Abstract

Drawing on “critical oral history” conferences held after the demise of the Soviet Union, this article seeks to explain why the détente in U.S.-Soviet relations collapsed at the end of the 1970s. Both the U.S. president, Jimmy Carter, and the Soviet Communist Party leader, Leonid Brezhnev, had sought to improve bilateral ties, but instead they found that the relationship deteriorated and then broke down altogether after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. The article suggests that neither side had a sufficient appreciation of how the other side perceived the relationship. The authors argue that the critical oral history helped officials on both sides to develop a sense of empathy for how the other side viewed its own interests and objectives. Empathy does not imply any sympathy; instead, it merely entails an effort to understand the other side's perceptions and goals. Presenting excerpts from an oral history conference, the authors argue that greater empathy in the policymaking process might have helped to avoid an outcome that neither side desired.

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