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date: 18 August 2017

Russian-U.S. Foreign Relations, 1917–1991

Summary and Keywords

In 1835, Alexis de Tocqueville argued in Democracy in America that there were “two great nations in the world.” They had started from different historical points but seemed to be heading in the same direction. As expanding empires, they faced the challenges of defeating nature and constructing a civilization for the modern era. Although they adhered to different governmental systems, “each of them,” de Tocqueville declared, “seems marked out by the will of Heaven to sway the destinies of half the globe.”

De Tocqueville’s words were prophetic. In the 19th century, Russian and American intellectuals and diplomats struggled to understand the roles that their countries should play in the new era of globalization and industrialization. Despite their differing understandings of how development should happen, both sides believed in their nation’s vital role in guiding the rest of the world. American adherents of liberal developmentalism often argued that a free flow of enterprise, trade, investment, information, and culture was the key to future growth. They held that the primary obligation of American foreign policy was to defend that freedom by pursuing an “open door” policy and free access to markets. They believed that the American model would work for everyone and that the United States had an obligation to share its system with the old and underdeveloped nations around it.

A similar sense of mission developed in Russia. Russian diplomats had for centuries struggled to establish defensive buffers around the periphery of their empire. They had linked economic development to national security, and they had argued that their geographic expansion represented a “unification” of peoples as opposed to a conquering of them. In the 19th century, after the Napoleonic Wars and the failed Decembrist Revolution, tsarist policymakers fought to defend autocracy, orthodoxy, and nationalism from domestic and international critics. As in the United States, Imperial and later Soviet leaders envisioned themselves as the emissaries of the Enlightenment to the backward East and as protectors of tradition and order for the chaotic and revolutionary West.

These visions of order clashed in the 20th century as the Soviet Union and the United States became superpowers. Conflicts began early, with the American intervention in the 1918–1921 Russian civil war. Tensions that had previously been based on differing geographic and strategic interests then assumed an ideological valence, as the fight between East and West became a struggle between the political economies of communism and capitalism. Foreign relations between the two countries experienced boom and bust cycles that took the world to the brink of nuclear holocaust and yet maintained a strategic balance that precluded the outbreak of global war for fifty years. This article will examine how that relationship evolved and how it shaped the modern world.

Keywords: Russia, Soviet Union, United States, collective security, capitalist encirclement, international communism, rollback, containment, détente, the Thaw, Nixon doctrine, Brezhnev doctrine, Cold War revisionism, Cold War postrevisionism

Origins, 1790–1945

A mixture of skepticism and respect marked diplomatic relations between Russia and the United States in the decades before the Second World War. In the 18th century, the U.S.-Russian connection centered primarily on commerce and trade. In 1790, Russia established an outpost in Alaska. After exchanging foreign ministers in 1809, trade continued with the founding of a southern base of the Russian America Company near Bodega Bay in California. The two sides signed a formal trade agreement in 1832, which provided for bilateral trading rights and most favored nation status. Over the course of the next seventy years, American and Russian diplomats, businessmen, and engineers worked together on projects related to nation building and modernization. Americans consulted in the construction of the Russian railroad system. The American Russian Commercial Company established a near-monopoly on the ice market from its headquarters in Sitka, Alaska. In 1854, American humanitarian movements participated in relief efforts for the Crimean War. Shortly thereafter, American shipbuilders began constructing warships for the Russian navy. The largest ship built in the United States, the General-Admiral, made its maiden voyage to St. Petersburg in 1859. During the American Civil War, the Russian foreign minister, Baron Edward de Stoeckel, offered his services as a mediator between the northern and southern states, an offer William Seward, Abraham Lincoln’s secretary of state, rebuked. Seward did, however, negotiate the American purchase of Alaska in 1867 for $7.2 million (an event known as Seward’s Folly).

Even as they cooperated, however, leaders on both sides kept a wary eye on each other’s growing power. American diplomats remained critical of Russian entry into the League of the Three Emperors, which allied Russia with Germany and Austria-Hungary to squelch revolutionary sentiment in Eastern Europe. They periodically condemned the tsar’s tacit acceptance of Jewish pogroms in Russia. At the same time, Russian diplomats criticized the U.S. treatment of Native Americans, its involvement in the Philippine-American Wars, and its articulation of the Monroe Doctrine. Diplomatic relations persisted, however. The Grand Duke Alexis famously went on a buffalo hunt with General George Custer and William Cody (Buffalo Bill). General William Tecumseh Sherman and Ulysses Grant both visited Russia. American-Russian relations culminated in the brokering of peace in the Russo-Japanese war by the American president, Theodore Roosevelt, in 1905. Nine years later, war swept across the European continent, triggering the alliance system that would ultimately destroy two empires, lead to the deaths of millions, and play a crucial role in ending the two-hundred-year rule of the Romanov dynasty.

In the century before the revolutions of 1917, members of the growing Russian intelligentsia had also struggled to understand Russia’s role in the world and the foreign policies that their nation should pursue. Following Petr Chaadaev’s 1831 lament that Russia had “contributed nothing to the progress of the human spirit,” a new generation of thinkers arose who sought desperately to find an ennobling path for their nation.1 They argued amidst tsarist repression and the slow growth of an urban working class that Russia did have a unique role to play in leading the modern world. It would serve as a balm to the rampant exploitation of the West and as a civilizing force to counteract the backwardness of the East. In the 1890s, many in the intelligentsia combined these beliefs with Karl Marx’s theory of dialectical materialism and the promise of revolution. In Marx, the radical intelligentsia believed that it had discovered a way for Russia to contribute to the world; it would bring a revolution. Foreign policy, they argued, was a remnant of a bourgeois system that separated populations by nation-state and prevented the development of class consciousness. After the international worker’s revolution had happened, they argued, national divides would collapse. There would be no need for foreign policies and the signing of treaties. As Leon Tolstoy famously argued, after the revolution, Russia’s new foreign ministers would write some final decrees and turn off the lights on their way out.2

The First World War and the Revolutions of February and October 1917 laid the foundations for the next eighty years of American-Russian foreign relations. In 1914, Russia joined Britain, France, and Serbia against Austria-Hungary and Germany. While the United States did not to join the war until 1917, it did offer significant supplies, war material, and relief to the Russians. Then, in February 1917, shortages on the Russian home front, mass desertions, and spreading starvation led to general strikes and public protests in St. Petersburg and Moscow. Tsar Nicholas II abdicated, leaving behind a vacuum known as “dual power,” with a moderate provisional government ostensibly in charge but in reality unable to function without the sanction of radical revolutionaries in the Petrograd Soviet. In March, David R. Francis, the U.S. ambassador to Russia, was the first to offer official recognition to the provisional government. The new Russian republic was not to last, however. The nascent government, hemmed in by its commitments to its allies and its belief in the need for a constitutional congress, rejected pleas to pull Russia out of the war, refused to distribute land to the peasantry, and failed to manage the ongoing demands of workers and soldiers for the redistribution of wealth. In October 1917, the Soviet seized power. Within two months, the Bolshevik Party, led by Vladimir Ilych Lenin, had solidified its control over the Soviet and turned Russia into a one-party state.

Sowing the Seeds of the Cold War, 1918–1945

Hostilities between the United States and the new Bolshevik government began almost immediately. American president Woodrow Wilson ordered his diplomats to withhold recognition. David Francis left the Soviet Union in November 1918 and was not replaced. The United States closed its embassy in September 1919 and did not reestablish diplomatic relations until 1933. The Soviet Union’s former allies quickly followed suit. This imposed isolationism would lead Russia to begin trading with Germany by the early 1920s. During the years of the Russian civil war, between 1918 and 1920, Woodrow Wilson dispatched more than 10,000 American soldiers to fight with the Allies in the Russian Far East against the Red Army and the Japanese. The intervention was a disaster. Russian citizens refused to rally around the foreigners whom they perceived as invaders. More crucially, Soviet leaders came to see this intervention as proof of “capitalist encirclement” of their new communist regime.

Despite the initial hostility between the Soviet and American governments, American companies such as Ford, General Electric, and Westinghouse invested billions during the years of the Soviet Union’s New Economic Policy. By the late 1920s, Soviet-American trade had risen to over $100 million, well above the prewar figures.

The combination of Stalinist nationalization of industry and the American Great Depression ended this period of cooperation. While Franklin Roosevelt reluctantly recognized the Soviet government in 1933, he refused to take the Soviet warnings about the rising danger of Japan seriously. In 1934 and 1937, Soviet diplomats pursued a policy of “collective security,” pleading with the West to establish a joint policy toward Japan and Nazi Germany. The Americans, French, and British refused. When they appeased Hitler’s demand for control of Czechoslovakia at the 1938 Munich conference, Stalin declared that the “systematic concessions” made by the West to the Germans represented “cheap and easy” answers to a problem that was not going to go away.3 He declared that the Soviet Union would not come to the West’s aid when Hitler inevitably invaded. Then, in August 1939, in order to stave off war, he stunned the world by signing a nonaggression pact with Nazi Germany.

