What happens when relations between superpowers descend from optimism to suspicion, then pessimism, and finally to outright hostility - all within just a few years? What if both sides have the best intentions and endeavor to engage each other actively in hopes of achieving meaningful arms control and stable bilateral relations - both necessary ingredients for guaranteeing global peace? What if the central dialogue in the relationship is about strategic issues and nuclear weapons, but other concerns (such as human rights) continually get in the way? What was the significance of these developments for the future?

Twenty years ago, in 1992, these were the kinds of questions posed by a group of scholars, led by James Blight and janet Lang, in connection with the dizzying decline in relations between the United States and the Soviet Union which took place in the late 1970s. Their aim was to elicit answers to these puzzles and to draw from them lessons that policy-makers, scholars and members of the public could put to fruitful use in the context of subsequent events.

Twenty years later, long after the end of the Cold War, many of the issues that bubbled up in the troubled U.S.-Soviet relationship under the leadership of Jimmy Carter and Leonid Brezhnev seem to be much in evidence. Deep mistrust persists within certain circles in both Washington and Moscow. Nuclear weapons stockpiles are just as massive in destructive power and continue to generate perceptions of threat. And, just as before, even though the leaders of the U.S. and Russia say they want relations to improve, significant complications continue to deflect intentions. This the case, for example, with the so-called Magnitsky bill, which roughly speaking is to corruption what the Jackson-Vanik Amendment was to human rights in the 1970s, or U.S. plans for deployment of missile defense on the territory of NATO allies in Eastern Europe, or Russian repressive measures directed against civil society groups, or the two countries' differences over the current crisis in Syria or the earlier U.S.-led multilateral intervention in Libya – both longtime Russian allies – to name just a few of the current irritants.

Starting in the early 1990s, the Carter-Brezhnev Project brought together not only policy veterans from the U.S. and USSR, but scholars from several institutions, with three main sponsors - the Watson Institute at Brown University, the National Security Archive, and the Norwegian Nobel Institute. The Carter Presidential Center and Jimmy Carter himself supported the project and provided documents, while numerous other institutions and individuals contributed as well.

The project produced five international conferences. The initial exploratory gathering took place at the Rockefeller Conference Center in Pocantico Hills, NY, on 22-24 October 1992, and was entitled "The Collapse of Detente: The Launch of the Carter-Brezhnev Project." The main substantive sessions were as follows:

The Carter-Brezhnev Project employed a unique research method pioneered by Blight and Lang, which had already produced spectacular results through conferences on the Cuban Missile Crisis. "Critical oral history" conferences bring together veterans of the events from both sides of the Cold War fence, documents from the archives of former antagonists, and international scholars who study those events. Extensive "briefing books" of documents are compiled before each conference and sent to every participant to review and refresh their memories. After each conference, a complete transcript of the dialog is made. These materials constitute a treasure trove for historians.

The Carter-Brezhnev Project focused on three elements: errors made by policy-makers, opportunities missed and lessons learned. Together with scholars, and on the basis of extensive primary sources, the veterans described their thinking at the time and the reasons for their actions. They also talked about roads not taken. In these transcripts the voices of Cyrus Vance, Zbigniew Brzezinski, former Defense Secretary Harold Brown, former CIA Director Stansfield Turner, and others can be heard speaking directly with their ex-Soviet counterparts &nsdash; Deputy Foreign Minister Kornienko, Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin, as well as other senior diplomats, ex-KGB, and military officers.

As project organizers Jim Blight and janet Lang put it in their Journal of Cold War Studies article (included on this site): "No period in the history of the Cold War exceeded the late 1970s in the figurative distance between the stated objectives of the leaders of the United States and the Soviet Union and the actual outcome of their efforts." This project is an attempt to explain how that set of circumstances came to be.