The linkup of American and Soviet forces at Torgau on the Elbe in April 1945 may be taken as the event symbolizing a new era in international relations—one largely dominated by the central relationship between two great powers, later known as the superpowers. The meeting at Torgau meant the splitting of Germany, the preeminent European power for three-quarters of a century. Germany’s division was to be both a fixture of the postwar era and, additionally, a continuing source of unease. Also, the event dramatically initiated what was to become die Wacht an der Elbe, an American protection against the power of the East of what was to become a democratic Germany—and behind Germany an abiding American commitment to the security of Western Europe. Despite the misjudgments in the immediate aftermath of the war, the lessons of two world wars had been insinuated into American foreign policy. Finally, in the way of symbolism, perhaps the brief exchange of fire between Soviet and American forces on the Elbe provided an early harbinger of the tensions that were ultimately to emerge.

To be sure, the war had not entirely run its course. Yet within a matter of weeks Hitler was dead and Germany had surrendered unconditionally. Roosevelt, too, who through America’s immense power had become the dominant leader of the West, was gone. The war against Japan was yet to be completed, but because of the bomb, it turned out to be almost a sideshow. The Soviet motive for joining the war against Japan was more akin to that of Mussolini in 1940—to participate in the spoils as the war was concluded—than it was to the spirit of the grand coalition.

The American desire was to fulfill the promise of Wilsonian idealism, of the Four Freedoms, of collective security and of the peaceful resolution of disputes through new international institutions. Russian goals were to establish a firm communist base in Europe, to create a cordon sanitaire against Western power, and unquestionably to obtain a position of authority in postwar deliberations at least equivalent to that of Tsar Alexander in 1815.


Yet the tone of the relationship had already changed. Potsdam was quite different from Yalta. Only Stalin continued in power. The new American President was figuratively as well as literally from Missouri. He did not, indeed could not, share Roosevelt’s expectation of enticing Stalin and the Soviet Union into a harmonious postwar structure. By the Potsdam meeting in July, America had passed beyond its wartime dream of long-term international collaboration with the Russians to a new and skeptical study of actual Soviet conduct.

Churchill, too, was gone. Perhaps the great symbolic Western leader in the wartime period, he had been replaced by Clement Attlee. And Britain, one of the Big Three, commenced a long-term decline from the prestige of the wartime period, lacking the resources and perhaps the will to maintain its place with its immensely powerful, continent-spanning allies. Britain’s long-term decline was symptomatic of the radically altered position of Europe. Europe’s Great Powers were destined never to recover to the extent then anticipated. They would remain dependent upon the United States for protection. Post World War II Europe would be altogether different from post World War I Europe. Whatever its inclinations, America could not go home again.

Nonetheless, it tried. Therein lies a great irony of the postwar period. In these latter days of discussions of the prospects for mutual disarmament or arms control through negotiations, it is forgotten that in 1945 the United States sought no mutual concessions or guarantees from the Soviet Union. No protests could then be made about the intransigence of the American position. The United States simply and unilaterally disarmed. The country gave way to the impulse to "bring the boys home." The pace of demobilization can only be described as pell-mell. The draft was ended. Military units were heedlessly broken up. By 1947, aside from a handful of atomic weapons, U.S. military power had been largely dismantled. In a reborn quest for "normalcy," President Truman had terminated Lend-Lease within a few days of the war’s end. America sought normalcy. Disarmament had occurred—without negotiations.

The irony, of course, is that it was the Soviet Union that brought America’s precipitate withdrawal to an end—and thereby forfeited a heaven-sent opportunity. Whether it was Stalin’s brooding genius, his innate Georgian suspicion or deep paranoia, it was he who brought the United States back to a sense of its international responsibilities. The gradual elimination of dissent in Eastern Europe, culminating in the defenestration of Masaryk and the Czech coup in 1948, was accompanied by pressures against Greece and Turkey and by the Berlin blockade. Truman rose to the challenge. America reversed course: there was the Greek-Turkish aid program, the Marshall Plan and the Berlin airlift. Moreover, by 1947 the draft was restored and the United States began a modest rebuilding of its military forces, to be greatly augmented after the invasion of Korea in June 1950.

The Russians had committed a colossal blunder. They had failed to understand—and to exploit—the rhythms of the American democracy. Imbued as they were with their own interpretation of America’s geopolitical necessities, the Russians failed to grasp that the Americans simply did not think the same way. The Americans had not read Lenin or Clausewitz or Machiavelli. The themes of realpolitik remain contrary to the spirit of the American democracy. But the Russians did not know that. The paradox was that the Soviet understanding of America’s geopolitical requirements was closer to the mark than was the American understanding. In a profound sense it was Soviet misreading of the United States that induced America to accept its role in the central strategic relationship of the last 40 years.

The Soviets’ extraordinary misinterpretation of the American character and American style poses a question which deserves careful examination and may provide a long-term and perhaps tragic theme for superpower relations. Are the moods of the superpowers, reflecting both longer-term and more recent experiences as well as their internal political dynamics, so out-of-phase with one another that they preclude simultaneity in seeking a modus vivendi? That question has become increasingly pressing, as the visible American willingness to reach a long-term accommodation during the 1970s was aborted as a consequence of the Soviets’ deep-seated impulses never to flag in the quest for marginal advantages. By the end of the 1970s, the Soviets had managed to dispel much of the American goodwill (and a fair amount of naïveté as well). The American anger continued, indeed expanded, during the 1980s—at just the point that the Soviets might have been prepared to accept a longer-term accommodation. These contrapuntal fluctuations in mood may turn out to be the most permanent feature of these 40 years of superpower relations.


