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Global Competition and the Deterioration of U.S.-Soviet Relations, 1977-1980

Third World Competition Damaged Superpower Relations at Pivotal Moment, According to a 1995 Conference of Former Decision-Makers

National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book No. 402

Posted - November 12, 2012

Edited by Svetlana Savranskaya and Malcolm Byrne

For more information contact:
202/994-7000 or nsarchiv@gwu.edu

Related Archive Postings

National Security Archive Russian Page: "Brezhnev Era" posting

The Carter-Brezhnev Project


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Washington, D.C., November 12, 2012 – The U.S.-Soviet rivalry in the Third World created splits within the Carter administration and fundamental confusion in the Kremlin over the nature of U.S. motives to such a degree that they helped bring about the collapse of superpower detente, according to documents and transcripts from a conference of former high-level American-Russian policy-makers published today by the National Security Archive. This posting, the second installment of the Carter-Brezhnev project, coincides with the 30th anniversary of the passing of one of the key figures of that era.

The materials–from a conference held in 1995–address issues of global superpower competition during the Carter administration, specifically the conflicts in sub-Saharan Africa, the Horn of Africa, the Middle East, Latin America, as well as Eastern Europe.

Thirty years ago (November 10), in the Soviet Union, an era ended with the death of General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev, who ruled the country for 18 years. His name was associated with détente and the Helsinki process internationally, but also with the invasion of Afghanistan. Domestically, he presided over a period of stagnation, but it was also a time of unprecedented peace and stability. Inside the Carter and later Reagan administrations, analysts and politicians were busy discussing numerous rumors of Brezhnev's death and trying to foresee the Soviet leadership transition after his passing.

While détente (razryadka) was the core of Brezhnev's foreign policy and legacy, during the period of the Carter administration, the Soviet Union was actively engaged in the global competition with the United States on several continents though its proxies. "SALT was buried in the sands of Ogaden, the sands that divide Somalia from Ethiopia," [1] in the words of Carter's National Security Adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski. The irony of this phrase was in the fact that the Horn of Africa was not seen as crucially important by either side, but it dragged down the key arms control treaty, which was the cornerstone of détente, and ultimately undermined the relationship in such a way that the invasion of Afghanistan became possible.

The mass of documents, which became available as a result of the National Security Archive's multi-year project with Brown University show that the Soviets got involved in Third World conflicts in the 1970s opportunistically, and sometimes even reluctantly, often with the Cuban "tail" wagging the Soviet "dog." They were not following any kind of master plan to expand their influence toward the region of the Persian Gulf and sub-Saharan Africa. However, they were sensitive to appeals for assistance from leaders of developing countries, or political factions within them, which proclaimed themselves socialist and were using the rhetoric of proletarian internationalism. During this period the specter of China was always in the background. Once the Soviets became committed to a country or a movement among the non-aligned states, it was hard to extricate themselves from the partisan struggle because their reputation as the leader of the communist movement, and specifically their rivalry with Beijing, would have been damaged.

The U.S. documents provide support to what Amb. Thomas Pickering and Gen. William Odom formulated at the conference at Fort Lauderdale-that the Carter administration was deeply split on the issue of dealing with the Soviet Union, or even that there were two Carter administrations. One part, personified by Secretary of State Cyrus Vance, believed in cooperation with the USSR and in not linking Third World crises with progress on SALT. The other side, identified with National Security Adviser Brzezinski saw the Soviet moves in Africa as signs of an aggressive master plan to take over U.S. spheres of interest in the Middle East and elsewhere, and thus believed in standing firm and punishing the Soviets for such encroachments. This fascinating debate within the Carter administration, which ended with Vance's resignation is well-documented in the conference transcript and in the numerous memos from Vance and Brzezinski to the President.

On the Soviet side [see the Russian page for the "Brezhnev Era" collection], there is much less evidence of any differences within the Brezhnev inner circle regarding relations with the Carter administration. There is rather evidence of the growing sense of confusion over the Carter administration's motives and a concern that it was intentionally undermining détente and trying to push the Soviet Union out of the strategically important regions. The Soviets were stunned by the Carter team's turnaround and refusal to partner with the Soviets on the Middle East, its playing of the China card, the ratcheting up of confrontation over the Horn of Africa, and encouragement of unrest in Poland.

The Soviet Foreign Ministry was convinced that the blown-out-of-proportion issue of the Soviet brigade in Cuba in 1979 was designed by the Carter administration to embarrass Cuba on the eve of the non-aligned movement summit in Havana. And of course, all these policies were combined with the constant irritant of Carter's principled stance on human rights, denouncing Brezhnev's treatment of his country's dissidents. When Carter accused Brezhnev of violating the Helsinki Final Act, it went to the very heart of the legacy that Brezhnev so desired and so was perceived as intentionally hostile and destructive.

These documents and the transcript from the Fort Lauderdale conference of the Carter-Brezhnev project provide an illuminating case study of how two administrations with the same common goal, which was within reach when Jimmy Carter became President in 1977, were blinded by mutual misperceptions and lack of empathy and thus ended up with an almost complete breakdown of the relationship and a much more dangerous world four years later.


Supplemental Documents

Since the Ft. Lauderdale conference, a significant number of additional U.S. documents have become available through the Freedom of Information Act and through declassification actions by the Jimmy Carter Library and Museum, among other agencies. The following selections are provided for reader interest as a supplement to the materials compiled for the Carter-Brezhnev project.

Document 1: Christopher Memorandum for Carter, August 24, 1977

Document 2: Christopher Memorandum for Carter, August 27, 1977

Document 3: Morning Intelligence Summary for Brzezinski, May 21, 1978

Document 4: Vance Memorandum for Carter, July 10, 1978

Document 5: Vance Memorandum for Carter, July 22, 1978

Document 6: Memorandum for Brzezinski on Soviet-Cuban Relations, September 15, 1978

Document 7: Brzezinski Daily Report for Carter, March 5, 1979

Document 8: Christopher Memorandum for Carter, August 1, 1979

Document 9: Vance Memorandum for Carter, August 13, 1979

Document 10: Vance Memorandum for Carter, September 6, 1979

Document 11: Vance Memorandum for Carter, October 1, 1979

Document 12: Christopher Memorandum for Carter, October 3, 1979

Document 13: Vance Memorandum for Carter, October 24, 1979

Document 14: Christopher Memorandum for Carter, October 26, 1979

Document 15: Christopher Memorandum for Carter, November 1, 1979

Document 16: Christopher Memorandum for Carter, November 5, 1979

Document 17: Vance Memorandum for Carter, November 12, 1979

Document 18: Vance Memorandum for Carter, November 15, 1979

Document 19: Minutes of National Security Council Meeting, January 2, 1980

Document 20: Brzezinski Daily Report for Carter, March 1, 1980

Document 21: Brzezinski Daily Report for Carter, June 17, 1980

Document 22: Brzezinski Daily Report for Carter, July 2, 1980

Document 23: Brzezinski Daily Report for Carter, October 7, 1980

Document 24: Brzezinski Daily Report for Carter, October 29, 1980



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