While the two nations were crucial in winning the war for the Allies, their experiences ultimately did more to exacerbate tensions than to resolve them.4 In response to the June 1941 German invasion of the Soviet Union, the United States began sending Lend-Lease assistance. After the Japanese invaded Pearl Harbor seven months later, the Germans declared war on the United States, making the United States and the Soviet Union allies. Soviet citizens would come to remember these years with a deep sense of loss and horror. Tied to the Soviet experience of the Great Patriotic War was the memory of Stalin’s many unanswered appeals to the western allies to open a second front. The suffering of Soviet citizens also reinforced the crucial need for geographic buffers to protect Russia’s western borders against recurrent German aggression. Stalin’s personal memory of the war and the seeming abandonment of the Soviet Union by the West shaped his policy making until his death in 1953.

The Cold War Sets In, 1945–1950

At the end of the Second World War, the Soviet Union and the United States stood as the last two superpowers. Ideological differences combined with long-standing Soviet geographic and American economic insecurities to pit the two sides against each other. At the Atlantic, Bretton Woods, and Yalta conferences of 1944 and 1945, American diplomats struggled to protect their nation’s access to open markets while Soviet diplomats worked to create a defensive buffer on their western border. Roosevelt and Churchill’s establishment of the Atlantic Charter, the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund promised access “to the trade and to the raw materials of the world” to America.5 At the same time, Stalin’s primary concern was security, national reconstruction, and the continued management of his population. He argued that these objectives could only be attained through the Soviet occupation of Central and Eastern Europe. As Averell Harriman, the U.S. ambassador to the Soviet Union, reported in 1945, “The overriding consideration in Soviet foreign policy is the preoccupation with security.”6 Yet many Americans did not see the situation this way, arguing that the presence of Soviet troops in Eastern Europe was proof of Moscow’s continuing aggressive support of international communism. This remained a basic tenant of American understandings of Soviet policy through the 1950s and ’60s, despite Stalin’s disbanding of the Comintern in 1943 and his repeated support for the theory of “Socialism in One Country.” Meanwhile, in the Soviet Union, party newspapers and broadcasts proclaimed the threat of “capitalist encirclement.”

By the time the Second World War had ended, the Cold War was already starting to heat up. In their mutual mistrust and their shared unwillingness to understand the foreign policies and security needs of the other, both sides fell back on the argument that their opponent was driven primarily by ideological dogma.7 They drew upon their shared historical beliefs in their nations’ unique destiny in order to justify the positioning of themselves as the defenders of “freedom” and “democracy” in the world. Thus, while Churchill called for a “fraternal association of the English-speaking peoples,” Andrei Zhdanov declared that the Soviet Union would become the teacher of a “new general human morality.”8

From the outset, the Cold War was a global phenomenon. It stretched first into the Middle East. In 1946, Moscow demanded equal access to Iranian oil reserves and withdrew its tanks from the region only after receiving pressure from the United Nations and the United States. A few months later, Stalin demanded shared control of the Dardanelles with Turkey (a demand to which Churchill and Roosevelt had agreed during the war). Here again, the United States responded with a gesture of support for Turkish control of the Straits.

Rising tensions between the Soviet Union and the United States also impacted debates over weapons proliferation and European reconstruction. An initial proposal for international control of atomic weapons (the Acheson-Lilienthal plan) gave way to the more stringent Baruch plan, which provided the United States with control over international weapons production and inspections. In March and June 1947 the United States proposed its plan to rebuild Europe and counter Soviet geopolitical hegemony through the Truman Doctrine and Marshall Plan. The Truman Doctrine provided financial aid to Greece and Turkey and implied support for other European nations threatened by communism. The Marshall Plan offered $13 billion in support of general European reconstruction. General George C. Marshall initially offered his plan to all the countries of Europe, including those run by communist governments. Western European nations accepted the offer. Stalin denounced it, saying it represented an infringement on European sovereignty. Following Stalin’s insistence, Eastern Europe refused Marshall Plan funding as well. The Truman and Marshall plans received American congressional approval, not just because they promised to provide European markets for American goods, but because they vowed to help in the fight against communism.

By the time the Marshall Plan came into effect, the general’s plan to build cooperative economic coalitions in the West had been joined by a new commitment to create military alliances on both sides of the Iron Curtain. In 1946, George Kennan, the deputy chief of the American mission in Moscow, had written a “long telegram” to the State Department outlining his views on Soviet interests in the postwar world and his recommendations for American foreign policy. He argued that Russia suffered from endemic geographic insecurity, which meant that the Soviet Union could only see the outside world as hostile and would inevitably pursue an expansionist policy. Because of this, Kennan argued, there was little likelihood that the Soviets could be mollified through concessions. Instead, the only possible policy that would work against the Soviets was a “long-term, patient, but firm and vigilant containment of Russian expansive tendencies.”9 Despite Kennan’s later renunciation of the policy of containment, this approach, in the words of historian John Lewis Gaddis, “became the basis for United States strategy toward the Soviet Union throughout the rest of the Cold War.”10 Indeed, although the United States pursued a range of policies toward the Soviet Union over the following decades, containment of the perceived Soviet menace remained a consistent goal.

A similar hardening of Cold War divisions occurred in the Soviet Union in these years. On the one hand, the Soviets responded to the Marshall Plan by founding the Cominform. Chairman of the Soviet Union Andrei Zhdanov and Deputy Chairman of the Council of Ministers Georgii Malenkov (under the watchful gaze of Stalin) denounced the idea of an international revolution. They continued to acknowledge the existence of national roads to socialism and the possibilities for communist participation in coalition governments. On the other hand, they also argued that the fight against capitalism necessitated a “coordinating center” in order to combine forces against aggressive capitalism. The Cominform included the Eastern European countries within the Soviet sphere (excluding Albania and East Germany) along with the French and Italian communist parties. At a meeting of leaders in Poland in September 1947, it became clear to those in attendance that the new objective was the opposition of American hegemony and, in Eastern Europe, the cracking down on any organized opposition to Party rule. This resolution to fight perceived American aggression and to maintain centralized control over neighboring states resulted in the “Sovietization” of Eastern Europe over the course of the next six years.11 Moscow’s staunch and often brutal control of its western neighbors helped to carve a clear divide on the map of Europe.

Perhaps the most contentious problem that American and Soviet diplomats and politicians struggled to negotiate in the early years of the Cold War was “the German question.” By 1948, the Western allies had decided that the economic reconstruction of Germany was of paramount importance. The resources of the Ruhr valley would be brought under Western control and the West German currency would be stabilized. The prospect of a revitalized West Germany (and a revitalized West Berlin within the Soviet sphere) was deeply problematic for Stalin. That June, the Soviets blocked travel between the West German zones and Berlin. In response, the United States undertook the largest airlift in history, delivering 13,000 tons of supplies each day to Berlin for 324 days. Stalin eventually allowed traffic to resume and the Berlin Airlift ended, but this did not stabilize Germany. Populations were still moving freely from East to West in Berlin, creating demographic and logistical problems for both sides. The artificial division of Germany still existed, against the wishes of the German population.

In April 1949, Belgium, The Netherlands, Luxembourg, France, the United Kingdom, The United States, Canada, Portugal, Norway, Italy, Denmark, and Ireland signed the documents creating the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. The new U.S. secretary of state, Dean Acheson, advocated collective security, particularly in Europe, in the fight against communism. NATO offered a path to accomplish this. It would create what he called a “preponderance of power” and would be the primary defense against those who might return to the policies of appeasement and neutrality in the fight to come. It was a response to the perceived expansionism of communism in Eastern Europe and Asia. The final retroactive justification for the creation of NATO came four months later, on August 29, when the Soviet Union detonated its first atomic bomb. Now the structure for war and the mechanisms for fighting it had been laid out.

Rollback and Containment, 1950–1957

American and Soviet foreign policymakers in the 1950s made flawed assumptions about the other side’s policies. American diplomats believed that Moscow was leading a coordinated international attack on the noncommunist world. As the prominent historian Kermit McKenzie argued in 1955, “International communism is messianic!”12 Soviet leaders similarly contended that Washington was actively seeking to wipe the Soviet Union away in a nuclear firestorm. Andrei Zhdanov claimed that, “American reactionaries are disposed to take upon themselves the mission of ‘saviors’ of the capital system from Communism.”13

U.S. and Soviet policy from the 1950s on developed as a consequence of each side’s long-lasting geostrategic concerns and from a combination of ideological belief and misunderstanding about the other side’s motivations. As in previous decades, the Soviet Union sought primarily to establish geographic buffers and the economic reconstruction of Russia after the disaster of World War II. The United States continued to pursue an “open door” policy in an effort to maintain access to markets and avoid a return to the Great Depression. Despite the fact that ideology was not the primary motivator for Soviet and American policymaking, many people on both sides came to believe that it was, and this did shape their own strategies in profound ways. By 1950, it had become increasingly difficult for either side to see through the other’s ideological rhetoric to the more pragmatic interests that lay beneath.

