What wise men had promised has not happened. What the damned fools predicted has actually come to pass," exclaimed Lord Melbourne during one of the British politician’s fits of exasperation over the situation in Ireland. Well, viewing the post-World War II course of Soviet-American relations, one is tempted to echo the nineteenth-century statesman’s sentiments.

To be sure, during the last phases and immediately following the war, some very sensible and knowledgeable men entertained serious animadversions concerning the U.S.S.R. and its behavior on the international scene. But in public such pessimism was usually associated with the die-hard reactionaries, ex-communists with personal grievances about the state which represented the cult that had betrayed their hopes, and those incurably sentimental about lost causes, e.g., Poland. When the guns were finally silenced, the general mood in this country was still that expressed by Walter Lippmann one year before: "Not since the unity of the ancient world was disrupted has there been so good a prospect of a settled peace."

America’s leading publicist was not overlooking difficulties and question marks concerning the Soviets’ behavior. The Polish issue could already be seen as a harbinger of potential trouble in East-West relations. Lippmann addressed this vexing problem with a mixture of realpolitik and hope; the United States, he wrote, "should recognize as valid and proper the strategic system of the Russian Orbit as including within it the states east of Germany and west of the Soviet Union." "Orbit" was of course a euphemism for "sphere of influence," a term grating to the Americans’ democratic virtue. And the hope was that this sphere of influence would be of an old-fashioned nineteenth-century kind, the leading state in the area (one felt also inhibited from calling it the "imperial power")respecting its associates’ internal autonomy. Thus the writer was impressed by the fact "that Marshal Stalin has now repeatedly affirmed the democratic principle in respect to his dealings with his neighbors within the Russian Orbit."

Problems concerning the Soviets’ "orbit" and international behavior in general were also very much on the mind of a then relatively junior American diplomat stationed in Moscow, but his conclusions were quite different from those of Lippmann. George Kennan minuted in September 1944, "It would be useful to the Western world to realize that . . . the men in the Kremlin have never abandoned their faith in that program of territorial and political expansion . . . which underlay the German-Russian Non-aggression Pact of 1939." The young diplomat had little patience with those who put credence in the Soviets’ profession of democratic virtue: "An exhausted and war torn Eastern Europe would provide a plastic and yielding mass from which the objectives of Russian statesmanship could easily be molded." And finally, this cri de coeur from Kennan about the possibility of the United States really getting a handle on the Soviet dilemma: "There will be much talk about the necessity for ‘understanding Russia’; but there will be no place for the American who is really willing to undertake this disturbing task." Two and a half years later the reverberations of the very same writer’s "Mr. X" article in Foreign Affairs went far in dispelling his earlier and gloomy ruminations. History is cruel on the Pollyannas, but occasionally it does confound a Cassandra.

But in the immediate wake of V-E Day, Mr. Kennan’s apprehensions only deepened. In words which have not entirely lost their relevance today, he noted how quickly Western public opinion passes over the latest act of the Soviets’ international mischief-making: "It is entirely agreeable to Moscow that Americans should be indulged in a series of illusions which lead them to put pressure on their government . . . to go always one step further in pursuit of the illusive favor of the Soviet government. . . . If things at any time get hot, all they have to do is allow another personal meeting with Western leaders and thus make a fresh start, with all forgotten."

Whatever the sages’ and experts’ hopes or misapprehensions, the ineluctable feature of the post-victory political scene in the United States was that the President’s role as commander in chief became once more subordinate to that of politician. That freedom of diplomatic maneuver which had been the President’s between Pearl Harbor and V-J Day had now of necessity been much reduced, and with it went the ability to impress Stalin that this country would not tolerate the U.S.S.R. violating its wartime pledges and promises.

There were people in Washington who were aware of, and deeply unhappy over, what the Soviets were doing in Eastern Europe; but for the vast majority of Americans, the news from that part of the world made as yet but little impression. The Russians were proving something of a nuisance but, after all, they had suffered so much and fought so heroically in the war. Surely the recent memories of comradeship-in-arms, the new edifice of the United Nations and the Soviet Union’s self-interest offered substantial hope for good, if not cordial, U.S.-Soviet relations and for peace.

Given the volatility of American public opinion, it was reasonable to predict—pace Mr. Kennan—that this mood of complacency vis-à-vis the Soviets was bound to give way, first to irritation, and then to serious apprehensions over the Kremlin’s actions and intentions. Psychologically what probably first triggered such reactions was not so much what the Russians were doing, but the posture of ominous isolation that the U.S.S.R. chose to adopt almost immediately following the war.