By the end of the 1940s the general outlines of American policy had been set. They reflected a determination to protect the democracies of Western Europe and Japan, but additionally (and somewhat adventitiously) picking up responsibility for other states around the Soviet periphery, such as Greece, Turkey and Iran. Conceptually, policy rested upon a strategy of containment, reflecting the seminal views of George Kennan. But containment came to imply far heavier emphases on military measures and less on political measures than Kennan personally would have liked (a concern that has increasingly come to preoccupy him as these four decades have progressed). Moreover, containment—at base a pragmatic strategy—came within the ordinary exigencies of American life to bear those very features of moralism and legalism that Kennan himself had feared and decried as the characteristics of American foreign policy.

These characteristics certainly came to the fore during what may be called the Dulles phase of the Eisenhower presidency. They were reflected in a certain preachiness and in the crusading rhetoric that Americans tend to find so attractive. But they were also reflected in the U.S. sulkiness at the 1954 Geneva conference on Indochina, in the U.S. refusal to accept the results of that conference, in the unwillingness of Secretary Dulles to accept the proffered hand of Zhou Enlai—and in the frozen diplomatic relations with "Red China," which were to have such baleful effects in Southeast Asia in the 1960s, and which continued until Nixon unfroze them in the early 1970s. The moralistic-legalistic approach to foreign policy was to reach another high point, after that realpolitik of the Nixon-Kissinger years, during the Carter years. Perhaps the most revealing episode in placing legality above geopolitical reality came in late 1979 with the vehement, and in some ways extraordinary, reaction to the movement of Soviet forces across the international boundary into Afghanistan. In reality, the geopolitical damage had been done a year and a half earlier with the overthrow of the Daoud regime and the establishment of Moscow’s protégéf regime in Kabul.

The emphasis upon the military aspect of containment intensified during the 1950s. That emphasis, of course, had been reinforced by Korea and the sudden revelation that fewer nations could realistically be placed "outside the American defense perimeter." President Truman had seized the opportunity to ease a domestic political problem by establishing a quarantine in the Straits of Formosa during the war itself. But after the armistice the policy actually expanded—into the military containment of "Red China." One result was the immensely high domestic political effect of the militarily inconsequential struggle over the offshore islands of Quemoy and Matsu. Indeed, the tendency to equate military strategy with foreign policy reached its apogee with the doctrine of massive retaliation and its later corollary that we would respond by fighting wars "at times and in places of our own choosing."

America’s military advantages were immense during the 1950s. Our dominant position in strategic nuclear capabilities meant quite simply that the United States could essentially flatten the Soviet Union, with only the most limited Soviet ability to retaliate against the continental United States. This dominant position in nuclear forces lured the United States into what was to become an excessive reliance on nuclear weapons. It was enshrined in the doctrine of massive retaliation, which, however great the reservations of intellectuals, remained workable—as long as the United States retained strategic dominance. But it was unsustainable in the long run.

America’s inherently transitory advantages in nuclear weapons seduced the United States and its Western allies into almost total dependency on the threat of nuclear retaliation. In 1954 the United States adopted the New Look, emphasizing nuclear forces and reduced spending—and allowed its land and tactical air capabilities to remain weak. The NATO alliance abandoned the Lisbon force goals of 1950 and thereby solidified the habit of leaning on the nuclear crutch. For the short run there might be certitude, but in the longer run it implied for the West an uncertain trumpet, the biblical phrase that Maxwell Taylor used to indicate our eventual vulnerability. Needless to say, the problem of conventional military weakness has continued to haunt the Western alliance.

Yet the Soviets themselves must have been continuously haunted throughout the 1950s and later by their unquestioned inferiority in terms of intercontinental strike forces. No doubt the shift in alliance strategy to immediate use of nuclear weapons brought pause to the Soviets regarding the advantages that might be wrung from their immense conventional establishment. But that immense conventional establishment in turn caused perplexity and concern in the West. Given the almost disarmed state of Western Europe, what gain could the Soviets derive from maintaining a World War Il-sized army of 165 divisions?

Those in the West inclined to provide rationales—or rationalizations—for Soviet behavior hypothesized that thus holding Europe hostage provided the Soviets with their deterrent against the Americans. The threat of a massive attack that could overrun Western Europe, so the hypothesis ran, would deter the Americans from exploiting their overwhelming advantages in nuclear forces. But fear of that immense Soviet force, augmented by other Warsaw Pact capabilities, led to a general rearmament by the West and to the further expansion of American nuclear forces.

Whether the rationale attributed to the Soviets by Western analysts did play any serious role in Soviet thinking is still unknown. It was plausible. It fit the circumstances. It may even have been true. It should be noted, nonetheless, that even as the Soviets developed an intercontinental counterdeterrent to offset American capabilities, the Soviet Union maintained and expanded its military forces arrayed against Western Europe. In itself that should raise a question in the minds of those inclined to provide rationalizations for the structure of Soviet forces. Even if the old rationale had once played a role in determining the size of Soviet military forces, quite clearly a new explanation was now required.

The military dominance that the United States achieved during the 1950s could not be permanently sustained—and cannot be recovered. As late as 1956, during the Hungarian uprising, the Soviets were obliged carefully to consider possible American military reactions—even within their own satellite empire. By contrast, in 1968 in Czechoslovakia and even more clearly in Poland in the early 1980s, the relative Soviet position had so improved that they needed to give little attention to the possibility of American intervention. In 1956, also, Khrushchev could indulge in his bluster during the Suez incident about raining rockets down on London and Paris—only after it had become clear that the United States was separating itself from its allies. Under any other circumstances the Soviets could not risk provoking the United States, given its military edge.

Eisenhower himself was far more inclined than Dulles to practice an open and flexible diplomacy toward the Soviet Union. That ultimately resulted in the atmosphere of détente, enshrined in the spirit of Camp David from the late 1950s, as well as in secondary manifestations such as Khrushchev’s heralded journey to Roswell Garst’s Iowa farm and his visit to Hollywood. It also resulted in the Atoms for Peace proposal—including, rather farsightedly, the establishment of the International Atomic Energy Agency, in which the United States and the Soviet Union have effectively worked together.

