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62 Foreign Aff. 354 (1983-1984)
The Rise, Fall and Future of Detente

handle is hein.journals/fora62 and id is 366 raw text is: John Lewis Gaddis

THE RISE, FALL AND
FUTURE OF DETENTE
ne of the occupational hazards of being a historian is
that one tends to take on, with age, a certain air of resigned
pessimism. This comes, I think, from our professional posture of
constantly facing backwards: it is not cheering to have to focus
one's attention on the disasters, defalcations, and miscalculations
that make up human history. We are given, as a result, to such
plaintive statements as: Ah, yes, I knew it wouldn't work out, or
I saw it coming all along, or, most often, Too bad they didn't
listen to me.
Such, I am afraid, is the tone we historians have taken in looking
at the last decade or so of Soviet-American relations. Dtente, we
now tell each other, was not an end to cold war tensions but rather
a temporary relaxation that depended upon the unlikely intersec-
tion of unconnected phenomena. There had to be, we argue,
approximate parity in the strategic arms race, a downplaying of
ideological differences, a mutual willingness to refrain from chal-
lenging the interests of rivals, an ability to reward restraint when it
occurred and to provide inducements to its further development,
and the existence of strong, decisive and intelligent leadership at
the top in both Washington and Moscow, capable of overriding all
of the obstacles likely to be thrown in the path of detente by garbled
communications, sullen bureaucracies, or outraged constituencies.
To have found all of these things in place at the same time, we
maintain, was about as likely as some rare astronomical conjunction
of the stars and planets, or perhaps a balanced budget.
As a result, we have tended to see the revival of the cold war as
an entirely predictable development rooted in deep and immutable
historical forces. Those of us who hedged our bets about the
durability of detente can now comfortably pat each other on the
back, exchanging statements like: We were right all along, or
Too bad they don't listen to historians, or Isn't pessimism fun?
But if historians are ever going to provide much in the way of
usable guidance to policymakers-which is to say, if we are not
John Lewis Gaddis is Distinguished Professor of History at Ohio University.
This article is adapted from his recent book, Strategies of Containment: A Critical
Appraisal of Postwar American National Security Policy, and from a paper prepared
for the Aspen Institute Preparatory Group on East-West Relations.

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