From Moscow’s point of view, reasons for this attitude were quite compelling. Continued friendly intercourse with the West was held by Stalin—and probably correctly—to have potentially unsettling domestic effects, encouraging the illusion (fostered by the Soviet government itself during the war) that the Soviet peoples’ lives would be freer and easier, or as a Soviet poet in 1944 was allowed to write, "After the victory we shall call a halt, drink a cup and rest to our heart’s desire." And so the state-of-siege mentality, natural in war, had to be maintained in peacetime, because as Stalin asserted in his speech of February 9, 1946, one could hardly hope for lasting peace as long as capitalism, and with it imperialism, remained in the world. The ideological motif, which had been de-emphasized in favor of nationalism during the most desperate period of the struggle, was now forcefully reasserted by the dictator. "Our victory means above all that our social system has won. . . . Our political system has won."

From the point of view of foreign affairs, the abrupt cooling of relations with the West was prompted mainly by the need to obscure the Soviet Union’s weakness vis-à-vis the United States. The U.S.S.R. did not wish to appear awed by America’s monopoly of the bomb, by the transatlantic colossus’ prodigious industrial power, or by its huge naval and air forces. Undue friendliness might signify the Kremlin’s nervousness; continuation, not to mention expansion, of contacts with the West would reveal the frightful extent of the country’s devastation, hence vulnerability.

On the contrary, the glacial tone of Soviet responses to American diplomatic initiatives and entreaties was intended to, and in fact did, convey the impression of Moscow’s self-confidence and intransigence. Consider the question asked by Ambassador Walter Bedell Smith during his audience with Stalin as late as April 1946: "What does the Soviet Union want and how far is Russia going to go?" and the dictator’s answer: "We are not going much further."

The average U.S. citizen’s puzzlement, and then anxiety, over the Soviet Union’s behavior was paralleled and then outpaced by the American policymaker’s concerns on the same count. No matter what issue or area was under the scrutiny of the State Department in 1946-47, the Soviet Union and/or communism appeared to present an obstacle to that stable international order for the sake of which, it had been believed, the United States had fought the war. To the impotent resentment over the Soviets’ tightening grip on Eastern Europe was added the alarm over the communist threat in China. In the United Nations, the U.S.S.R. blocked every proposal to make that body an effective guardian of peace, including the plan for international control of nuclear energy. The French and Italian Communist Parties seemed quite likely to come to power, and through entirely legal means. The communists ignited civil war in Greece, and Moscow’s strident territorial demands on Turkey gave somber meaning to Stalin’s sardonic "We are not going much further."

America’s national debate about its relations with the Soviet Union could then, as now, be epitomized by the titles of two celebrated novels of the Russian nineteenth century, Whose Fault Is It? and What Is To Be Done? On the first question, by the end of 1946 the American verdict was unequivocal: the U.S.S.R. was guilty of stirring up trouble throughout the world. But the crux of the problem lay, as under vastly different circumstances it still lies, in the second question: what could be done to convince—constrain—the Kremlin to alter its policies? How could a democracy that had traditionally tried to eschew playing a world role cope with the complex and disturbing dilemmas of the postwar international situation?

In its attempts to impose restraint upon the Soviet Union and to do what was then thought to be virtually synonymous, to curb the spread of communism, the United States was handicapped by what were considered as self-evident facts. The first of these was that it was well-nigh impossible through diplomatic procedures to dislodge or moderate Soviet influence within the countries and areas occupied during the war by Moscow’s armed forces. And the second was that the U.S.S.R., unlike the United States, which rapidly demobilized its land forces, still maintained a vast standing army, which—were the almost unimaginable to happen—could reach the English Channel in a matter of days.

In retrospect, it is the latter belief that is most astounding. Common sense should have argued that a country that had lost over 20 million lives and suffered corresponding material losses must have demobilized its army as rapidly as did the United States. Man- and womanpower was desperately needed in the Soviet factories and farms to begin what then looked like a long and arduous process of restoring the national economy, and thus providing the U.S.S.R. with what in the modern age are more important sinews of power than a huge army: an efficient industry and agriculture. As a matter of fact, in 1948 the Soviet Union had about 2.8 million men under arms, a figure barely in excess of that of the United States and one which hardly indicated the Kremlin’s fear of war, or its intention or ability to pounce upon Western Europe.

As to the Soviets’ tenacity in holding on to their gains, the evidence is far from one-sided. In 1946, the Soviet Union had pulled out its troops from northern Iran, where it had previously established two puppet regimes, and which in view of its strategic and economic importance might well have been expected to share the fate of Bulgaria or Hungary. Why did the Kremlin decide upon this retreat, and then watch passively while the Iranian government liquidated the separatist regimes and executed their leaders?

Prior to March 1946, the Soviets paid no heed to British and American pleas to pull back their troops, as the U.S.S.R. had pledged to do along with the other two powers during the war, and as the United States and Britain had already done. But on March 5, 1946, at Fulton, Missouri, Churchill delivered his stirring Iron Curtain speech denouncing Soviet expansionism and pleading for the democracies to close their ranks. He roused Western public opinion to full awareness of the continuing Soviet depredations and stiffened the spine of Western diplomacy. The Iranian issue was then on the agenda of the U.N. Security Council. Viewed from the Kremlin, the situation became uncomfortable, and one day after the convening of the Security Council on March 26, Gromyko announced that the Soviet Union would pull out of Iran within six weeks.