Perhaps most notable, though inevitably abortive, was the "Open Skies" proposal. That proposal was a prelude to the numerous U-2 reconnaissance flights over the Soviet Union and to the shoot-down in 1960 that blew up the Paris summit and dispelled the spirit of détente. Until Gary Powers’ flight, the Soviets had been forced to watch helplessly while American planes overflew their territory. Then their SA-2 antiaircraft missile ended that period of frustration and technological envy. But it heightened Soviet respect for and fear of American technology, further reinforced during the 1960s by the speed of the deployment of our Minuteman force and by the clearcut superiority of the U.S. technology embodied in the Safeguard anti-ballistic missile (ABM) system as compared to the Soviet Galosh system. Such Soviet experience has bred a sense of technical inferiority vis-à-vis the United States that borders on a psychosis. The succession of the Open Skies proposal by the flight of the U-2 may help explain the apparently excessive Soviet reaction to President Reagan’s Star Wars proposal. Given that earlier, humiliating experience, the Soviets will no doubt be wondering: what might these technological wizards now have up their sleeves?


The arrival of the Kennedy Administration, in light of the campaign assertions regarding the missile gap and in the aftermath of the blow-up of the Paris summit, brought significant changes. The ignominious failure of the Bay of Pigs operation, the bullying of the young President by Khrushchev at the Vienna summit, the renewed Berlin crisis and the Cuban missile confrontation all contributed to the grim mood within an Administration dedicated to going anywhere, paying any price, et cetera, to preserve freedom. Late in 1961, new reconnaissance techniques revealed that the missile gap was in fact a myth and that the strategic advantage continued to rest with the United States. But that disclosure alleviated only slightly the tension felt during the Cuban missile crisis the next year.

After the Cuban missile crisis, the mood in the Administration changed. It became both less grim and less wedded to its original missionary zeal. The Administration’s interest in arms control was stimulated. The Limited Test Ban Treaty was signed in 1963—with the intention that it be the first fruit of a much lengthier arms control process. Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, who during the early years of the Administration had proposed counterforce strategies, city avoidance, civil defense and damage limitation, turned increasingly away from such concepts after 1963 and began to elaborate the strategy of mutual assured destruction. In the last year of the Kennedy Administration and throughout the Johnson Administration, the U.S. strategic force posture came to be guided by a belief in arms restraint—which it was presumed would be emulated by the Soviets. It became an article of faith that the Soviets would terminate their intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) deployment at 1,000 missiles, as we had, if indeed they chose to deploy that many. (They did not, in fact, stop until 1,618.)

From the first, the Kennedy Administration had shared General Taylor’s skepticism regarding reliance on the threat of nuclear retaliation. It substantially increased funding for conventional forces—and explicitly repudiated the New Look strategy inherited from the Eisenhower Administration. A new administration, reflecting both the campaign rhetoric regarding "suicide or surrender" and Secretary McNamara’s strong convictions, was determined to provide a conventional deterrent in Europe that would by itself preclude Soviet conventional attack. It also sought to establish a firebreak prior to any use of nuclear weapons.

Sound as Secretary McNamara’s logic might have been regarding the buildup of conventional forces, it signally failed to recognize the psychology of our allies. The allies were wedded to reliance on nuclear retaliation. The proposed buildup of conventional capabilities was both resented and opposed because it would supposedly weaken deterrence and would thus invite attack by the superior Soviet conventional forces. Given their experiences, the allies had no desire "to refight World War II." They portrayed as the only alternatives either the agony of a conventional war or continuing peace through nuclear deterrence. The Administration failed to help its own case—by its rhetoric about the nuclear firebreak, by its expressed abhorrence of any reliance on a nuclear strategy, and by its emphasis on building up conventional forces as a substitute for nuclear response. It thus made very slow headway in its attempt to move away from reliance on immediate nuclear retaliation. Ultimately, it required both the departure of France from the integrated military structure and the passage of seven years before the alliance adopted the strategy of flexible response in 1967.

By 1965, however, the Johnson Administration’s attention had begun to shift elsewhere, and at an accelerating pace. The war in Vietnam became the preoccupation of the Administration and the focus of an increasingly rancorous domestic debate. Gradually NATO became a secondary issue. It was increasingly neglected, as the government’s attention turned toward Southeast Asia.

Two things should be especially noted about the pre-Nixon Vietnam years. First, the Administration’s rationale was primarily directed not at the Soviet Union, but at "Red China." Much, indeed far too much, was made of Lin Biao’s rather obscure prose about ultimately seizing the cities by initially controlling the countryside. This was interpreted as a direct threat to encircle the industrial world through control of Third World countries such as Vietnam. President Johnson proceeded around the rim of Asia proclaiming the need to defeat this malevolent strategy before we faced "a billion Chinese armed with nuclear weapons." Indeed, the decision in 1967 to deploy the Sentinel ABM system, featuring a thin area defense of the continental United States, was directed primarily at a prospective Chinese nuclear threat.

However far-fetched such reasoning may appear in retrospect, in this period the Soviets were increasingly viewed as a restraining influence within the communist world—who shared the American aspiration for some degree of international stability. Compared to Mao, the Soviets were viewed as relatively benign.

In the early years of Vietnam, it was widely believed (a view that I found preposterous) that the Soviets were deeply concerned that Vietnam might get out of hand, and therefore were our partners in seeking a settlement of the issue. The possibility that the Soviets might positively enjoy watching the Americans stewing in their own juice was rejected out of hand. That the Soviets would immensely benefit from the refocusing of American attention on the supposed Chinese threat, and from the diversion of American resources away from Western Europe and the competition in strategic forces, was a reality all too rarely examined in Washington. Surely the Soviets would eagerly help extricate the American bacon from the Vietnamese fire. Given these preoccupations and these beliefs, it is hardly surprising that the conviction took hold that the Soviets also shared American objectives with respect to arms control. It was an article of faith that the Soviets sought only to match American strategic capability; their buildup would cease as they approached American force levels. That the Soviets do not think like American liberals has been a lesson very slowly learned.

