The 1975 Helsinki Final Act, which was the concluding document of the three-year Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) and contained far-reaching agreements on political borders, military confidence-building measures, trade, and human rights norms, has often been described as the “high point of détente.” It was a key diplomatic turning point in the Cold War, as over time the Helsinki Final Act spurred the development of a transnational network committed to its implementation and inspired popular movements against the communist regimes.1 Yet initially the agreement proved to be controversial in the United States, as the Soviets claimed triumph in its wake and both the Western press and the American public interpreted the agreement negatively. The principal line of criticism was that the agreement served Soviet, not American, objectives; many critics incorrectly believed that the Helsinki Final Act formally recognized the Soviet annexation of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania and acquiesced to Soviet domination of Eastern Europe.2 Opposition to the Helsinki Final Act in many ways echoed the broader debate within the United States about détente with the Soviet Union, as critics argued that the United States was giving away too much without securing sufficient concessions in return. Hostility mounted in the spring and early summer of 1975 as the CSCE negotiations concluded, with United States President Gerald Ford coming under considerable public pressure not to attend the signing ceremony in Helsinki. Nevertheless, Ford traveled to Finland to affix his signature to the controversial document, believing his presence was important for allied unity and Soviet–American détente. The White House, however, failed to manage the controversy deftly, which politically damaged Ford's presidency and contributed to his electoral defeat in 1976.
Scholars have increasingly focussed on the CSCE negotiations that produced the Helsinki Final Act, on the meetings that followed to review its implementation, and on the agreement's long-term influence in Europe, but there has been limited examination of domestic responses to the agreement.3 Understanding the sources of opposition to the Helsinki Final Act in the United States illuminates the potential conflict between foreign-policy formulation and domestic politics and reflects the Ford administration's inability to explain its support for the agreement to the American public. Furthermore, the controversy engendered by the Helsinki Final Act illustrates how contentious Cold War politics remained even in an era of supposed détente with the Soviet Union and demonstrates the extent to which the pact's long-term benefits were unforeseen by participants at the time.
The initial impetus for the CSCE was a 1954 Soviet proposal, but momentum did not develop in support of a European security conference until the late 1960s. The CSCE negotiations were not a high priority for Richard Nixon's administration; Nixon and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger focussed their attention instead on strategic arms limitation talks (SALT) with the Soviets, the quadripartite negotiations regarding Berlin, and the situation in the Middle East. As the CSCE progressed, however, the United States became increasingly engaged in the conference due to Soviet and Western European interest. By the time Ford became President in August 1974, the United States had been immersed in CSCE talks for almost two years. Nonetheless, the United States remained uninterested and aloof from the day-to-day bargaining for much of the negotiations, which may have hindered its later efforts to portray the agreement as significant and beneficial to United States interests.
Ford's policy toward the Helsinki Final Act must be analyzed in the context of United States relations with Western Europe and the Soviet Union, which were the key factors in American involvement in the CSCE and support for the agreement. First, the long-held American commitment to allied unity within the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) had guided United States actions for much of the CSCE negotiations.4 Given the number of Western European leaders traveling to Helsinki, it would have been divisive for the United States to refuse to attend the signing ceremony.5 In addition, the desire to perpetuate Soviet–American détente motivated Ford. The United States had agreed to join the CSCE negotiations to preserve détente with the Soviets, and the same rationale persisted when the administration decided to attend the CSCE summit finale, as the high-profile meeting was important to the Soviet leadership.6 Moreover, Ford thought that in political terms, the Helsinki Final Act was a victory for the West, especially the language that stated that borders could be changed by peaceful means.7
Support for the Helsinki Final Act was consistent with the Ford administration's commitment to allied unity and to a strategic relationship with the Soviet Union, but it engendered considerable domestic controversy and weakened Ford's political clout at home, highlighting the difficulty in balancing American diplomatic aims with domestic realities. In the United States, the agreement initially was unpopular particularly with Eastern European ethnic groups as well as with members of Congress due to concerns about its implications for Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania and the Soviet presence in Eastern Europe. The presidents of the Polish American Congress and the Baltic World Conference, for example, expressed strong opposition to the Helsinki Final Act in letters to Ford.8 Some Eastern European interest group leaders even likened Ford's upcoming trip to Helsinki to the Yalta summit, which many regarded as having consigned Eastern Europe to Soviet domination.9 Similarly, Jewish groups were particularly concerned about the effect of the agreement on emigration from the Soviet Union.
