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Turning Points in Ending the Cold War
By Kiron K. Skinner
Hoover Institution PressCopyright © 2007 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University
All rights reserved.
Jack F. Matlock Jr.
The End of Détente and the Reformulation of American Strategy: 1980–1983
On December 26, 1979, a special unit controlled by the Soviet Committee on State Security, the KGB, stormed the presidential palace in Kabul, killing Prime Minister Hafizullah Amin, his family, and all who happened to be in the building at the time. It was an act of treachery as the forces were in Kabul ostensibly to protect Amin. The next day, large numbers of Soviet regular troops rolled into the country to make sure an Afghan exile under their control, Babrak Karmal, could seize the reins of the Afghan government and the ruling political party. With this act, Soviet leaders plunged their country into a hopeless war and swept away the last remnants of the fraying détente that had been inaugurated with great fanfare during Richard Nixon's meeting with Leonid Brezhnev in 1972.
President Jimmy Carter reacted to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan with a fury that at times failed to take into account the ultimate effect of his actions. He prohibited or severely limited most commercial ties with the Soviet Union. He appealed to athletes throughout the world to boycott the summer Olympic Games scheduled for Moscow in 1980. He closed the small U.S. consulate in Kiev and required the USSR to withdraw its consular officers from New York. He limited educational and cultural exchanges and allowed the bilateral agreement that provided for them, which had been in force since 1956, to expire. His representatives sponsored condemnatory resolutions in the United Nations. He requested the U.S. Senate to suspend consideration of the SALT II agreement that had been submitted for ratification a few months earlier. Senior U.S. officials let journalists know that the United States would be willing to provide small arms to Afghan forces that resisted the Soviet incursion.
All of these moves were damaging to Soviet prestige, but they were not sufficient to convince the Soviet leaders that they had anything to gain from withdrawing from Afghanistan before they had accomplished their purpose. Except for the UN resolutions, none of these measures received full support from U.S. allies, who for the most part had not been consulted before the moves were announced. Most embargoes of exports simply shifted Soviet procurement to other sources. The Soviet Union needed to import large quantities of grain, and other countries were pleased to sell their products to Moscow when Washington placed limits on U.S. exports. Meanwhile, American farmers chafed at the loss of their largest foreign market.
Some sanctions, such as the attempt to boycott the Olympic Games, were one-time gestures that could have no positive effect after the event had passed. Others, such as the closure of consulates and the suspension of exchanges, were actually contrary to U.S. interests. When the handful of Soviet consular officials left New York, over 700 Soviet officials remained in that city under the auspices of the United Nations. When U.S. officials left Kiev, no resident Americans were left to observe events and maintain contacts with the Ukrainian people. Cultural and educational exchanges had been one of the few avenues open to the United States to communicate with Soviet intellectuals; by suspending them, the United States became an active partner in maintaining the iron curtain.
Any U.S. administration would have reacted vigorously to an outrage such as the invasion of Afghanistan, but one not taken by surprise might have been more judicious in selecting the most effective means to counter it. One that paid more attention to the implications of Soviet military activities in Africa, the Near East, and the Western Hemisphere, and was willing to make clear that arms control agreements would be impossible if these activities continued, might possibly have deterred it. As it was, however, the Soviet action made Carter look both naïve (by his own admission, it was "the greatest surprise" of his life) and ineffectual, since his response did nothing to reverse, or even moderate, Soviet military action in Afghanistan or elsewhere. Following the prolonged hostage crisis in Iran, the Soviet invasion suggested a shocking loss of U.S. power.
This perception inevitably provided the Republicans with powerful ammunition during the presidential campaign. Their candidate, Ronald Reagan, long a proponent of more vigorous resistance to the Soviet threat, charged that Carter had allowed U.S. strength to decline and had failed to contain Soviet aggression. Carter countered with charges that Reagan's policies would risk war. Many Americans found Reagan's arguments the more persuasive. The feeling that Carter had poorly managed U.S. relations with the Soviet Union, a feeling bolstered by the administration's inability to resolve the hostage crisis in Iran, doubtless played a role in Carter's electoral defeat.
For their part, the Soviet leaders were oblivious to the reasons for the U.S. reaction to their invasion of Afghanistan. They considered ratification of the SALT II treaty the ultimate test of U.S. intentions. When opposition developed in the U.S. Senate, it was thought to be the result of a die-hard anti-Soviet sentiment rather than genuine doubts about some features of the treaty. In Moscow's cynical interpretation, fumbling by the Carter administration while the treaty was before the Senate was evidence of a deliberate attempt to sabotage ratification. For example, Moscow considered the public clamor over the Soviet brigade in Cuba to be a calculated provocation to undermine ratification of the SALT II treaty.
