Your browser (Internet Explorer 7 or lower) is out of date. It has known security flaws and may not display all features of this and other websites. Learn how to update your browser.

X

Soft Power in a Cold War: Challenges of Reaching out to the Soviets

The “Iron Curtain” was a term used to denote the efforts of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics to block its citizens from contact with the West. It persisted from the end of World War II until the end of the Cold War. Throughout those decades, the U.S. endeavored to breach the Curtain and reach out to Soviet society through radio, exchanges, exhibits and other forms of public diplomacy.

The U.S. Voice of America (VOA), launched during the Second World War as a radio program to explain America’s policies and raise the morale of U.S. allies, continued after the Allied Victory to make information available to listeners throughout the world. VOA began its first Russian-language radio broadcasts into the Soviet Union on February 17, 1947 with the words: “Hello! This is New York calling,” The programs contained news, entertainment, educational features and music. A Harvard University study estimated that 28 million people in the Soviet Union tuned in at least once a week. Read more

The 1991 Coup Against Mikhail Gorbachev

In August 1991, hard-line members of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) who opposed President Mikhail Gorbachev’s reforms and decentralization of government powers tried to overthrow him. The short-lived coup attempt is considered pivotal in the rise of Boris Yeltsin and the eventual breakup of the USSR. The attempt took place at a dacha in the Crimea, when several high-level officials demanded that Gorbachev resign from power or declare a state of emergency. When he refused, they put him under house arrest, shut down communication lines which were controlled by the KGB, and posted additional guards at the gates to stop anyone from leaving.

Gorbachev had tried to liberalize Soviet economic policies, moving from a state-controlled to free market approach, and to democratize the communist political system. He also advocated warmer relations with the United States, winning the respect of President Ronald Reagan. His initiatives were seen less positively by opponents in the USSR; some felt he was driving the Soviet Union to second-class status, others felt the reforms were not far-reaching enough. Among them, Yeltsin resigned from the Communist Party in protest, yet he opposed the coup against Gorbachev and called on the Russian people to demonstrate against it. They filled the streets by the thousands, and the coup failed, but Gorbachev would resign by the end of the year in part because of the attempt with Yeltsin emerging as leader of the state of Russia. Read more

Basketball: the Fifth Basket of the Helsinki Final Act

The Helsinki Final Act, an agreement signed by 35 nations at the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) on August 1, 1975, addressed a spectrum of global problems and had a lasting impact on U.S.-Soviet relations. The Helsinki Final Act dealt with a variety of issues divided into four “baskets.” The first basket dealt with political and military issues, the second economic issues, trade and scientific cooperation. The third basket emphasized human rights, and the fourth formalized procedures for implementing the agreements.

The multilateral negotiations were stressful and demanding. In this case, one means of reaching decisions on the four baskets came in the form of basketball. But just as in the case of diplomacy, in basketball you can run across “ringers”  – people whose abilities may not be readily apparent. Not everyone knew that Soumi – Finland – had its share of athletic diplomats who could make a lay up. Jonathan Greenwald, who served as the Legal Advisor to the U.S. Mission in West Berlin from 1973-1977, highlighted the role that basketball played in bringing together different delegations during the negotiating process of the Helsinki Final Act, in an interview with Raymond Ewing in March 1998. Read more

Negotiating the Limited Test Ban Treaty (LTBT)

Due to rising concern about radioactive fallout from increasingly big nuclear tests underwater, in space, in the atmosphere and underground, as well as concern over the burgeoning arms race between NATO and Warsaw Pact countries, the US, UK, and USSR decided to negotiate a test-ban treaty. These concerns became more pronounced after the United States successfully tested a hydrogen bomb and a thermonuclear device with the power of eight megatons of TNT in November 1952, and 15 megatons later on, and when the U.S.S.R. detonated a 50-megaton nuclear warhead, deliverable by a bomber, in October 1961.

Diplomatic exchanges went through 1959 and 1960, and in-person negotiations continued until 1963, when five Warsaw Pact countries, five NATO countries, and eight non-aligned countries met in Geneva to hammer out the details of what would become the Limited (or Partial) Test Ban Treaty). Initially, the Soviet Union proposed a testing ban along with a disarmament agreement dealing with both conventional and nuclear weapon systems. It was only later during 1959 and into the early 1960s that the United States, the United Kingdom, and the Soviet Union agreed to detach a general agreement on nuclear disarmament from a ban on nuclear weapons testing.

The Soviet Union  agreed only to a testing ban with no verification regime or protocols. The United States and United Kingdom insisted on intrusive, inspection-based control systems as a means to verify compliance. On the other hand, the U.S.S.R. held the position that surveillance and seismic detection equipment operated from outside the boundaries of any signatory was adequate to verify compliance. The Western Powers thought that any agreement not subject to a control system rigorous enough to verify compliance would set a bad precedent in nuclear arms control for future agreements. Read more

Chipping Away at Czechoslovak Communism: The Helsinki Final Act and Charter 77

The Solidarity Movement. Perestroika and Glasnost. The fall of the Berlin Wall. All of these movements, policies, or events had a tremendous influence on the dissolution of communism in Eastern Europe and the end of the Cold War. While not attributed the same attention and certainly less well known, many diplomats operating behind the Iron Curtain recognized that the Helsinki Final Act, signed August 1, 1975, was a crucial step towards the fall of communism.