In the United States, policymakers and politicians worked hard to shore up a defense against communist infiltration. In January 1950, Secretary of State Dean Acheson gave a controversial speech at the U.S. National Press Club in which he defined an American “defensive perimeter” in the Pacific. Five months later, Truman authorized the intervention of American forces in Korea in response to perceived Soviet involvement from the north. Recent scholarship has revealed that Stalin supported North Korea not as a result of ideological imperialism, but because of his fear of territorial weakness against Japan and China.14 And yet the West’s perception of communist international expansionism prevailed.

The Red Scare represented the clearest manifestation of this rising suspicion over the dangers of communism in the United States. In 1947, Truman created loyalty review boards to determine the patriotism of federal employees. The House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) blacklisted workers in the motion picture industry suspected of communism and Alger Hiss was sent to jail for lying about his political affiliations. Senator Joseph McCarthy, in a 1950 speech at Wheeling, West Virginia, attacked Truman’s foreign policy with his famous list of known communists in the U.S. State Department. On March 29, 1951, a New York District Court judge sentenced Julius and Ethel Rosenberg to death for sharing nuclear secrets with the Soviet Union. Years of HUAC investigations followed, with its decline only beginning in the late 1950s.

In 1951 Truman adopted the top-secret policy document NSC-68. It outlined a U.S. strategy for confronting the Soviet Union based on an understanding of Soviet policy as inherently ideologically aggressive. “The Soviet Union,” it argued, “is animated by a new fanatical faith, antithetical to our own, and seeks to impose absolute authority.”15 In response to this threat, NSC-68 recommended that negotiations with the Soviet Union cease, that the hydrogen bomb be developed quickly, that conventional military forces be expanded for use when atomic weapons were not appropriate, that a domestic propaganda campaign be undertaken to create public consensus for the Cold War, that a strong alliance system be developed, and that Soviet society be undermined “from within” through propaganda.

When Dwight Eisenhower assumed the presidency in 1953, he continued to search for ways to stop perceived Soviet aggression while also cutting the costs of expensive international entanglements. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles adopted the “New Look” policy, in which he argued that previous approaches to “containment” had been insufficient. He contended that, short of engaging in war, the United States should adopt an aggressive “rollback” program of “political warfare, psychological warfare, and propaganda.”16 This new policy led Eisenhower’s administration to engage in a global anti-communist propaganda campaign that was the biggest in American history.17 The United States Information Agency received millions of dollars in funding, which it used to send radio broadcasts into Eastern Europe and around the globe. In addition, Eisenhower adopted a policy package that included allowing the CIA to intervene in suppressing communist revolutions in places like Iran and Guatemala, sending foreign advisors to Vietnam, and building alliances in the Middle East (the Baghdad Pact) and Southeast Asia (SEATO). In the interests of cutting defense budgets, Eisenhower also endorsed the idea that strategic nuclear weapons could be used to deter conventional and nuclear threats from Eastern Europe. This last policy led to the doubling of the U.S. nuclear stockpile, the scuttling of a nuclear test ban, and the strategy known as “massive retaliation,” which allowed for the potential use of nuclear weapons in what would otherwise be considered a theater of conventional warfare.

On March 5, 1953, Joseph Stalin died, leaving behind a foreign policy legacy that continues to be debated to this day. Traditional arguments have held that Stalin was a “vindictive,” “consummate narcissist” who suffered “neurotic anxieties” and was desperate to satisfy his own unquenchable need for “fame and glory” as a part of his own inner “hero” fantasy.18 In his speech at the Twentieth Party Congress in 1956, Nikita Khrushchev argued that Stalin “believed he was acting in the interests of the party and the working masses and in defense of the gains of the revolution. This was the tragedy!”19 Some scholars have claimed that Stalin’s policies were less a reflection of the man and more a mirror of Bolshevik Party culture, the communist ethos, and the legacy of Lenin.20 Recent scholarship has also argued that Stalin’s policies reflected a realistic attempt to address the problems that the Bolsheviks inherited from the tsarist regime in 1917, including the management of a country that was made up of a multitude of nationalities and the endemic problem of geographic insecurity.21 Others have contended that, given the massive changes that occurred in the balance of power after the Second World War, it was inevitable that the United States and the Soviet Union would see each other as potential threats and that Stalin (along with the United States) would seek to “maximize [his nation’s] power in pursuit of national security in the face of perceived dilemmas.”22

After Stalin’s death, the Soviet leadership struggled to find a new captain, finally settling on Nikita Khrushchev (a child of peasants who had proven himself on the Stalingrad front in 1942) as the new general secretary. Khrushchev’s policies reflected his efforts to reform parts of Soviet society while still addressing the age-old insecurities that shaped Russian foreign policy. This mixture of domestic and international objectives translated into a confusing set of decisions that simultaneously argued for peace while also coming dangerously close to war. In March 1955, NATO decided to rearm Western Germany and grant it membership. Two months later, The Soviet Union created the Warsaw Pact, a defensive alliance made up of Albania, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, Hungary, Poland, and Romania. Khrushchev then shocked the communist world in 1956 by pursuing a program of “de-Stalinization,” which ushered in the period known as “the Thaw” in the Soviet Union. Censorship of the press and the arts relaxed significantly, and the rehabilitation of the victims of the Stalinist purges began. Khrushchev also reallocated economic investments to pay more attention to consumer production. He gave significant support to the policy of “peaceful coexistence,” which argued that capitalism and communism were not antithetical ideologies necessitating the destruction of the other and allowed for economic, political, and cultural cooperation. He ended tensions with Tito’s Yugoslavia in the signing of the Belgrade Declaration. Moscow and Washington also worked together during the Suez Crisis to stop British and Israeli aggression against Egypt. Khrushchev’s reformist policies helped to cause the Sino-Soviet split, as Mao increasingly condemned the general secretary for weakening the revolution. As the famed professor Robert Byrnes wrote in 1956, “Soviet policy toward the West [had become] more flexible, moderate, and skillful.”23 However, when strikes and uprisings occurred in Poland and Hungary in June and October, 1956, largely as a consequence of the Thaw and with the encouragement of American propaganda, Khrushchev chose to demand their cessation at the point of a gun. Poland backed down. Hungary did not. Khrushchev then ordered the Red Army to suppress the revolt. These revolts were the “ultimate expression” of the Soviet Union’s choice of “stability over viability.”24 Khrushchev had experienced the age-old paradox of reform from above. He had not been able to control the speed and scope of his own reforms and in the end had been forced either to relinquish or reassert his power. Like many authoritarians before him, he chose to defend his position rather than allow dissidence to continue.

Brinksmanship, 1957–1962

The years from 1957 to 1962 were arguably the most dangerous in the history of Russian and American foreign relations. They brought the German question to a head and carried the world to the brink of nuclear annihilation in Cuba. They also witnessed a significant transformation during which confrontations would arise between American and Soviet policymakers. Whereas Europe had once been the focus of conflict, disagreements now shifted to Latin America, the Middle East, and Africa.

On October 4, 1957, Sputnik successfully orbited the earth. Moscow used the moment to show the West that Soviet missile science had made long-range nuclear attack possible. In the United States, Sputnik catalyzed American society and its military into a new level of domestic mobilization as it struggled to respond to perceived “gaps” in domestic education, intelligence, scientific research and development, and missile production. President Eisenhower, who was primarily concerned with balancing the budget, attempted to temper American “Sputnikitis” by refusing to increase conventional military spending. He faced an uphill battle, however, as other American politicians (John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson included) used the seemingly pressing need for increased militarization as a platform for their election campaigns.

Under Eisenhower, Soviet-American relations grew increasingly irascible. Tensions over Berlin were high following the creation of the European Common Market (with West Germany as a member) in 1959. While West Germany’s economic recovery was somewhat troublesome to the Soviets, its possession of aircraft and artillery with nuclear capabilities proved unacceptable. Khrushchev immediately began demanding that the Western powers evacuate West Berlin. In early 1960, on the eve of a summit in Geneva and a visit by Eisenhower to the Soviet Union, an American U-2 spy plane was shot down over Soviet airspace with the pilot, Gary Powers, still alive. Eisenhower initially denied that the plane was on a spy mission but then accepted full responsibility after realizing that Powers had survived the crash. The Geneva conference collapsed, not only because of the U-2 incident but also because of continued mutual intransigence over Berlin.

