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An Outline of American History
Post-Vietnam Foreign Policy
by U.S. Department of State


In the aftermath of the Vietnam War, the United States continued to pursue an active policy in world affairs, addressing issues in Europe, the Middle East and Latin America. However, in the late 1970s, serious problems emerged in relations with the Soviet Union, and particularly with Iran.

President Ford continued the Nixon administration policy of pursuing detente with the Soviet Union. In November 1974, Ford met with Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev in Vladivostok. The meeting resulted in a preliminary agreement on further U.S.-Soviet arms control measures. It also helped pave the way for a multi-nation conference in Helsinki, Finland, in 1975.

The Helsinki Conference, the largest summit meeting in European history, was attended by the leaders of 35 European countries as well as the United States and Canada. The conference produced a historic 30,000-word Final Act, which incorporated some significant points championed by Western countries as well as some advocated by regimes in the Eastern bloc. It recognized the permanence of the changes in European borders after World War II -- an acknowledgment that Moscow had long sought. The Helsinki Final Act also contained pledges to respect individual rights and human liberties. Western nations hoped to increase pressure on Eastern bloc governments by getting them to sign the pledge. In fact, Western nations effectively used periodic "Helsinki review meetings" to call attention to various abuses of human rights by communist regimes of the Eastern bloc.

President Jimmy Carter helped to achieve a significant breakthrough between Egypt and Israel in which these countries ended 30 years in a state of war. Acting as both mediator and participant, Carter met in 1978 at Camp David, Maryland, the presidential retreat, with Egyptian President Anwar al-Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin to negotiate a peace settlement. Both leaders returned to the United States to sign the peace treaty at The White House in March 1979.

After protracted and often emotional debate, Carter also secured Senate ratification of treaties returning the Panama Canal to Panama by the year 2000. And he followed Nixon's lead as he extended formal diplomatic recognition to the People's Republic of China.

But Carter enjoyed less success with the Soviet Union. Though he assumed office with detente at high tide and declared that the United States had escaped its "inordinate fear of communism," his insistence that "our commitment to human rights must be absolute" antagonized the Soviet government. A SALT II agreement further limiting nuclear stockpiles was signed, but not ratified by the U.S. Senate, in part to protest the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. That same year Carter began a defense build-up that paved the way for the huge expenditures of the 1980s.

In 1979 Carter encountered even more trouble with Iran. After a fundamentalist revolution, led by Shiite Muslim leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, replaced a corrupt but friendly regime, Carter admitted the deposed shah to the United States for medical treatment. Angry Iranian militants seized the American embassy in Teheran and held 53 American hostages for more than a year. Despite his efforts, Carter could not secure their release, and his failure contributed to his electoral defeat.

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