The United States, the Soviet Union, Canada and every European nation (except Albania) sign the Helsinki Final Act on the last day of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE). The act was intended to revive the sagging spirit of detente between the Soviet Union and the United States and its allies.
During Richard M. Nixon’s presidency, he and National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger fashioned a foreign policy toward the Soviet Union that came to be known as “detente”–literally, a lessening of tensions between Russia and America. The policy enjoyed some success during the early 1970s, as Nixon visited the Soviet Union and discussions about arms reduction began. By the summer of 1975, however, the spirit of detente was flagging. Nixon resigned in disgrace in August 1974 over the Watergate scandal. The United States withdrew from Vietnam without securing victory; in April 1975, South Vietnam fell to communist forces. Progress on arms reduction talks with the Soviets came to a standstill. In July 1975, however, the Soviet Union and the United States attempted to reinvigorate the policy of detente by calling the CSCE in Helsinki. On August 1, the attendees signed the Helsinki Final Act. The act established the CSCE as an ongoing consultative organization, and set out a number of issues (grouped together in what came to be known as “baskets”) to be discussed in the coming months and years. These included economic and trade issues, arms reduction, and the protection of human rights.
For a brief moment, detente seemed to have been revived, but the CSCE soon became the cause for heated debates between the United States and the Soviet Union, primarily over the issue of human rights in Russia. After the signing of the Helsinki Final Act, dissidents and reformers in the Soviet Union formed what was known as the Helsinki Group, a watchdog organization to monitor the Russian government’s adherence to the protection of human rights. The Soviets crushed the Helsinki Group, arresting many of its top leaders. Human rights groups in the United States and elsewhere loudly protested the Soviet actions. The U.S. government criticized the Russians for not adhering to the spirit of the Helsinki agreement. The Soviets resented what they referred to as intrusions into their domestic matters. By mid-1978, the CSCE ceased to function in any important sense. It was revived by Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in the 1980s, and served as a foundation for his policy of closer and friendlier relations with the United States.