Eisenhower also failed to resolve continuing problems in Cuba. In 1956, a young Fidel Castro had returned to Cuba to organize a revolution against the regime of Fulgencio Batista. Castro’s platform was not initially anti-capitalist, but he was determined to create a balanced Cuban economy, which required that the country rid itself of its long-standing dependence on (and subservience to) the United States. By 1959, American-owned businesses in Cuba were being nationalized and Castro had signed a trade agreement with the Soviet Union exchanging sugar for oil, machinery, and technicians. Eisenhower made the decision to authorize the CIA-led training of an anti-Castro army with an invasion planned for 1961. He then handed the reins over to a newly elected John F. Kennedy. Ironically, given their respective military careers, it was Kennedy who escalated spending on conventional weapons.

Kennedy entered office in 1961 arguing that the fight against communism would soon shift from Europe to Asia, Latin America, Africa, and the Middle East. He believed that Eisenhower’s “New Look,” with its emphasis on strategic nuclear retaliation to conflict, had limited the kinds of responses available to American policymakers. He embraced a new policy, called “Flexible Response,” which called for the development of multiple forms of deterrence, including the use of conventional weapons. Kennedy sought a more adaptive approach to security policy, even if the price tag was high. Only four months after taking office, he decided to support Eisenhower’s plan to sponsor an invasion at the Bay of Pigs using a group of Cuban exiles. It was an unmitigated disaster. The Cuban exiles failed to receive the American air support they had been promised, and U.S. representatives initially lied about their support for the invasion before being caught. As a result, Castro enjoyed an unprecedented level of popularity from his population for his willingness to stand up to American aggression.

In the wake of the failed Bay of Pigs, Khrushchev reasserted his demands for the elimination of Western forces in West Berlin. Khrushchev was concerned about the prospect of a rearmed West Germany, the attractiveness of the West to East German technicians and scientific experts, the inability of East Germany to compete economically, the risk of West Berlin being a hub for Cold War espionage in the middle of the Soviet bloc, and the impact that all of these issues would have on his own ability to maintain power at home. After an ineffectual 1961 meeting in Vienna between Kennedy and Khrushchev, the American president announced that U.S. military spending would increase by 25 percent and that the National Guard should be put on active duty. Moscow responded on August 13 by building the Berlin Wall. It stopped the flow of people to the West overnight, sealed off the Eastern bloc, and indicated Khrushchev’s desire to re-establish himself with the hardliners in the Kremlin who had become deeply concerned with his volatile policies at home and abroad. Kennedy’s administration protested, while many U.S. officials quietly recognized that The Wall had the potential to stabilize a situation that had been on the verge of exploding into armed conflict for over a decade. Two weeks later, Khrushchev restarted nuclear testing after a three-year moratorium. That November, the Soviets detonated a 58-megaton bomb—3,000 times more powerful than the bomb that fell on Hiroshima. Kennedy responded by resuming America’s underground testing program.

Kennedy made one additional foreign policy decision that would shape the world for the next two decades; he dramatically increased American support to South Vietnam and the corrupt regime of Ngo Dinh Diem. Kennedy and many of the policymakers in his inner circle came to see Vietnam as a battleground in the fight against global communism. On the council of General Maxwell Taylor and a State Department advisor, Walt Rostow, Kennedy sent 10,000 additional American “advisers” to Vietnam, promised to step up support for Diem, and ordered the U.S. Air Force to bomb Vietminh (North Vietnamese) strongholds in South Vietnam. He also embraced the “strategic hamlet” policy, which involved rounding up peasants in the countryside and housing them in secured villages. The Soviets were reticent throughout the 1960s and ’70s to show direct military support for Ho Chi Minh; the Sino-Soviet split meant that the Soviets would have to compete with the Chinese for control of North Vietnam, and they were ambiguous about their ability to export communism to Vietnam. They did engage in a massive propaganda campaign in support of Ho Chi Minh, however, which sufficed as proof to the West that Moscow was supporting Ho’s National Liberation Front.

One year later, Soviet and American brinksmanship and misunderstanding brought the world to the brink of nuclear war. The crisis began in the summer of 1962, when an American U-2 reconnaissance plane discovered Soviet surface-to-air missiles in Cuba. The causes for the crisis were myriad. In addition to the continuing tensions created by the German question, Kennedy believed that the presence of Soviet weapons in the Western Hemisphere represented an unacceptable threat to American geographic prerogatives and a manifestation of Soviet aggression. Khrushchev, who had tolerated the presence of American nuclear missiles in Turkey for almost a decade, saw it as a chance to give the Americans a dose of their own medicine. He also agreed with Castro that an American invasion of Cuba was imminent. That October, in Washington, General Taylor and the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff argued that the United States should hit the Cuban sites with air strikes before nuclear warheads could be placed there. Robert McNamara and George Ball, the undersecretary of state, countered that given the proven inaccuracies of “strategic bombing,” a blockade was the more prudent step. On national television on October 22, Kennedy revealed the situation to the American public and asked Khrushchev publically to remove the weapons from Cuba under the supervision of the UN. Both leaders then made choices that revealed their ultimate unwillingness to bring the situation to a head. Khrushchev ordered his Cuba-bound Soviet ships to turn around, and Kennedy secretly agreed to remove the American short-range Jupiter missiles in Turkey. Kennedy did not know at the time that 42 fully-armed intermediate range nuclear missiles and 40,000 Soviet troops were already stationed in Cuba. Had Kennedy decided to follow Acheson and Taylor’s advice for air strikes, the story might have ended very differently.

Détente and Its Collapse, 1962–1976

A wide-ranging foreign policy shift occurred between the Soviet Union and the United States in the 1960s and ’70s. Both sides realized that a détente in relations would avoid the brinksmanship of the Cuban Missile Crisis and would hopefully give them space to deal with increasing problems at home. In 1963, the two superpowers established a direct hotline so that communications could be maintained in times of crisis. They signed The Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, including the prohibition of above-ground testing. Four years later, Lyndon Johnson and the Soviet foreign minister, Alexei Kosygin, signed a nuclear nonproliferation treaty and developed a shared approach to the Arab-Israeli conflict in the wake of the Six Day War. In 1971, Leonid Brezhnev recognized West Germany’s eastern borders and guaranteed Western access to West Berlin. The following year, the United States signed a major trade agreement with the Soviet Union that included selling grain to the Soviets at subsidized prices. (This moment had been called “The Great Grain Robbery” in American diplomatic history and resulted in the increase in grain prices in the United States.) Détente became official policy in May 1972, when Brezhnev and Nixon signed an Interim Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT I) and Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty, which required that both sides stop developing defensive antiballistic missile systems and limit their production of nuclear missiles. Détente held even after Nixon escalated his bombing of Vietnam and the Soviets did little to retaliate.

The period of détente also witnessed the continued Soviet and American interest in the politics of “soft power.” The Cold War was a conflict unlike any before it. It had no real geographic boundaries. It offered no real battlefields where American and Soviet soldiers could line up against each other to determine a winner. As such, it provided no foreseeable means of achieving victory. What mattered ultimately was each side’s ability to win the “hearts and minds” of global audiences. Throughout the 1950s and ’60s, Soviet and American leaders argued to their domestic and foreign audiences that they alone offered a path to democracy and development. The battles for “soft power” were waged through a wide variety of cultural competitions and expositions. The U.S. Information Agency’s “Family of Man” exhibit toured the world from 1955 to 1963. Dizzy Gillespie took a government-sponsored jazz tour of the Middle East in 1956.25 A year later, Moscow sponsored the Sixth World Festival of Youth and Students, attracting 34,000 students from 130 countries.26 In 1959, the famous “Kitchen Debate” between Khrushchev and Nixon occurred at the American National Exhibition in Sokolniki Park, Moscow. Throughout the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s, American and Soviet ballet troops, musical virtuosos, and sports teams competed for international preeminence.27 Even in the world of chess, Bobby Fischer’s unexpected defeat of Boris Spassky in 1972 became a Cold War victory.

Détente had its limitations, however. First, it failed to save Khrushchev. Khrushchev’s decision to back away from the American blockade during the Cuban Missile Crisis caused a critical rift with the Chinese, who criticized him for putting the weapons there and then for taking them away. Politburo members saw the Cuban debacle as yet another example of the premier’s erratic domestic and international policy. Khrushchev’s hold on power collapsed. In their search for stability and the preservation of the status quo, the Soviet rank and file replaced Khrushchev in 1964 with the more predictable Leonid Brezhnev.