The upshot was a growing faith in the inevitability of arms control and in the effectiveness of the arms control process. Collaboration on the Non-Proliferation Treaty (where superpower interests coincided) furthered such hopes. At the Glassboro summit in 1967, the Americans attempted to persuade Soviet Premier Aleksei Kosygin of the legitimacy of these views. Simultaneously they attempted to dissuade the Soviets from deploying strategic defenses—for that would result simply in the accelerated deployment of strategic offensive forces. Though they failed to move Kosygin on that occasion, they continued to believe that the logical force of their arguments would ultimately persuade the Soviets.

All these hopes, however, were suddenly dashed by the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. That invasion, which to less Utopian observers of Soviet conduct appeared inevitable in the circumstances, rather surprisingly caught the Administration by surprise. As in 1960, an external event had interrupted the arms control process. The American reaction to what in Soviet eyes should have been accepted as a fortuitous, if not irrelevant, event—later repeated in Angola and even more markedly in Afghanistan—makes sustained and unvarying participation in bilateral arms negotiations impossible for the American democracy.


Expectations regarding a new and more congenial relationship with the Soviet Union reached a peak during the Nixon years—and then faded. Nixon himself was unusual among American presidents in that he came to office with a consuming interest in, and well-formulated views about, foreign policy. The principal achievements of his Administration lay in that arena. Nor were these achievements preponderantly in relations with the Soviet Union. Perhaps the pinnacle was the new and pragmatic relationship with the People’s Republic of China, which only a Republican president could have initiated. By opening the door to triangular diplomacy, it markedly affected superpower relations. Overall it has provided sizable benefits in terms of international stability. The withdrawal of American forces from Vietnam and the Paris Agreements, though they provided something less than "peace with honor," permitted the United States to devote its energies finally to far more significant issues. With Henry Kissinger’s careful prodding, a degree of stability and even some progress was achieved in the Middle East.

Nixon’s style in foreign affairs was wholly pragmatic. It may even be inquired whether an approach so cold-blooded, and therefore so uncongenial to the American temperament, did not contribute to the various waves of ideology that followed the Nixon years. The central feature of Nixon’s approach to the Soviet Union was the quest for "an era of negotiations, not of confrontation." Given Soviet foreign policy objectives and the Soviet style, that would require a degree of emotional detachment on the part of the American people that was not long sustainable. Almost inevitably the Polands and Afghanistans lead to confrontation, even if the Angolas and Nicaraguas do not.

But in 1969 all that lay in the future. Putting Czechoslovakia firmly behind us, the new Administration revived the strategic arms negotiations, which were to become the centerpiece of U.S.-Soviet relations. Nixon was not one to proceed to the bargaining table without the wherewithal for bargaining. The Administration proceeded toward the first-stage deployment of the Safeguard ABM system (which unlike the Sentinel system was intended primarily to defend the missile fields). That decision was to have a highly felicitous impact on the negotiations. The Administration also decided on the rapid MIRVing (equipping with multiple independently targetable warheads) of both the Minuteman and Poseidon forces, with a beneficial effect on the bargaining process in the short term, but with a far less satisfactory long-term result. As soon as the United States initiated ARM deployment, Soviet willingness to bargain rose. The Soviets wanted no limitations on strategic offensive weapons, but they were notably eager to head off a major ABM deployment. Nixon took the position that there would be no ABM treaty—unless there was also limitation on strategic offensive arms. The Soviets yielded, though the constraints imposed were quite limited. The culmination lay in the Moscow agreements of May 1972.

For those agreements to have achieved the purpose of stabilizing the central U.S.-Soviet relationship, the Soviets would have had to accept them in the larger spirit that the Americans intended. As in 1945, Americans were ready for an end to confrontation. But the Soviet craving to press for every advantage not specifically precluded by the agreements once again dissipated the vast goodwill generated among Americans.

For the limitation on offensive forces to have contributed to arms stability, the Soviets would have had to refrain from exploiting through new technology the possibilities allowed under the agreement. But starting immediately after the signing of the Moscow agreements in mid-May 1972, there was a veritable explosion of Soviet R&D activity on all of the new generation of missiles. Apparently the Soviets had deliberately held up such activity—until the American signature was dry on the agreements. As director of Central Intelligence, I reported this immense Soviet R&D activity and its disturbing implication to the National Security Council early in 1973. If the Soviets were to marry the huge throw-weight advantages that they retained under the agreement with the new technologies in missile guidance and MIRVing, the result would be an American disadvantage in counterforce that we could not tolerate.

For the next two and a half years—and far beyond—the question of how to rescind Soviet throw-weight advantages became central to our Strategic Arms Limitations Talks (SALT). In June of 1974 President Nixon carried to the Soviet Union a proposal to establish a firm limit on MIRVed missile throw-weight. The erosions of Watergate and the characteristics of Soviet bargaining led to its rejection. Nonetheless, it would have been in the Soviets’ long-term interest to have accepted that proposal.

But for the time being the superpower relationship was characterized by an effusion of goodwill. Brezhnev’s American tour in 1973—ten-gallon hats and all—was even more successful, if less ebullient, than Khrushchev’s. Countless delegations spanned the oceans negotiating scientific and cultural exchange agreements on trade and technology, and the like. From the standpoint of the Soviet Union it was a rewarding period. But the Soviets could not leave well enough alone. They proceeded to poison the goose that laid the golden eggs.

It should perhaps be emphasized that for the Soviets the fault lay not in deception but in subconscious impulse. On the American side there was illusion—an exaggeration of the underlying meaning of détente. For the Soviets, détente represented simply an updated variant of Leninist peaceful coexistence: an absence of direct military conflict between the major powers. It certainly did not mean an end to international conflict. Indeed, the Soviets repeatedly stated that "détente requires an intensification of the ideological struggle." If there was deception, it was self-deception on the American side. Given the mood of the times, too many Americans insisted on reading more into détente than the Soviets intended.

