The Origins of Detente, 1969-72

Detente refers to a relaxation in tension between the two superpowers. 

Reasons for the USA to pursue detente 

  • Vietnam - Weakened moral authority of the US, as well as costing US $30 billion. Nixon hoped withdrawal would be more likely by improving relations with the USSR, who supported the Vietcong.
  • Economy - Inflation reached 6% in 1970, and unemployment had risen to more than 5%. Detente would offer a solution by creating a reduction in defence spending. 
  • Kissinger's realpolitik - Detente was an expression of realpolitik - focused on practical issues.

Reasons for USSR to pursue detente 

  • Economy - Economy of USSR was roughly 1/6 the size of the USA's. Cut in defence spending.
  • Nuclear parity - By the end of 1969, USA had 28,200 nuclear warheads, USSR = 11,000. 
  • China - The Politburo feared an anti-Soviet alliance between the USA and China. 
  • The Third World - By improving relations with the USA, extending influence in the Third World would be more likely without risking conflict. 
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The Key Features of Detente, 1970-75

The Moscow Summit, 1972
Nixon and Brezhnev set out the basis of new relationship. It established SALT 1 and the Basic Principles Agreement:

SALT I, 1972

  • The Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty: Restricted the USA and USSR to two anti-ballistic missile shields each. Each anti-ballistic missile was restricted to 100 missiles. The further development of anti-ballistic missile technology was restricted. 
  • The Interim Agreement of Offensive Missiles: Limited the number of missile launchers and submarine-based launchers for both superpowers. It was due to last for five years in anticipation for a full agreement to be drawn up in 1997.

The Basic Principles Agreement, 1972

  • 12 fundamental principles designed to underpin superpower relations.
  • Acceptance that the superpowers would co-exist peacefully, recognise eachother as equals, exercise restraint at times of crisis and avoid confrontation. Also negotited trade deals between the two superpowers, and made the relationship more stable.
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The Key Features of Detente, 1970-75 continued...

European Ostpolitik

  • This policy was advanced by the West German leader Brandt, designed to improve relationships between NATO and the Warsaw Pact countries.
  • The underlying objective was the reunification of Germany. Brandt signed the Treaty of Moscow and the Basic Principles Treaty, and in doing so, accepted the existing borders between East and West Germany. This was the first stage in dialogue with East Germany.
  • Eastern bloc countries welcomed Ostpolik as it would help improve trading with the West whilst giving them access to Western technology.
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The Key Features of Detente, 1970-75 continued...

The Helsinki Accords, 1975

  • Comprehensive framework governing relatinos between Eastern and Western Europe.
  • Basket One, Security issues: European states wouldn't interfer in another's internal affairs. In addition, promised to respect one another's borders.
  • Basket Two, Economic, cultural issues etc: European states pledged to co-operate on matters of mutual interest and to foster good trading relations across Europe. Agreed to share Western technology with the East.
  • Basket Three, Human rights: European states pledged to respect the human rights of their citizens. Pledged to relax travel restrictions across Europe.

The unforseen problems of the Helsinki Accords

  • Economic cooperation highlighted inferiority of communist economies. Led to an 'ideological subversion': citizens began to question efficiency of the communist economy.
  • Travel restrictions relaxed: became aware of culture of Western Europe
  • USSR did not respect human rights of their citizens: political repression
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The oil price shock

October 1973 - in response to Yom Kippur war, OPEC launched a complete oil embargo against Israel's allies, including the USA. The crisis led to a four-fold increase in the price of oil in a year.

The economic realities of detente in the West

  • Countries responded to the oil crisis with innovation and reform
  • Created more efficient engines and tapped new sources of fuel
  • G7 group was created - bringing about economic stability at an international level
  • Between 1974-8, there was a return to oil price stability.

The economic realities of detente in the East

  • From 1970, economy began a marked decline.
  • Brezhnev ordered a return to central planning and traditional methods, which were insufficient.
  • the USSR had borrowed money from the West in the early 1970s, and a rise in interest rates in the later 1970s hit the USSR hard.
  • Critics of detente in the US tried to limit trade agreements between America and the USSR. Jackson-Vanik amendment in 1974 only allowed trade if USSR protected human rights. In response the USSR pulled out of the trade deal, denying them access to US tech.
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The oil price shock continued...

The significance of the economic imbalance

  • At the same time as the USSR's economy was in decline, the growing strength of the US economy led to an imbalance of power between the East and West. It was no accident that hte USA became less committed to detente as the economic imbalance moved in favour of the USA.
  • The OPEC crisis emphasised the importance of safeguarding oil reserves. This turend the attention of the US leaders to the middle east, an oil-rich region of the world. As a result, US leaders were extremely concerned about any expansion of Soviet influence in the Middle East as they feared it may lead to another oil crisis.
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How successful was detente to 1976?


