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Détente is a French term, meaning a relaxing or easing; the term has been used in international politics since the early 1970s. Generally, it may be applied to any international situation where previously hostile nations not involved in an open war de-escalate tensions through diplomacy and confidence-building measures. However, it is primarily used in reference to the general reduction in the tension between the Soviet Unionmarker and the United Statesmarker and a thawing of the Cold War, occurring from the late 1960s until the start of the 1980s. In the Soviet Union, détente was known as ("razryadka", loosely meaning relaxation, discharge).


The NATOmarker powers and the Warsaw Pact both had pressing reasons to seek relaxation in tensions. Leonid Brezhnev and the rest of the Soviet leadership felt that the economic burden of the nuclear arms race was unsustainable. The American economy was also in financial trouble as the Vietnam War drained government finances at the same time as Lyndon Johnson (and to a lesser extent, Richard Nixon) sought to expand the government welfare state.

In West Germanymarker, the Ostpolitik of Willy Brandt was decreasing tensions; the Soviets hoped that with Détente, more trade with Western Europe would be possible. Soviet thinkers also felt that a less aggressive policy could potentially detach the Western Europeans from their American WRC .

Worsening relations with the People's Republic of Chinamarker, leading to the Sino-Soviet Split, had caused great concern in the Soviet Union. The leadership feared the potential of a Sino-American alliance against them and believed it necessary to improve relations with the United States. Improved relations with China had already thawed the general American view of communism.

Rough parity had been achieved in stockpiling nuclear weapons with a clear capability of mutually assured destruction (MAD). There was also the realization that the "relative gains" theory as to the predictable consequences of war might no longer be appropriate. A "sensible middle ground" was the goal.

Brezhnev and Nixon each hoped improved relations would boost their domestic popularity and secure their power.

Several anti-nuclear movements supported détente. The Cuban missile crisis showed how dangerous the relations between the USSR and the USA were becoming. Kennedy and Khruchshev wished to reduce the risk of a nuclear war, as they were aware that the nuclear arsenals on each side granted mutually assured destruction.

Summits and treaties

The most obvious manifestation of Détente was the series of summits held between the leaders of the two superpowers and the treaties that resulted from these meetings. Earlier in the 1960s, before Détente, the Partial Test Ban Treaty had been signed in 1963. Later in the decade, the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and Outer Space Treaty were two of the first building blocks of Détente. However, these early treaties did little to curb the superpowers' abilities, and served primarily to limit the nuclear ambitions of third parties that could endanger both superpowers.

The most important treaties were not developed until the advent of the Nixon Administration, which came into office in 1969. The Political Consultative Committee of the Warsaw Pact sent an offer to the West, urging to hold a summit on "security and cooperation in Europe". The West agreed and talks began towards actual limits in the nuclear capabilities of the two superpowers. This ultimately led to the signing of the SALT I treaty in 1972. This treaty limited each power's nuclear arsenals, though it was quickly rendered out-of-date as a result of the development of MIRVs. In the same year that SALT I was signed, the Biological Weapons Convention and the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty were also concluded. Talks on SALT II also began in 1972.

In 1975, the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe met and produced the Helsinki Accords, a wide ranging series of agreements on economic, political, and human rights issues. The CSCE was initiated by the USSR, involving thirty-five states throughout Europe. Amongst other issues, one of the most prevalent and discussed after the conference was that of human rights violations in the Soviet Union. The Soviet Constitution directly violated the Declaration of Human Rights from the United Nations, and this issue became a prominent point of separation between the United States and the Soviet Union. The Carter administration had been supporting human rights groups inside the Soviet Union, and Brezhnev accused the administration of interference in other countries’ internal affairs. This prompted intense discussion of whether or not other nations may interfere if basic human rights are being violated, such as freedom of speech and religion. The basic disagreement in the philosophies of a democracy and a single-party state did not allow for reconciliation of this issue. Furthermore, the Soviets proceeded to defend their internal policies on human rights by attacking American support of countries like South Africa and Chilemarker which were known to violate many of the same human rights issues.

In July of the same year, the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project became the first international space mission, wherein three American astronauts and two Russian cosmonauts docked their spacecraft and conducted joint experiments. This mission had been preceded by five years of political negotiation and technical co-operation, including exchanges of US and Russian engineers between the two countries' space centers.

Trade relations between the two blocs increased substantially during the era of détente. Most significant were the vast shipments of grain that were sent from the West to the Soviet Union each year, which helped make up for the failure of kolkhoz, Soviet collectivized agriculture.

At the same time, the Jackson-Vanik amendment, signed into law by Gerald Ford on January 3, 1975, after a unanimous vote by both houses of the United States Congress, was designed to leverage trade relations between the U.S. and the USSR, making the United States dependent upon improvements of human rights within the Soviet Union, in particular allowing refusniks to emigrate; it added to the Most Favoured Nation status a clause that provided that no countries resisting emigration could be awarded this status. This provided Jackson with a method of adding some ideological content to détente, linking geopolitics to human rights .

Continued conflicts

As direct relations thawed, increased tensions continued between the superpowers through their surrogates, especially in the Third World. Conflicts in South Asia, and the Middle East in 1973, saw the Soviet and U.S. backing their respective surrogates with war materiel and diplomatic posturing. In Latin America the United States continued to block any leftward electoral shifts in the region by supporting right wing military coups. During much of the early Détente period, the Vietnam War continued to rage. Neither side trusted the other fully and the potential for nuclear war remained constant. Each side continued to aim thousands of nuclear warheads atop intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) at each other's cities, maintain submarines with long range nuclear weapon capability (Submarine-launched ballistic missiles or SLBMs) in the world's oceans, keep hundreds of nuclear-armed aircraft on constant alert, and guard contentious borders in Koreamarker and Europe with large ground forces. Espionage efforts remained a high priority as defectors, reconnaissance satellites, and signal intercepts measured intentions and attempted to gain strategic advantage.

End of Détente

The main problem with détente is that there was no clear definition of how friendly and co-operative these two nations were to become. Some historians and politicians have argued that this lack of clarity in the détente relationship was mainly to blame for the collapse of American-Soviet relations at the end of the 1970s.

The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan that was to shore up a struggling allied regime led to harsh criticisms in the west and a boycott of the 1980 Summer Olympics, which were to be held in Moscowmarker. American President Jimmy Carter boosted the U.S. defensemarker budget and began financially aiding the President of Pakistan General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq heavily, who would in turn subsidize the anti-Soviet Mujahideen fighters in the region.

The 1980 American presidential election saw Ronald Reagan elected on a platform opposed to the concessions of Détente. Negotiations on SALT II were abandoned.


  1. Lapennal. Human Rights, p. 1.
  2. Lapennal. Human Rights, p. 14-15.
  3. Henry Kissinger, "Diplomacy"


  • Bowkerl, Mike & Williams, Phil. Superpower Detente: A Reappraisal. SAGE Publications (1988). ISBN 0803980426.
  • Gaddis, John Lewis. The Cold War. The Penguin Press (2005).
  • Lapennal, Ivo. Human Rights: Soviet Theory and Practice, Helsinki and International Law. Eastern Press (1977).
  • Suri, Jeremi. Power and Protest: Global Revolution and the Rise of Détente. Harvard University Press (2003).
  • Sarotte, M. E. Dealing with the Devil: East Germany, Détente and Ostpolitik, 1969-1973. University of North Carolina Press (2001).

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