Most dramatically was this the case in the Third World. The Soviets had, of course, paid some lip service to abandoning the search for marginal advantage—as in the "Basic Principles" of U.S.-Soviet relations. But such grand declarations, however satisfying, were not much of an inhibition when good opportunities presented themselves. In American eyes an early blow against détente occurred in 1973 with the Yom Kippur War. Soviet attempts to stimulate and to exploit that war were startling to many Americans. The culmination was the Brezhnev letter to Nixon threatening to move Soviet forces into the region and urging, in effect, a Soviet-American condominium over the Middle East. It resulted in the alert of America’s military forces and, ultimately, a slow ebbing of the crisis. But the atmosphere of détente never thereafter fully recovered.

While the Americans might not have known what the intensification of the ideological conflict implied in 1972, within a few years they were more enlightened. The Soviets had been quite clear regarding their obligation to continue to support wars of national liberation. Whether or not the Arab-Israeli conflict could qualify under this rubric, adventures in Africa or Southeast Asia clearly did. The intervention of Cuban troops in Angola in 1975 was a further blow to détente—and an indirect blow even to arms control negotiations. But the Soviets had intended no armistice in Third World rivalries. If the Americans were disappointed, it was because they had expected more of the Soviets than the Soviets believed they had promised.

Kissinger grittily attempted to keep the arms control negotiations going. At Vladivostok, President Ford in 1974 achieved a potentially useful cap on strategic offensive arms through joint acceptance of equal aggregates of 2,400 missile launchers and heavy bombers. But its potential was never realized. Moreover, during the political campaign in 1976 President Ford felt obliged to drop the word "détente" from his vocabulary.

The evolution of NATO relations during the Nixon-Ford years needs to be recounted. As the American-Soviet rapprochement grew, the European reaction was rather ambivalent. Needless to say, Europeans were generally pleased with the reduced threat of war. Yet, particularly on the European right, there was widespread apprehension that an American-Soviet condominium was being established over the body of Europe. The American style in negotiations, which the Europeans found to be excessively secretive and short on consultation, added to the suspicion.

The upshot came in the somewhat ludicrous quarrels about the "Year of Europe" that Henry Kissinger announced at the beginning of 1973. The Europeans, with their somewhat heightened sensitivities, took this to be condescending. Some tied the notion to a Soviet-American condominium to settle Europe—without further consultation. Resentment was widespread, fanned for its own special reasons by the French government. Yet the suspicion was unwarranted. What Kissinger desired—and desired most fervently—was more firmly to institutionalize the Atlantic relationship before the generation of Americans who recalled the postwar period passed away.

However worthwhile the effort, it was abortive. Soviet-American rapprochement seriously weakened the bonds of the alliance. Europeans felt the need for American protection less keenly, and their suspicion that the superpowers were plotting things behind their backs was increased. Problems within the alliance were intensified after the fall of 1973 because of basic disagreements regarding the handling of the Arab-Israeli war and its aftermath.

A few words should be said about military matters within NATO, for military developments tended somewhat to alleviate the political tensions within the alliance. With the end of the war in Southeast Asia, I was determined, as incoming secretary of defense, to refocus America’s military commitment upon the European security issues that had been so neglected during the war years. I devoted considerable effort to defeating the Mansfield Amendment. Its failure came as a pleasant surprise to the Europeans, who had anticipated a drawdown of American forces. Also, the doctrine governing the use of America’s strategic forces was altered to emphasize selective strikes. This would permit avoidance of the targeting of cities, which would provide the Soviets with a powerful incentive to avoid striking Western cities. By making an American nuclear response more credible, these changes served to recouple America’s strategic forces to the security of Western Europe.

New emphasis was also placed on the conventional deterrent. This was, of course, made possible by the rebuilding and the ultimate reinforcement of America’s ground and tactical air forces in Europe. But it also required a change in doctrinal emphasis. I had benefited from the doctrinal misfortunes of my predecessor, Secretary McNamara. I consequently coined the term "NATO triad." Its underlying analytical concept was that the triad’s three legs—conventional, strategic and tactical nuclear—were mutually reinforcing. Thus the strengthening of conventional capabilities would, for example, augment the deterrent effect of tactical nuclear forces. I stressed that conventional forces were not intended to be a substitute for nuclear deterrence, but to strengthen it. With these changes in emphasis, European doctrinal objections to the strengthening of conventional forces were significantly diminished. Outside of France, the obstacle to the building of the conventional deterrent became primarily budgetary rather than doctrinal.


In retrospect, the election of 1976 constituted a watershed in American foreign policy. It brought to an end an extended period of pragmatism, and launched a new period of the moralism-legalism that has long marked the American style in foreign policy. In the first phase, liberal moralism surged to the fore; in the second phase, conservative moralism.

After a few years in office both the Carter and Reagan Administrations moderated their policies and rhetoric, but compared to their predecessors the degree of ideological zeal remained notable. Not only was there a renewed note of oscillating moralizing, but American foreign policy also was characterized by substantial swings and by inconsistencies—foreigners called it unpredictable. It was perhaps more disturbing to our allies and dependents than it was to our opponents. This poses a deeper-seated question that should be examined before we bring the story of postwar superpower relations down to the present time.

Winston Churchill had limned one Western view of the Soviet Union in his pithy description: "a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma." Despite the mists of secrecy that still surround Soviet policymaking, that view has now become somewhat obsolescent. The passage of almost half a century has provided sufficient experience to make Soviet policy almost predictable. There is persistency, perhaps even consistency—and remarkably few sharp turns.