Détente also did not prevent foreign entanglements or the lasting resentments among indigenous populations that those commitments precipitated around the world. While Kennedy was able to push the United States back from the nuclear brink, he also came to believe in the value of conventional weapons, the threat of an expansionist China, the importance of proxy wars in waging the fight against communism, and the need to control national movements around the world that might seek to manipulate the superpowers for their own designs. All of these factors contributed to Kennedy’s decision to commit to the conflict in Vietnam. Vietnam became, in his words, “the cornerstone of the Free World” and a testing ground for America’s ability to show its commitment to “democracy.”28

When Lyndon Johnson took office in 1963, his foreign policy was characterized by a desire to maintain détente with the Soviets while simultaneously battling communism. Just as the United States would ostensibly offer freedom from want and violence to its own people, he argued that America had an historical obligation to offer prosperity to the populations of the world. As his predecessors had done with the New Frontier and the New Deal, so too did Johnson believe that his “Great Society” could be used to develop the world in America’s democratic image. His greatest commitment was to Vietnam. “We can turn the Mekong into the Tennessee Valley,” he famously claimed in 1965, correlating America’s project to save and modernize Vietnam with the New Deal’s development of the impoverished American South in the 1930s.29 Johnson’s belief in America’s obligation to modernize the world then combined with his ideological conviction that communism represented the greatest threat to the American global mission.

As a consequence, the United States became embroiled in conflicts abroad and military spending grew. Johnson’s plan for a “Great Society” fell apart in the wake of his collapsed policies abroad. Young people took to the streets asking LBJ how many kids he had killed that day. Johnson’s commitments in Vietnam helped to make the maintenance of domestic order impossible. The sad irony of Johnson’s presidency was that his own political career and his noble plan to wipe out poverty in America died 11,000 miles away in the very jungles of Vietnam. Johnson embraced détente at least in part out of his hope that the Soviets might persuade Ho Chi Minh to come to the negotiating table. He also needed to normalize relations with the Soviet Union in order to deal with the anti-war and civil rights movements at home.

Détente also did not save the Soviet Union from its steady decline. Brezhnev’s primary goal both at home and abroad was the maintenance of the status quo and the retention of power. As in the United States, this meant a stabilization of relations with America alongside increasing commitments to maintain order at home and within the Soviet sphere of influence. Brezhnev embraced the notion of “developed socialism,” arguing that the communist utopia had been achieved and that by “trusting in cadres” and relying on the socioeconomic systems now in place, the Soviet people could maintain the successes they had realized. The “Brezhnev Doctrine” retroactively justified the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 by arguing that the Soviet Union had the right to defend communism whenever it was threatened. In order to pursue his policies at home and in Eastern Europe, conventional military spending exploded. But military buildup was expensive, which was made even more difficult by the precipitous decline happening in the Soviet economy. The Five Year Plans of the 1970s failed to meet targets, agricultural productivity collapsed, and long breadlines returned to the cities. A reinvigorated dissent movement emerged, and the administration found it impossible to control the underground samizdat network. As had happened with Johnson, Brezhnev’s commitments to preserve the status quo abroad made it impossible to maintain order at home.

When Richard Nixon assumed office in 1969, he and his national security adviser, Henry Kissinger, chose a different approach to détente and fighting communism. They resolved to contain the Soviet Union through the use of proxy clients—what became known as the “Nixon Doctrine.” In the policy of “Vietnamization,” Nixon and Kissinger handed over the fighting of the Vietnam War to the South Vietnamese (while actually expanding the bombing war into Laos and Cambodia). Japan would fight communism in Asia. Iran would handle containment in the Middle East. Zaire, Angola, and South Africa would contain the menace in Africa. Integral to this plan was the selling of arms to “friendly” nations in the Middle East and Africa. This policy had the long-term effect of intensifying connections of the United States to corrupt regimes around the world. Eventually, it would directly impact American domestic policy as well. Not only did oil-producing client states like Iran and Saudi Arabia repeatedly raise prices on oil exports to pay for the weapons they purchased from the United States, but these troubling policies contributed to human rights protests and the ultimate decline of détente.

Moreover, while détente normalized relations for a while, it neither solved the larger underlying problems that had caused the Cold War nor prevented antagonism from developing again. Throughout these years, the leaders of the world’s most powerful states sought to preserve the status quo, not to change or improve it. “Stability, not progress,” became the goals of détente.30 The Yom Kippur War forced a split between the American-backed Israelis and the Soviet-backed Egyptians. The Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) quadrupled the price of oil, which hurt the American stock market and created the energy crisis. The final collapse of détente happened in the Angolan civil war, where the Americans and Chinese supported the National Liberation Front of Angola (FNLA) while the Soviets and Cubans supported the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA). Nixon’s resignation in 1974 led the American Congress to hobble the American-Soviet trade agreement. Nixon’s replacement, Gerald Ford, tried to retain détente by traveling to Moscow in 1974 and initiating an outline for a SALT II treaty. In 1975, in Helsinki, Finland, thirty-five countries recognized the permanent borders of Eastern Europe. By then, however, détente had become unpopular among the American public. Many believed that a stronger stance was required to stand up to Soviet repression and involvement in places like Cuba and Angola. While the Soviets clung to the rhetoric of détente, the Americans moved away from it.

Endings and Beginnings, 1977–1991

In the late 1970s, the United States and the Soviet Union struggled to devise foreign policies that would meet the increasingly complex demands of the Cold War. The conflict was in its fourth decade, and the problems that had plagued Russian and American leaders in the 1940s still seemed unresolved. Capitalist encirclement remained a concern for Soviet leaders, while the communist menace of the “Evil Empire” persisted for Americans. Both sides continued to seek new ways to satisfy their economic needs. Both sought to control their spheres of influence and to contain the enemy while avoiding nuclear war. To some extent, institutional inertia seems to have controlled the decisions of policymakers who had lost the ability to think outside of the confines of their training.

When Jimmy Carter came to office in 1977, his muddled foreign policies toward the Soviet Union reflected the complexity of the situation. National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski urged Carter to take a relatively confrontational attitude toward Moscow. He condemned détente, criticized the SALT treaties, and argued that it was “egocentric” to believe that a nuclear war would destroy the human race.31 In contrast, Carter’s secretary of state, Cyrus Vance, believed that the creation of economic ties and a commitment to negotiation with the Soviets would bring peace and improve America’s image in the world. While Brzezinski saw the rise of new nationalities in the postcolonial world as sites for the Cold War, Vance argued that the needs of these emerging countries should be evaluated on their own terms. He was also convinced that changes in Eastern Europe would have to happen gradually and without direct confrontation. Carter’s foreign policy decisions flip-flopped between these two advisers. On the one hand, he followed Vance’s recommendations and refused to support Zaire in a war against Soviet-backed Angola. He held back from intervening in the Horn of Africa against Soviet troops, and he negotiated the Camp David Accords that ended the thirty-year war between Israel and Egypt. On the other hand, he followed Brzezinski in choosing to support the brutal regime of the Shah in Iran in order to defend American interests against the Soviets in the Middle East. He failed to follow through on his promise to include the Soviets in the negotiations for the Egyptian-Israeli peace, and he established formal diplomatic relations with China against Soviet interests. In 1979, in the midst of the Iran Hostage Crisis and rising inflation in the United States, Carter backed the dictatorial Somoza regime in Nicaragua and withdrew the SALT II agreement from the Senate (where it was about to die anyway). He initiated a massive military buildup that included constructing new bases in the Middle East and set the stage for the arms spending of the Reagan era. He declared the new Carter Doctrine, which pledged direct American intervention if the Soviets endangered Western interests in the Persian Gulf. Then, in 1980, he signed Presidential Directive 59, authorizing the buildup of new forces to fight a limited nuclear war. Relations with the Soviet Union became a casualty of these policies.

For the aging Leonid Brezhnev, this volatility ran contrary to his own desires to maintain power and stability. And yet the Soviets played their part in contributing to the collapse of détente. Throughout the 1970s, Brezhnev attempted to cultivate economic relations with the United States in order to reinvigorate the Soviet economy while also cracking down on dissenters at home. The threat of “encirclement” became real again, except that it now included Communist China. In 1979, the general secretary authorized the invasion of Afghanistan in order to retain control over the Afghan government. Within a year, 100,000 Red Army troops had been committed to the conflict. Even more than in the United States, Soviet foreign policy became inextricably tied to events at home. The Soviet economy had been in steady decline for a decade. Its production levels in heavy industry were actually higher than the United States, but the country was burdened with the costs of maintaining a large military and the bolstering of governments in Vietnam, Cuba, and Eastern Europe. Agricultural production on the collective farms was disastrous, with an embarrassing 40 percent of the country’s meat, dairy, and vegetables coming from the 3 percent of its farms that were privately owned. The famous bloat and aging of the Soviet bureaucracy meant that innovation and change were slow to happen. As a consequence, the gross national product stalled. Rising austerity and institutional inertia meant the lack of prospects for young people, a rise in alcoholism, poor medical care and work safety, and frequent abortions for women unwilling to have children in such a volatile environment. All of this contributed to an unprecedented decline in birthrates and life expectancy and an increasingly dissatisfied and disillusioned populace. It also weakened Soviet domestic foreign policy positions around the world, particularly in Eastern Europe.

