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Buried in the Sands of the Ogaden

The United States, the Horn of Africa, and the Demise of Détente

Louise P. Woodroofe

Publication Year: 2013

When the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT) between the Soviet Union and United States faltered during the administration of Jimmy Carter, National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski claimed that “SALT lies buried in the sands of the Ogaden.” How did superpower détente survive Vietnam but stumble in the Horn of Africa? Historian Louise Woodroofe takes Brzezinski’s claim as a starting point to analyze superpower relations during the 1970s, and in so doing she reveals how conflict in East Africa became a critical turning point in the ongoing Cold War battle for supremacy.

Despite representing the era of détente, the 1970s superficially appeared to be one of Soviet successes and American setbacks. As such, the Soviet Union wanted the United States to recognize it as an equal power. However, Washington interpreted détente as a series of agreements and compromises designed to draw Moscow into an international system through which the United States could exercise some control over its rival, particularly in the Third World. These differing interpretations would prove to be the inherent flaw of détente, and nowhere was this better demonstrated than in the conflict in the Horn of Africa in 1974–78.

The Ogaden War between Ethiopia and Somalia involved a web of shifting loyalties, as the United States and Soviet Union alternately supported both sides at different points. Woodroofe explores how the war represented a larger debate over U.S. foreign policy, which led Carter to take a much harder line against the Soviet Union. In a crucial post-Vietnam test of U.S. power, the American foreign policy establishment was unable to move beyond the prism of competition with the Soviet Union.

The conflict and its superpower involvement turned out to be disasters for all involved, and many of the region’s current difficulties trace their historic antecedents to this period. Soviet assistance propped up an Ethiopian regime that terrorized its people, reorganized its agricultural system to disastrous effects in the well-known famines of the 1980s, and kept it one of the poorest countries in the world. Somalia’s defeat in the Ogaden War started its descent into a failed state. Eritrea, which had successfully fought Ethiopia prior to the introduction of Soviet and Cuban assistance, had to endure more than a decade more of repression.

Published by: The Kent State University Press

Series: New Studies in U.S. Foreign Relations Series


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pp. 1-1

Title Page, Series Page, Copyright

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pp. 2-5

Table of Contents

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pp. vi-7

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pp. vii-9

I owe several institutions and individuals sincere gratitude for their support throughout the research and writing of this manuscript. To begin with, I received financial assistance in the form of studentships and travel grants from the International History Department at the London School of Economics. Additionally, the delightful and generous staff, especially Helmi Raaska, at the Gerald Ford ...

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pp. 1-13

At the beginning of 1977, the United States and the Soviet Union were still engaged in an era of détente, a reduction of tensions between the superpowers largely developed at the start of the decade by former U.S. president Richard Nixon and Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev. However, the honeymoon period was over. In addition to problems over iss...

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1 "I Hadn't the Foggiest Idea."

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pp. 14-38

The United States considered the Horn of Africa a diplomatic backwater in the early 1970s. However, the eruption of Cold War competition for the loyalties of Ethiopia and Somalia would serve to ensure that President Gerald Ford took notice of the impoverished region. Secretary of State and National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger concisely summed up the classic Cold War paradox for the designers of American...

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2 "Why Just 'Wait and See'?"

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pp. 39-62

President Jimmy Carter took office in 1977 promising a new sense of idealism in American foreign policy. The Vietnam humiliation and the domestic scandals of the Nixon administration stirred in the American people a renewed taste for morality in the way the United States conducted itself. The voters had chosen an obscure southern governor...

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3 "We Have Expressed Our Conern to the Soviets."

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pp. 63-82

The still-inexperienced administration had committed a serious error in not anticipating that Siad Barre might take the initiative to invade the Ogaden after the United States had agreed to send arms to Somalia. The dictator’s ambitions in the Ogaden were well known, and the connection with his requests for arms should have been obvious. The trap of operating within the narrow confines of competition with the Soviet Union discouraged ...

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4 "Where the Two of Us Part"

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pp. 83-105

The history of American foreign policy includes a long list of debates on how the United States should intervene abroad. Friends and enemies have changed, but at heart of many of these arguments were differing concepts of what a “moral” foreign policy should look like. The Cyrus Vance–Zbigniew Brzezinski argument about Soviet intervention...

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5 "No Soviet Napoleon in Africa"

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pp. 106-128

The period from late May 1978 until the Soviet military intervention in Afghanistan on Christmas Day 1979 represented a fundamental change in the conduct of American Cold War policy. This transformation was influenced by more than one factor, as indicated by the events and debates mentioned in previous chapters. However, a curious...

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pp. 129-137

There was perhaps a brief window of time during which the United States had the opportunity to abandon the concept of containment and form a new approach to waging the Cold War. This particularly could have benefited the Third World, where superpower conflict caused the most damage—and its ill effects are today evident in the poverty...


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pp. 138-159


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pp. 160-165


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pp. 166-177

back cover

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pp. 178-178

E-ISBN-13: 9781612777214
E-ISBN-10: 161277721X
Print-ISBN-13: 9781606351840

Page Count: 176
Publication Year: 2013

Series Title: New Studies in U.S. Foreign Relations Series
Series Editor Byline: Mary Ann Heiss See more Books in this Series

OCLC Number: 867739256
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Buried in the Sands of the Ogaden

Research Areas


Subject Headings

  • Somali-Ethiopian Conflict, 1977-1979 -- Diplomatic history.
  • Horn of Africa -- Strategic aspects.
  • Detente.
  • United States -- Foreign relations -- 1977-1981.
  • United States -- Foreign relations -- Soviet Union.
  • Soviet Union -- Foreign relations -- United States.
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