Can the same be said of U.S. attitudes and U.S. policy? Hardly so. The American mood is subject to much wider swings and, to a lesser degree, so is American policy. More than the highly structured societies of Europe with their established governing classes, the American democracy is governed by public opinion with all its vicissitudes. Moreover, changes in the party in power (unthinkable in the Soviet Union) may bring sharp swings in policy. It was the Americans who went home in 1945, and then reversed policy later in the 1940s. It was the Americans who shifted from the idealism of world organization to military containment. It was the Americans who so eagerly and innocently embraced détente—as the end to the "misunderstandings" in Soviet-American tensions. The Soviet view of détente was far less inflated, merely a somewhat modernized version of Lenin’s "peaceful coexistence." It was the Americans again who, a few years later, could grossly overstate the military power of the Soviet Union and the strength of its so-called geopolitical momentum.

Over the intervening years, President Truman could assert mistakenly: "I like old Joe, but he is a prisoner of the Politburo." President Carter could state that so secondary (and predictable) an action as the Soviet move into Afghanistan had fundamentally altered his view of the Soviets. President Reagan could talk feelingly of "the empire of evil" and then embrace arms control. The early days of the Carter Administration and of the Reagan Administration provide a spectacular contrast in both the style and the substance of foreign policy. Was this great power—the great protecting power of the West—one that could recognize its permanent interests?

By contrast the Soviets seem staid, almost stodgy: solid (if somewhat brutal) men who persistently follow an established formula. The Soviets pride themselves on being realists—indeed, scientific materialists. With the exception of Nikita Khrushchev (who was precipitately removed for his "adventurism" and "harebrained schemes"), Soviet leaders come over as rather stolid Leninists, guided primarily by their prudence and by their respect for the correlation of forces. They are rather different from the frequently mercurial and incurably romantic Americans. To go back to Churchill’s aphorism: which of the superpowers is the enigma?

In another guise, the same issue was eloquently framed by Alexis de Tocqueville almost a century and a half ago:

It is especially in the conduct of their foreign relations that democracies appear to me decidedly inferior to other governments. . . . A democracy can only with great difficulty regulate the details of an important undertaking, persevere in a fixed design, and work out its execution in spite of serious obstacles. It cannot combine its measures with secrecy or await their consequences with patience.

In the first 30 years of the postwar era, the American democracy quite demonstrably rose to de Tocqueville’s challenge. In the last decade, doubt has arisen over whether the United States, given a proclivity to sudden shifts in policy, can permanently match the steadier pressures of Soviet policy, despite its far greater inherent strength. No longer are the international responsibilities of the United States confined to the relatively easy domain of the North American continent. As one moves closer to the sources of Soviet power—along the periphery of the Soviet Union—the requirement for perceived and acknowledged steadiness in the exercise of power becomes more demanding.

Today American policy must be more than synchronized with the moods of the American public. Leaders of smaller and less powerful states close to the Soviet Union must, above all, see a predictability in the basic course of American policy. While somewhat less necessary, since occasional unpredictability has its uses, our principal opponent should also be able to discern an underlying predictability most of the time. Given the greater volatility of American opinion in recent years, is the American democracy up to the task?

The Watergate episode may merely have accelerated a tendency that was already visible in the 1960s. In presidential politics it brought to the fore outsiders with no experience in Washington or in foreign policy, who proceeded to campaign against federal institutions and against Washington as a symbol. It may have been good politics; it was poor governance. Nowhere has this been clearer than in foreign affairs.

Instead of "managing the Soviet relationship," we are now more inclined to sermonize the Soviets on various subjects on which they appear unpersuadable—human rights, Star Wars, even Leninism itself. Sermonizing the Russians is an activity that one earlier president, Dwight Eisenhower, explicitly declared to be unproductive. Moreover, sermonizing provides a most awkward posture from which to work out a modus vivendi.

Foreign policy has become far more personalized, less institutional. A president guided by his personal vision is assumed to be in tune with the feelings of the people—the most appropriate guide to foreign policy. The judgments of any "establishment" count for far less. Commitments of earlier chief executives are not necessarily binding. And if one chief executive can pay scant regard to the commitments of his predecessors, so may the Congress disregard the commitments of the incumbent.

No doubt this represents a foreign policy that in some sense is more democratic, less hegemonial. But it is not consistent with the way that great powers are expected to conduct foreign relations—with steadiness and predictability. The United States has become a more inward-looking, self-oriented nation. The new American style has led to consternation as much among our friends as our foes. But the more basic question is whether such a style can sustain the American position over the long run.

President Carter brought to the Oval Office immense energy, idealism, an open mind and moral conviction. Certain accomplishments of his Administration—the Camp David accord between Egypt and Israel almost in its entirety and the Panama Canal Treaty to a lesser degree—were products of Jimmy Carter’s special brand of moral fervor. (Whether it was politically prudent to accept the risks to the prestige of the American presidency embodied in the quest for Camp David is a different question.) Carter was, of course, building on the Nixon legacy in the normalization of relations with China as well as in the Middle Eastern peace process, but he added his own special touch. With the exception of China, all involved lesser powers. All were issues that could yield to enthusiasm and moral fervor. In the world of power politics—notably our relations with the Soviet Union and our European allies—the results of the Carter Administration were far less auspicious.

Carter early launched his old effort to lead the Soviet Union into the paths of righteousness through his human rights campaign. That was not, as the Soviets may have thought, a cynical propagandistic attempt to place the Soviet Union on the defensive. Rather it reflected a profound moral conviction. With respect to arms control, Carter immediately abandoned the Vladivostok accord and called for deep reductions—which would most immediately affect the Soviet ICBM force. This too reflected a conviction that his predecessors had not really tried hard enough to obtain arms reductions, and that the Soviets would be prepared to respond to his call. Both developments were rather bewildering to the Soviets. The Soviets work best when their opposite numbers, like themselves, are steady and predictable. Within a year the human rights campaign had been somewhat toned down and the SALT negotiations had been put back in the traditional mold. But considerable damage had been done in tearing up the accepted patterns of international relations.