Ethnic groups were not alone in their opposition to the Helsinki Final Act. A sampling of White House correspondence on the issue revealed 558 letters against the agreement and only thirty-two letters of support. One example was from John J. Stang, commander-in-chief of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, who alleged that there was a “gratuitous write-off of Eastern Europe implicit in the Helsinki Accord.”10 As Ford prepared for his trip to Helsinki, a Wall Street Journal editorial pleaded, “Jerry, don't go.”11
Making matters worse, members of both parties criticized Ford. Former California governor Ronald Reagan condemned Ford's trip to Helsinki, saying it had placed “our stamp of approval on Russia's enslavement of the captive nations” of Eastern Europe, and he declared at a different point, “I'm against it.”12 Conservative Democrats disagreed with Ford's policies as well. In criticizing the Helsinki Final Act as “one-sided,” Senator Henry M. Jackson (Dem., WA) said, “There are times in international diplomacy when the President of the United States ought to stay home.”13 According to diplomatic historian Jussi Hanhimäki, Jackson's critique of Ford's foreign policy and his trip to Helsinki was more damaging than Reagan's because Jackson was “even more ferocious – and certainly more articulate” than the former governor.14 In addition, George Ball, Under Secretary of State during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, charged that the agreement represented “a defeat for the West,” saying, “It is one thing to refrain from starting World War III over Prague; it is quite another to drink toasts to the division of Europe and implicitly sanctify with banal phrases Germany's continued amputation.”15 Much of the opposition was ideological, though some of the resistance can be attributed to insufficient consultation with Congress on the issue, prompting White House attempts to assure members of Congress that their concerns had been addressed in the CSCE negotiations and that the Helsinki Final Act was a success for the Western allies.16
The nation's editorial pages tended to agree with Ford's critics, suggesting that Ford should not travel to Helsinki and dismissing the content and value of the Helsinki Final Act. A Charlotte Observer editorial declared, “We believe [Ford] is guilty of a serious misjudgment and should not be going to Helsinki.”17 The New York Times expressed a degree of skepticism about the agreement and its long-term significance: “Moscow will thereby get what it wants immediately – the summit meeting that will seem to consecrate the status quo. But it will be years before the West will know how much, if at all, the Soviet Union will carry out its own vague promises.”18 The American media misread the results of the CSCE negotiations and portrayed the agreement as a Soviet victory, leading one CSCE supporter to write, “What the USSR may have failed to achieve at Geneva, it almost totally recouped at Helsinki through the North American press.”19
The opposition was not universal, however, as a minority of observers recognized the potential impact of an international obligation to express concern over domestic practices.20 A July 1975 Los Angeles Times editorial observed, “There is a feeling in some quarters, nonetheless, that the declaration is worthwhile because it establishes a code of conduct that the Soviet Union cannot ignore without being called to account.”21 The Chicago Sun-Times noted that critics neglected “the reality of Europe 30 years after World War II and the extraordinary achievement of having the two camps free to co-operate in the political, economic and humanitarian fields.”22
Domestic opposition to the Helsinki Final Act must also be viewed within the broader context of American–Soviet relations, because at the root of much of the criticism was a larger critique of Ford's policy of détente. In advance of the signing of the Helsinki Final Act, the fall of Saigon, fighting in Angola, the 1973 war in the Middle East, and failure to reach a SALT II agreement had signaled the “virtual breakdown of détente.”23 Thus in the summer of 1975, the CSCE became a focal point for critics who believed the United States had conceded too much in pursuit of détente and questioned whether the policy's promise had been fulfilled.24
Given growing opposition, Ford and his advisers worked to dispel concerns about the terms of the agreement with mixed results. In one instance during the CSCE negotiations, Ford met with nine representatives from Baltic American ethnic groups and Representative Edward J. Derwinski (Rep., IL) on 27 February 1975 and reiterated the United States commitment to nonrecognition of Soviet control of the Baltic states.25 This meeting marked the beginning of a long pattern of administration officials reaching out to ethnic interest groups to gain support for United States CSCE policy. In a later, more prominent move, Ford invited sixteen ethnic leaders as well as seven members of Congress to the White House to raise their objections on 25 July 1975 shortly before his departure for Helsinki.26 In the meeting, Ford reaffirmed United States nonrecognition of the Soviet annexation of the Baltic states, saying,
I would like to make it clear that the United States official non-recognition of the Soviet incorporation of the Baltic states is not affected by the results of the CSCE. We have never recognized the Soviet incorporation of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia and we are not doing so at CSCE.27
