By the mid-1960s, Cold War neutralism had matured as a distinct force in international affairs. As the Vietnam conflict monopolized America's attention, neutral states both in Europe and in the Third World became more assertive and outspoken. The two blocs that defined the Cold War ever so slowly succumbed to a new international order. The appeal of neutralism threatened to challenge America's control over the western bloc at the same time that the Soviet Union met with only limited success in wooing the neutrals. Harto Hakovirta, in an article titled "The Soviet Union and the Varieties of Neutrality in Western Europe," observed that "at the height of the Cold War in the 1940s and 1950s, a tendency toward absolute alliance was dominant; but, starting roughly in 1963, the direction seemed to reverse itself. Cold-war structures began to crumble, and the United States gradually lost control over its West European partners."
The United Nations provided a major forum for neutrals to voice their concerns. The composition of that organization changed significantly in the years after the end of World War II as its membership expanded to include newly independent Asian and African states, many of which embraced nonalignment. In 1964, these states formed a caucus, the Group of Seventy-seven (the number of members would increase in subsequent years), that, constituting a two-thirds majority, could effectively control the General Assembly. Although these new states resisted Soviet efforts to assume a role of leadership, they could often count on Soviet support. In contrast to the immediate postwar years, the United States no longer dominated the United Nations, and faced criticism and opposition from the membership.
Neutrals in the United Nations became increasingly outspoken on many issues—the need to reduce Cold War tensions, colonialism, and, importantly, nuclear proliferation. As early as 1961, neutrals took up the cause of nuclear disarmament. In that year, Swedish Foreign Minister Bo Östen Unden, addressing the General Assembly, called upon the nonnuclear members to band together to pressure the nuclear powers to reduce their armaments. Later, in a noteworthy success in the crusade to reduce the spread of nuclear weapons, neutral states played a role in the promulgation of the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. The terms of this treaty, after initially being negotiated by the Soviet Union and the United States, were revised and then submitted to the UN General Assembly by an eighteen-nation disarmament committee. In addition to five representatives each from the Western and Eastern blocs, eight neutral states were represented on this committee.
While the United States welcomed support for attempts to curtail the arms race, on some issues its interests were pitted against the neutral position. America's strong support for Israel and its intervention in Vietnam are prominent examples. Vietnam particularly exposed the United States to charges of being an imperialist power bent on pursuing its own ends, with no consideration for the Third World countries trying to overcome their years under colonialism. As opposition to American involvement grew, Sweden and India stood out among critics of that war.
By words and deeds, Sweden made its opposition known. In 1966, citing its commitment to freedom of speech and assembly, the Swedish government ignored Washington's protests and permitted the Bertrand Russell War Crimes Tribunal, made up of a long list of prominent critics of American policy, to meet in Stockholm. Sweden also granted asylum to draft dodgers and military deserters. The numbers seeking safe haven grew significantly in the late 1960s. Prime Minister Olof Palme further strained U.S.–Swedish relations when in December 1972 he likened the massive Christmas bombing of North Vietnam to past Nazi atrocities. Most damaging to U.S.–Swedish relations, in 1969 Sweden became the first Western nation to extend full diplomatic recognition to North Vietnam. Presidents Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon both threatened, but did not follow through on, economic sanctions.
Prime Minister Indira Gandhi of India incurred the wrath of the Johnson administration in 1966 when she publicly condemned U.S. bombing of North Vietnam, prompting Washington to postpone needed agricultural aid to her country. This, combined with the continued U.S. support for Pakistan, put a real strain on U.S.–Indian relations.
In Europe, the United States feared a weakening of the Western alliance and a drift toward neutralism among its allies. Following the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, the United States, chastened by the possibility of nuclear annihilation, gradually adopted détente to reduce tensions with the Soviet bloc. Beginning in 1969, President Richard Nixon and his national security adviser (and later secretary of state), Henry Kissinger, made détente the cornerstone of their foreign policy. As their efforts probed the possibility that the divide between the two superpowers might be narrowed, Willy Brandt, foreign minister of West Germany from 1966 to 1969 and chancellor from 1969 to 1974, pursued his own form of détente, Ostpolitik, an independent effort by West Germany to resolve the differences with East Germany and the Soviet Union. Between 1970 and 1972, his diplomatic efforts led to treaties with Poland and the Soviet Union, and ultimately normalization of relations with East Germany.
Brandt's Ostpolitik in many respects coincided with Nixon's quest to improve relations with the Soviet Union. But Kissinger feared that Ostpolitik represented a drift toward neutralism and the possible resurgence of German nationalism. He worried that it might create fissures in the Western alliance, give the advantage to the Soviet Union, and consequently hinder the détente at the superpower level that he and Nixon were so intent upon pursuing. While the United States could not oppose Ostpolitik, its support for these initiatives was lukewarm.
As détente changed the dynamics of the Cold War, neutral states in Europe willingly assumed a role as bridge-builders between the competing blocs. They helped facilitate the resolution of Cold War disputes. Beginning in 1969, Helsinki and Vienna provided the settings for arms control negotiations that resulted in the first Strategic Arms Limitations Treaty in 1972. More significant, Finland played a prominent role in encouraging negotiations in the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (1975). Jussi Hanhimäki, in his study Scandinavia and the United States: An Insecure Friendship, characterized the role of Finland, along with its Scandinavian neighbors including Sweden, as that of "midwives, providing the services and the medium needed for the conclusion of the agreements." He conceded that the agreements would not have come about without Brandt's Ostpolitik, Nixon's efforts at détente, and the Soviet desire for recognition of the postwar borders. But with its commitment to bridge-building, neutral Finland was a valuable vehicle for fostering and moving these negotiations forward.
By the 1980s, great strides had been made in narrowing the chasm created by the Cold War. Although this trend would experience setbacks during the early years of Ronald Reagan's presidency, when Reagan returned to confrontational politics of the earlier Cold War, and although consequently the U.S.-neutral relationship would decline, with Mikhail Gorbachev's rise to power in the Soviet Union, the momentum spawned by détente resumed in the late 1980s. Likewise, the interest of neutrals in reducing nuclear armaments and easing East-West tensions increasingly coincided with Reagan administration policy. Washington welcomed neutral support. Through the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe and other means, neutrals worked to maintain the momentum of improving relations between the two superpowers. Just as the neutrals had played a role in the events of the era of détente, so as bridge builders they served America's policy interests and facilitated the exchanges leading to the end of the Cold War.
With the end of the Cold War, neutralism effectively became an anachronism. Nevertheless, for nearly five decades, it was a third force that American policy had with varying degrees of success addressed in its rivalry with the Soviet Union. U.S. policy that became established during the first two decades of the Cold War for the most part successfully steered a course that, with relatively few exceptions, preserved a good relationship with Europe's neutrals—if not promoting, at least not hindering—America's Cold War goals. This success to a large extent was attributable to the fact that Europe's neutrals shared political, economic, and cultural values and interests with the United States. Relations with Third World neutrals were more troublesome. Anticolonial feelings and the growing tide of nationalism that U.S. policymakers often misunderstood and resisted, strained relationships and opened opportunities for the Soviet Union. Cold War perspectives and global concerns regularly obfuscated policymakers' appreciation of the Third World neutral position, and the Soviet Union often stepped in to exploit the situation.