Modern history

Ending the Cold War



As secretary of state, George Pratt Shultz presided over the end of the Cold War. A skilled mediator, Shultz believed in the brand of hard-nosed diplomacy practiced by Henry Kissinger during the Nixon administration, asserting that "negotiations are a euphemism for capitulation if the shadow of power is not cast across the bargaining table." After graduating from Princeton with an economics degree in 1942, the twenty-two-year-old Shultz joined the Marine Corps and served in the Pacific during World War II. Three years later, Captain Shultz returned home, got married, and earned a Ph.D. in industrial economics. Shultz taught at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of Chicago and published several books on labor and wage issues.

In 1955 he joined President Eisenhower's Council of Economic Advisors, the first of many government posts he would fill.

Known for his judicious temperament and bipartisanship, Shultz, a Republican, served under Democratic presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, as well as Republican president Richard Nixon, who appointed him secretary of labor. With Nixon's resignation in 1974, Shultz left government for the corporate world.

In 1982 Shultz returned to Washington to serve as President Ronald Reagan's secretary of state. Like Reagan, Shultz believed that the United States needed to reassert itself as a global power and rebound from the insecurity and self-doubt that followed the Vietnam War. The president believed that a tough approach would bring peace, and he revived the fiery rhetoric and military preparedness of the darkest days of the Cold War. As a seasoned economist, Shultz doubted that the Soviet Union was financially able to sustain its military strength, and his predictions proved correct. Faced with an escalating arms race, a fresh group of Soviet leaders decided to pursue peaceful relations, a decision that had great repercussions for the internal structure of the Soviet Union and the nations subject to its control.

While President Reagan and Secretary of State Shultz advocated confrontation with the Soviet Union, Barbara Deming challenged their efforts and devoted her life to promoting peace in a far different manner. She was born in 1917, three years earlier than Shultz, to a middle-class family living in New York City. Deming attended Quaker schools before graduating from Bennington College with a degree in theater and literature. She became an outspoken proponent of nuclear disarmament, feminism, civil rights, and pacifism. Her radical political beliefs and her recognition that she was a lesbian at the age of sixteen placed her outside the social and cultural mainstream. She lived in a women's commune and mobilized heterosexual and gay women to demonstrate for peaceful coexistence with the Soviet Union.

In the 1980s, Deming applied her nonviolent, pacifist beliefs against Reagan and Shultz's muscular approach to fighting the Cold War. "We can put more pressure on the antagonist for whom we show human concern," Deming argued. As part of a worldwide campaign against the deployment of nuclear weapons, she joined the Women's Encampment for a Future of Peace and Justice, which opened in western New York in 1983 next to an army depot that stored nuclear missiles. On July 30, 1983, Deming led a march of seventy-five women from the camp into the small town of Waterloo. "Four miles into our walk," she recalled, "our way was blocked by several hundred townspeople brandishing American flags and chanting, 'Commies, go home!'" The marchers then sat down in the style of nonviolent protest and engaged their opponents in dialogue to no avail, as the police arrested Deming and fifty-three other protesters. Demonstrations continued throughout the rest of the summer, inspiring protests in other American communities and throughout Europe.

THE AMERICAN HISTORIES of George Shultz and Barbara Deming were shaped in profound ways by decades of conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union. Both Shultz and Deming believed that the conflict was one of the defining issues of their times, and both were convinced that their approach was the best way to achieve lasting global peace.

The Cold War that Shultz and Deming were dedicated to ending underwent significant changes in the decades following the Nixon administration’s reduction of tensions with the Soviet Union. In the late 1970s, President Jimmy Carter emphasized the moralistic diplomacy of human rights, but by the end of his term he had increased the size of the U.S. military in response to Soviet aggression in Afghanistan. His successor, Ronald Reagan, employed harsher rhetoric and accelerated the military buildup begun under Carter. However, Reagan would have been far less successful had it not been for the willingness of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to join him in ending the Cold War. With the ultimate collapse of the Soviet Union and its empire, the United States became the world’s sole superpower. At the same time, the United States had to operate in an increasingly globalized world. Embracing new challenges, the United States tested its strength in Central America, the Middle East, and the Persian Gulf.

President Ronald Reagan greets a baby held by Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev during a visit to Moscow, 1988. AP Photo/ira Schwartz

Carter’s Diplomacy, 1977-1980

Drawing on the foreign policies of Gerald Ford and Richard Nixon, President Jimmy Carter sought to negotiate with the Soviets over arms reduction while at the same time challenging them to do more to protect human rights. In practice, Carter found this balancing act difficult to sustain, and despite his desire to find ways to cooperate with the Soviets, relations between the superpowers deteriorated over the course of his term in office. Trouble in the Persian Gulf also added to the Carter administration’s woes.

The Perils of Détente

Carter made human rights a cornerstone of his foreign policy, and he was vocal in his criticism of the Soviet Union for violating the human rights requirements of the Helsinki accords that President Ford and Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev had signed in 1975. His emphasis on human rights extended to other regimes as well. Unlike previous presidents who had supported dictatorial governments as long as they were anti-Communist, Carter intended to hold such regimes to a higher moral standard. Thus the Carter administration cut off military and economic aid to repressive regimes in Argentina, Uruguay, and Ethiopia. Still, Carter was not entirely consistent in his application of moral standards to diplomacy. Important U.S. allies around the world such as the Philippines, South Korea, and South Africa were hardly models of democracy, but national security concerns kept the president from severing ties with them.