He noted that the failure of the Helsinki Final Act would not fundamentally harm United States or European interests, but the Act's success could improve the lives of those living in Eastern Europe.28 Highlighting that it was the “first time in American political history that a President met with a cross-section of American ethnic leaders before attending an international conference,” Ford's remarks prompted Representative Derwinski to declare, “I think President Ford's decision to participate in the conference was proper.”29 Thus the meeting with ethnic leaders “temporarily defused” criticism on one front, though Ford could not replicate his success with the broader public.30
To American negotiators and policymakers, criticism of the Helsinki Final Act was frustrating because, in their view, it was based on a flawed interpretation of the final agreement. In Ford's words, “No journey I made during my Presidency was so widely misunderstood.”31 Kissinger and Ford realized it would be difficult to garner public support for the Helsinki accords, but through his speeches at home and in Finland, Ford tried to change public opinion.32 Ford also visited with many Americans to discuss the agreement, arguing as always that the United States was not recognizing the Soviet annexation of the Baltics but rather was strengthening the independence of Eastern European countries.33
The Ford administration was stymied in its attempts to build support for the Helsinki Final Act by a long track record of inept relations with the public, as it repeatedly mismanaged public perceptions of the agreement. One of the most prominent factors in fostering mounting criticism was the controversy that developed over a proposal that exiled Russian author Alexander Solzhenitsyn visit the White House.34 The debate began when American Federation of Labor–Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL–CIO) President George Meany invited Ford to attend a 30 June 1975 banquet hosted by the AFL–CIO to honor Solzhenitsyn. The State Department recommended that Ford decline the invitation and that no representative from the White House be sent in his place due to concerns not only about offending the Soviets, but also about the awkward questions such a meeting could raise concerning Solzhenitsyn's negative opinions of the United States and its allies.35 The National Security Council (NSC) similarly advised against a meeting, fearing that it could be an “insult” to the Soviet Union.36
Outside the administration, however, the lack of White House participation caused considerable consternation given Solzhenitsyn's moral authority. Senator Jesse Helms (Rep., NC), one of many conservative Republicans unhappy with the administration's refusal to honor Solzhenitsyn, demanded the President explain it.37 The White House decision also received widely negative press coverage, including a column by George F. Will that said, “Obviously Solzhenitsyn is correct: Détente, as practiced by the United States, prevents even gestures of support for the cause of human rights in the Soviet Union.”38 Inept White House management of the story exacerbated the reaction; when Press Secretary Ron Nessen was asked if there were diplomatic reasons behind Ford's choice, he replied, “I don't get the feeling that that is a factor … The President has quite a crowded schedule this week.” His response raised incredulity when the press noted that Ford's schedule was free enough to meet the soccer player Pelé.39
In response to criticism, White House Chief of Staff Dick Cheney suggested changing Nessen's press guidance to indicate consideration of a meeting with Solzhenitsyn. In Cheney's view, a visit could improve Ford's standing with conservative Republicans in advance of the strategic arms limitations talks, as well as signal that Ford supported resisting Soviet oppression.40 Echoing Cheney's concerns, Ford staffer Max Friedersdorf summarized the political implications of this refusal: “I am concerned about the Solzhenitsyn issue and its impact on the right wing on the Hill … I just don't think this issue is going to go away with the conservatives and, of course, it has adverse impact with the liberals too.” In contrast to the advice from the State Department and the NSC, Friedersdorf disagreed with the suggestion that receiving Solzhenitsyn would threaten détente: “With all due deference to Dr. Kissinger, I believe that if détente is so fragile that it cannot stand a meeting with Solzhenitsyn, it will fall on some other account.”41 As the White House reconsidered its decision, Solzhenitsyn issued a statement that condemned Ford's stance on Helsinki, describing it as a “betrayal of Eastern Europe,” effectively ending the chances of a Ford–Solzhenitsyn meeting.42
The combination of Ford's refusal to see Solzhenitsyn and his planned trip to Helsinki exacerbated conservatives' concerns about Ford as President.43 Foreshadowing his upcoming nomination challenge to Ford, Reagan wrote in his newspaper column on 18 July 1975,
Apparently some of President Ford's foreign policy advisers are so nervous about bruising the sensibilities of the Soviets that they have persuaded him not to meet the man who is considered by many to be the world's greatest living writer and its most profound spokesman for human freedom and morality.44
Controversy over Solzhenitsyn and the Helsinki Final Act would persist throughout their competition for the Republican nomination and the general election campaign that followed.
