Détente – Definition, Policy & Cold War

After years of rising tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union, the two superpowers embarked on an era of détente diplomacy from 1969 to 1979. Amplified by the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, the “thaw” of Cold War tensions by Presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford and Soviet General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev marked a decade of improved relations between nations, increased trade, negotiation and signing of key treaties on nuclear weapons.

Detente followed the period of rising Cold War tensions

Détente, French for “relaxation,” is “a process of managing relations with a potentially hostile country in order to preserve peace while safeguarding our vital interests,” Henry Kissinger, then U.S. secretary of state, told a committee of the Congress in 1974, while warning that such a relationship comes up against “precise limits”.

Despite early nuclear weapons agreements such as the 1963 Limited Test Ban Treaty that followed the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Vietnam War heightened tensions between the United States and the Soviets, while the Anti-war protests and domestic pressures were mounting.

But with both countries facing significant economic impacts from the arms race and military spending, as well as the Sino-Soviet split, there was strong pressure on both sides to ease geopolitical relations and engage in talks on arms control.

Richard Nixon and Leonid Brezhnev meet

Shortly after Nixon’s historic visit to China in February 1972, he began a series of meetings with Brezhnev, then General Secretary of the Soviet Communist Party, where, according to the Richard Nixon Foundation, mistrust turned into friendship.

The first US president to visit the Soviet Union since 1945, Nixon and Brezhnev took part in three historic groundbreaking summits while both in office, the first in May 1972, followed by Brezhnev’s visit to Washington in June 1973 and a return trip to Moscow by Nixon. in June/July 1974, totaling more than 100 hours.

“I felt that the relationship between the United States and the Soviet Union would probably be the single most important factor in determining whether the world would live in peace during and after my administration,” Nixon wrote in his memoirs.

Summits and Treaties

Earlier arms agreements, including the Partial Test Ban Treaty of 1963 and the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty of 1968, helped lay the groundwork for future detente agreements. Started in 1967 between President Lyndon B. Johnson and Soviet Premier Alexi Kosygin, the Strategic Arms Limitation (SALT) talks, continued by Nixon and Brezhnev at their 1972 summit, eventually led to the signing of the treaty. SALT I. The agreement limited the number of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) the two sides could have in their arsenals and allowed each nation to build two missile defense sites.

The 1975 Helsinki Final Act followed. Signed by 35 nations at the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe, it not only focused on military issues and the definition of political borders, but also advanced opportunities for increased commercial and scientific cooperation and promoted cultural exchange, human rights and freedom of the press.

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soviet leader, leonid brezhnev, the cold war, gerald ford

President Gerald Ford met with Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev in the Soviet Union in November 1974 as part of an effort to normalize relations during the Cold War.

After years of negotiations between Presidents Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter and Brezhnev, Carter and the Soviet leader agreed to and signed the SALT II negotiations in 1979, which established an equal number of nuclear weapons between the countries and limited MIRV missiles , among other guidelines.

But with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, Carter delayed his ratification, as did Brezhnev, although both agreed to abide by the treaty.

The end of relaxation

With the continued stalled arms talks and rising tensions between the United States and the Soviets after the invasion, the era of détente was deteriorating.

“As long as this invasion continues, we and the other nations of the world cannot do business as usual with the Soviet Union,” Carter said during his State of the Union address on January 23, 1980. , announcing tough economic sanctions against the Soviet Union, a ban on permits for Soviet vessels to fish in US coastal waters, cutting off access to high-tech and agricultural products, and other trade limitations. “And I have informed the Olympic Committee that with the Soviet invading forces in Afghanistan, neither the American people nor I will support sending an Olympic team to Moscow.”

Carter’s support for Afghan and Pakistani troops and the American boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics, followed by the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980 who called the détente “a one-way street that the Soviet Union used to pursue its goals” and, in 1983 called the nation an “evil empire”, ended the era of détente as the Cold War escalated again.


“Nixon and Brezhnev – Partners in Detente,” Richard Nixon Foundation.

“The Cold War, 1961-1972”, BBC Bitesize.

“Detente and Arms Control, 1969-1979,” Office of Historian, US Department of State.

“Détente: A History of Ups and Downs in US-Soviet Relations”, The New York Times.

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