This book is a bit dry, but it is an invaluable discussion of its subject, Soviet-American diplomacy in the seventies. Garthoff was a diplomat at the time, and his account is based on a wide reading of all availabe sources. Although neither side was as imaginative or informed or as sensitive as they should have been, Garthoff presents a compelling case that the United States was responsible for botching the opportunities for peace in this period. The case is even more compelling because Garthoff is so moderate and quiet in his argument. Much of the debate on detente has been confined to the Republican party, and to those Democrats who supported Republican policy. According to this limited debate, supporters of Ronald Reagan criticized the supporters of Nixon and Kissinger for their unduly idealistic view of a rapprochment with the Soviets. Naturally Nixon and Kissinger argued that their view was the height of realism. A slightly different version of this debate would be held in the Carter administration as national security adviser Zbigniew Brezezinski criticized Secretary of State Cyrus Vance while neoconservatives damned Carter as an appeaser.
With the possible exception of Vance these arguments were wrong from beginning to end. If Nixon and Kissinger ever believed that Russia could be a "normal power," they overreacted and panicked whenever the Soviet Union sought, like a normal power, to expand its influence. Out of spite towards Indira Gandhi and warped realpolitik, Kissinger and Nixon deluded themselves that India, with Soviet encouragement, was going to attack Pakistan while the latter was slaughtering Bangladeshis. In fact the opposite happened (and Pakistan lost). Garthoff shows how Kissinger and Nixon paid insufficient attention to the technicalities of the arms race, so the number of nuclear arms boomed in the aftermath of SALT I. Garthoff's account of the Yom Kippur war, in which Nixon was in a drunken haze and Kissinger brought the world to the brink of war because he panicked and incorrectly thought the Russians were going to intervene, is, as they say, worth the price of the book itself.
Similar problems occured in Angola, Yemen, Ethiopa and Afghanistan. Essentially knowing nothing about these countries, many Americans viewed them as part of a cunning Soviet plot to expand its influence. In fact Communist agression was exagerrated (as in Yemen), or the Communists were not the aggressive party (as in Ethiopia's war with Somalia). Americans saw the brutal Soviet invasion of Afghanistan as part of a cunning plot to seize the world's oil reserves, when in fact it was a strictly local response to the incompetence of the Afghani party. (Who in turn had come to power almost by accident. They had reacted to a crackdown by the military government and found themselves in power.) Garthoff's account of these countries is especially detailed and well-informed.
By the 1980 election conservatives had claimed that there was a window of vulnerability and that the Soviet Union could conceivably defeat the United States in a first strike. This was, as Garthoff shows, a fantasy. Most American missiles were not even in landed silos, and a far greater percentage of Russian missiles were. Even if the best possible Soviet scenario, they could not reasonably expect to destroy more than a fifth of the US arsenal. By contrast, the Americans in the worst scenario could threaten to destroy two-fifths of the Russian one. Garthoff's book ends in an atmosphere of fear and ignorance. One should read his sequel, The Great Transition, to read how the World got out of this mess.