In his relations with Europe, Carter early committed a capital blunder from which he never wholly recovered: the decision not to produce neutron weapons. It was a wholly personal decision, taken against the advice of all his agencies and in the face of prior understandings with the allies that had been worked out by his own underlings. In part it reflected his moral aversion to a new category of nuclear weapons; in part it reflected his irritation with his allies for their unwillingness to take the heat with him on a deployment decision. This last in itself reflected a lack of familiarity with the historic style of decision-making within the alliance. To be sure, Helmut Schmidt both distorted and exploited the events for his own domestic purposes. Yet, throughout the balance of the Carter presidency, Europeans continually worried about the strength and the reliability of the United States.

A string of actions—the cancellation of the B-l bomber, the squeeze on defense spending, the sudden reduction in ship construction funds, the aborted attempt to remove our ground forces from Korea, the continuation of negative comments on the Central Intelligence Agency—all reinforced the conviction that the Carter Administration was soft on defense. A series of setbacks—starting in the Horn of Africa, Yemen and Afghanistan, culminating ultimately in the disaster that was the fall of the Shah, followed by the seizure of the embassy and the hostage crisis and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan—created for the Carter Administration a perception of weakness that could not be dispelled. This had two immediate effects.

It led first to a slowly gathering storm on the American right, which ultimately came to view the developing world scene in apocalyptic terms. The vulnerabilities of our strategic forces were greatly exaggerated (which was subsequently to affect attitudes on the SALT II issue). The overall weakness of American and Western military strength was repeatedly stressed. By contrast, Soviet military strength was substantially overstated. Moreover, a portrait was drawn of a worldwide Soviet geopolitical offensive, which was alleged to be gathering momentum steadily. Indeed the very events, like Afghanistan, that in 1980 were taken as shrewd Soviet political moves in the quest for world domination, just a few years later were treated as serious Soviet setbacks.

But the public mood had been established. By the time the SALT II Treaty actually reached the Senate in 1979, there was an uphill fight for ratification—which would have occurred even in the absence of the invasion of Afghanistan in December. Unavoidable provisions of the treaty, which had been built into the respective strategic postures of the two sides, were treated as a source of American weakness or even a sellout. By this time the Carter Administration had scant credit to draw on in terms of its posture on defense and Soviet policy. That the Reagan Administration would adhere to the provisions of this fatally flawed treaty for at least five years confirms that its deficiencies were exaggerated at the time. Yet, overall, the episode leaves one with a single clear conclusion: only a president who enjoys a reputation for being strong on defense can be successful in obtaining Senate ratification of an arms control agreement with the Soviet Union.


The Reagan Administration, it has frequently been observed, has no specific foreign policy monuments to its name. It does have one generic accomplishment, a vital one: it has restored America’s international prestige and the perception of American power. In foreign policy, that is immensely important—and can compensate for a significant number of blunders elsewhere. Elsewhere, the Administration has had some modest achievements in Central America and in chastening the likes of Qaddafi, a serious defeat in Lebanon, and some success in easing tensions with our European allies, though these were tensions initially brought on by the Administration itself.

Like the Carter Administration, the Reagan Administration has been highly personalized—almost anti-institutional. In its early years, much of its foreign policy was set by the President’s instincts, rhetoric and ideological convictions, that included a proclivity to blurt out half-remembered truths from Reader’s Digest. Thus, it was early revealed that the Soviet leaders had been authorized to "lie, cheat and steal" to further their policy goals. Also disclosed was something called "the Ten Commandments according to Nikolai Lenin." The President was inclined to believe that his predecessors had failed to convey to the Soviets how tough America was and thereby to force them to abandon their base designs—just as Jimmy Carter had felt his predecessors had failed vigorously to pursue arms control. Moreover, the Administration’s initial predilection was to believe that America had regularly been defrauded in arms limitation negotiations, and that any negotiations would have to be postponed until such time as America’s military posture was restored. The net effect was to throw our relations with the Soviet Union during the first three years of the Administration into a chill as deep as the late 1940s.

These attitudes led to a rapid growth of alarm in Europe—and the Administration’s reputation sank almost to the level of the Carter Administration’s. It was partially rescued by an excellent, if belated, speech by the President in November 1981 on intermediate-range nuclear force negotiations. But early and indiscreet comments about nuclear war—and the tensions surrounding the prospective deployment of the Pershing II missile (ironically promised by the Carter Administration to reassure the Europeans that America was not vacillating)—created steady problems for the United States. The President’s inclination to view the Soviet Union as the source of all evil in the world also led to a last-minute effort to preclude construction of the Soviet natural gas pipeline, including the imposition of extraterritorial sanctions. The President had been warned against such an effort by his professionals, but those warnings were disregarded. In a sense it was the equivalent of Carter’s plowing ahead in his neutron bomb decision. Eventually the Administration was obliged to back off.

The President’s inclination to view all difficulties in terms of the East-West conflict, with a touch of Armageddon thrown in, has led to some exaggerated rhetoric. In Lebanon it was stated that the entire American strategic position in the Middle East would crumble if Syria’s Assad and his Soviet sponsors had their way. It was followed by a precipitate withdrawal of American forces, and an even more precipitate dropping of the subject. In Central America, the importance of Nicaragua has similarly been overstated. While the Sandinista regime is a geopolitical nuisance which we wish would either disappear or moderate its behavior, it can scarcely be described as a major threat to the republic. It remains an impoverished country, almost like an Albania situated in the Western hemisphere. On strategic and pragmatic grounds we may reasonably seek to neutralize it as a potential base. But it ought not to be inflated into a substantial threat to our existence. And the rhetorical treatment of our henchmen in the region as the moral equivalents of James Madison and George Washington does seem a bit excessive.

The story of U.S.-Soviet relations during the first three Reagan years has been told sufficiently frequently that it need not be repeated here. Suffice it to say that the result was a chill that stirred Soviet paranoia and frightened our allies. That the Administration paid so small a price reflected the good luck of three succession crises in the Kremlin.

