Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Isn't the Cold War Over?

The Trade Act adopted by the U.S. Senate in December 1974 ended the first improvement in U.S.-Soviet relations -- the famous detente initiated by President Richard Nixon's visit to Moscow in May 1972. The Jackson-Vanik Amendment deprived the Soviet Union both of the most favored nation, or MFN, status, which was extended in the agreement on mutual trade signed in 1972, and of credits. A letter from Senator Henry Jackson to Secretary of State Henry Kissinger was attached to the act. It established that the granting of no fewer than 60,000 emigration visas per year would be regarded by the Senate as "freedom of emigration" from the Soviet Union.

Both Kissinger and President Nixon regarded the trade agreement and MFN status as an important part of the general process of detente, which included agreements on limiting strategic nuclear weapons and ending the war in Vietnam. They also understood that pressure by the U.S. Congress to establish a minimum number of people permitted to emigrate from the Soviet Union might provoke the very opposite response from the Soviet leadership and put all the other agreements reached at the Moscow summit in 1972 at risk.

In the end, this is exactly what happened. Within a few days after the Trade Act was signed into law, the Soviet government announced that it considered that the Soviet-American trade agreement was no longer in force, since it was subject to the Jackson-Vanik Amendment. The number of people permitted to emigrate from the Soviet Union had reached a peak of 31,681 people in 1973. The number of visas granted by the Soviet authorities fell immediately: Only 13,221 emigration visas were issued in 1975. Over the next 10 years, Soviet-American relations were characterized by confrontation and an unprecedented arms race which cost both sides hundreds of billions of dollars.

Because of the amendment, U.S. financial markets were closed to the Soviet Union. Only 1,140 people had emigrated from the Soviet Union in 1985, and 914 people left in 1986. As a result, President Ronald Reagan could not even discuss the issue of MFN status during his first meetings with Mikhail Gorbachev. However, emigration restrictions were soon relaxed, and in 1987, 13,000 people left the Soviet Union. In 1988 106,000 people emigrated. George Bush, however, who had succeeded Reagan as U.S. president by then, did not take any real steps to remove the trade and credit discrimination against the U.S.S.R. In 1989, the Soviet government issued 235,000 emigration visas and emigration became practically free.

During Gorbachev's visit to Washington in June 1990, a trade agreement was finally signed that gave the Soviet Union MFN status. Leading members of the U.S. Congress, however, immediately announced that the Jackson-Vanik Amendment would not be repealed until the U.S.S.R. Supreme Soviet passed an emigration law and until the economic sanctions that Gorbachev had imposed on Lithuania when it declared independence had been removed. It was only in December 1990 that Bush granted MFN status to the Soviet Union for a period of six months and extended credits worth $1 billion. The U.S. Congress remained opposed to removing the limitations to U.S.-Soviet relations.

The new Russian Federation has a market economy and permits full and free emigration. In 1992 alone, the first year of reform, 618,285 people emigrated from Russia to other countries.

Today, 24 years after the Jackson-Vanik Amendment first appeared as a reaction to detente, one must think about other possible motives for using emigration as an instrument in the relationship between the two superpowers. The promise of credits and trade benefits were aimed at providing the Soviet Union with a real incentive to improve relations. It was clear even then that emigration from the Soviet Union was not Senator Jackson's main concern. It was simply a pretext that allowed him to sabotage detente and the agreements to control strategic nuclear weapons.

At that time, the military-industrial complex in the United States was developing a new, technologically improved generation of strategic and other missiles. Deploying these systems would give the United States decisive military superiority. As chairman of the Senate subcommittee on arms and an aspiring presidential candidate, Jackson wanted to prevent arms control agreements that would restrict the United States. In subsequent years, every time an agreement to limit strategic weapons seemed to be close, similar difficulties suddenly arose.

The SALT II agreement on strategic weapons, for example, which was signed by President Jimmy Carter and Leonid Brezhnev in 1979, was not ratified because it was suddenly announced that the Soviet Union had deployed a combat brigade of ground forces in Cuba. Carter knew nothing about the brigade and seemed confused. It gradually became clear that the brigade had been in Cuba since the missile crisis in 1962. As a result the U.S. demand that it be withdrawn immediately as a condition for the ratification of the SALT agreement was perceived in the Soviet Union as preposterous.

In the past American policy was defined by the determination to prevent the spread of communist ideology and to avert an enlargement of the Soviet sphere of influence. Today, the U.S. Congress does not want to offer Russia the same conditions of an equal trade partnership which 118 other countries already enjoy, regardless of whether they have market economies. Despite strong statements by President Bill Clinton in favor of repealing the amendment, it is still on the books, and none of the Soviet successor states has received permanent MFN status. Most favored nation status must still be granted by a presidential waver. The Jackson-Vanik Amendment is an anachronism, of course, but if it is repealed, the Congress seems likely to dream up some other pretext.

Zhores Medvedev is the author of "The Legacy of Chernobyl." He contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.