When Ronald Reagan took office in 1980, few predicted the impending collapse of the Soviet Union. Reagan was committed to the direct opposition of the Soviet Union whenever and wherever possible. He rejected Nixon’s subtle policies of détente and Carter’s periodic olive branches. Instead, Reagan embraced the idea, very popular among the American public, that the source of all international conflicts could be traced back to the Soviet Union. As a consequence, Reagan expanded on Carter’s earlier military buildup, spending $1.6 trillion over five years on weaponry, aircraft, missile systems, and other materials.32 In 1983, Reagan promoted his Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), which he argued would be able to shoot Soviet missiles out of the sky (though scientists argued this was dangerous and impossible). At the core of Reagan and his advisors’ policies was the old belief that Americans had an obligation to spread capitalist democracy throughout the world. In order to reach this end, they believed that the United State as was justified in supporting brutal, nondemocratic regimes that aligned themselves with America. As Jeane Kirkpatrick, the U.S. Ambassador to the UN, put it in 1982, authoritarian regimes like that of the Shah in Iran could be bolstered as long as they were capitalists, cooperated with the United States, and had the potential for change.33 Reagan articulated this mission in the “Reagan Doctrine,” which endorsed “low-intensity conflicts” (LICs) using guerilla warfare that would counter perceived Soviet aggression without great expense and fanfare. This approach led to American interventions involving significant casualties in Beirut, Grenada, Libya, Haiti, the Philippines, Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Panama. Reagan’s foreign policing culminated in the illegal support of the Nicaraguan Contras using the proceeds from the sale of arms to Iran. Moreover, his overall defense policies greatly expanded American spending, helping to create a $1 trillion debt in the United States.

The situation was even worse in the Soviet Union. Twenty-five percent of the Soviet gross national product was being spent on unusable weapons instead of domestic development and production. For the world’s largest oil producer, dropping global petroleum prices meant economic crisis. The aging Yuri Andropov and Konstantin Chernenko, the general secretaries between 1982 and 1985, proved unable to respond to the evolving needs of the nation. They failed to pull the Red Army out of Afghanistan; Andropov refused to take responsibility for the shooting down of the Korean Airlines commercial flight 007, and in May of 1984, the Soviets boycotted the Olympics in Los Angeles. This crisis combined with a worsening domestic situation to create cultural and economic collapse across the Soviet sphere. Shortages worsened and public protest, especially among the young, grew. Ties between Moscow and its satellite states in Eastern Europe also began to fray. Hungary responded by allowing limited privatization. Meanwhile, Romania, Czechoslovakia, and East Germany clamped down further on dissent. In Poland, martial law was declared in 1981 to stem the rise of unrest. The Brezhnev Doctrine was all but dead.

During this untenable situation, the young Mikhail Gorbachev assumed the position of general secretary. A member of the new generation, Gorbachev rejected his nation’s brutal Stalinist legacy, abhorred the stagnation that had come to define his home, and understood the need to catch up technologically with the West. Despite these issues, Gorbachev was also a “true believer” who was convinced that communism, when practiced honestly, still had the ability to offer a superior way of life to its people. Gorbachev and the other reformers of his generation argued that “New Thinking” was required in order to turn the Soviet Union back to its original mission. The two prongs of this thinking involved revamping the economy so that it could reply to marketplace demands (perestroika) and fostering open dialogue about the country’s problems so that remedies could be found (glasnost).

Like Hesiod’s Pandora, Gorbachev did not understand the forces he had unleashed. The economic reforms failed to work. Productivity faltered and the breadlines lengthened. In his attempt to curb rampant alcoholism, Gorbachev tightly controlled liquor consumption, which had the unexpected effect of reducing tax income and causing a sugar shortage as people began brewing dangerous samogen in their homes. Ethnic minorities in distant provinces started to demand independence. Strikes for improved working and living conditions happened across the country. Public morale sank as people learned of the Chernobyl disaster and the government’s failure to contain it. Meanwhile, in Poland, massive strikes broke out on the streets demanding a free election and the recognition of the “Solidarity” labor union.

Gorbachev needed normalized relations with the United States, serious cuts in defense spending, and financial aid from the West if he was going to fix his ailing country. In 1985, he ushered in a new push for détente with the United States. That November, he and Reagan met in Geneva and agreed on a 50 percent cut in their strategic forces as well as a reopening of cultural ties. Eleven months later, they met again in Reykjavik, Iceland, where they agreed in principle to eliminate all intermediate-range nuclear forces and seriously discussed abolishing all nuclear weapons, beginning with eliminating the threat posed by ballistic missiles. Gorbachev then traveled to Washington in 1987 and signed another agreement with Reagan to eliminate short- and medium-range missiles. In response to these gestures, Reagan’s approach to the Soviet Union softened. He traveled to Moscow and then invited Gorbachev to America in 1988, where the general secretary announced that Soviet armed forces would soon be reduced by half a million men and 10,000 tanks. He also declared that the days of persecuting citizens for religious and political dissent had ended. Soviet dissidents and Jews emigrated in large numbers. He denounced completely the idea that the Soviet Union would sponsor communist revolutions abroad and followed through on this by supporting a brokered peace in Angola, renewing ties with China, and withdrawing from the war in Afghanistan in 1989.

The damage from these entanglements could not be erased, however. In Afghanistan in particular, the Soviet Union had spent billions of dollars, radicalized the Muslim population, and created a generation of embittered Soviet veterans. At the same time, the Reagan Doctrine had justified the funneling of over $2 billion in aid to the fundamentalist Muslim jihadists to train and fight the Soviets.

In 1989, Gorbachev called for free elections, believing that his citizenry would choose to retain communism. He then watched in dismay as the Communist Party suffered a withering defeat across Eastern Europe. As Alexei Yurchak has observed, the Soviet Union had seemed like it would go on forever, until, one day, it was no more.34 Gorbachev’s policy toward Eastern Europe became known as the “Sinatra Doctine,” which meant that each nation would be allowed to do it “my way.” Poland and Hungary moved quickly toward bold reforms, and in November 1989, the Berlin Wall fell. Among the East European nations, violence occurred only in Romania. Within the Soviet Union, fighting between Muslim Azerbaijanis and Christian Armenians in southern Russia led the newly elected American president, George H. W. Bush, to embrace a policy called “status-quo plus,” which translated to waiting and seeing how events would unfold. In December, Bush and Gorbachev met at Malta to settle lasting concerns over international communism, the German question, and the future fallout from the collapse of the Berlin Wall.

By 1990, the stage had been set for the final collapse of the Soviet Union. In the words of Vladislav Zubok, Gorbachev had become the “grave digger of Soviet power.”35 His reforms, along with his advocacy of “new thinking,” his tolerance, and his idealism had made him a favorite of the West. These policies had also ostracized him from his colleagues in the Kremlin. Throughout the late 1980s, he had refused to heed the warnings of his advisors regarding the dangers of Boris Yeltsin, who, in 1991, became the first democratically elected president of the Russian Federation. That August, while Gorbachev and his wife, Raisa, were vacationing in Crimea, members of the Politburo attempted a coup. They sought to prevent the signing of a treaty that would have turned the Soviet Union into a confederation of states. Tanks and troops took to the streets of Moscow. For three days, the Gorbachevs were prisoners in their Crimean home, hearing the news from a shortwave radio. Back in Moscow, Yeltsin took advantage of rising nationalist-separatist and anti-communist sentiments to stop the coup and seize full power of the Russian Federation. Dissidents, students, intellectuals, and professionals flocked to the Moscow city center to defend Yeltsin and the Russian parliament. Ultimately, the ministers leading the coup were unwilling to shed blood for their cause. They fled to the Crimea and handed themselves over for arrest. In the months that followed, Soviet bureaucrats and military leaders abandoned Gorbachev for Yeltsin’s camp.

On December 8, 1991, in a hunting lodge in Belarus, Yeltsin, along with the Ukrainian and Belarusian leaders of the Communist Party, agreed to disband the Soviet Union. Left with little choice, Gorbachev resigned from power on December 25. Gorbachev had assumed that the fifteen Soviet republics would remain loyal to their union and that the Soviet people would use their new freedoms to revitalize communism. Instead, he was overtaken by the very forces that he had unleashed. The Soviet flag of the hammer and sickle was lowered from the Kremlin for the last time. In February 1992, Bush and Yeltsin declared that the Cold War was over.

Or was it? In 1992, Francis Fukuyama argued that the end of the Cold War had marked the “end of history.”36 With the victories of Western liberal democracies, he contended that humanity had reached the endpoint of its sociocultural evolution and the apex of human government. His predictions reflected the hope and naiveté of the period. In reality, the collapse of the Soviet Union left behind an array of lingering problems. In the next decade, Russia experienced the near-complete destruction of its economy. Privatization led to deep corruption. The value of the Russian ruble collapsed twice. This created catastrophic unemployment rates, the rise of organized crime, a debilitating demographic crisis, and the total loss of savings for those on fixed incomes. All of these problems set the stage for the return to Russian “constitutional authoritarianism” under Vladimir Putin in the 21st century.

