A new book by two Brookings Institution scholars declares that the threat of war with Russia remains high and that the Soviet Union still poses the greatest danger to the security of the United States. The appearance of the study suggested that the period of “detente” between America and the Soviet Union was nearing its end.
Since the end of World War II, the United States and the Soviet Union had been locked in a contest for world power known as the Cold War. During the early 1970s, however, the administration of President Richard Nixon began to pursue a policy of “detente”-literally a lessening of tensions–toward the Russians. This was a policy strongly supported by both Richard Nixon and National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger, and their diplomatic overtures to the Soviet Union were climaxed by a summit meeting in Moscow that both attended in May 1972. At the meeting, the SALT-I agreement was signed, setting limits on a variety of nuclear weapons.
By 1976, however, the spirit of detente seemed to have evaporated. Since the SALT-I agreement, the United States grappled with its humiliating defeat in Vietnam, hostilities continued to simmer in the Middle East, and Africa (particularly Angola) was becoming a new site of Cold War confrontations between the United States and the Soviet Union. In light of this change, the publication of the book Setting National Priorities in September 1976, by Brookings Institution scholars Henry Owen and Charles Schultze was not entirely surprising. Owen and Schultze argued that the Soviet Union remained “determined to continue to dominate Eastern Europe and to extend its influence in the world, whatever we may do.” The arms race, they declared, would continue. Their conclusion was definite: “The worst threat to our well-being remains what it has been ever since World War II–a clash between U.S. and Soviet armed forces.” Only increased defense spending could protect the United States from disaster.
Throughout the late 1970s and early 1980s, the last vestiges of detente continued to evaporate. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, a successful Marxist revolution in Nicaragua, and the election of Ronald Reagan–who declared that the Soviet Union was an “evil empire”–were all signs that the Cold War was back in full swing. It was not until Mikhail Gorbachev took power in Russia and reawakened the dormant policy of detente in the mid-1980s that U.S.-Soviet relations notably improved.