64. Editorial Note

On November 9, 1975, President Gerald Ford participated in an interview marking the 28th anniversary of the NBC news program “Meet the Press.” During the course of the interview, conducted by host Lawrence Spivak, the President was asked to provide his definition of détente and an explanation of what détente personally meant to him and what it should mean to the American public. Ford responded:

“I am not sure that is the best word but that is the word that is being used. Détente means to me that two super powers who are strong militarily and economically, who represent differing political and governmental views, instead of confronting one another, can consult one another on a wide variety of areas of potential dispute, whether it is trade, whether it is military potential conflict, whether it is a number of other things.

“Now, détente is not always going to mean that we solve every problem, because some of them are very complex and very controversial. It does mean it is a mechanism for the relaxation of tension, so that instead of glaring at one another and opening the potential of conflict, you can sit down and discuss differences of opinion and hope to accomplish a relaxation and progress without military conflict.” (Public Papers: Ford, 1975, Book II, page 1834)

Secretary of State Henry Kissinger echoed these themes during a November 24 speech delivered in Detroit, Michigan. Addressing the Economic Club of Detroit and other local groups, Kissinger proposed to discuss “what is right with America’s foreign policy.” Highlighting the diplomatic successes of the Nixon and Ford administrations, Kissinger noted a sea change in U.S-Soviet relations: “In place of continual crises there are continuing negotiations—on arms control, economic relations, and international issues—which give both sides a stake in [Page 348] peace and have lessened the chances that great-power confrontation will lead to nuclear Armageddon.”

However, new realities threatened to complicate détente, Kissinger acknowledged, including the three-party competition for political control of the former Portuguese colony of Angola: the Popular Front for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) backed by the Soviet Union and Cuba, the National Front for the Liberation of Angola (FNLA) supported by China and Zaire (although the Ford administration also backed FNLA leader Holden Roberto), and the U.S.-supported National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA). Continued Kissinger:

“But the easing of tensions cannot endure if we relax our vigilance. We must understand the need for both defense and relaxation of tension, both firm action in crises and willingness to resolve problems on a realistic and fair basis. We must be prepared for either course; the choice rests with our adversaries.

“We cannot ignore, for example, the substantial Soviet buildup of weapons in Angola, which has introduced great-power rivalry into Africa for the first time in 15 years. This Soviet involvement is resented by African nations most of all. But the United States cannot be indifferent while an outside power embarks upon an interventionist policy—so distant from its homeland and so removed from traditional Russian interests. The Soviet Union still has an opportunity for a policy of restraint which permits Angolans to resolve their own differences without outside intervention. We would be glad to cooperate in such a course. But time is running out; continuation of an interventionist policy must inevitably threaten other relationships.

“Nor can we ignore the thousands of Cubans sent into an African conflict. In recent months the United States has demonstrated, by deed as well as word, its readiness to improve relations with Cuba. We have cooperated with steps to ease the inter-American boycott against Cuba and to restore a more normal relationship between the nations of the Americas and Cuba. But let there be no illusions: a policy of conciliation will not survive Cuban meddling in Puerto Rico or Cuban armed intervention in the affairs of other nations struggling to decide their own fate.

“To Cuba, as to other nations with whom our relations have been strained, I say this: the United States has no higher goal than to ease the conflicts that have torn the globe for nearly a generation. We will be flexible and cooperative in settling conflicts. But we will never permit détente to turn into a subterfuge for unilateral advantage. The policy of relaxation of tensions is designed to promote peace, not surrender; we will be flexible, but we shall insist on reciprocity and restraint.” For the full text of Kissinger’s remarks, see Department of State Bulletin, December 15, 1975, pages 841–850.

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During the President’s November 26 news conference, reporters asked Ford if the Soviet involvement in Angola was “consistent” with the President’s understanding of détente. Ford responded: “I agree with the content of the speech made by Secretary Kissinger in Detroit last night [November 24], where he said that the Soviet actions in Angola were not helpful in the continuation of détente. I agree with that, and I hope and trust that there will be proper note taken of it.”

When asked if he planned to “do anything about it” other than offering the statement, Ford asserted, “I don’t want to get into the method or procedure. I said that I agree with the statement made by the Secretary, and I believe that the Soviet Union is not helping the cause of détente by what they are doing. And I hope the message comes across.” (Public Papers: Ford, 1975, Book II, page 1914)

The Ford administration covertly supported UNITA and the FNLA during the Angolan civil war. Congressional opposition to this financial support culminated in an amendment to the FY 1976 Defense Appropriations bill sponsored by Senator John Tunney (D–California), which aimed to terminate the covert support (S. Res. 337). Despite a compromise approach pursued by Kissinger and members of the Senate leadership, the measure passed the Senate on December 19, prompting Ford to comment to reporters: “How can the United States, the greatest power in the world, take the position that the Soviet Union can operate with impunity many thousands of miles away with Cuban troops and massive amounts of military equipment, while we refuse any assistance to the majority of the local people who ask only for military equipment to defend themselves?” (Ibid., page 1981) The next day, Ford touched upon the implications of this decision:

“And the problem that I foresee on a broader basis is a good many countries throughout the world consider the United States friendly and helpful, and we have over a period of time helped to maintain free governments around the world. Those countries that have depended on us—and there are many—can’t help but have some misgivings, because the Congress has refused any opportunity for us in Angola to help a majority of the people. And they can’t help but feel that the same fate might occur as far as they are concerned in the future.” (Ibid., page 1986) Despite a last-minute appeal by the Ford administration, the House passed the Defense Appropriations Act with the Tunney amendment on January 27, 1976, and Ford signed it on February 9 (P.L. 94–212). His February 10 signing statement reads in part: “I am deeply disappointed that the Congress has acted in this bill to deprive the people of Angola of the assistance needed to resist Soviet and Cuban military intervention in their country. I believe this provision is an extemely undesirable precedent that could limit severely our ability to play a positive and effective role in international affairs.” (Ibid., [Page 350] 1976–77, Book I, p. 242) Documentation on U.S. assistance during the Angolan civil war is printed in Foreign Relations, 1969–1976, volume XXVIII, Southern Africa, Documents 137191.