Iran’s case should have been instructive. In 1946 the United States was carrying a big stick—never mind the bomb—but the enormous industrial and technological power of the United States was sufficient to dissuade the Soviets from any steps which might just conceivably escalate into a confrontation: the man in the Kremlin was not a Hitler, but was, at least insofar as foreign policy was concerned, a prudent statesman, carefully calculating the pros and cons of every Soviet venture. Two years later he would refrain from an armed attack upon rebellious Yugoslavia—though in 1948 there was but little chance of the West bestirring itself on behalf of Tito’s regime, until quite recently the most fanatically communist and pro-Soviet of all within the U.S.S.R.’s orbit.

But what America also needed in the immediate postwar era (and indeed during the last phases of the war) was to speak loudly to the Soviets. Instead, its voice was subdued. When confronted with the Soviets’ violation of their wartime pledges, Washington’s policymakers saw no way of dealing with the situation except through pleading or ultimatums. And the latter was not practical politics: who in the America of 1945-46 would have approved of anything that just might lead to a real shooting war? That a country conscious of its strength and of its protagonist’s vulnerabilities had at its disposal a number of other devices and options beyond pleading and issuing explicit threats was not to dawn upon American diplomats until later. But time is a very precious commodity, especially in the atomic age.


That the policy of "containment" was, from the American point of view, a natural response to the impasse in Soviet-American relations was more than evident by the end of 1946. Attempts to persuade the Soviet Union to mend its ways had proved unavailing, efforts to coerce were thought to be too risky and not practical politics. Even before Mr. Kennan published the article which made the term a household word, President Truman imparted concrete meaning to containment by enunciating on March 12, 1947, the doctrine that became associated with his name: the United States stood ready to block further Soviet expansion and assume direct responsibility for guarding the periphery of the free world. Though the Truman Doctrine referred directly to the American pledges to Greece and Turkey, it was rationalized in terms of a global struggle.

In June came the stupendous initiative of the Marshall Plan. This also was a cardinal part of the policy of containment: through the restoration of economic health to Western Europe, its democracies were to become resistant to the bacillus of communism. As originally formulated, the plan also appeared to envisage a renewal of cooperation between East and West. But after some initial hesitation, Stalin decided, correctly from his point of view, that the U.S.S.R. was still too weak to ask for and receive capitalist largesse, with its inevitable concomitant of Westerners prying into his country’s affairs and obtaining a realistic picture of its weaknesses and vulnerabilities. The Soviet refusal, though half-anticipated, must have relieved many on the shores of the Potomac.

And in July of 1947, so momentous a year in the annals of American diplomacy, Mr. Kennan formulated "The Sources of Soviet Conduct," his theoretic and historical rationale for containment: that any fresh and overt usurpation by the Soviets was to be countered by the West with a display of strength. But the main stress in Kennan’s argument was on the necessity of securing the economic and social health of the Atlantic community.

The Soviet Union, "Mr. X" asserted, was still motivated by the messianic urge to conquer the world for communism; the Kremlin was still persuaded that the ineluctable malfunctioning of capitalism, and the consequent crises and social turmoil experienced by the democracies, would pave the way for Soviet-communist expansion. Only when such hopes were definitely confounded and the West shown to be prosperous, strong and self-confident, would the Soviets be ready to negotiate in good faith. You must impress the Russians with your strength and stability before you can hope to negotiate meaningfully with them—this was the implicit message of the article. The containment formula thus neatly bypassed the issue of previous Soviet international misbehavior as seen in the West.

The test of containment’s prescription that the Soviets must be met with "unalterable counterforce" at "every point where they show signs of encroaching upon the interests of a peaceful world" came with the Berlin blockade. Its imposition demonstrated considerable confidence on Stalin’s part that the democracies were unlikely to resort to violent reprisals and that the blockade could be immediately called off were the situation to grow too hot. The lesson of the crisis proved ambiguous. The West did not abandon its plans to unify the three Western zones into what was to become the Federal Republic of Germany (which thwarted the original rationale of the Soviet move). Yet, since the threat was countered with the airlift, rather than with an unalterable counterforce, Moscow was not disabused of the notion that West Berlin was an exposed nerve of their rivals’ postwar system, one that could be pressured again if the broader objectives of Soviet policy should require it.

The crisis should have instructed the West about what was the central Soviet concern in Europe. If the democracies were too pacifically minded to risk a forcible "rollback" of the Soviet sphere of interest, was it not possible that they would attempt it in an indirect manner? Consider the following scenario: an armed revolt against its communist regime breaks out in Czechoslovakia. A resuscitated Wehrmacht rushes in to help the rebels. The Soviet army could, of course, suppress the insurrection, but what if the Americans intimated that the Soviet move might lead to U.S. atomic reprisals? The contingencies of a "rollback" and of "massive retaliation" were very much on the minds of the men in the Kremlin, years before those terms were used by John Foster Dulles.

