Killing Detente

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Cahn, Anne Hessing. Killing Detente: The Right Attacks the CIA. University Park, PA: Penn State University Press, 1998.

Summary

Written by Anne Hessing Cahn, Killing Detente explains in detail the various attacks upon the policy of Détente during the Nixon and Ford administrations. During the early 1970’s there was a relaxing of tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union, which included various treaties, such as the Strategic Arms Limitations Treaty (SALT) brokered between Nixon, with help from his chief foreign affairs advisor Henry Kissinger, and Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev. Among the American people, attitudes towards the Soviets were improving and many were in favor of strengthening ties between the two countries. Cahn argues that both sides benefited from Détente. While the United States was weakened militarily as a result of the Vietnam War, the Soviets had their own problems stemming from an economy that was slowly collapsing.

Despite its relative popularity, Détente was attacked by many in the United States. This was for several reasons. Many conservatives felt that Nixon and Kissinger were allowing the Soviet Union to gain an edge militarily. As evidence, they pointed to the SALT treaty, which set limits on nuclear missiles, limits that gave the Soviets a numerical advantage. However, the United States still had a clear advantage in terms of quality of weapons, numbers of nuclear warheads, and long-range bombers. Much of this opposition was lead by Senator “Scoop” Jackson of Washington and other Congressional leaders and foreign policy experts. By the early to mid 1970’s these men were arguing that the United States was falling behind the Soviet Union in terms of military strength. One of the ways they were able to weaken Détente was through the Jackson-Vanik amendment to the trade bill relating to the Soviet Union. The amendment tied trade with the Soviet Union to the Soviets liberalizing emigration rights. These individuals included James Schlesinger, who became Secretary of Defense in 1973. In addition, many liberals also criticized Détente because of because of its realpolitik nature and its disinterest in human rights abroad.

After President Nixon resigned, President Ford, along with Kissinger, continued with Détente. However, Ford was forced to back off from Détente because of a strong Republican primary challenge from former California Governor Ronald Reagan. Ford even forced out his Vice-President, Nelson Rockefeller, to try and appease his party’s conservative wing. While President Ford was being forced to alter his foreign policy in order to save his chances for reelection, there were also other assaults being leveled against Détente as a policy. The Central Intelligence Agency also came under attack during this time period because of what its critics contended was a “persistent underestimation of Soviet deployments”. (Cahn, 85) Even those who believed in Détente, such as Nixon and Kissinger, were hostile towards the CIA. This hostility lead to public pressure against the agency, Congressional oversight hearings into its actions, and a constant turnover of leadership at the agency, all of which weakened its power.

Another way conservatives, and other military hawks attacked the governments handling of the Cold War was their attack on the annual National Intelligence Estimates, which included NIE 11-3/8, which dealt with Soviet military strength. Men such as Schlesinger and Paul Nitze argued that National Intelligence Estimates, which were created by various governmental intelligence agencies working together, consistently underestimated the threat from the Soviet military. To combat the NIE, they were able to use the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board (PFIAB) to influence the Ford administration’s foreign policy as well as American public opinion about Détente.

After President Ford was defeated by Jimmy Carter in the 1976 Presidential Election, Détente was essentially dead. Carter did not pursue a policy of Détente, although he did not strongly supported the goals of the conservatives either. Soon after becoming President, Carter abolished PFIAB. The goals of the conservatives, and those who wanted to increase military spending to counter the Soviet Union, were realized with the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, who strongly supported their ideas and goals.


Commentary

Jim Sweeney, Fall 2006

I believe that Cahn makes several argues that I personally find very interesting and plausible. For those who believed that the Soviet Union was ahead of the United States militarily, and that the United States needed to build up its forced to respond to the threat, it seems as if their ideology trumped the actual facts regarding Soviet military capabilities. Their ideology told them that the Soviet Union was building up their military for expansionistic purposes, and that the United States needed to respond in-kind. This emphasis led them to question Détente and the government’s methods of gathering intelligence.

I would agree with Cahn that Détente was beneficial for both the United States and the Soviet Union, and that it was needlessly attacked by many on the right, and the left, for a variety of reasons. However, I do not feel she completely supports her argument that the military buildup following the end of Détente served no purpose, and did not alter the Cold War. Although the military building during the Reagan administration may, or may not, have been necessary, she does not prove that it did not help accelerate the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the end of the Cold War.

When reading about the attack on Détente, and the arguments that the Soviet Union was a greater threat than it really was, I was reminded of the situation a few years ago when many in government and politics were arguing that Saddam Hussein was, as it turns out, a much greater threat than he really was. It is more interesting when you consider that so many of the individuals who affected policy during the time when Détente was being attacked, such as Cheney, Rumsfeld, Perle, and Wolfowitz, were around when the government made its decision to attack Iraq.

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