  • Talks in the SALT 1 treaties established dialogue between the two superpowers.
  • SALT 1 established a degree of nuclear parity by reducing the number of weapons on both sides. Stablised relationship and reduced the competitive element of the arms race.
  • US defence spending was reduced significantly as a result of the withdrawal from Vietnam. 1970, $406 billion - 1976, $284 billion.
  • Between 1974-5, the USSR increased imports from the West by 96%.
  • Basic Principles Agreement: established a framework to resolve issues
  • Helsinki Accords set out a framework in which relations could be managed


  • Interim Treaty omitted new techno developments: MIRV. There was no ban on anti-satellite weapons or restrictions on long-range bombers. The technological advantage still lay with US.
  • Some agreements came to nothing e.g. Jackson-Vanik amendment curtailed the trade.
  • Economic growth in USSr declined consistently between 1970-6. Detente did nothing to halt imbalance of economic power.
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Critics of detente

Critics of detente in the USA, 1970-75

  • 1970 - Moscow  Human Rights Committee established contact with Amnesty International to monister human rights abuses in USSR. Embarrassing for US government as there were continuing human rights violations on the part of the USSR.
  • George Meany, a union leader, argued detente allowed for the USSR to grow in strength. His union refused to load grain onto ships bound for the USSR.
  • Theodore Draper, a US historian, argued that trade allowed USSR to grow stronger through cheap imports of grain and US technology. US got nothing from the deal apart from a 'smile from Brezhnev'

The 1976 presidential election

  • The democrats, who hoped to take back the white house, criticised detente. They argued that the Helsinki Accords were largely meaningless, as Eastern European countries were refusing to honour the sections of the agreement dealing with human rights.
  • They pointed to the KGB's suppression of a Helsinki monitoring group in 1976.
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Critics of detente continued...

The rise of neo-conservatives

  • During Carter's presidency that critics of detente became more vocal. More strident anti-communist views were associated with the rise of neo-conservatives.
  • Although associated with Reagan, growing influence was evident under Carter.
  • For example, a more hard-line appraoch was encouraged by Cart'ers National Security Advisor, Brzezinski.

Critics of detente in the USSR

  • a member of the Politburo - US was engaged in the Vietnam War, a war with a communist nation. Tensions over the Vietnam war almost led to the cancellation of the Moscow Summit of 1972, as it coincided with a massive escalation of the war in Vietnam.
  • Detente did nothing to challenge US dominance in the West, and thus it would do nothing to advance the USSR's goal of spreading communism.
  • Nixon's fall from power raised questions about the stability of the US government and the possibility of a long-term agreement.
  • However, Brezhnev remained committed to detente, mentioning it favourably in his speech to the1976 Party Congress.
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Detente in decline

Detente under Carter

Jimmy Carter became President in 1977, and faced two major problems in foreign policy. 1) SALT I was an interim agreement, and talks for SALT II were progressing slowly. 2) detente was extremely unpopular with the American public.

SALT II (1979 eventually signed)

  • 1974 - USA + USSR agreed on the 'Vladivostok Framework'. Each superpower would be allowed an 'equal ceiling' of 2400 missiles and bombers.
  • Setbacks when Carter took office, he rejected this agreement. A year later, he announced a nuclear project which was the largest government funding consturction project of all time, comprising 200 missiles and 23 new silos. Eventually, however, Carter backed down and signed the SALT II treaty in June 1979.
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Detente in decline - Invasion of Afghanistan

The Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan, 1979

  • 1979, USSR sent 50,000 troops to Kabul, capital of Afghanistan.
  • USSR was acting defensively against a communist regime which was under treat from Islamic fundamentalists.
  • Soviet Invasion went beyong the Brezhnev Doctrine, and it indicated to Carter and Brzezinski that USSR was pursuing an aggressive foreign policy of expansion.

The USA's response to the invasion of Afghanistan

  • Carter demanded the withdrawal of Soviet troops. He argued that Afghanistan should remain non-aligned, part of neither sphere of influence. 
  • In 1980, Carter sent secret military aid to the Mujahedeen, the Islamic fundamentalists.
  • Carter's goal was to make the war as costly as possible for the USSR. 
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Detente in decline - Significance of Afghanistan

US Public

  • The Soviet invasion convinced the US public that detente must end, as they interpreted the invasion as evidence that the USSR wanted to expand its influence. 

US Government

  • The invasion gave the upper hand to the faction around Brzezinski, who wanted to break with detente and stand up to the Sovet Union. 

US Congress 

  • As a result of the invasion, the US congress refused to ratify the SALT II Treaty, which indicated that the majority of Congress was against detente. 

US President 

  • Carter responded to the invasion by effectively abandoning detente. This was indicated by a series of leaked Presidential directives in which the US government set out its plans for winning and surviving a nuclear war. 
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Thatcher and Reagan: The end of detente, 1979-81

'The Thatcher-Reagan love-in' 

  • Margaret Thatcher - elected PM 1979, Ronald Reagan - elected P in 1980. 
  • Both leaders were committed to the same thing; encouraging free enterprise by 'rolling back the state', raising defence spending, and standing up the 'evil empire'. 

Reagan in power 

  • Reagan restricted trade with the USSR to deny them to Western technology. 
  • Committed the US government to SDI
  • Increased support for anti-Soviet regimes and organisations in the Third World. 
  • Used confrontational rhetoric - 'evil empire'
  • Reagan did not seek war, however.

The significance of Reagan's policies 

  • "Star Wars" was particularly significant: 1) Soviet leaders knew they would not be able to compete - economic imbalance. 2) Star Wars implied to the Soviet leaders that Reagan was contemplating a winnable nuclear war 
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