As the Soviet leaders pondered the implications of the Marshall Plan, it must have appeared to them to prefigure perfectly this scenario. Why should American capitalists pour billions of dollars into the restoration of the economies of their potential rivals on the world market? The "logical" explanation was that the economic rehabilitation of Europe, and especially of West Germany, was intended to enable what in 1949 became NATO to build up a powerful military establishment, which in turn would press, if not indeed force, the U.S.S.R. to surrender the fruits of its victories.

The founding of the Cominform (Stalin’s coordinating agency for the Communist Parties of the U.S.S.R., its satellites and France and Italy) and the rhetoric which accompanied it lend supporting evidence to this interpretation. The Cominform was to provide a formal machinery with which the Soviets might deal with any potential troubles with their satellites; the rather incongruous presence of the Italian and French Communist Parties in this grouping is explained by the fact that those two were to disrupt the operations of the Marshall Plan in their countries, and thus frustrate the capitalists’ sinister anti-Soviet designs. If we want to pinpoint the beginning of the cold war, it falls midway between the announcement of the European Recovery Plan in June of 1947 and the foundation of the Cominform in September.

Containment was designed to elucidate America’s response in two contingencies; the possibility of a direct Soviet threat to the non-communist world and of communism becoming the beneficiary of the economic and social disruption left in the wake of the war. Yet little in the doctrine, as originally enunciated, provided guidance as to how this country could or should cope with what became and remains the most perplexing problem for the West: that the Soviet Union was the catalyst and/or beneficiary of the turmoil produced by the rapid and dramatic decomposition of the pre-World War II order in the Third World. The rapidity and the extent of Mao’s victory in China evidently astounded Moscow as much as it chagrined Washington, and while the former must have greeted it with very mixed emotions, on the surface at least the Soviet Union’s position was greatly enhanced: the world’s most populous nation was now its ally.

The Korean War exposed another pitfall of the containment argument: communist aggression could not always be linked directly to the U.S.S.R.; having come suddenly, the attack on South Korea could not be deterred by a show of American strength, it had actually to be fought—and primarily by U.S. forces.

In an overall assessment of U.S.-Soviet relations, it might appear out of proportion to devote so much space to the first few years after the war. Yet those were the years which set the pattern for the often tempestuous coexistence of the two superpowers, a pattern that in many ways has endured to this day.


The outward forms of Soviet-American intercourse underwent a profound change in 1953. With Stalin’s death, the Kremlin altered the style of its foreign policy. Stalin’s successors were less fearful that conciliatory policies toward the West might be interpreted by the latter as signs of weakness. The Soviet Union’s position vis-à-vis the United States was much stronger than it had been at the end of the war; its economic recovery came much faster than might have been expected, its heavy industry was growing at an impressive pace. America’s monopoly on nuclear weapons had been broken. As Khrushchev’s antics were to demonstrate, the Soviet leadership believed that, politically and psychologically, even a small stock of such weapons in its armory offset the much greater arsenal at the disposal of a democracy.

New confidence was balanced by fresh fears in Moscow. Stalin’s successors did not share his belief that he could maintain a high degree of international tension without risking a confrontation with the West. Nor did they think themselves capable of continuing the course of draconian repression he had imposed on not only his own society, but also the Soviet Union’s satellites. And the Kremlin felt it could no longer afford to treat China with the cavalier insouciance which the megalomaniac dictator had displayed toward Mao’s regime. All in all, the entire international picture, especially in view of the arrival of the new Eisenhower Administration in Washington with its strident rhetoric against communism, called for flexible diplomacy and for abandoning that stance of ominous and menacing isolation with which the Kremlin had sought to impress and awe the world between 1946 and 1953.

The new style of Soviet policy did not mean new objectives. In Europe, concern touched mainly on the resolution of the German question, in line with what Moscow believed to be its security interests, and with the preservation, though in a less rigid form, of control over its satellites. In the Far East, it was hoped that the Soviets’ more respectful treatment of China, as well as extensive economic and technological assistance to Beijing, would prevent the tensions already smoldering beneath the surface of Sino-Soviet relations from erupting into the open, and that the two communist powers would continue to present a united front to the outside world.

The basic premises of Soviet foreign policy also remained unchanged. The United States, for all of Secretary Dulles’ challenging rhetoric and his pact-building, was not seen as a clear and present danger. The more immediate threat to Soviet interests lay in Western Europe achieving political and military, as well as economic, unity; NATO’s land forces (with the resurrected German army) balancing those of the U.S.S.R.; and the West European economy—flourishing by the late 1950s—exerting a strong pull on Russia’s East European clients. To deal with such dangers, the U.S.S.R. relied partly on its own counterparts to the European Community and NATO. (Revealingly, the Warsaw Treaty Organization was inaugurated not in 1949, as was NATO, but in 1955, after West Germany joined the North Atlantic alliance.) But the most effective way of blocking European unity, Moscow evidently believed, was to abet and exploit the individual European states’ troubles, both internal difficulties and those experienced in coping with their rapidly disintegrating colonial empires.

