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Talbott on United States, Russia, and China

How the United States stabilized Soviet relations and improved relations with China: Nixon, Kissinger, Vietnam.  Fmr. Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott in conversation with Walter Isaacson, President & CEO of The Aspen Institute.

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Video transcript

I'm Walter Isaacson of the Aspen Institute I'm here with former Deputy Secretary of State strobe Talbott talking about the toolbox of American diplomacy and we've been talking about arms control tell me what date aunt was and how it came about well it's a French word which means basically lessening of tension if you have a bow as in bow and arrow and you release the string then that is physical date on so it was how can we reduce the tension between the two superpowers the motivation was i would say essentially twofold one there was fear that deterrence mutual assured destruction keeping the Cold War cold would not last forever and they needed to do something to reduce the chances of war and the other was that Richard Nixon was really quite a farsighted and strategically very sophisticated president of the United States who was concerned that over time he was going to want to improve relations with China the other emerging power also a communist power and partly as part of his strategy in that direction he wanted to at least have in place an effort to reduce tensions with the Soviet Union and when he's creating this new balance Russia and China it's being done in the context of America's involvement in the Vietnam War what did Kissinger and Nixon think about how the Vietnam War could be affected by having a date aunt with Russia and an opening to China well with regard to Russia there was a hope although it was a very carefully hedged hope that if over time the United States and the Soviet Union could reduce their animosity between each other the Soviet Union might at some point stop always looking for conflicts around the periphery of both countries where they could make trouble for the United States and the the most dramatic example of a peripheral conflict where the United States was having a lot of problems was in Indochina and in Vietnam so the concept was for Kissinger and Nixon at least that an opening to Russia could be linked call it linkage to them then helping us in Vietnam and we could try to leverage our ability to make deals with Russia to them being more helpful to quit supporting the North Vietnamese communists right and this was of course before President Nixon actually executed the opening to China and he did not know how that was going to go so he wanted to see if he could cool things down on the Soviet front as he prepared to take on the big gamble and was a very big gamble of improving relations with China and that creates a sort of three-way balance when we can play China and Russia off against each other and in some ways it gave us the United States a framework for being influential in the world even as things were going bad after the Vietnam War well I was going to just say that your use of a kind of poker game analogy is exactly right we were playing the China card against the Soviets and the Soviet card against the Chinese but it's worth remembering there was another major factor that gave President Nixon this opening and that was the increasing evidence of real tension if not potential conflict between the Soviet Union and China itself the Soviet Union in China actually fought a war on their border in 1969 I was actually in Moscow as a journalist at the time in fact it got so bad the relationship between China and the Soviet Union that the Soviets actually came to the Nixon administration at one point and said we're fed up with the Chinese how would you feel I assume you'd stand aside if we were to make an attack on the Chinese nuclear your facility in a place called luck Norway out in the eastern part of China and to its credit with the United States government and President Nixon said no we don't think that's a good idea at all we've spent the last several decades trying to avoid nuclear world it's not having nuclear war between you and the Chinese but up until then most Americans believed we were in a global struggle against communism so we didn't look at the fact that the Chinese Communists and the Russian communists were not really aligned we were late in recognizing that even though there had been examples earlier of dyed-in-the-wool card-carrying communists in countries other than China and the United States who were not going to take any guff from the Soviet Union or from China yosef broz tito the post-world war two leader of yugoslavia maintained his independence from moscow and the vietnamese leadership particularly Ho Chi Minh weren't going to take any guff from the Chinese in fact they ended up having a war with China and the late so we underestimated the power of nationalism and we thought that the global communist ideology would overcome nationalist sentiment yes we we overestimated many things about communism including that and finally on this part one of the tools that Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger use in dealing with Russia is an arms control regime and which are lots of summits and lots of arms control agreements with those simply to help the process of arms control was that part of a larger process of day tante it was definitely first and foremost the first thing that is to prevent nuclear war but it was also to create an atmosphere of trust and it worked in both respects we never had a nuclear war and also young diplomats who spent their early years doing nothing but counting how many warheads could dance on the head of a Soviet rocket all of a sudden found that they had a degree of understanding and confidence and trust with their so their Soviet counterparts and they began talking about other issues and this seems to have been a period of what you might call realism rather than idealism in other words we're making a date aunt with Russia that doesn't share our values and opening to China that doesn't was there a backlash among people like Senator Henry Jackson and others who felt we were getting too far away from the moral components of our foreign policy yes and Henry Jackson was certainly the most powerful senator on this point he felt that it was absolutely crucial if we were going to win what Jack Kennedy had called the long Twilight Struggle for us to stand up for human rights and open society and free immigration and eventually the collapse of the Soviet system even at the same time that we were negotiating with them and he and others criticized the Nixon administration and Henry Kissinger for not paying much attention to that basically saying we're not going to waste our diplomatic and political energy on the kind of governance the Soviet Union has we're going to devote our attentions to making sure that there's not a war thanks