The Final Act Cover

The Final Act

The Helsinki Accords and the Transformation of the Cold War

Michael Cotey Morgan

Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey, 2018, 424 pages

Book Review published on: January 25, 2019

The Final Act: The Helsinki Accords and the Transformation of the Cold War examines the origins and consequences of the 1975 Helsinki Final Act, the most ambitious diplomatic undertaking of the Cold War and a watershed in the development of human rights. Michael Cotey Morgan’s research of participating governments’ official archived documents, manuscripts, newspaper reports, and personal papers provide the first in-depth account of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe and its capstone agreement: the Helsinki Final Act. Morgan argues that the Helsinki Final Act serves as a blueprint for ending the Cold War.

The Final Act opens in describing the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe and the Helsinki Final Act as a Soviet idea designed to bring closure to the end of World War II, give legitimacy to Eastern European borders, settle the German question, and gain access to Western technology. Leonid Brezhnev, general secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, argued that peace and the reduction of tensions were required in creating favorable conditions for internal development and to buy time to win the struggle against imperialism. Brezhnev believed that diplomacy alone could not build peace. Military power was necessary in order to guarantee the Soviet Union’s security, confirm its preeminent position in the society of states, and reassert its role within the international communist movement.

Morgan describes Brezhnev’s peaceful concept of ending state on state war, especially in Europe. Diplomatic agreements to recognize territorial and political status quo would eliminate the threat of future conflicts and reinvigorate the Soviet system. Brezhnev’s strategy acknowledged the Soviet Union’s economic dependence on the West. Socialism would not defeat capitalism but rather feed off of it. The irony of Brezhnev’s concept of peace is that the Soviet Union would continue planting seeds of future conflict through support of revolutionary movements aboard while Brezhnev pursued diplomatic agreements to bring conflict to an end.

The challenges of the 1960s posed a serious problem for both the Soviet Union and its Warsaw Pact allies and for the United States and its NATO allies. Morgan describes this period as the crisis of legitimacy that threatened both alliances. The Cold War had stabilized removing first the fear of aggression and then accidental war. Members of both Warsaw Pact and NATO demanded greater freedom of action as they looked inward toward domestic issues. Young people questioned the long-standing political and social conventions. The economic systems that had operated since the Cold War began to sputter, sowing doubts about the long-term viability of both capitalism and communism.

Morgan asserts the Helsinki Conference should have never occurred due to skepticism of the West and NATO preconditions. He states that the Soviets had first floated a similar undertaking in 1954 that Western leaders refused to take part in. Member nations of both alliances had concerns that the Soviet Union and United States would abandon them for their own self-interests in reaching an agreement on the Helsinki Final Act. In some cases, member nations in both alliances had agendas that competed with their alliances. For example, both Poland and East Germany feared the Soviet Union would abandon them on their desire for international recognition of their borders. They refused to let the Kremlin dictate Warsaw Pact policy and considered taking unilateral action on the subjects that mattered most to them.

Missing from The Final Act is the role played by the Reagan administration abandonment of détente in favor of challenging the Soviets in Afghanistan, Central America, and Europe. Reagan’s massive military buildup of the 1980s including the Strategic Defense Initiative along with a robust information campaign amplifying the failures and oppressive nature of the Soviet system stretched the Soviet Union to the breaking point. Rigid Soviet policy makers found themselves conceding to the West on a variety of human rights, freedom of movement, and confidence building measures. The Helsinki Final Act rejected the Brezhnev doctrine, provided for German reunification, endorsed human rights as a core principle of international security, committed countries to greater transparency, promoted freer movement of people and ideas, and set the conditions for the end of the Cold War.

The Final Act describes a seminal moment in the Cold War when leaders, policy makers, and diplomats on competing sides succeeded in putting aside their agendas to cooperate in setting the conditions to end the Cold War. The Final Act: The Helsinki Accords and the Transformation of the Cold War is a must read for policy makers and academia desiring a better understanding of international relations and the Cold War.

Book Review written by: Jesse McIntyre III, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas