Office of the Historian Press Release
The documentary record of United States bilateral relations with the Soviet Union during the Presidency of Lyndon B. Johnson is presented in Foreign Relations of the United States, 1964–1968, Volume XIV, Soviet Union, released today by the Department of State. During 1964–1968, the United States and the Soviet Union negotiated the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and concluded several accords of lesser magnitude, but the most significant achievement in East-West relations was the avoidance of outright confrontation in Southeast Asia.
By the time the new Soviet leadership had settled in sufficiently to contemplate more important agreements with the United States, the escalation of the war in Vietnam had led to a Soviet determination that to maintain its leadership of the Communist movement, the Soviet Union must be seen as a staunch defender of its Vietnamese ally. This precluded major measures of détente.
When the United States bombed Hanoi during a visit by Khrushchev’s successor, Alexsei Kosygin, in early 1965, relations plummeted. Orchestrated demonstrations against the U.S. Embassy in Moscow were followed by open hostility from Soviet leaders for this act of U.S. “aggression” against a sister socialist state. For most of the next 2 years, U.S.-Soviet relations were in a “controlled freeze.”
The Soviet Union had long been annoyed with the U.S. practice of welcoming Soviet defectors with open arms. This problem reached a boiling point in March 1967 when the late Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin’s daughter, Svetlana Alliluyeva, walked into the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi and was subsequently granted asylum in the United States. This would have caused a Soviet uproar under any circumstances, but at this time of poor relations with the United States, the Soviet Government was particularly furious and charged that the United States was inciting Alliluyeva to make anti-Soviet statements as part of a larger propaganda campaign. In part to avoid unnecessary complications in U.S.-Soviet relations, the Department of State agreed in December 1967 that Moscow would be notified of Soviet defectors and be allowed to talk to them before political asylum was granted.
Toward the end of the Johnson administration, however, the convergence of national interests between Moscow and Washington began to produce agreements, or at least progress, on some issues, including cultural affairs, civil aviation, outer space, and nuclear non-proliferation. In June 1967 the leaders of the two nations held a summit meeting at Glassboro, New Jersey, in part to project an image of reasonableness after their respective allies in the Middle East, Israel and Egypt, fought the Six-Day War. Although President Johnson and Chairman Kosygin hit it off reasonably well, the talks were inconclusive and little was agreed upon. While the “Spirit of Glassboro” was perhaps more cosmetic than substance, at least the leaders were meeting face to face again.
In addition to summitry, during the last 2 years of his presidency Johnson pressed the Kremlin for a strategic arms control agreement, but the Soviet leaders delayed it by insisting on linkage with settlements in the Middle East and Vietnam. In August 1968, the two sides agreed to begin talks on limiting offensive strategic nuclear weapons and anti-ballistic missile defense systems and also agreed to hold another summit. On the eve of the announcement of these formal talks and another summit, Warsaw Pact troops invaded Czechoslovakia. Even after the Soviet Union crushed the Prague Spring, President Johnson still wanted to end his term with a U.S.-Soviet summit. His hopes were finally dashed in November by the election of Richard Nixon. The President-elect and his adviser Henry Kissinger made it clear to Soviet leaders that the incoming leaders had their own plans for negotiating with the Soviet Union and that any last-minute summit with President Johnson would only start the Kremlin off on the wrong foot with the new administration. The Johnson administration policy toward the Soviet Union, begun with modest expectations and buoyed with occasional high points, ultimately failed to achieve much progress, mostly because of Vietnam and the Soviets’ conclusion that détente with the West during the war there would seriously weaken its position in the Communist bloc.
This volume complements extensive coverage of Soviet-related issues in other Foreign Relations volumes on the Johnson administration. In particular, it supplements the treatment of arms control in Volume XI, national security policy in Volume X, relations with the Soviets over Eastern Europe in Volume XVII, and U.S. Soviet conflict and cooperation over Vietnam in Volumes I–VII. For the full context of U.S.-Soviet relations in these years, readers are encouraged to consult these other volumes.