96. Memorandum From the Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs (Laise) to Secretary of State Kissinger 1

Détente Has Come Home: American Opinion on Relations with the Soviet Union

Détente with the Soviet Union enjoys broader national support today than at any time in the post-war period. Based on our review of editorial and public opinion surveys conducted over the last twenty years, we conclude that support for the principle of détente also extends to particular aspects of policy—arms control, in particular, but also trade, and scientific and cultural cooperation. We believe Vladivostok is receiving comparable approval.

Momentum in favor of improved US-Soviet relations has built up gradually. Popular readiness for better relations was slowed during the Berlin-Cuban crises period, and temporarily again during the summer of Prague. But by the time President Nixon made his 1968 campaign promise to strive for an “era of negotiations” with the Soviet Union a clear majority of Americans had come to accept the desirability of détente. By the end of 1973, as many as 86% of representative Americans expressed themselves in favor of America’s new relationship with the Soviet Union (according to the Minnesota Poll whose findings are consistently close to those of nationwide polls).

Significant conclusions about American reactions on détente are:

—There is a strong and steady trend in favor of progress toward détente among Americans in general and among editors in particular. The foundation is so strong that further progress towards détente can be made on the assumption that steps toward improved US-Soviet relations will enjoy popular acceptance.

—Support for détente in general is duplicated by popular support for the building blocks of détente—arms control, trade, and scientific and cultural cooperation.

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Proportions Favoring US-Soviet Agreement in Various Fields
(Harris Surveys) Pre-1969 1969 1972 1973–74
Limit Atomic Weapons (’68) 66% 72% 73% (80%)*
Expand Trade (’63) 54 74 82 72
Exchange Programs (’63) 70 79 81 69
Joint Exploration: Space 63 81

—American belief in the feasibility of détente slipped during the Czech crisis but recovered fairly soon and went on to new heights, according to a series of Harris surveys:

“Do you think it is possible for the United States and Russia to come to a long-term agreement in the world which will work, or do you feel it is not possible for that to happen?”

July 68 Aug 68 Dec 68 1970 1972 1973 1974
Possible to Happen 49 % 34 % 40 % 51 % 55 % 59 % 69 %
Not Possible 37 50 48 32 34 22 20
Not Sure 14 16 12 17 11 19 11
100 % 100 % 100 % 100 % 100 % 100 % 100 %

—The pace of acceptance of détente may have slowed to some small degree when Americans realized several of the more negative aspects of the 1972 grain deal. Editorials made clear that Americans wanted continued progress towards détente but they wanted a clear definition of quid pro quo in future agreements.

—Actions such as Senator Jackson’s linking the issue of Jewish emigration to the Trade Bill do not command widespread support. A year ago, fifteen of 30 commenting editors in the nation’s more important daily papers opposed Jackson’s idea, and only 5 supported it.

—Americans are sophisticated and subtle in their suspicion that progress toward détente does not necessarily mean progress toward the end of strained relations with the Soviet Union, or even the end of the Cold War (65% said “probably not” in a 1972 Harris Survey).

—Thus, the public also wants America to be adequately armed. A 1974 poll for Potomac Associates finds that when Americans contemplate the possibility that the United States might become militarily weaker than the Soviet Union they wish the U.S. to maintain a strong security structure.

“Taking into account the need to protect America’s security and interests, but also the high cost of more defense and military forces, do you think on balance that over the next few years the total military [Page 380] power of the United States should be increased, kept at the present level, or reduced?”

Increased 40 %
Kept at present level 42
Reduced 12
Don’t Know 6

—At the same time, popular desire for arms limitation is strong. Support for arms control was evident throughout the long negotiations which culminated in SALT I. Even during the Czech crisis when the public was reserved about the pace of détente, there was continued strong support for arms control negotiations (Minnesota Poll—September 1968). The SALT I accord and movement towards SALT II have received continued public and editorial support. Most Americans believe disarmament agreements are possible and as many as 80% support further steps to control nuclear armaments (Potomac Associates 1974). Our initial reading of editorial reactions to the Vladivostok agreement indicate this latest development is receiving comparable approval.

Summary. On the basis of available data, we conclude that the public is clear-eyed when it comes to assessing the difficulties in a relationship with the Soviet Union. Americans want the Administration to pursue an active arms control policy but at the same time are prepared to support a strong defense establishment.

  1. Source: National Archives, RG 59, Lot File 77D112, Policy Planning Staff (S/P), Box 347, Director’s Files (Winston Lord), 1969–77, Dec. 1974. Unclassified. Drafted by H. Schuyler Foster and Frank G. Wisner II in PA/M. The original is an uninitialed copy that Laise forwarded to Lord on December 11. In a handwritten note on the covering memorandum, Lord instructed his special assistant, Peter Swiers: “Peter—Make sure deputies, [Thomas W.] Simons, & speechwriters see this. WL”
  2. April 1974 poll by Potomac Associates