By 1984, the Administration had altered its original stance. The worldwide Soviet geopolitical momentum had become a thing of the past. Indeed, the Soviet Union might actually be "an economic basket case." Despite basically unchanged force ratios, the Administration, which at first had exaggerated Soviet military power, was now downplaying it. The window of vulnerability was forgotten. Moreover, the tone of public comment from Washington was reversed. Thus, the Administration was in a position to exploit such Soviet blunders as the heavy hand in Europe and the walkouts from Geneva, to say nothing of such adventitious developments as the shootdown of the Korean airliner. The President had also become seized with the desirability of arms control. His apparent eagerness combined with Soviet clumsiness helped turn international opinion in U.S. favor.

Whether for substantive or political motives, the single most important ingredient in U.S.-Soviet relations has now become the negotiations over strategic defense. The President’s original speech in March 1983 touched a sensitive nerve in light of Soviet experiences with Open Skies and the U-2, and the ABM negotiations with the Nixon Administration. Touching a sensitive nerve is not without utility; it certainly got the Soviets’ attention. The Star Wars proposal was, however, another of those uncalculated ventures in personal diplomacy. Without any preparation, indeed without any realization, it attacked the prior foundation of the basic arms relationship. Our allies suddenly learned that deterrence, on which security had rested, was to be replaced. Britain and France learned that their independent nuclear forces, into which they had poured a considerable portion of the national treasure, were to be rendered obsolete. We were all to learn rather suddenly that deterrence was "immoral" and "flawed." Such phrases seemed to have been borrowed from the Catholic bishops. While there may be considerable satisfaction in dishing the left by stealing its clothes, it hardly seems necessary to undermine the foundation on which Western security must rest for the foreseeable future.

An extraordinary measure of American capital is now being invested in generating support for Star Wars among our allies. All of this is being done in the name of a research program that its strongest proponents regard as far-out and a very high risk. In an R&D effort, the normal behavior is to allow the technical uncertainties to be resolved before one reaches conclusions about force structures or strategy. In this case, the results are being announced in advance: a revolutionary change in strategic doctrine and the strategic relationships between the superpowers.

Not only our allies were caught by surprise. Even the Department of Defense was unprepared. The President had been moved not by the advice of the technical experts within his Administration, but by some elderly outside advisers. Until the President’s address, the Department of Defense had steadily been expressing skepticism (to put it mildly) regarding spaceborne defenses. The Department was then obliged to wheel about in order to support the commander in chief. Suddenly altering the presuppositions on which international relations are based—with scarcely any technical or policy advice and without any advance warning—is not the way for the leading Western nation to maintain a reputation for steadiness.

The superpowers have returned once again to Geneva. For the Soviet Union that provides unqualified benefits. In a negative sense, much of the unwanted baggage of recent years has been left behind: the shootdown of the KAL airliner, the walkouts from Geneva, the possible involvement in the attempt on the pope’s life, the three succession crises with the concomitant weakness and blundering. In a positive sense, the Soviet Union is well situated to achieve either its substantive goals or its political and propaganda objectives. On substance, the Soviets would clearly like to impose constraints on American technology for strategic defense. If anything stirs Soviet paranoia it is American technology and its possible implications. Consequently, the Soviets will be prepared to pay a price to obtain such constraints—and to avoid reopening the strategic arms competition.

The President has said, however, that Star Wars technology will not be negotiated. In that event, the Soviets are even better situated to exploit the abiding differences between the United States and its allies—especially the continuing, if not growing, allied concern about any Star Wars deployment. The structure of the negotiations, with separate tables for intermediate-range nuclear forces and strategic defense, lends itself to such Soviet exploitation. The Soviets are already saying to the Europeans that substantial concessions can be obtained on the weapons that threaten Europe, but the Americans are blocking that outcome by their obstinacy over Star Wars.

At Geneva we shall be reading a sermon to the Soviets to which they are unprepared to listen. That sermon propounds the supposed mutual advantages of strategic defense that the Soviets specifically rejected. It is based upon a "strategic concept" that in fact is less a strategic concept than it is a rationalization for the President’s vision. The concept in itself is fundamentally flawed. According to the concept, when strategic defenses are deployed a so-called second phase will ensue. But the prospect of deployment of strategic defense in that second phase precludes attainment of the first phase, the radical reduction of offensive arms. This is because the prospective deployment of strategic defenses increases the premium on missile throw-weight and on offensive forces generally—to overwhelm any prospective defense. The Americans are now prepared not only to read to the Soviets a sermon to which they will not listen, but one that is internally inconsistent.

In Geneva we must prepare for an extended period of siege warfare—with the Soviets well positioned to exploit differences between our allies and ourselves. The United States has suddenly—and without thinking the consequences through in advance—altered the foundations on which East-West relations have rested. That raises anew the question posed by de Tocqueville in the 1840s—whether a democracy can adequately persevere in a fixed design or await the consequences of its measures with patience.

What then of superpower relations in the future? No one can rely on the early disappearance of the ideological tensions and the arms competition that have characterized the last 40 years. If liberty is to survive outside the Western hemisphere, outside North America, the special role of the United States cannot be significantly altered. Will the United States be able to sustain its unique responsibilities during the decades ahead? The portents are somewhat worrisome. What is required of a great power is stability of policy combined with steadiness in execution.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the national mood was one of self-criticism bordering on masochism. In the 1980s the national mood has become one of self-congratulation to the point of narcissism. If one is forced to choose, perhaps the latter is preferable. But no more than masochism can narcissism be a proper foundation for the steadiness and stability demanded of the leader of the West.

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  • James Schlesinger is Counselor, Center for Strategic and International Studies, Georgetown University, and Senior Adviser to Shearson Lehman Brothers Inc. He has been Secretary of Defense, Secretary of Energy, Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission and Director of Central Intelligence.
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