The Soviets’ more activist policies in the Third World were spurred not only by the expansionist itch, but also by a clever appreciation of how the overseas travails of Britain, France and Belgium diverted those countries from closer European unity, and of how the former imperial powers’ attempts to retain influence in those areas tended to provoke the disapprobation of their allies, and especially the traditionally anti-colonial Americans. Yet, for all of its rhetoric, and even after the Suez crisis, America was seen by the Third World as an ally of the old imperial powers, and by the Arab component as a special friend and protector of Israel.

The ubiquity of international crises and trouble spots at once obscured and intensified the rivalry between the two superpowers. The tone of Moscow-Washington relations grew more relaxed, in line with the Kremlin’s oft-proclaimed goal of basing those relations upon the principle of peaceful coexistence and, as compared with the Stalin era, greatly expanded contacts of all kinds between East and West. Despite the collapse of the Hungarian revolt and Khrushchev’s periodic threats, the world situation seemed much rosier from the American point of view than one had had any right to expect in, say, 1947: Western Europe not only undergoing vigorous economic growth, but reaching toward political unity as well; the communist world, once seeming unalterably monolithic and ominous, now experiencing internal strains in the wake of de-Stalinization; and the tension in Sino-Soviet relations already visible to a perceptive observer. And yet there were constant crises and clashes, their potential escalation being all the more disquieting now that the U.S.S.R. had acquired nuclear weapons and Khrushchev stood ready to brandish them at the slightest provocation.

At the same time, Khrushchev abandoned that immobilisme that had characterized Soviet diplomacy during the cold war. It was not only the onset of the jet age that spurred the new Soviet leader to his frantic journeying. He was promoting a new image of the Soviet Union: a country seeking a genuine détente with the West, partnership rather than subservience from other communist states (as long as the terms of that partnership were defined by Moscow), and cordial friendship with the new nations.

The U.S. response to this new style was at first one of reserve—the memory of Yalta was still too recent and rankling—but then reserve was succeeded by puzzlement. Those "spirits" of Geneva and Camp David were soothing but short-lived, and produced little in the way of concrete results. And then the other Khrushchev would emerge, one threatening a new and complete blockade of West Berlin, breaking up the Paris Summit of May 1960 over the U-2 episode and, in 1961, attempting to bully the new American President in Vienna. Washington had to wonder, as Ambassador Smith did years before, what was it that the U.S.S.R. really wanted, and how far did it propose to go?

If the main shortcomings of American policies after the war came from an insufficient awareness of America’s strength and Russia’s weakness, then the basic flaw of American diplomacy in the 1950s and early 1960s lay precisely in the inability to perceive what the Kremlin wanted and to understand that there were serious and negotiable goals behind Khrushchev’s confusing pyrotechnics.

There was the Soviets’ perennial concern about Germany, this time centered on the fear that Bonn might acquire nuclear weapons of its own. The Berlin crisis of 1958-62 was not prompted by the Kremlin’s lusting for West Berlin, as was widely believed in the West. It was the main feature of the design to cajole the United States and its allies into agreeing on a German peace treaty that would categorically preclude the Federal Republic from manufacturing or possessing nuclear weapons (recognition of the sovereignty of East Germany was another but rather secondary objective of the scheme).

Frustrated by the Americans’ obstinacy and/or incomprehension of his policy, Khrushchev chose indirect but even more dangerous means of pressuring Washington. There is a great deal of circumstantial evidence that the Soviet missiles in Cuba were intended to be used for bargaining: Washington would agree to a German treaty on Soviet terms as the price for withdrawal of the missiles. And it is also likely that another part of the bargain would have had the United States lifting its protective shield over Taiwan, the concession which Khrushchev hoped (over-optimistically) would induce Mao to give up Chinese plans to acquire nuclear weapons.

If those were indeed the goals of Soviet policy, why did Khrushchev not state them explicitly, rather than try to obtain them through a tour de force that brought about the most dangerous confrontation yet between the two superpowers? Certainly, from the U.S. point of view, his first objective was negotiable; and the prospect of China acquiring nuclear arms was being viewed with as much apprehension in Washington as in Moscow. No student of Soviet foreign policy can cite many examples of the Kremlin being frank and explicit about its most acute fears and real objectives. Did Khrushchev, in view of his troubles with China, contemplate a far-reaching understanding with the United States? In a speech at the 22nd Party Congress in 1961, Andrei Gromyko said:

Our country places special importance on the character of the relations between the two giants—the Soviet Union and the United States. If those two countries united their efforts in the cause of peace, who would dare and who would be in a position to threaten peace? Nobody. There is no such power in the world.