One way that Carter tried to set an example of responsible moral leadership was by signing an agreement to return control of the Panama Canal Zone to Panama at the end of 1999. The treaty that President Theodore Roosevelt negotiated in 1903 gave the United States control over this ten-mile piece of Panamanian land forever (see chapter 20). Panamanians resented this affront to their sovereignty, and Carter considered the occupation as a vestige of colonialism. Conservative critics viewed the transfer of land as a sign of weakness, but after extended debate the Senate ratified the treaty to relinquish the canal.

The president’s pursuit of détente, or the easing of tensions, with the Soviet Union was less successful. In 1978 the Carter administration extended full diplomatic recognition to the People’s Republic of China. Abandoning the United States’ traditional ally of Taiwan, Carter sought to drive a greater wedge between China and the Soviet Union. Nevertheless, Carter did not give up on cooperation with the Soviets. In June 1979, Carter and Brezhnev signed SALT II, a new strategic arms limitation treaty. Six months later, however, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan to bolster its pro-Communist Afghan regime. President Carter viewed this action as a violation of international law and a threat to Middle East oil supplies and persuaded the Senate to drop consideration of SALT II. To counter Soviet aggression in Afghanistan, Carter obtained from Congress a 5 percent increase in military spending. The Carter administration also reduced grain sales to the USSR and led a boycott of the 1980 Olympic Games in Moscow to punish the Soviet Union for its invasion of Afghanistan.

Of perhaps the greatest long-term importance was President Carter’s decision to authorize the CIA to provide covert military and economic assistance to Afghan rebels resisting the Soviet invasion. Chief among these groups were the mujahideen, or warriors who wage jihad. Although portrayed as freedom fighters, these Islamic fundamentalists (including a group known as the Taliban) did not support democracy in the Western sense, and many of them were dedicated to creating a theocratic Islamic nation in Afghanistan. Among the mujahideen who received assistance from the United States was Osama bin Laden, a Saudi Arabian Islamic fundamentalist.

In ordering these CIA operations, Carter ignored recent revelations about questionable intelligence practices. Responding to presidential excesses stemming from the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal, the Senate had held hearings in 1975 into clandestine CIA and FBI activities at home and abroad. Led by Frank Church of Idaho, the Senate Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities (known as the Church Committee) issued reports revealing that both intelligence agencies had illegally spied on Americans and that the CIA had fomented revolution abroad, contrary to the provisions of its charter. Despite the Church Committee’s findings, Carter revived some of these murky practices to combat the Soviets in Afghanistan.

Challenges in the Middle East

Before President Carter attempted to restrain the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, he did have some notable diplomatic successes. Five years after the 1973 Yom Kippur War (see chapter 27), with relations between Israel and its Arab neighbors in a deadlock, Carter invited the leaders of Israel and Egypt to the United States. Following two weeks of discussions in September 1978 at the presidential retreat at Camp David, Maryland, Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin and Egyptian president Anwar Sadat reached an agreement on a “framework for peace.” For the first time in its history, Egypt would extend diplomatic recognition to Israel in exchange for Israel’s agreement to return the Sinai peninsula to Egypt, which Israel had captured and occupied since 1967. Carter facilitated Sadat’s acceptance of the Camp David accords by promising to extend foreign aid to Egypt. The treaty, however, left unresolved controversial issues between Israelis and Arabs concerning the establishment of a Palestinian state and control of Jerusalem.

Whatever success Carter had in promoting peace in the Middle East suffered a serious setback in the Persian Gulf nation of Iran. In 1953 the CIA helped overthrow Iran’s democratically elected president, replacing him with a monarch and staunch ally, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the shah of Iran. For more than two decades, the shah ruled Iran with U.S. support, seeking to construct a modern, secular state allied with the United States. In doing so, he used repressive measures against Islamic fundamentalists, deploying his secret police to imprison, torture, and exile dissenters. The shah’s lavish lifestyle stood in contrast to the poverty of most Iranians, and in 1979 revolutionary forces headed by Ayatollah Ruholla Khomeini, an Islamic fundamentalist exiled by the shah, overthrew his government. Khomeini intended to end the growing secularism in Iran and reshape the nation according to strict Islamic law.

When the deposed shah needed treatment for terminal cancer, President Carter invited him to the United States for medical assistance as a humanitarian gesture, despite warnings from the Khomeini government that it would consider this invitation a hostile action. On November 4, 1979, the ayatollah ordered fundamentalist Muslim students to seize the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and hold its fifty-two occupants hostage until the United States returned the shah to Iran to stand trial. Rather than submit to this violation of international law, President Carter retaliated by freezing all Iranian assets in American banks, breaking off diplomatic relations, and imposing a trade embargo. Carter’s response did nothing to free the hostages, and the cutoff of Iranian oil shipments contributed to a 130 percent increase in the price of gasoline in the United States. For most Americans, the oil embargo meant shortages and high gas prices. In response, Khomeini incited Iranian nationalism by denouncing the United States as “the Great Satan.” As the impasse dragged on and with the presidential election of 1980 fast approaching, Carter became desperate. After a failed U.S. rescue attempt, Khomeini’s guards separated the hostages, making any more rescue efforts impossible. Further humiliating the president, Khomeini released the hostages on January 20, 1981, the inauguration day of Carter’s successor, Ronald Reagan.

Despite good intentions and some notable achievements, Jimmy Carter left office with many of his foreign policy objectives unfulfilled. His administration was inconsistent in its approach to the Soviet Union, with attempts at improving relations, as evidenced in the SALT II talks, undermined by moral outrage at the Soviets for invading Afghanistan. The Camp David accords marked a high point of Carter’s diplomatic efforts; however, his policies satisfied neither liberals nor conservatives in the United States, and the Iran fiasco helped ensure Carter’s defeat in 1980 (see chapter 27).


• How did Carter's foreign policy differ from that of Ford and Nixon?

• How did events in Afghanistan and Iran undermine the Carter administration?

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