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The hijacking crisis of September 1970 occurred against the backdrop of a decades-long Cold War between the planet's two strongest nations. Although the United States and Soviet Union had begun a process of détente in 1970, both sides were still anxious that the other not achieve any advantage in the overall balance of power.
Mutually Assured Destruction
The key weapon of the Cold War, the nuclear bomb, was never used during that conflict, but the possibility of its use cast a long shadow. Two superpowers had emerged from World War II, the U.S. and the U.S.S.R., and they spent the years after 1945 racing to develop ever more powerful nuclear weapons. By the 1960s both sides had assembled a formidable arsenal, raising fears that any war between the two would lead to the planet's destruction. Former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt eloquently articulated these fears in a 1961 newspaper column. But there was another way of viewing the situation. The presence of so many weapons might itself deter war, since both sides knew the consequences of direct conflict would be disastrous. In 1967 Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara outlined this theory of Mutual Assured Destruction (M.A.D.). The ultimate viability of the theory is open to debate. In the Middle East and Africa the Cold War was waged by proxies of the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. with no direct military confrontation between the two superpowers. But in Asia, the U.S. was a direct participant in the Korean and Vietnam wars in the 1950s, 60s and 70s; hundreds of thousands of Americans fought and tens of thousands were killed and wounded. Still, the fact that despite this direct participation in difficult, frustrating and costly wars, the U.S. did not use nuclear weapons helps validate the M.A.D. theory. Overall the delicate balance of power was preserved, but each outbreak of hostilities, like the 1967 Six Day War, brought with it the danger that the superpowers would be drawn into armed conflict.
As the 1960s came to an end, both sides had reached rough nuclear parity but were becoming increasingly dissatisfied with the expense and danger of the status quo. Soviet premier Leonid Brezhnev wanted a better relationship with America, and U.S. president Richard Nixon, who was worried about the possibility of nuclear war and preoccupied by the Vietnam conflict, also had interest in a "détente," or improving of relations, between the two superpowers. On November 17, 1969, détente began to bear fruit with the opening in Helsinki of the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT) on nuclear weapons. But the Cold War had not yet thawed, and détente would only become possible when it became clear that the U.S. was disengaging from Vietnam. Nixon was starting to work on one of the grand foreign policy initiatives of his presidency, the opening of relations with China. In addition to reducing direct tension between the U.S. and China, Nixon hoped that a better relationship would counterbalance Soviet influence.
A Delicate Balance
When the hijacking crisis erupted, Nixon and his national security advisor, Henry Kissinger managed the American response with an eye on the overall balance of power. Washington had historically backed Israel, while Moscow supported the Arab states that often warred against it. Naturally concerned with the fate of the American hostages, Nixon and Kissinger were also aware that the replacement of Jordan's King Hussein, an Arab leader who nonetheless had good relations with the U.S., with a more militant, Soviet-supported regime could tip the balance in the Middle East and increase the threat to Israel and the pro-U.S., oil-producing monarchies. The eventual release of all the hostages unharmed, coupled with Hussein's successful war against Palestinian militants within Jordan, was therefore hailed as a major foreign policy success. And détente survived the hijacking crisis; Nixon and Brezhnev signed the first SALT treaty limiting nuclear weapons in 1972, the same year Nixon made his famous visit to China.