For the United States, the collapse of the Soviet Union led to bewilderment, frequent suspicion, and a growing willingness to intervene unilaterally as the sole superpower in the world. George H. W. Bush, facing a recession and his own re-election, refused to respond to Soviet appeals for financial assistance in the early 1990s. When Bill Clinton assumed the presidency, he pursued military and economic policies in Somalia, Mexico, China, Haiti, and the former Yugoslavia that left the United States with growing entanglements around the world. The future of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization also came into question in the years after the Cold War. For the United States, NATO remained important for the purpose of controlling European politics and security. Yet, the Cold War pretense for its existence was now gone.

Both sides had to deal with the legacy of the war they had created. They faced the specter of nuclear weapons falling in the hands of break-away nations and terrorist organizations. The Middle East was now in disarray while the Chinese trading giant presented a threat to economic growth. With the old enemy gone, conservative political parties on both sides struggled to find an antagonist against whom they could rally. Finally, both sides still carried the same concerns that had defined their foreign policies for the previous two centuries: how to create security, how to keep growing, and how to pursue their larger destinies as world leaders.

Discussion of the Literature

Scholars continue to disagree on the fault lines of American and Russian foreign policy. One of the most heated debates centers on the origins of the Cold War. In the 1950s, historians and policy analysts on both sides of the Iron Curtain made an industry of arguing that the other had been responsible for the creation of the Cold War. Orthodox American “Sovietologists” like Thomas Bailey, Samuel Bemis, George Kennan, and Herbert Feis pointed to the Soviet occupation of Eastern Europe, the failed promises of Yalta, and the aggressive nature of international communism to explain America’s policies as defensive gestures undertaken against invasive communism. At the same time, pro-Soviet scholars and policymakers like the British historian E. H. Carr (who wrote a fourteen-volume history of the Soviet Union) and The Soviet Organizer of the Cominform, Andrei Zhdanov, pointed out the historical willingness of the Americans to intervene in Russian affairs, their support of a rearmed Germany, and the intrusive aggressiveness of “capitalist encirclement” to explain their own creation of defensive buffers abroad. This remained the official Soviet narrative until 1991.

Understandings of Russian and American foreign relations evolved in the United States, however. In the 1970s a group of “revisionist” historians from the New Left argued that The Soviet Union and the United States were both responsible for the Cold War. The revisionist school emerged in the wake of William Appleman Williams’s seminal book, The Tragedy of American Diplomacy, which argued that American policy was, and had always been, motivated by the search for empire. The revisionists argued that the American policy of isolating the Soviets had played a large role in creating the Cold War and that the search for open markets had been the primary driver for U.S. strategies abroad. They rejected the premise underlying containment (that the Soviet Union was committed to the spread of world communism), claiming that the Soviet Union had been far too devastated by the Second World War to pursue expansion. They also took issue with the orthodox view of the Cold War as beginning in 1949. Walter LaFeber argued in America, Russia, and the Cold War that the conflict had its origins in trade disputes over East Asia in the 19th century. Gar Alperovitz contended that the origins of the Cold War could be traced to the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, which Truman authorized in order to intimidate the Soviets. Gabriel Kolko maintained that larger structural factors in American domestic politics and economics shaped the U.S. search for power and stability. Others, most notably Thomas McCormick, worked with World Systems Theory to claim that the American hegemonic search for global market share had spurred the Cold War and created devastating “imperial overstretch.”

In an attempt to strike a balance between the orthodox and revisionist camps, a new generation of scholars emerged who sought to find a middle ground. The most contentious of the group was John Lewis Gaddis, who, in The United States and the Origins of the Cold War, acknowledged the errors made on both sides but ultimately rejected the revisionist justifications for American policy. Gaddis’s most provocative work, We Now Know, which was published after the opening of the Soviet archives in 1991, argued that the two sides had indeed been locked in a battle between good and evil. He contended that the Soviets were bent on aggressive communism, that Stalin was unstable and paranoid, that the United States never attempted to suppress socialism in its own sphere, and that the United States intervened in the postcolonial world because it was invited in by countries seeking economic assistance and defense against the Soviet Union. In response, the University of Virginia historian Melvyn Leffler famously published a searing critique of Gaddis, “The Cold War: What Do ‘We Now Know’?” accusing his adversary of shoddy research and ideological bias. Leffler instead argued that the pursuit of power and the preservation of domestic stability shaped American policymaking first and foremost.

Out of these debates emerged the “Neo-Revisionist” historiography, which is a broad term encompassing a wide range of new inquiries into the nature of Russian and American foreign relations. This school of investigation was made possible by the opening of the Soviet archives, into which Western scholars flooded in the 1990s. Investigations into the papers of Stalin, the NKVD, and the Politburo allowed imminent Russian historians like Vladislav Zubok, Vojtech Mastny, Constantine Pleshakov, and Dmitri Volkogonov to revise our understanding of Russian and Stalinist policy. They found that while communist ideology did matter for the Soviet leadership, geographic and domestic insecurity also played prominent roles in shaping Party strategy. Recent histories have also revised how we understand the scope of Russian and American relations. Odd Arne Westad, Chen Jian, Lien-Hang Nguyen, Piero Gleijeses, Heonik Kwon, Thomas Schwartz, and Mary Sarotte have ventured into archives in Eastern Europe, Asia, Latin America, Africa, and the Middle East to show that the Cold War was not a bipolar conflict, that Soviet and American diplomats did not work in a vacuum, and that populations on the periphery were often able to control the superpowers in the center. Finally, the literature of Neo-Revisionist American and Russian foreign relations has been transformed by the introduction of cultural history and the poststructural study of discourse and power. Historians like Christian Appy, Stephen Whitfield, Christina Klein, Susan Reid, Margaret Peacock, Kiril Tomoff, and Uta Poiger (to name but a few) have argued that foreign relations cannot be understood without placing them within their larger cultural contexts and without understanding the power structures that support them.

Primary Sources

Students of Russian and American foreign relations from 1917 to 1989 should first consult the many guides and compendiums that have been published on this topic over the last forty years. These include Richard Dean Burns’s Guide to American Foreign Relations Since 1700 (1983), Thomas Hammond’s Soviet Foreign Relations and World Communism (1965), the Monthly Catalog of U.S. Government Publications, published by the U.S. Superintendent of Documents, Thomas Paterson and Bruce Jentleson’s Encyclopedia of U.S. Foreign Policy (1997), Alexander DeConde’s Encyclopedia of American Foreign Policy, 3 vols. (1978), John Findling’s Dictionary of American Diplomatic History (1980), and the Yearbook on International Communist Affairs at the Hoover Institution. Finally, a great bibliography for additional reading can be found at the end of the eighth edition of Walter LaFeber’s America, Russia, and the Cold War (1997).

Primary sources on the American side are abundant. Government publications can be found in the National Archives and Records Administration, the varying presidential libraries, the Congressional Record, the Library of Congress, the Foreign Relations of the United States (FRUS) and the Current Documents series, which are published by the U.S. Department of State, and the Presidential Public Papers. The Cold War International History Project also has a growing collection.

Russian primary sources are located for the most part in the State Archive of the Russian Federation (GARF), the Russian State Archive of Socio-Political Science (RGASPI), and the Russian State Archive of Contemporary History (RGANI). In 1991, these archives opened up completely, offering a level of access into the policymaking of the Soviet Union that was not even possible in the United States. As of 2016, access to these archives is becoming increasingly difficult, requiring special visas that are a challenge to obtain. The Hoover Institute at Stanford University also has a deep and indispensable collection.

