Changing Superpower Relations in the 1970S and 1980S

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Changing Superpower Relations in the 1970s and 1980s

Richard M. Nixon …267

Richard M. Nixon …274

Ronald Reagan …282

C old War rivalry in the 1960s was marked by dramatic tense events and often bloody hot spots. The Cold War was a prolonged conflict for world dominance from 1945 to 1991 between the two superpowers, the democratic, capitalist United States and the communist Soviet Union. The weapons of conflict were commonly words of propaganda and threats. During the John F. Kennedy (1917–1963; served 1961–63) and Lyndon B. Johnson (1908–1973; served 1963–69) presidential years from 1961 to 1969, the U.S. foreign policy of containment, to contain communism from spreading around the globe, suffered two major setbacks.

First, Soviet relations with Cuba cemented and firmly set the island nation as a communist stronghold 90 miles (145 kilometers) from the Florida coast. Second, by 1969, the Vietnam War (1954–75), a major hot spot of the Cold War, had proved unwinnable for the United States. The U.S. government consistently underestimated communist North Vietnam's will to continue fighting and overestimated the U.S. citizens' support of the war. The seemingly endless war led to President Johnson's decision not to run for reelection in 1968. Republican candidate and former vice president Richard M. Nixon (1913–1994; served 1969–74) won the November 1968 presidential election. Nixon pledged during the campaign to end U.S. involvement in Vietnam.

Although the end of the Vietnam War would not come for several years, by beginning the withdrawal process, Nixon recognized America had limits to its power to contain every occasional communist rebel group threatening to gain power in a country. In the first excerpt in this chapter, "Informal Remarks in Guam with Newsmen (Nixon Doctrine), July 25, 1969," President Nixon stressed that the United States must always be interested and involved in the Asian nations but not necessarily impose its form of government there.

By 1969, a considerable rift between the two largest communist nations, the Soviet Union and the People's Republic of China (PRC), had developed. President Nixon and national security advisor Henry Kissinger (1923–) skillfully exploited this rift, to the advantage of the United States. The Soviet Union dreaded the idea that the United States might become friendly with the PRC. That is exactly what Nixon and Kissinger set out to do. First Kissinger quietly became the first U.S. government representative to visit China since the communist takeover in 1949. Kissinger's visit paved the way for a very public visit by the president and the first lady, Pat Nixon (1912–1993) in February 1972. In the second excerpt, "Remarks at Andrews Air Force Base on Returning from the People's Republic of China, February 28, 1972," Nixon reports on his amazing visit to China.

The Soviet Union, threatened by the improved U.S.PRC relations, decided they too must improve relations with the United States. This was the precise response Nixon and Kissinger had hoped for. Over the next few years, not only did diplomatic communications open up between the United States and China, but Nixon and Soviet premier Leonid Brezhnev (1906–1982) began a new era in U.S.-Soviet relations known as détente, or an easing of international tensions.

Détente depended on the personalities of Nixon, Kissinger, and Brezhnev. Unfortunately, détente became entangled in a web of U.S. domestic politics. In August 1974, Nixon became the first president in U.S. history to resign, after a domestic political scandal known as Watergate. The scandal stemmed from the June 1972 burglarizing of the offices of the Democratic National Committee (located in the Watergate building in Washington, D.C.) and the cover-up that followed. With the departure of Nixon, a departure that seemed totally unnecessary to the Soviets, détente began to flounder.

Vice President Gerald R. Ford (1913–; served 1974–77) replaced Nixon and maintained the policies of détente, but the Soviets were skeptical if détente would continue. Nevertheless, on August 1, 1975, President Ford, Soviet premier Brezhnev, and leaders from numerous other countries gathered in Finland to sign the Helsinki Accords. The Accords addressed geographic issues in Europe; promised cooperation in trade, cultural exchanges, and scientific areas; and dealt with humanitarian issues. Ford and Brezhnev overcame critics in their respective countries to sign the Accords. The signing was the high point of détente.

As the 1976 presidential campaign got into full swing, two key candidates, U.S. senator Henry Jackson (1912–1983) of Washington state (a Democrat) and former California governor Ronald Reagan (1911–) (a Republican) forcefully opposed détente. They convinced many Americans that détente played up Soviet strengths and U.S. weaknesses. The ultimate victor in the race was Democratic candidate Jimmy Carter (1924–; served 1977–81), former governor of Georgia. Carter had almost no foreign affairs experience and changed his approach toward the Soviets several times in his one term in office. As a result, tensions steadily heated up.

In 1980, Carter lost his reelection bid to Reagan. When Reagan took office in 1981, the superpower rivalry escalated. Reagan's campaign was full of strong anticommunist rhetoric. Historians refer to the Carter and early Reagan presidential years as the "freeze" in superpower relations. In the early 1980s, the military budgets of both the United States and the Soviet Union rose dramatically, affecting the economies of both nations.

Reagan was reelected in November 1984. Within only a few months, in March 1985, Mikhail Gorbachev (1931–) assumed leadership of the Soviet Union. Gorbachev, outgoing, intelligent, and articulate, was determined to take his country down a different path. Reagan began to listen to Gorbachev's offers of arms reduction and opening of trade relations. The two met four times between 1985 and 1988 to work out differences between the Soviet Union and the United States. Their second meeting in October 1986 in Reykjavik, Iceland, brought a common understanding toward the goal of actual reductions in nuclear weapons. In the third excerpt, "Address to the Nation on the Meetings with Soviet General Secretary Gorbachev in Iceland, October 13, 1986," Reagan reported to Americans on his meeting in Iceland with Gorbachev.