The absence of a clear, consistent message explaining the significance of the Helsinki Final Act to the American people mired the Ford administration's communications strategy. Earlier in the negotiations, Kissinger and the administration had tried to downplay the substance of the talks.45 The administration had de-emphasized the CSCE in part to avoid suggesting that the agreement signaled an end to the Cold War, which could have led to a decline in public support for troop deployments and arms spending, concerns raised by the Mansfield Amendment.46 The administration's strategy also prevented more widespread education about the Act and its potential benefits to the West. Most significantly, members of the Ford administration did not effectively communicate that by the time CSCE negotiations had begun, the Soviets already had achieved many of their goals through bilateral treaties with the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG).47 As a result, most Americans did not recognize that the Soviets did not actually gain ground relative to previously existent international agreements and that, in Kissinger's words, “the borders were legally established long ago.”48
Beyond failing to present its case to the public articulately, the Ford administration bungled numerous public relations opportunities. The first prominent example was the White House's mishandling of the proposed Solzhenitsyn visit, and the second major controversy occurred on the day Ford left for the Helsinki summit. Before departing on 26 July 1975, he spoke to an assembled crowd at Andrews Air Force Base, stressing the long negotiations required to achieve the agreement and the potential positive influence of the Helsinki Final Act on European relations.49 His speech, however, omitted a sentence that had been included in the version previously provided to the press: “The United States has never recognized the Soviet incorporation of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia and is not going to do so at Helsinki.” According to his biographer Walter Isaacson, Kissinger was furious about the sentence when he saw a draft of Ford's remarks because he interpreted it as an insult to the Soviets and reportedly told National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft and White House aide Robert Hartmann, “You will pay for this! I tell you, heads will roll.” Kissinger was adamant that Ford not utter the sentence during his speech at Andrews Air Force Base. The President did not, but the press had seen the original version of his speech and picked up the story. This discrepancy, especially because the omitted sentence referred to the Baltic states, resurrected many concerns about the CSCE and Ford's decision to go to Helsinki.50
The controversy followed Ford on his trip to Europe. Later that day in Bonn, en route to Finland, Nessen tried to imply that the differences between Ford's prepared remarks and the actual statement were unsubstantial, but a reporter noted that Ford “omitted a significant concession that they had persuaded the Warsaw Pact nations to talk about peaceful adjustments to the frontier. He omitted the fact that the United States had never recognized Soviet incorporation of the Baltic states.”51 The international press picked up American journalists' close attention to the last-minute changes and ran stories on the issue in a number of European newspapers the following day.52 Henry Jackson later criticized Ford's revision of his departure remarks at Andrews Air Force Base, writing, “One can only conclude that the President of the United States has been either intimidated by Brezhnev or cajoled by Kissinger into backing away from the principled United States position on the national independence and individual rights of the Baltic and Eastern European peoples.”53 Ford's departure statement also prompted protests from ethnic groups; Edward Derwinski contacted the White House to suggest a public statement on the Baltic states during Ford's trip to diminish the outcry.54
In his speech to the assembled heads of state, Ford made his most prominent effort to cast the Helsinki Final Act in a positive light, suggesting that the CSCE offered an opportunity for Europe to overcome its divisive past and reestablish positive intra-European relations. Ford had asked his speechwriters to emphasize “hope” and, against Kissinger's advice, strengthen the speech's rhetoric.55 He referenced the long-standing connections between the American and European peoples, including the ancestral links to Europe that many Americans felt. In his most famous remarks, Ford emphasized implementation of the agreement: “History will judge this Conference not by what we say here today, but by what we do tomorrow – not by the promises we make, but by the promises we keep.”56 Ford's strong stand at Helsinki was intended to impress Eastern leaders and to quiet domestic critics of his trip. The Los Angeles Times regarded it as “probably Mr. Ford's most impressive speech.”57