The Soviet leaders did not consult their experts on the United States before they made their decision to send troops to Afghanistan. Even if they had, it is unlikely that Soviet diplomats would have predicted the vehemence of the U.S. reaction. Senior officials such as First Deputy Foreign Minister Georgi Kornienko and Brezhnev's foreign policy aide Andrei Aleksandrov-Agentov have since written that, although they considered the invasion of Afghanistan to be a grave mistake, they doubted that the SALT II treaty would have been ratified even if the invasion had not occurred. Equally pertinent, by not repeatedly warning against direct Soviet military intervention as the Soviet stake in Afghanistan grew, the Carter administration left the erroneous impression that what happened in Afghanistan was of no great importance to the United States. Therefore, the Soviet leaders considered Carter's reaction to the event both unexpected and inexplicable except in terms of a general desire to disrupt U.S.-Soviet relations.
A sharp divergence in each country's understanding of détente lay behind the emotions unleashed by the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. To the Soviet leaders, détente, or razriadka (relaxation), was a strictly limited concept. It meant controlling the U.S.-Soviet arms race (if possible to the Soviet advantage) and not much else. It specifically excluded relaxation in the sphere of ideology, limits on the Soviet "right" to fulfill its "international duty" (supporting pro-Communist insurrections or Socialist regimes), and any "intrusion" in Soviet internal affairs, such as political pressure on behalf of human rights.
The American view was much broader. Most Americans thought that any détente worthy of the name meant relaxation across the board. President Nixon and General Secretary Brezhnev had signed a declaration of principles in 1972 that committed both sides to refrain from seeking "unilateral advantage." In American eyes, the appearance of Soviet arms, advisers, and Soviet-financed Cuban troops in hot spots in Africa and Latin America violated this agreement. Furthermore, Americans thought that the Helsinki Final Act, signed in 1975, obligated the Soviet Union to alter its practices to permit greater openness and respect for human rights. The invasion of Afghanistan seemed to be the culmination of increasingly assertive Soviet policies on taking advantage of U.S. restraint following its defeat in Vietnam. Therefore, to much of the American public, the promise of détente seemed to have been betrayed even before December 26, 1979. Reagan's charge that détente had been a "one-way street" was taken as an obvious truth.
The Soviet leaders seemed incapable of understanding the reasons for American disquiet, but, dissatisfied as they may have been with Carter's policies, they preferred him to Reagan, whom they considered a reckless right-wing ideologue. There was a general expectation in Moscow that Carter would win the 1980 election, and Reagan's victory came as a shock.
Exit Carter; Enter Reagan
Ronald Reagan's charge during his campaign that President Carter had allowed U.S. defenses to deteriorate was not mere campaign rhetoric. He genuinely believed that the United States had become too weak to negotiate effectively. Therefore, when he took office he set as his first priority a restoration of U.S. military strength. He sought an even larger defense budget than the one Carter had requested, and he set about trying to improve the country's economic performance and shore up its political will.
Reagan considered the negotiating climate to be unfavorable during his first two years in office, and he took his time spelling out in detail his policies toward the Soviet Union. From the very beginning of his administration, however, he set forth several key themes that were to persist throughout his eight years in office. During his first press conference, on January 29, 1981, Reagan stated that he was in favor of negotiations to achieve "an actual reduction in the numbers of nuclear weapons" on a basis that would be verifiable. He also declared that during any negotiation one had to take into account "other things that are going on," and for that reason he believed in "linkage." He also referred to détente as having worked to the Soviets' advantage.
These themes, limited as they were, represented a departure from President Carter's approach. In proposing an actual reduction in nuclear weapons, Reagan was implicitly critical of the SALT II treaty that Carter had signed and the Vladivostok Agreement concluded by President Ford, both of which would have placed limits on the number of weapons without requiring a substantial reduction of existing arsenals. The condition that any agreement be verifiable was also intended to differentiate Reagan's approach from Carter's since Reagan had charged that the verification provisions of SALT II were inadequate. Reagan's endorsement of linkage was also an about-face in U.S. policy, for the Carter administration had considered arms control too important to be influenced by other issues.
Initially, Reagan's policy neither required nor assumed a fundamental change in the internal power structure in the Soviet Union. Secretary of State Alexander Haig, who spoke in greater detail than Reagan on U.S. Soviet relations, emphasized that it was not necessary for the Soviet Union to change internally "for East and West to manage their affairs in more constructive ways." He stressed that the U.S. goal was "to demonstrate to the Soviet Union that aggressive and violent behavior will threaten Moscow's own interests" and added that "only the U.S. has the power to persuade the Soviet leaders that improved relations with us serve Soviet as well as American interests."