These words were undoubtedly much pondered in Beijing, but they could hardly sound enticing to Washington after the unpleasantness of the Vienna Summit and the Berlin Wall. As it was, the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty of 1963 was the furthest the temperamental Soviet leader got in his on-again-off-again search for a rapprochement with the United States. And it is possible that his removal from power in October 1964 set back what would have been the most far-reaching easing of tensions between the United States and the U.S.S.R. since the onset of the cold war.


Surveying international affairs up to 1964, one could say without much fear of being contradicted that their outstanding feature had been the Soviet-American rivalry; and by the same token, had the two superpowers composed their differences, the world could have looked hopefully to an era of real peace and stability. But the year which saw a change of command in the Kremlin, the United States gearing for a large-scale intervention in Southeast Asia, and China exploding its first nuclear device ushered in a period that was to make the world picture much more complex and paradoxical.

The United States entered into its ill-conceived and ill-fated enterprise in Vietnam with an eye not on Moscow, but on Beijing. The latter was widely believed, and at the time correctly, to be purveying a much more militant brand of communism than the Soviet Union, and hence had to be presented with a palpable proof that "wars of national liberation," when directed against U.S.-sponsored regimes, would not be allowed to succeed. Who then would have dared to predict that, largely because of the reverberations of the Vietnamese imbroglio, an American President would in 1972 become a guest of the People’s Republic of China?

In the early 1960s, it was also believed by U.S. policymakers, and again not without reason, that it was China which had the most influence over North Vietnam and was inciting it to intensify the civil war in the south, while the U.S.S.R. was, without much success, urging moderation upon Hanoi. Within a decade, North Vietnam, by then ensconced firmly in the Soviet camp, overthrew the pro-Beijing Kampuchean regime; its relations with the People’s Republic went from bad to worse and culminated in a frontier war in 1979. One must add to the list of paradoxes the fact that probably nothing that was done since the war by either of the two communist powers has proved as damaging to the West’s cohesion and interests as the blow delivered by OPEC in 1973-74 and the consequent economic and social disarray in the entire non-communist world.

Soviet-American relations also became more complicated because of the increased troubles both powers were now experiencing with their allies and clients. Whatever the intentions and designs of Moscow and Washington policymakers, they could be frustrated momentarily by a decision reached independently by Paris, Hanoi, Tel Aviv or Cairo. What used to be in a sense the reassuring, if not beautiful, simplicity of a bipolar world appeared by the late 1960s to have become largely a thing of the past. One could no longer argue, as many Americans would have been inclined to do a few years earlier, that the increasing anarchy of the world scene was invariably profiting the U.S.S.R., and that each new international crisis was seen by the Kremlin as an opportunity to deal yet another blow to Western interests and prestige.

How the phrase "entangling alliances" became applicable also to the Soviet Union could be best illustrated by the Middle East crises of 1967 and 1973. After the Six-Day War, Moscow attempted to cover up its discomfiture at its inability to render effective help to its Arab allies by frantic diplomatic activity, including a Soviet-American quasi-summit in Glassboro. An even more vivid example was provided by the Yom Kippur War. Even before its outbreak, the Soviet Union had reasons to be dissatisfied with Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and suspicious that he would eventually adopt a pro-American orientation. Yet the pro-Arab momentum of Soviet policies constrained Moscow to render Cairo material assistance and to threaten, when the fortunes of war began to shift in Israel’s favor, to send Soviet troops to the Middle East. This in turn led to the United States putting its armed forces on worldwide alert. It is arguable that both moves were largely in the nature of theatrics, but superficially at least, a conflict which neither of them had wished for or initiated propelled the two superpowers to the brink of confrontation.

The late 1960s then brought an aggravation of the Soviet-American rivalry, yet, at the same time, an enhanced awareness that the realities of the international situation and of the atomic age constrained both sides to continue a dialogue and attempts at a rapprochement. The nuclear non-proliferation agreement of 1968 was one evidence of this common-sense recognition. What Khrushchev sought to gain by his pyrotechnics and ultimatums, the Brezhnev-Kosygin team achieved through patient diplomacy: a de facto, if not quite de jure, German peace treaty with the West that recognized East Germany’s statehood and Bonn acknowledged formally the territorial changes mandated "provisionally" by the Potsdam agreements. And though they were delayed by the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, the negotiations on strategic arms limitations finally opened in 1969.


Détente, as finally proclaimed and registered in a number of agreements in 1972, was the result not only of Moscow’s and Washington’s recognition that, as a Soviet writer on international affairs wrote, "In a world where international tension is the rule . . . states may be drawn quite unintentionally into a sequence of events in which eventually they lose control over the situation and it becomes impossible to prevent a catastrophe." Détente sprang also from a confluence of other facts: America’s weakened international position because of Vietnam; and the Soviets’ growing fears about the Sino-American rapprochement as well as their heightened expectations about the benefits to their economy accruing from greatly increased West-East trade and technological exchanges. And last, but certainly not least, by 1971-72 both superpowers had, though for different reasons, a clear interest in, if not stopping, at least placing some rules and constraints on the arms race.