Nevertheless, Ford's speech did not diminish the disapproving editorial coverage of the trip and the Final Act, and the enduring controversy testified to the Ford administration's inability to frame the agreement as in American national interests. As Kissinger noted, Ford faced a difficult challenge in Helsinki:
The solemnity of the occasion will favor the Soviet Union, as will the simplicity of the Soviet message – that peace has arrived. The West has a more complex story to tell: that CSCE achievements are modest, that the proof of the CSCE's success lies in the future, and that a strong Allied defense posture is a precondition for security and future détente.58
Opposition had hardened such that a single speech could not shift the consensus, particularly given the intangible, short-term impact CSCE proponents predicted. The Manchester Union Leader, a staunchly conservative paper, sharply criticized Ford and Kissinger for having “gone to Helsinki to put their stamp of approval on this recognition of the permanent enslavement of these millions of people.”59 Similarly, a Chicago Daily News columnist opined, “If the experience of the past 50 years teaches us anything, it should teach us that the Soviets have no intention of seriously honoring any substantive part of the Helsinki declaration.”60
Upon his return on 4 August 1975, Ford asserted that his trip to Helsinki had reinforced American support for liberty and peace in Eastern Europe.61 However prescient Ford may have been, at the time few recognized the accord's potential strategic value for improving human rights in Eastern Europe.62 In retrospect, Cheney suggested that Ford was motivated by his own moral compass, saying,
At Helsinki, we were about to establish an international standard for the recognition of human rights – standards which the Soviet Union agreed to and has been held accountable for ever since. The president took a detailed and personal interest in these accords, and I believe they have been helpful to people everywhere who love freedom. As we all know, the president was handed a good deal of criticism for Helsinki, much of it from within his own party. Still, he did what he thought was right, and not simply what he thought would help him win in November.63
Available documentation reveals that Ford's decision to travel to Helsinki was guided as much by his personal understanding of the agreement as by its significance to Soviet and NATO leaders.64
Unforeseen at the time was the extent to which the Helsinki Final Act's follow-up mechanism, commitment to respect for human rights, and provisions for human contacts would foster the development of a transnational network that would shape political and social reform in the late 1980s and fundamentally alter the Cold War division of Europe. In his memoirs, Robert Gates, who served on Ford's NSC, writes,
The results of the Helsinki Conference and Declaration were so different from what was anticipated at the time … In retrospect, it is indeed apparent that CSCE provided the spark that kindled widespread resistance to communist authority and the organization of numerous independent groups throughout Eastern Europe and even in the Soviet Union determined to bring change.65
Although the opposition to his trip distressed Ford and complicated his political career, he later described Helsinki as “my finest hour.”66 In retrospect, Ford commented that he was “prouder than ever to have signed the Helsinki accords” because they “were a major factor in bringing about the human rights revolt in Poland, Czechoslovakia, [and] Hungary and current ramifications in the Soviet Union.”67 The controversy over the Helsinki Final Act left him vulnerable to attacks from the right and the left, contributing to a tense fight for the Republican nomination in the primaries and ultimately a losing bid to be elected President. The Ford administration was never able sufficiently to counter condemnation of the Helsinki Final Act, enhancing existing skepticism about his leadership and policy toward the Soviet Union. Ultimately, the Helsinki Final Act would prove beneficial to United States interests, but the immediate political backlash against Ford's signature of the agreement became a lasting and damaging issue for his presidency, in no small part due to his administration's inability to manage public perception.