Baku Dialogues: Forty Years Ago: Ford and Brezhnev Go To Helsinki
President Gerald Ford signed the Final Act on behalf of the United States on August 1, 1975, just one year after he had been sworn in as President, following Richard Nixon’s resignation on August 8, 1974. In doing this Ford followed the script developed by Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and Nixon, which had been agreed with the NATO allies during a long consultation process, and was intended to open more dialogue and cooperation with the Soviet Union. But Ford may not have had in mind the full scope and complexity of the relationship with Moscow which Nixon and Kissinger had imagined, which included also planned agreements on nuclear and conventional military forces. These elements together formed a strategic agenda, which had to be seen and understood as a whole. Ford’s later stumble in responding to a reporter’s question on Soviet domination of Eastern Europe, in a televised debate with Jimmy Carter during their race for the Presidency, may have cost him the Presidential election in 1976. Ford was gaining ground in the polls, and might have won, had he not asserted that Eastern Europe was not dominated by the Soviet Union. Even the moderator of this nationally-televised debate was visibly surprised by this statement.
I recently reviewed that episode of the Ford-Carter debate, on the web, and even now, years later, it looks deeply embarrassing. Ironically, it may have been Ford’s participation in the Helsinki Summit which led him to argue so boldly (and of course wrongly at that time) that Russia did not dominate Eastern Europe. Ford later explained that he meant the Poles did not accept Russian domination, but the damage was done. It was a close election, and certainly this episode cost Ford some votes. The American negotiating agenda with the USSR could be justified in terms of its overall balance, but it could not be said that the East European countries were free of Soviet control, nor that the Helsinki Final Act had somehow liberated them. The Soviet grip on Eastern Europe remained, and it would take the slow evolution of time, as well as considerable internal effort by dissidents and opposition groups in each of these countries, for them to break loose of that grip. Polish Americans, and other Americans with origins in the countries of Eastern Europe, strongly resented Soviet dominance of their homelands, and did not forgive Ford for his statement on this matter, which was transmitted by TV, live, across America.
Surely the Final Act, and the process it set in motion, the uses made of it by dissidents, human rights activists and governments over time, and the growing pressures on the Communist governments in the East, played an important role in the ultimate demise of Communist and Soviet domination in the East. But this was a slow process and was dependent more than anything else on the steady pressures of many elements on the decaying Communist systems which were still in control, but were outmoded and unresponsive to the needs of modern societies. These complex factors made it difficult to over-simplify this process in any analysis or conclusion about the role of the Helsinki Final Act.
The US Delegation went to Helsinki a few weeks after the closure of the CSCE’s two year Stage II negotiations in Geneva for the summit-level conference and signing ceremony, and once again I was included as the junior member, this time in support of President Gerald Ford. Arthur Hartman, the gracious and intelligent Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs, introduced me to Ford and Kissinger in the Conference hall, saying that I was “the only American who understood all the issues, and all their linkages, throughout this negotiation.” This might sound exaggerated to the layman, but as Hartman knew at the time, it was true. Kissinger’s humorous but somewhat disparaging response was that “it was a good thing somebody did.” But I think he meant it as a compliment, and he referred to that moment on several occasions when I met him in later years, in very different contexts.
In any case the key substantive issue, and the agreement which made the summit-level signing of the Helsinki Final Act possible, had been resolved privately between Kissinger himself, who was essentially negotiating on behalf of the Federal Republic of Germany, and Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko. So for Kissinger that key language was what the conference was all about. He even famously spoke disparagingly on one occasion about a negotiation which was focused and depended entirely on “the placement of commas.” This was of course a reference to the language in the Final Act which preserved the possibility of peaceful changes in frontiers in Europe, thereby keeping the door open for eventual German reunification. Kissinger’s personal negotiating role had focused, precisely, on the placement of the commas in this key sentence.
The FRG would not have been able to agree to the Final Act without preserving the possibility of peaceful changes in frontiers, while the key Soviet objective in the conference was exactly the opposite: to fix forever the existing division of Germany – and Europe – so that it could never be changed. These were the stakes in this landmark negotiation, and they were very high: would Europe evolve and change over time, or would it remain divided, with Germany split into two sovereign countries, forever? The language agreed between Kissinger and Gromyko finessed this issue, left the door open for peaceful change, and made agreement on the Final Act possible. The peaceful reunification of Germany did indeed take place, many years later – very specifically permitted by this key language, and thus changed the course of modern history.