Détente, in the Kremlin’s view, was not meant as a sharp break with its traditional policies. Competition with the United States for worldwide influence would continue, and not only, as Moscow’s spokesmen piously declared, at the ideological level. At the same time, that competition would now be subject to certain rules and cautions intended to prevent it from turning into sharp clashes and possible confrontations.

By the same token, it is a mistake to view the 1972 Moscow Summit and its agreements as yet another ruse and deception on the Soviets’ part: the U.S.S.R. secured the acknowledgment of its superiority in certain categories of strategic weapons and thus rendering nugatory America’s nuclear umbrella over the West; obtained access to Western credits and technology to strengthen the faltering Soviet economy; and gave the United States little if anything in return. That view of détente gained wide credence in the United States after 1975, in the wake of the Soviet intrusions in Angola and the Horn of Africa, North Vietnam’s violation of the Paris agreement, and Moscow’s unconcealed relish at the overthrow of the pro-U.S. regime in Iran and the subsequent hostage crisis. And with the invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, the tottering edifice of détente finally collapsed. Insofar as the United States was concerned, its death certificate was President Carter’s withdrawal of the second Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT II) agreements from further consideration for Senate ratification and a number of punitive sanctions against the Soviet Union that were adopted at the same time.

Yet, when taxed with the above charges and if speaking frankly, a Soviet spokesman might well retort that many of the travails of détente were caused, in a way, by the Americans themselves. Was it the Soviets’ fault that shortly following the 1972 summit meeting, the Watergate affair plunged the country into a constitutional crisis that for a number of years virtually paralyzed American foreign policy, thus presenting the Kremlin with a number of opportunities for practically riskless foreign ventures? Or was it Moscow’s fault that the reverberations of Vietnam made the Congress diffident about any initiative by the executive that might require forceful action abroad? Years before in Vienna, Khrushchev had told President Kennedy that the Americans could not expect the Soviet Union to sit, so to speak, with its arms folded. And he well might have added, "especially if the United States by its sins of omission or commission enables us to grasp a fresh prize."

And at another level, our imaginary Russian spokesman could argue that détente was too readily taken by the United States as a license to meddle in domestic affairs of the U.S.S.R. The Kremlin showed its goodwill by allowing a large number of its citizens to emigrate, and yet the Congress would not authorize the most-favored-nation clause in a trade treaty unless the Soviet Union formally and specifically recognized the right of Soviet Jews to emigrate, something which no sovereign state could accept. And when it came to political dissenters. . . . And so the collapse of détente was also caused, even if only secondarily, by the inevitable discord between the practices of democratic politics and the logic of an authoritarian system.


When they meet this fall in Geneva, President Reagan and General Secretary Gorbachev might well begin their chat by congratulating themselves on the fact that the demise of détente was not followed by a new cold war. Strains between the two countries notwithstanding, the dialogue has continued. To be sure, harsh things have been said on both sides. But the most strident Washington rhetoric about Moscow, and vice versa, sounds almost complimentary compared to what the leadership of the U.S.S.R. and China had been saying about each other until quite recently (language that did not prevent both sides from attempting to mend their relations and manners once they decided that it was in their national interests to do so). In fact, oratory apart, the Soviets have had little reason to complain about the record of Mr. Reagan’s administration. Consider the following:

1) Though the President strongly denounced SALT II during the 1980 electoral campaign, the United States has up to now observed scrupulously the provisions of the unratified treaty;

2) Had the White House and the Pentagon been set on an uncompromisingly anti-Soviet course, they would have been unsparing in their efforts to secure Beijing’s goodwill and cooperation. But due largely to the Administration’s scruples over Taiwan, relations between the United States and the People’s Republic have cooled considerably since 1981;

3) Mr. Reagan lifted the grain embargo imposed in the wake of the Afghanistan invasion.

To be sure, the last five years present the most vivid illustration of the main and abiding problem besetting Soviet-American relations. Call it ideology, if you will. But what concretely upsets and frightens the Americans about the U.S.S.R. is what the Kremlin does, and what must be a continuing source of apprehension to the latter springs from what America is. The premises of the Soviet system virtually constrain it to set itself in an adversary position vis-à-vis the United States, insofar as the competition for worldwide influence and prestige is concerned—competition that by now has but little in common with the erstwhile dream of converting the world to communism. By the same token, the notion of the imperialist threat is a vital ingredient of the Soviet rulers’ unceasing effort (which varies in intensity) to inculcate in their people that siege mentality intended to make the population acquiesce in the deprivations they suffer as citizens and consumers. It is not so much concern for national security as for their own political security that prompts the Kremlin’s masters to render support to the anti-American forces in the distant Caribbean, induces them to squash attempts at liberalization in Poland, and makes them rationalize such individual acts of brutality—found reprehensible by the non-communist world—as the shooting down of the Korean airliner. One is almost tempted to postulate that the task of finding a modus vivendi between the superpowers would be easier were the United States also an authoritarian society.

