None of this seemed to have much to do with détente. The Kissinger-directed foreign policy of the Ford administration clearly wanted to go on having it both ways: maintaining the pose of vigorous global anti-Communism while appearing agreeable to accommodations with the many-headed hydra. Ford's European trip, begun in late May, clearly tried to perpetuate that image. He went to NATO headquarters in Brussels, where he assured European leaders that the collapse of American power in Southeast Asia would in no way lessen commitments for their protection. NATO, he asserted, was "the cornerstone of U.S. foreign policy." Then he went on to Salzburg, Rome, and Madrid.
In July, there was another meeting with the Russians. The conference, which brought together thirty-five nations on the question of security and cooperation in Europe, met at the Finnish capital of Helsinki. It was to deal with such issues as security and economic and cultural cooperation. By 1975 the optimum objective had become agreement on a new strategic-arms limitations treaty to augment the SALT I pact of 1972, but in essence, the two sides agreed to disagree, the Americans objecting to the Soviet Backfire bomber with its nuclear weapons delivery capability and the Soviets holding out for limitations on the new American cruise missile. James Schlesinger, then defense secretary, joined the Joint Chiefs of Staff in adamant opposition to accepting any reduction of the cruise missile's capability. "Indeed," as Ford has written, "Schlesinger had become the missile's greatest advocate."
With the cruise missile and the Backfire bomber remaining stumbling blocks, Ford salvaged from Helsinki an accord on human rights. In exchange for American acceptance of the inviolability of the "legitimate" postwar boundaries, the Soviets renounced their right to keep client states in line by unilateral military intervention. They also agreed to observe the basic principles of human rights in their satellite states. Ford wrote in his memoirs:
They had never recognized such international standards before. If the nations attending the conference failed to live up to their agreements, Europe would be no worse off than it had been previously, but if they made good on their promises, the cause of freedom behind the Iron Curtain would advance. That was a worthwhile goal.
But the accord was inherently more significant than that. It marked the first post-World War II Western acceptance of Soviet domination of Eastern Europe, and that was precisely its weakness for American domestic consumption. A Republican administration had, in effect, ratified the territorial aggrandizement GOP politicians had for so long condemned as the legacy of Yalta. Ford also attempted to explain to representatives of Eastern European nationals in the United States that the effort had been in exchange for a greater commitment to individual freedom and the flow of ideas; in no way did it imply approval of postwar Soviet territorial expansionism. Still, Helsinki sounded to some like another Munich. Too many viewed the outcome as "another Kissinger deal that was forced down the president's throat." In the long run, continued Soviet repression, the anger of Slavic-Americans, and a Ronald Reagan waiting to pounce on the administration as a betrayer of strength against international Communism soured any optimism about détente. Reagan himself expressed the view that all Americans should oppose what had been achieved at Helsinki.
That summer, Ford also went behind the Iron Curtain for visits to Poland and Romania. Another stopover was in Yugoslavia. In December he made a five-day visit to the People's Republic of China, continuing Nixon's opening of the "window on the East."
But, just as the annual American memorials to the post-World War II Sovietization of Eastern Europe, known as "captive nations" resolutions, were not viewed as contradicting the Helsinki accords, neither was the opening to Beijing allowed to permit any disruption of the relationship with Taiwan. The Republican platform that came out of the Kansas City presidential nominations convention in 1976 upheld the efforts to normalize relations with the mainland while pledging to "continue to support the freedom and independence of our friend and ally, the Republic of China, and its 16 million people."
By then, Ford had permitted Kissinger to design a disaster in Angola. Ironically, that involvement was the antithesis of détente and precisely consistent with the international role as prescribed by foreign policy "realists." Furthermore, the entire covert enterprise was mounted even while two congressional committees were investigating the CIA's subversion of other governments. When more became known about what had been happening in that Portuguese part of Africa, critics wondered how such a quagmire could have been risked so soon after Vietnam.
The familiar explanations were ultimately made: the United States could not ignore Soviet and Cuban attempts to gain an African foothold when Angola was to receive independence on 11 November 1975. The actual facts were somewhat different. The "40 Committee," which directed intelligence operations, was dominated by Kissinger. It underwrote and directed covert activities before America's NATO ally Portugal relinquished its colony of Angola. The ostensible idea was to beat the Communists to the punch. Whichever side could win elections scheduled just before independence would control the new government. Before the enterprise reached its dead end, more than $30 million had been spent and another foreign misadventure had occurred. Moreover, when Congress got wind of all this, both the Senate and the House voted to deny the use of defense funds in Angola for fiscal year 1976.
John Stockwell, the chief of the CIA Angola task force, later revealed how Washington had made the first move. The CIA lied to Congress and to the 40 Committee. Kissinger, pushing the agency into the covert operation, "was determined the Soviets should not be permitted to make a move in any remote part of the world without being confronted militarily by the United States." He was further motivated by the need to repair American relations with neighboring Zaire, where the prospect of a nearby Soviet-backed government raised fears of control of a vital railroad line. The State Department had therefore decided to get behind Zaire by supporting its concerns about Angola. "Clearly, the United States wanted this war," Stockwell found out when arriving to take up the assignment. The American role was hidden from the public, while propaganda stressed the Soviet menace in Africa. Meanwhile, as Stockwell points out, covert military operations were carried out under "suicidal circumstances." The Soviets responded by helping their clients, who turned out to be far more capable.
The revelations that provoked the congressional revolt denying further funds constituted, as John Osborne noted, "a crushing repudiation of Kissinger's and President Ford's view that 'resistance to Soviet expansion by military means must be a fundamental element of U.S. foreign policy' and justifies covert intervention in such places and situations as Angola." The ultimate result was counterproductive. With the cutoff of funds for 1976, the field was left clear for the introduction of far more Cuban troops and Soviet arms. The Russians got their victory by default. Stockwell, summarizing the episode, concluded, "Most serious of all, the United States was exposed, dishonored and discredited in the eyes of the world. We had lost and fifteen thousand Cubans were installed in Angola with all the adulation accruing to a young David who has slain the American Goliath."