Further Reading

Alperovitz, Gar, and D. Rogers. The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb and the Architecture of an American Myth. New York: Knopf, 1995.Find this resource:

Appy, Christian. Cold War Constructions: The Political Culture of United States Imperialism, 19451966. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2000.Find this resource:

Chen, Jian. Mao’s China and the Cold War. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001.Find this resource:

Feis, Herbert. From Trust to Terror; the Onset of the Cold War, 19451950. New York: Norton, 1970.Find this resource:

Gaddis, John Lewis. We Now Know: Rethinking Cold War History. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.Find this resource:

Gaddis, John Lewis. The Cold War: A New History. New York: Penguin Press, 2005.Find this resource:

Gleijeses, Piero. Conflicting Missions: Havana, Washington, and Africa, 19591976. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002.Find this resource:

Klein, Christina. Cold War Orientalism: Asia in the Middlebrow Imagination, 1945–1961. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004.Find this resource:

Kwon, Heonik. The Other Cold War. New York: Columbia University Press, 2010.Find this resource:

LaFeber, Walter. America, Russia, and the Cold War, 19451996. 8th ed. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1997.Find this resource:

Larson, Deborah Welch. Anatomy of Mistrust: U.S.-Soviet Relations During the Cold War. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1997.Find this resource:

Leffler, Melvyn P.A Preponderance of Power: National Security, the Truman Administration, and the Cold War. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1992.Find this resource:

Leffler, Melvyn P.“The Cold War: What Do ‘We Now Know’?”. The American Historical Review 104.2 (1999): 501–524.Find this resource:

Legvold, Robert. Russian Foreign Policy in the Twenty-First Century and the Shadow of the Past. New York: Columbia University Press, 2007.Find this resource:

Mastny, Vojtech. The Cold War and Soviet Insecurity: The Stalin Years. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.Find this resource:

Nguyen, Lien-Hang T.Hanoi’s War: An International History of the War for Peace in Vietnam. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2012.Find this resource:

Osgood, Kenneth Alan. Total Cold War: Eisenhower’s Secret Propaganda Battle at Home and Abroad. Lawrence: University of Kansas, 2006.Find this resource:

Peacock, Margaret. Innocent Weapons: The Soviet and American Politics of Childhood in the Cold War. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2014.Find this resource:

Poiger, Uta G.Jazz, Rock, and Rebels: Cold War Politics and American Culture in a Divided Germany. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000.Find this resource:

Prevots, Naima. Dance for Export: Cultural Diplomacy and the Cold War. Middletown, CT.: Wesleyan University Press, 1998.Find this resource:

Sarotte, M. E.Dealing with the Devil: East Germany, Dâetente, and Ostpolitik, 19691973. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001.Find this resource:

Saunders, Frances Stonor. The Cultural Cold War: The CIA and the World of Arts and Letters. New York: New Press, 2000.Find this resource:

Schwartz, Thomas Alan. Lyndon Johnson and Europe: In the Shadow of Vietnam. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003.Find this resource:

Suri, Jeremi. Power and Protest: Global Revolution and the Rise of Detente. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003.Find this resource:

Tomoff, Kiril. Virtuosi Abroad: Soviet Music and Imperial Competition During the Early Cold War, 19451958. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2015.Find this resource:

Volkogonov, Dmitrii Antonovich. Stalin: Triumph and Tragedy. New York: Grove Weidenfeld, 1991.Find this resource:

Von Eschen, Penny M.Satchmo Blows up the World: Jazz Ambassadors Play the Cold War. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004.Find this resource:

Westad, Odd Arne. The Global Cold War: Third World Interventions and the Making of Our Times. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005.Find this resource:

Whitfield, Stephen. The Culture of the Cold War. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1991.Find this resource:

Yurchak, Alexei. Everything Was Forever, Until It Was No More: The Last Soviet Generation. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005.Find this resource:

Zubok, Vladislav. A Failed Empire: The Soviet Union in the Cold War from Stalin to Gorbachev. Durham, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2007.Find this resource:

Zubok, Vladislav, and Konstantin Pleshakov. Inside the Kremlin’s Cold War: From Stalin to Khrushchev. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1996.Find this resource:


(1.) Thomas Riha, Readings in Russian Civilization, Vol. 2, Imperial Russia, 17001917 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1969), 306.

(2.) Alfred Erich Senn, Readings in Russian Political and Diplomatic History/2, The Soviet Period., The Dorsey Series in European History (Homewood, IL.: Dorsey, 1966), 43.

(3.) Joseph Stalin, “Report on the Work of the Central Committee to the Eighteenth Congress of the CPSU(b),” in Problems of Leninism (Moscow: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1947), 600–606.

(4.) Walter LaFeber, America, Russia, and the Cold War, 19451996, 8th ed. (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1997), 6.

(5.) U.S. Department of State, Foreign Relations of the United States, 1941, Vol. 1 (Washington, DC: U.S. Department of State, 1948), 366–368.

(6.) U.S. Department of State, Foreign Relations, 450–451.

(7.) Deborah Welch Larson, Anatomy of Mistrust: U.S.-Soviet Relations During the Cold War, Cornell Studies in Security Affairs (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1997), 5.

(8.) Winston Churchill, “Iron Curtain Speech,” New York Times, March 6, 1946, 4; Frederick C. Barhoorn, “Great Russian Messianism in Postwar Soviet Ideology,” in Continuity and Change in Russian and Soviet Thought, ed. Ernest J. Simmons and Joint Committee on Slavic Studies (U.S.) (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1955), 545–546.

(9.) George Kennan, “The Sources of Soviet Conduct,” Foreign Affairs 25 (July 1947): 575.

(10.) John Lewis Gaddis, The Cold War: A New History (New York: Penguin Press, 2005), 29.

(11.) Vojtech Mastny, The Cold War and Soviet Insecurity: The Stalin Years (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996), 32–41; and Melvyn P. Leffler, A Preponderance of Power: National Security, the Truman Administration, and the Cold War, Stanford Nuclear Age Series (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1992). See also LaFeber, America, Russia, and the Cold War, 19451996, 83.

(12.) Kermit McKenzie, “The Messianic Concept in the Third International, 1935–1939,” in Simmons, Continuity and Change in Russian and Soviet Thought, 516.

(13.) Andrei Zhdanov, “The International Situation,” in The Strategy and Tactics of World Communism (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1948), 212.

(14.) Katheryn Weathersby, Soviet Aims in Korea and the Origins of the Korean War, Working Paper No. 8, Cold War International History Project (Washington, DC: Woodrow Wilson International Center, 1993), 32.

(15.) The National Security Council, “NSC–68: United States Objectives and Programs for National Security,” April 14, 1950.

(16.) LaFeber, America, Russia, and the Cold War, 19451996, 148.

(17.) Kenneth Alan Osgood, Total Cold War: Eisenhower’s Secret Propaganda Battle at Home and Abroad (Lawrence: University of Kansas, 2006); and Frances Stonor Saunders, The Cultural Cold War: The CIA and the World of Arts and Letters (New York: New Press, 2000).

(18.) John Lewis Gaddis, We Now Know: Rethinking Cold War History (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997), 14; Robert C. Tucker, “Stalinism and the World Conflict,” Journal of International Affairs 8.1 (1954): 7–20; and Robert C. Tucker, Stalin in Power: The Revolution from Above, 19281941 (New York: Norton, 1990), 2–6.

(19.) Nikita Sergeevich Khrushchev, Bertrand Russell Peace Foundation, and TSK KPSS, The “Secret” Speech Delivered to the Closed Session of the Twentieth Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (Nottingham, U.K.: Spokesman Books for the Bertrand Russell Peace Foundation, 1976); and Dmitrii Antonovich Volkogonov, Stalin: Triumph and Tragedy (New York: Grove Weidenfeld, 1991), xxiii.

(20.) Donald Raleigh, “Languages of Power: How the Saratov Bolsheviks Imagined Their Enemies,” Slavic Review 57.2 (1998): 320–349; and Vasilii Chandler Grossman, Everything Flows, New York Review Books Classics (New York: New York Review Books, 2009).

(21.) V. M. Zubok and Konstantin Pleshakov, Inside the Kremlin’s Cold War: From Stalin to Khrushchev (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1996).

(22.) Peter Shearman, Russian Foreign Policy Since 1990 (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1995), 9.

(23.) Robert F. Byrnes, “Soviet Policy Toward Western Europe Since Stalin,” The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Sciences 303 (January 1956): 167.

(24.) Robert Legvold, Russian Foreign Policy in the Twenty-First Century and the Shadow of the Past, Studies of the Harriman Institute (New York: Columbia University Press, 2007), 412.

(25.) Penny M. Von Eschen, Satchmo Blows Up the World: Jazz Ambassadors Play the Cold War (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004).

(26.) Margaret Peacock, Innocent Weapons: The Soviet and American Politics of Childhood in the Cold War, The New Cold War History (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2014).

(27.) Naima Prevots, Dance for Export: Cultural Diplomacy and the Cold War, Studies in Dance History (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1998).

(28.) Chester L. Cooper, The Lost Crusade: America in Vietnam (New York: Dodd, Mead, 1970), 168.

(29.) The New York Times, August 27, 1966, 10.

(30.) Jeremi Suri, Power and Protest: Global Revolution and the Rise of Detente (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003), 43.

(31.) Washington Post, February 5, 1977, A10.

(32.) New York Times, June 28, 1993, A10.

(33.) Jeane J. Kirkpatrick and American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research, Dictatorships and Double Standards: Rationalism and Reason in Politics (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1982), 23–52.

(34.) Alexei Yurchak, Everything Was Forever Until It Was No More: The Last Soviet Generation (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005).

(35.) Vladislav Zubok, A Failed Empire: The Soviet Union in the Cold War from Stalin to Gorbachev (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2007), 330.

(36.) Francis Fukayama, The End of History and the Last Man (New York: Free Press, 1992).