As things stand, reaching that modus vivendi has been made both more imperative and more complicated by the problem of nuclear weapons. The first point does not require an elaboration. As to the complications, they arise largely from the paradox that nuclear arms control, though the most sharply contested, is not the most important issue in Soviet-American relations. Many would challenge this assertion. Yet while weapons themselves do not cause wars, political collisions between the great powers may. Any conceivable treaty delimiting the number and characteristics of missiles, warheads, etc., in the hands of the United States and of the U.S.S.R. would still leave each superpower with enough to devastate the other.

The assumption that nuclear arms control is both the centerpiece and the probing stone of East-West relations has undoubtedly been of benefit to the Kremlin, since it has enhanced its bargaining power. The Soviets can afford to be tenacious and seemingly intransigent in any negotiations bearing on the issue. They may refuse, if it suits their mood and as they did in the 1979 Vienna talks, to link arms control to any broader political understanding between the two powers.

Contrariwise, a large segment of public opinion in a democracy will always cling to the belief that any agreement that promises to constrain the nuclear arms race is in and by itself the surest guarantee of peace. But it is not only public pressure that weakens the hand of the United States when it comes to actual negotiations. U.S. policymakers have for too long—witness the doctrine of mutual assured destruction—tended to neglect the psychological impact of nuclear arms, their importance being assessed purely from war-fighting and/or deterrence points of view. An American expert might indeed have viewed with equanimity the fact that the SALT I agreement limited the United States to 1,054 intercontinental ballistic missiles, while allowing over 1,600 to the Soviet Union. But, as the reactions (and eventual overreactions) of the average citizen of the United States or West Germany were to demonstrate, these figures and other quantitative disparities between the nuclear armories of the two superpowers are bound to be of great political significance.

To be sure, one must not assume that the Soviets’ campaign against the Euromissiles and the Strategic Defense Initiative is entirely contrived out of bluff and bullying. The deployment of the Pershing II missiles on West German territory might well have suggested to the Kremlin’s oversuspicious mind the possibility of Bonn eventually getting its finger on the nuclear trigger. As to the SDI, the Soviets, while not themselves laggard in working on strategic defense, may be genuinely concerned about the possibility of an American technological breakthrough that could alter the entire deterrence picture. But since, as we have seen, Moscow is seldom entirely candid in revealing its real fears, it is not out of the question that the fuss raised about Star Wars may be prompted by the desire to secure American concessions on a quite different issue.

In any case, when they meet, the two leaders might be well advised to recognize that, even if it does materialize, a new agreement (SALT, START or whatever you might call it), however far-reaching, can be meaningful and reassuring only within the context of a broader political understanding between the United States and the U.S.S.R.

Even if such an understanding is reached, could it prove less ephemeral than the 1972 Nixon-Brezhnev pledge that both powers would eschew "efforts to obtain unilateral advantages at the expense of the other, directly or indirectly"? Even the closest of allies would find it impossible to abide by that. Yet, as we have seen, the hyperboles of the 1972 summit apart, while détente crumbled largely on account of Soviet transgressions, these were often unwittingly brought about by America’s sins of omission and commission.

And so, if we do not pitch our expectations too high, a more durable U.S.-Soviet rapprochement is possible, but only if the United States can learn new political and diplomatic skills and the Kremlin can unlearn some of its old habits. It is tempting to forecast, but it would be foolhardy to count on Gorbachev’s U.S.S.R. concentrating its energies and resources on the domestic front and eschewing entirely its propensity for international mischief-making. But it is not unrealistic to expect that the needs of the Soviet economy, on the one hand, and an alert and purposeful U.S. diplomacy on the other, might constrain the Kremlin to display more prudence and greater restraint in its foreign policy.

As this survey of the 40 years of troubled Soviet-American coexistence suggests, an effective foreign policy, at least for a democracy, does not depend only on the skill of the experts. Both the American public and its government ought to be mindful of the past. The 1940s and early 1950s teach us how vital it is to correctly assess strengths and vulnerabilities, both our own and those of the U.S.S.R. The Khrushchev era shows how important it is to penetrate the rhetoric of Soviet policies and discern their real aims and fears. The late 1960s and the 1970s warn against allowing democracy’s internal turmoil to affect unduly its foreign stance. And the current emotionalism in which the debate about subjects like nuclear arms control and international terrorism is swathed makes it all the more important for the American public to develop that combination of sophistication and patience, qualities which in turn enable the policymakers to combine tenacity of purpose with a flexibility of tactics—the necessary prerequisites for a viable U.S. policy toward the Soviet Union.

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  • Adam B. Ulam is Gurney Professor of History and Political Science and the Director of the Russian Research Center at Harvard University. His most recent book is Dangerous Relations: The Soviet Union in World Politics, 1970-1982.
  • More By Adam B. Ulam