Sarah Palin’s garbled history of the Cold War

at 06:00 AM ET, 06/10/2011


(Steven Senne/AP)

We tried buying off the Kremlin with technologies in the 1970s.  That policy was a component of ‘detente,’ and the hope was that if we would share our technologies with them, they would become more peaceful.  Things, of course, didn’t work out that way.  The Kremlin took Western technologies and embarked on a massive military building program.”

--Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin in a Facebook posting titled “Another ‘WTF’ Obama Foreign Policy Moment,” June 9, 2011

Sarah Palin made a provocative attack on President Obama on Thursday over a relatively obscure issue relating to missile defense.

 “President Obama wants to give Russia our missile defense secrets because he believes that we can buy their friendship and cooperation with this taxpayer-funded gift,” she wrote on her Facebook page. “But giving military secrets and technologies to a rival or competitor like Russia is just plain dumb.  You can’t buy off Russia.  And giving them advanced military technology will not create stability.”

 Palin said her concern was prompted by an article that appeared on the Foreign Policy Web site that asserted that the White House intends to share missile defense information with Moscow as part of a recently approved missile defense treaty.

Palin inaccurately claims that Obama has threatened a veto over some provisions, specifically section 1228, in the House version of the National Defense Authorization Act that would limit his ability to share such information.

 The Statement of Administration Policy does threaten a veto over three other provisions in the bill, such as detainee issues, but not the specific issue raised by Palin.

Instead, the administration said it “strongly objects” to section 1228  because it would inhibit an exchange of data that “may improve the ability of the United States and NATO to provide effective missile defenses.” A related provision, the administration said, raises “constitutional concerns” because it encroaches on the president’s “exclusive authority” to conduct international negotiations.

 Palin’s concern about the administration’s plan hinges on her recounting of the history of U.S.-Soviet relations during the period of detente. We will not try to sort the claims and counterclaims about this provision--that’s for the editorial page. But in the aftermath of the Paul Revere episode, we are interested in whether her Cold War history is correct.

 

The Facts

Detente occurred over a brief period, lasting from the Nixon administration in the early 1970s to the Russian invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 during the Carter administration. Under detente, the United States and the Soviet Union attempted to reduce tensions, partly through regular meetings, arms limitation agreements and growing economic exchanges (such as wheat sales from the United States to Russia).

From her recounting of history, Palin appears to be arguing that the United States and the West gave “technologies” during this period, and that “the Kremlin took Western technologies and embarked on a massive military building program.”

 Palin’s language struck us a garbled version of this period written by her new foreign policy adviser, Peter Schweizer of the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.

 Here’s what Schweizer wrote in his 2003 book, “Reagan’s War:”

 

[Henry] Kissinger, in a March 14, 1974 secret decision memorandum, approved the sale of advanced computers to Moscow for the first time. As a result, Soviet imports of technology increased sevenfold over the next several years.

     The hope was that these trade deals, would in Kissinger’s words, “foster a degree of interdependence that adds an element of stability to the political relationship.”
      Just how damaging these deals proved to be would not be know for another decade. A top-secret CIA analyst [sic] revealed that the trade and finance deals allow the Kremlin to continue its ambitious military buildup without significantly reforming the economy. …As the CIA report concluded, “By providing economic gains from trade that relieved bottlenecks and improving the efficiency of the economy they thereby reduce the burden of defense.”

 

Schweizer is a fairly conservative analyst and quite the Reagan fan. But his argument is actually much more nuanced than Palin’s recounting: He is saying that trade with the West freed the Soviets from having to make choices about a military build-up that had already started.

In other words, the Kremlin did not use the technology sold by the West to improve its weapons or spur a new build-up, as Palin asserts. (We sent Schweizer an e-mail noting this contradiction and left a phone message but did not get a response.)

 In fact, technology imports from the United States were heavily restricted during this period.

“All sorts of restrictions remained in force on what technical equipment could be provided to [East Bloc] countries, and while I'm sure Nixon/Kissinger/Ford might have eased a few requirements here or there, it was hardly an effort to ‘buy off’ the Kremlin by ‘sharing’ militarily useful technologies,” said James Hershberg, associate professor of history and international affairs at George Washington University and former director of  the Cold War International History Project. “The Jackson-Vanik Amendment [of 1974] imposed further limitations on economic relations even at the height of detente.”

 The restrictions on technology trade were so tough that the Soviets embarked on a massive spying operation designed to obtain such goods. “It definitely was not as a result of some sort of conscious effort by Washington to ‘buy’ Soviet sympathy or cooperation,” Hershberg said.

 In fact, when the French government provided the United States with information on what items the Soviets were trying to obtain, the CIA plotted to sabotage the Soviet economy through covert transfers of technology that contained hidden malfunctions. One devious bit of software sold by the CIA later triggered a huge explosion in a Siberian natural gas pipeline that could be seen from space.

 As our colleague David Hoffman documented in his Pulitzer Prize-winning history of the Cold War, “The Dead Hand,” when the Soviet Union finally collapsed in 1991, analysts discovered the Russians were decades behind the United States in terms of computers, missile accuracy and military technology. Whatever “technologies” the Soviet Union obtained through stealth did not help it in the long run.

 

The Pinocchio Test

 Palin may have other good reasons for opposing the Obama administration’s interest in sharing data with Russia, but her historical rationale does not match up with the actual facts. She is correct that detente was designed to provide stability in the relationship, but little else in her account is accurate.

 Three Pinocchios

 

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    About the Blogger

    Glenn Kessler has covered foreign policy, economic policy, the White House, Congress, politics, airline safety and Wall Street.

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