Of course, as I noted in the opening sentences of my 1985 book on the CSCE negotiations, “To Helsinki,” all things do change, and nothing ever remains the same. So Brezhnev’s life objective – to fix forever the permanent division of Germany and Europe – was ultimately a futile illusion, which showed just how illusory it was when the Berlin wall came down, when the Communist governments of Eastern Europe collapsed and were removed from office, and when even the Soviet Union itself was dissolved, in the early 1990’s. By then Europe had, indeed, completely changed.
Did the Helsinki Final Act play a role in the evolution which led to that dramatic denouement, years later? Yes, unquestionably it did, if only by encouraging the dissidents in the USSR, and what was then called Eastern Europe, to agitate and demand the freedoms which were so visibly available in the West. The process took some time, but it was a steady movement toward peaceful change, and in the end it was very decisive, indeed unstoppable.
So the preservation of the possibility of peaceful changes in frontiers in Europe, as well as the modest openings offered for freer movement of people and ideas, and the guiding principles contained in the Final Act, became important beacons, beyond what any of us in the conference could possibly have imagined as we were immersed in that tedious, complicated and many-faceted negotiating process. These features have given the Final Act its historic importance, and its place among the guiding documents for Europe at the close of the twentieth century.
My impressions of the ceremonies which accompanied the signing of the Final Act by all the Heads of State or Government of Europe and North America, in Helsinki in the summer of 1975, are reflected to some extent in my 1985 book, “To Helsinki”. Attitudes at the time of that signing ceremony were very much a mix of support and opposition, suspicion and perplexity, based on incomplete or oversimplified information on the significance of the Final Act, what it was about, what it contained, and why it was important. How could it be explained in simple terms? We who were a part of those negotiations speculated and wondered about the future significance of the Final Act, just as much as anyone else. And the truth is that we did not know. It was the dissidents in the USSR and Eastern Europe who picked it up and made it into their instrument, their rallying cry, their lever for opening up the closed systems in the East. Very simply, it became a symbol for what Europe could become – a free and open space, with all its many national identities, stretching indeed from the Atlantic to the Urals, and beyond.
In the United States there was at first considerable hostility toward the Final Act – the negotiations had not attracted much attention, because they were held at a low level and were overshadowed by other events. Also, the public had not been prepared, as usually happens before such high-level signature events, through a process of governmental explanation of why the issue is so important, etc. So when it was announced that President Ford would travel to Helsinki to sign something called a “Final Act” there was a considerable amount of questioning and cynicism, even ridicule. The Wall Street Journal, in particular, urged in a front-page headline “Gerry, Don’t Go,” based on its quick reading of the matter as a give-away to the Soviet Union of official recognition of its dominance over Eastern Europe, as well as the permanent division of Europe, and many other negative implications.
Years later the Journal retracted and apologized for this headline. It recognized then that the Final Act was positive for the West, and for the eventual unraveling of Soviet domination in Eastern Europe. This was one of the few times in its history that the Wall Street Journal has publicly retracted a position it has taken. And in this case it was on a fundamental historical turning point, which many people misunderstood and got wrong. The Helsinki Final Act opened the doors, and the dissidents, and activists on all sides picked it up and ran with it, with the effects over time which we can now plainly see.
But at the time there were mixed feelings all around, and many intellectuals and commentators, both in Europe and in the United States, did not agree that the bargain which had been struck between the West and the Soviets was a good one that would be positive for Eastern Europe. As a result, the mood at the summit-level conference, which should have been celebratory, impressed me as one of muted disappointment and caution. No one was really over-joyed by the results, and even the speeches of the heads of state were reserved. The notable exception was that of Brezhnev, who spoke as though the Final Act was a Soviet triumph, and thus fed the doubts of observers in the West. The mood in the streets of Helsinki was particularly cool – the crowds along the sidewalks simply stood there and watched – no cheering, no flag waving, no smiles. Significantly, they did not know whether to understand this unique high-level meeting as a positive step for them, for the West, and for Europe, or a negative one. Only time would tell.
And the speeches were reserved – everything depended on whether commitments were carried out, and that would only become known much later. So there was a sense – at best -- of suspension of judgment, to see what would actually happen.
The working delegates, who had carried out these negotiations, were invited to a dinner at an estate deep in the Finnish forest, and, as I described in “To Helsinki,” they speculated about what would happen now. But most of them were off to other assignments, and were happy to be out of this long and tedious negotiating process. They were, after all, professional diplomats.
Looking back now and re-reading Brezhnev’s Helsinki speech, with its ringing: “the hour has struck for the inevitable collective conclusions to be drawn from the experience of history,” one can only think: How wrong he was.