by Yale Richmond
The participating States… Make it their aim to facilitate freer movement and contacts, individually and collectively, whether privately or officially, among persons, institutions and organizations of the participating States, and to contribute to the solution of the humanitarian problems that arise in that connexion…
—Helsinki Final Act.
The 1975 signing in Helsinki by thirty-three European heads of state or government, as well as the Prime Minister of Canada and the President of the United States, evoked considerable debate and drama. Not since the Congress of Vienna in 1815, which redrew the map of Europe and established a peace that lasted forty years, had so many European leaders assembled to put their pens to a paper outlining future relations between their states. Although not a treaty and not legally binding, the Helsinki Final Act, as the concluding document of the Conference on Security and Cooperation In Europe (CSCE) is known, was a political statement that its signatories pledged to observe.
The Final Act recognized, for the first time in an international agreement, respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, including the freer movement of people, ideas, and information. That recognition was to produce profound change in the Soviet Union.
A European security conference had been proposed by the Soviets in 1954 as surrogate for a World War II peace treaty. Soviet motives were obvious—recognition of post-war borders in Europe (especially Poland’s borders with the German Democratic Republic and the Soviet Union), cooperation among European states, reduction of armaments, and removal of foreign (i.e. US) troops from Europe. Under the Soviet proposal, the United States and Canada would have been excluded from the conference.
The Europeans—the neutrals and non-aligned, as well as NATO members—were interested in such a conference, tempted as they were by the prospects for peace and stability in Europe, as well as increased East-West trade. The NATO nations, however, stipulated that their non-European allies, the United States and Canada, must also participate in the conference. In addition, as the preliminary political positioning evolved in the late 1960s, the West Europeans insisted that the conference should also discuss fundamental human rights, including the freer movement of people, ideas, and information.
US reaction to the conference proposal, however, was decidedly cool. Henry Kissinger, as National Security Adviser and later Secretary of State, was not enthusiastic about CSCE, fearing that its focus on human rights would be an impediment to reaching agreement with the Soviet Union on security and other major foreign policy issues, and could complicate US efforts to coordinate the responses of our allies to Soviet challenges. Accordingly, instructions to the US delegation to the CSCE conference were to support our allies but not be confrontational with the Soviets. Also skeptical about the conference were East European ethnic groups in the United States that were opposed to recognition of post-war borders in Eastern Europe and to lending legitimacy to Communist rule and Soviet hegemony there. But President Nixon had been meeting with Leonid Brezhnev at summit meetings in the early 1970s, and the US administration could hardly object to Europeans also wanting to sit at the table with the Soviets and discuss common interests. So the United States participated in the CSCE deliberations although, reflecting Kissinger’s caution, it played a secondary role and left the heavy lifting to its NATO allies.
After three years of extended and arduous negotiations in Helsinki and Geneva, the CSCE reached agreement in 1975 on a 40-page, 40,000-word document. The Soviets got their inviolability of borders but had to accept language recognizing respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, as well as the freer movement of people, ideas, and information.
As the date approached for signing the Final Act, domestic opposition in the United States mounted. Although the Final Act was a political statement rather than a treaty and not legally binding, East European émigrés and conservatives in both US political parties strongly criticized the document as a sellout to the Soviets. Governor Ronald Reagan of California, in an early version of his “evil-empire” posture, urged President Gerald Ford not to sign, as did Democratic Senator Henry Jackson of Washington. Mail to the White House ran heavily against signing, and much of the media agreed. The Wall Street Journal, in an editorial titled “Jerry, Don’t Go,” urged the President not to go to Helsinki, charging that CSCE was “purely symbolic, and the symbol is one of Soviet hegemony in Eastern Europe.” The New York Times called it “a misguided and empty trip.”
Ford courageously defied domestic disapproval, flew to Finland, and signed the Helsinki Accords, as they came to be known, and in doing so did as much, if not more, to bring about the collapse of communism than Ronald Reagan did years later.
In the following years, the opposition that had been so strident turned to broad support as the Accords were embraced by human-rights activists in the Soviet Union, Eastern and Western Europe, and the United States. Even the staunchest opponents of the Helsinki process eventually came to regard it as a useful tool for prodding the Soviets to acknowledge, in an international accord, the right of nations to protest human rights violations in other countries.
As former CIA Director and Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates, a career analyst of the Soviet Union, put it:
CSCE was perhaps the most important early milestone on the path of dramatic change inside the Soviet empire. The most eloquent testimonials to its importance come from those who were on the inside, who began their political odyssey to freedom at that time, and who became the leaders of free countries in Eastern Europe in 1989.… The human rights issue struck at the very legitimacy and survival of the Soviet political structure.
Or as former US ambassador to the Soviet Union Jack F. Matlock, Jr. has written:
Contrary to the critics, the commitments in the Helsinki agreement provided the basis, first for opposition movements in Communist states, and subsequently for actual changes in Soviet and Soviet satellite practices.
Yale Richmond is a retired USIA FSO, and the article above is an abridgment of a chapter in his book, Practicing Public Diplomacy: A Cold War Odyssey, published by Berghahn Books, 2008. Richmond was a Cultural Officer in the U.S. Foreign Service for thirty years, with overseas postings in Germany, Laos, Poland, Austria, and the Soviet Union. Now a writer on international cultural communication, his books include Understanding the Americans: A Handbook for Visitors to the United States (New York: Hippocrene Books).