The final product of the Conference on Security and Co-Operation in Europe [CSCE] in 1975, the Helsinki Final Act produced a series of principles intended to guide relations between the thirty-five participating states. Of most crucial importance was the “Third Basket”, the portion of the agreement that dealt with human rights principles.

Much to the surprise of the Soviet Union, many throughout the Warsaw Pact countries took these human rights provisions very seriously and ultimately resulted in the formation of dissident groups. Operating in Czechoslovakia, the most formidable of these groups was known as Charter 77. Despite government crackdowns, Charter 77 wielded a considerable amount of influence over the fall of the communist regime in Czechoslovakia. Read more

Establishing an Escape Network in Post-War Hungary

Throughout most of World War II, Hungary operated in conjunction with the Axis Powers and actively contributed to the Nazi war effort under the leadership of Miklós Horthy. While invading Soviet troops had pushed out the occupying German forces by April 1945, the newly established Russian presence quickly posed a precarious threat to Hungarian stability and sovereignty.

Hungary was rattled by internal political strife after the war up until the establishment of the Hungarian People’s Republic in 1949. While the Social Democratic Party and the Smallholders’ Party briefly held power under Prime Minister Ferenc Nagy, the political environment quickly became volatile after Soviet intervention propelled the Hungarian Communist Party to power in 1947. Correspondingly, those whose political inclinations failed to meet state expectations became potential targets of the government. Read more

The Siberian Seven: Escaping Religious Persecution in the U.S.S.R.

From its inception, the Soviet Union became the first state in the world to actively attempt to eliminate religion from society. Religion was viewed by Soviet leadership as counter-intuitive to scientific reason and as a threat to the consolidation and exertion of state power. Correspondingly, under Soviet religious policy, tens of thousands of houses of worship were closed, spiritual leaders were exiled and persecuted, and the faithful were subject to harassment.

While the Kremlin targeted all religious organizations, Pentecostalism, a strain of evangelical Protestantism that had accumulated a small but rapidly expanding base throughout the twentieth century, was considered particularly problematic. Believers were known to receive twenty-year sentences during the gulag period, while many were committed to mental hospitals in the years following the Second World War. Read more

Anatomy of an Overthrow: How an African Leader was Toppled

A council of combined security forces known as the Derg staged a coup d’état on September 12, 1974 against Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie I, arresting and imprisoning the monarch who had ruled for decades. The committee renamed itself the Provisional Military Administrative Council, took control of the government, soon abolished the monarchy and established Marxism-Leninism as Ethiopia’s ideology. Emperor Haile Selassie died in August 1975; some believe his political successor, Mengistu Haile Mariam, was complicit in his death.

Why oust someone who led his country for 45 years and who millions of Rastafarians revered as a messianic figure? Conditions for the take-over began with the Selassie regime’s failure to undertake economic and political reforms, along with inflation, corruption and drought-related famine in northeastern provinces, so that military unrest quickly spread to the civilian population and ignited a nation-wide revolution. There was general resistance to Selassie’s reign because of an array of grievances including higher fuel prices, curriculum changes in the schools, low teachers’ salaries, poor working conditions in general and the need for land reform. Read more

“The Cold War Was Truly Over” — The 1986 Reykjavik Summit

After the 1985 Geneva Summit, where President Ronald Reagan and leader of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev, met for the first time, the Reykjavik Summit, held on October 11-12, 1986, presented an opportunity to try to reach an agreement between the two sides on arms control. While Gorbachev wanted to ban all ballistic missiles and limit the talks to arms control, Reagan wanted to continue to work on the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) and sought to include talks on human rights, the emigration of Soviet Jews and dissidents, and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

Though ultimately a failure, the Reykjavik Summit changed the relationship between the United States and the USSR, and provided a platform for a continuing dialogue between the two countries. It eventually resulted in the 1987 signing of the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF), and is often cited as the end of the Cold War. Read more

“The Wild West” — Peshawar and the Afghan Mujahedeen

In the late 1970s, the USSR had been supporting the Afghan government in its fight against rebels, who had made considerable inroads and controlled territory outside Afghanistan’s major cities. Determined to squash a growing threat, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan on December 24, 1979. Soviet troops and swarms of helicopters overthrew the government, which Moscow believed had contributed to the instability, and installed a pro-Soviet government, forcing millions of Afghanis into refugee camps in neighboring Pakistan and Syria.

However, the Soviet military faced significant resistance from a group of highly motivated fighters called the mujahedeen, literally “one engaged in Jihad.” The Islamic fighters fought the Soviets aggressively and attracted the attention of the United States, most famously Texas Congressman Charlie Wilson, whose work on the issue became the subject of the book and movie Charlie Wilson’s War. Most famously, he successfully fought to give the mujahedeen Stinger surface-to-air missiles, which proved to be very effective against Soviet helicopters. The Soviets eventually withdrew their forces from Afghanistan in 1989, in what has widely been deemed “Russia’s Vietnam.” Read more