In 1990, at the end of a long doctoral oral exam, I tried to lighten the load of the Ph.D. candidate. “Of the hundreds of books you read in preparation what are the worst and the best,” I asked. He groped about for the worst: he could think of many contenders, but his award for the best came swiftly: Raymond Garthoff's Détente and Confrontation. I gulped, thinking the student was trying some transparent flattery. I customarily spend a couple of weeks in a graduate reading seminar analyzing Détente and Confrontation. “Not the heaviest, but the best,” I said.
The student then explained what makes Garthoff's book so good: Its reflections by a participant who is refreshingly modest, not a know-it-all; its vast command of available U.S. and Soviet sources; its masterful grasp of the interplay between domestic and foreign policy considerations; its demonstration that Soviet policy, like American, resulted from a complicated mixture of internal and external forces. I probed deeper. “Don't you believe it is really three books, one on the Nixon-Ford period, one on the Carter administration, and one on Reagan? The first section, down to 1976, is splendid, but the analysis in the last six hundred pages may not stand the test of time. Wouldn't many historians resist the predictions in the last section decrying the Reagan administration's anti-Soviet bluster?” Alright, he agreed, maybe the sections on the Nixon-Ford period were so richly detailed that the discussion of the Carter years suffered by comparison, and the account of the Reagan administration's early belligerence toward Moscow did not completely predict the future.