay for it--concessions in human rights. President Carter has been harshly criticized and much of it deservedly. And part of that criticism was in in his foreign policy. One aspect of that foreign policy produced mixed results, the focus on human rights. Bu one area in which it had unqualified positive reperscussions often not fully credited to the President was with the Soviet Union. Until Carter's election, the Soviets had been plagued by Conressional critics like Senator Jaxkson. Bit there is only so much sentors can do. With Carter;s election, the Kremion suddenly had to cintend with aresident that took humaan rights isues seriously. And with a declining ecomnomy, the economic gains offerdc by closer relations with the United States became increasingly appealing.

Soviet Jewish Emigration

The Pogroms launched by Tsar Alexander III made drove many Jews from Poland abd other areas of the Pale where Jews were allowed to live in Tsarist Russia (1880s). It made the Tsar and the Tsarist regime a subject of fear and hated. Jewish raducals turned to revolutionary politics. These were ethnic Jews often without any religious afiliation with the Jewish community. Many Jew put there faith in socialism and were active in the Russian Revolution. The most famous was Trotsky, but there were many other prominant Jews. The same was true in the socialist movements in other European countries as well. After Stalin seized control of the Soviet Union, supression of all religious groups became more intense, but gradually unwritten restrictions on Jews developed. Historiand generally believe that the Dictor's Plot was the beginning of a major anti-Semetic campaign Stalin was planning at the time of his death (1953). This was never launched, but Soviet Jews were desciminated against and decined basic religious and cultural rights. And they like other Soviet citizens with rare exceptions were not allowed to emigrate. The issue of Jewish immigration first received international attention durung the Nixon Administration. Two Jews who had been denied exit visas began plotting to hijack a plane. They were arrested, tried and sentenced to death (December 1970). The press picked up on this and it caused an international outcry. The Soviets backed down and decided not to execute the two men. This brought the issue of Jewish emigration tothe internstional spot light. It was a difficult issue for them, because if Jews were allowed to emigrate it would make it difficult to deny similar rights to other Soviet citizens and to explain why people whould want to leave the 'workers' paradise. The Nixon Administration was primarily interested in bilateral relations with the Soviets and pursued detente. Senator Henry Jackson made human rights an element in that relationship. The passage of the Jackson-Vanik Act (1974) forced both the Soviets and American administrations to address the civil rights issue as part of the bilateral relationship. Authors disagree as to the importance of Jewish emigration. Secretary of State Henry Kissenger seems to have seen it as more of an irritant in United States-Soviet relations. Another author writes, "It armed Soviet citizens with the greatest weapon against their closed society: the opportunity to vote with their feet and leave." [Beckerman] The Soviets made concessions on Jewish emigration which had become a major human rights issue.

Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty--SALT II (June 1979)

American and Soviet negotiators finally produced a document that would follow-up on SALT I (June 1979). President Carter presented it to the Senate for approval. There was, however, considerable opposition, especially from the Republican side., Many senators just did not trust the Soviets. Ratification would have been difficult under any circumstances, but the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan (Devember 1979) made ratification imposible for years. President Carter as part of a program of sanctions, including withdrawl from the Moscow Olympics asked the Senaste to suspend consideration (January 1980). The prospects for ratufication firther deteriorated when Govnor Reagan defeated President Carter in his reelection bid (November 1980). The new pPresident had never endosed the comcept of Détente and launched the largest peacetime military build-up in American history.

Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan (December 1979)

President Carter was committed to continuing Détente. Détente ended with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan which shocked President Carter (1979). The Sovier War in Afghanistan is a conflict that spans the Cold War and the war on Islamic terrorism. America still had a Cold War fiocus, but the Islamic Revolution in neigboring Afghanistan occurred in the same year as the Soviet invasion. Soviet motivation was less clear cut. The Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan to support the beleagered communist regime (1979). Russian paratroopers landed in Kabul (December 1979). A civil war was raging between the Communist Government and much of the tradition-bound population in the countryside. Loyal Communist, Prime Minister Hazifullah Amin, was trying to uproot centuries of Islamic tradition and repace it with a Soviet-stle people's repulic. Much of the country was outraged. The Government arrested thousands of Muslim leaders and many more fled Kabul to the mountains in an effort to eavade Amin's secret police. It was not just a matter of tradition, Amin's communist government was atheist and wanted to pdopt atheist campaign. President Carter was shocked. His response was to boycott the Olympic Games held in Moscow. Thousands of Afghanis flocked to join the Mujahdeen, both to resist the Russians and to protect Islam. They were determined to overthrow of the Amin government. The Mujahedin declared jihad, holy war , on the Russians and Amin. The Soviets claimed that they had been invited in by the independent Amin government and that they were protecting a friendly government from the Mujahdeen that they saw as terrorists. The Soviets and their Afghan allies proved both brutal and increasingly unpopular. Disatisgied with Amin's performance, the Soviets shot him and installed Babrak Kamal. Besieged in the countryside, Kamal was totally dependent of the Soviets. Many soldiers in the Soviet equipped Afghan Army deserted to join the Mujahdeen. Kamal needed 85,000 Soviet soldiers to remain in power. The Soviets were able to control the cities, but at first not the countryside. Soviet airpower gradually gained increasing control and wreaked heavy casualties on the Mujahedin. An unlikely partnership between Texas congressman Charlie Wilson and the CIA saw to it that the Mujahideen got Stinger missles. This erased the Soviet airpower factor. And without it the Soviets could not extert effective control beyond the cities. After 10 years of bitter fighting, the Soviets finally withdrew (1989). They left their Afghani allies to their fate. Few would have guessed at the time of the Soviet invasion that this poor, isolated central Asian country would play a major role in the Cold War and set in motion a chain of events that woukd lead to the end of the Cold War and the disolution of the Soviet Union.

Reagan's Election (1980)

Governor Reagan ran against President Carter in the oresidenbtial election (1980). The Cold War was an issue. Reagan charged with some validity that Carter had an ineffectual foreign policy. The Iranin seizure of histages may hav had a greater impact than the Cold War issues, but all fed into he same narative of weakness and incompetence. Regan defaeted Carter in the electio and was committed to more forcibly opposing Soviet provocations, especially imposing partial law in Poland (1981) and introducing IRBMs in Europe. This essentially ended what was left of Détente and launched the finl decade of the Cold war. Presient Reagan's Cold War policy becamne a majorissue of his presidency, Many liberal Democrats consiered in dangerous and preferred accomodation with the Soviets even after Agghanisan and Poland and introducing RBMs in Europe. One author writes, "The activities of President Ronald Reagan returned tensions to a fever pitch." We see this as a highly political assement. Our view is that the Soviet continustion of aggressive Cold War sctions such as invading Afghanistant, suppressing worker urest in Poland, and intriducng IRBMs in Europe is what returned tensions to 'a feaver pitch'. History would show that President Reagan's military buildup ans stroing responses to Soviet provocations in combnation to internal and poorly understood weaknesses wuld lead to the end of the Cold war and the imposion of the Soviet Union itself. Detractors of Presidentt Reagan argue that General Secrtary Gorbechev played an ecen more important role than Reagan. Here we tend to af=gree, but ourcontentin is that Reagan firm stand in dealings with the Soviets were a factor in Gorbechev's rise to power as well s his policies once in power..

Sources

Beckerman, Gal. "Kissinger's distortion: The true story of Soviet Jewish emigration," The Washington Post (December 28, 2010), p. A13. Beckerman addresses the subject of Jewish emigration in much more detail in his book, When They Come for Us, We'll be Gone: The Epic Struggle to Save Soviet Jewery (2010).

Sharansky, Natan and Ron Dermer. The Case for Democracy: The Power of Democracy to Overcome Tyranny and Terror (2004).







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Created: 7:31 PM 3/30/2014
Last updated: 12:08 AM 2/20/2016