Both Reagan and Haig spoke of the Soviet Union as a failed system facing increasing difficulties, and both felt that the growing Soviet reliance on military power abroad, while a danger to the peace, was also a source of weakness at home. They believed that the Soviet leaders would have no choice but to seek accommodation with the West if the United States could demonstrate that the USSR could not save their faltering system with military victories abroad and could not win an arms race with the United States. Haig put it most clearly in an address to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in April 1982 when he remarked, "We must place our policy in the context of important changes that are taking place in the world and in the Soviet empire that may make Moscow more amenable to the virtues of restraint. The Soviet attempt to change the balance of power has produced a backlash of increasing international resistance. ... As a consequence, the Soviet leaders may find it increasingly difficult to sustain the status quo at home while exporting a failed ideology abroad."
Reagan sounded the same theme, but with a more positive tilt, in his first speech on U.S.-Soviet relations, delivered in May 1982 at Eureka College, where he said: "I'm optimistic that we can build a more constructive relationship with the Soviet Union. ... The Soviet empire is faltering because it is rigid. ... In the end, this course will undermine the foundations of the Soviet system. [A] Soviet leadership devoted to improving its people's lives, rather than expanding its armed conquests, will find a sympathetic partner in the West."
The American news media paid scant attention to statements reflecting Reagan's negotiating stance but concentrated instead on comments he made, usually in response to questions, about the nature of communism and Marxist doctrine. For example, during the same press conference at which he called for negotiations to reduce the number of nuclear weapons, he was asked about Soviet intentions and specifically whether he thought "the Kremlin is bent on world domination." Reagan replied that the Soviet leaders had consistently said that "their goal must be the promotion of world revolution" and that "the only morality they recognize is what will further their cause, meaning they reserve unto themselves the right to commit any crime, to lie, to cheat, in order to attain that. ... I think when you do business with them, even at a détente, you keep that in mind."
Journalists and news analysts repeated this statement out of context for years, as if it had been meant to preclude negotiation rather than to pledge appropriate caution when dealing with people holding different ideological and ethical standards. Few critics were naïve or dishonest enough to deny that what Reagan said was true; rather, they claimed that "excoriating" the Soviet leaders would make it impossible to deal with them.
Reagan's frank assessment of the Communist system and its ideology doubtless reinforced the Soviet leaders' conviction that he would be a difficult and perhaps impossible negotiating partner. However, this was not the cause of the heightened tensions that marked U.S.-Soviet relations from 1980 until at least November 1985. Those tensions were the result of the incompatibility of Soviet and Western concepts of an acceptable relationship. They would have existed, in much the same form, even if the U.S. president had been more restrained in his public comments on Soviet policy.
Fighting intensified in Afghanistan during Reagan's first years in office. As the free trade union Solidarity gained adherents and influence in Poland, Soviet criticism of the Polish government seemed an ominous prelude to direct intervention; General Wojciech Jaruzelski's declaration of martial law in December 1981 was obviously in response to intense Soviet pressure. The Soviet leaders continued to deploy a new generation of intermediate-range missiles in Europe and refused to consider either removing them to make NATO deployments unnecessary or limiting them to a small number that would apply to both sides. Arms supplies to insurgents in Latin America increased, as did military support for parties in local wars in several parts of Africa. Jamming of Western radios was intensified. Political arrests and expulsions of dissidents continued; Andrei Sakharov languished in internal exile in a city closed to visits by foreigners. Jewish emigration dropped from tens of thousands a year to a few hundred.
The Soviet message seemed to be: Ratify SALT II or nothing else will work in the relationship. Accordingly, the Soviet leaders refused any meaningful discussion of other issues raised by the United States, and they initiated a propaganda battle designed to convince U.S. allies in Europe — and, if possible, the American public as well — that Reagan was threatening a nuclear war.
Defense Minister Dmitri Ustinov's November 1981 speech on the anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution summed up the Soviet reaction to the early Reagan administration. Ustinov accused the United States of "undermining the military-strategic balance" by seeking military superiority, attempting to stop "forces of national and social liberation," and "besieging" the Socialist countries. Ignoring evidence that some terrorist groups were receiving support from the Soviet Union, Ustinov charged that the United States and NATO were employing "the methods of international terrorism." The United States, he charged, had called into question "all that had been jointly achieved" (during détente) and had become an "uncontrolled military threat." The Soviet Union, he asserted, "has never embarked and will never embark on the road of aggression."
Excerpted from Turning Points in Ending the Cold War by Kiron K. Skinner. Copyright © 2007 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University. Excerpted by permission of Hoover Institution Press.
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