Reduction of political tension and the easing of strained relations between nations, as seen in the ending of the Cold War 1989–90. The term was first used in the 1970s to describe the new easing of relations between the world's two major superpowers, the USA and the USSR. This resulted in increased contact between East and West in the form of trade agreements and cultural exchanges, and even saw restored relation between the USA and communist China.
Causes of détente The immediate cause of détente was the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, when the USA confronted the USSR over the installation of Soviet missiles in Cuba, near the US mainland. The two superpowers realised that their previously ‘cold’ war had the potential to turn into a ‘hot’ or real war very quickly, and took steps to lower tension with face-to-face dialogue. The rising costs of defence were crippling in the long term, especially to the USSR, and both sides realized that any mutual cuts would be beneficial both financially and politically. The ending of Joseph Stalin's autocratic rule over the USSR in 1953, meant that dialogue and trust were more possible by the early 1960s. The fears raised in the USSR by the improvement in relations between the USA and communist China, and the public nature of the Sino-Soviet split of the early 1960s, made the USSR search for better relations with the USA.
Détente in the 1960s and 1970s The first step in détente was a move towards disarmament. In 1963 the USSR, USA, and UK signed the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, agreeing to ban all tests except for those carried out underground. This was a major step and required a great deal of trust on all sides to agree to such a brake on their nuclear weapons research. Further agreements were reached on nuclear weapons, including a Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in 1968, signed by the USSR, USA, UK, France, and China; and, in 1969, the first of the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks between the USA and USSR. The latter resulted in the SALT I agreement (effective 1972–77) on the limitation of the expansion of nuclear forces. A hotline between the leaders of the USA and USSR was established in 1963 in an effort to avoid any misunderstandings and to allow ease of contact. The two superpowers were easing into a sort of mutual understanding and tolerance that would have been unthinkable in the immediate post-war years.
In 1972 US president Richard Nixon visited Moscow, the capital of the USSR. In 1973 Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev visited the USA, setting the seal on a growing familiarity and sense of trust. It would be an exaggeration to say that the two countries were becoming friends, as the fundamental problems that had led to the Cold War still existed. In many ways these problems had been heightened by the growing influence of the two superpowers around the world, described by their critics as US imperialism and Soviet imperialism.
In 1975 there was a sign of the growing normalization of relations between the two superpowers when a set of trade agreements were signed. The agreements highlighted the economic weakness that had been a major factor in the USSR's drive towards détente from the beginning. The inability of the USSR to feed its population adequately without outside help was indicated by an agreement that ensured that the USA supplied the USSR with grain for at least five years. However this era of closer relations did not develop any further in the 1980s.
Withdrawal of détente in the 1980s In 1979 the USSR invaded Afghanistan and the occupation lasted until 1989. This military aggression resulted in a resurgence of tension between East and West, and threatened much of the progress made. It has to be recognized, however, that the USA's involvement in the Vietnam War between 1961 and 1975 had not had the same impact on relations between the two superpowers, in fact most of the progress made under détente had occurred during this period. Therefore, the actions of one superpower in invading a third nation did not always lead to a breakdown of relations between the two superpowers. Two of the main casualties following the withdrawal of détente were the Moscow Olympic Games in 1980 which were boycotted by the West, and the Los Angeles Olympics of 1984 which were boycotted by the communist East in retaliation. In 1983 US president Ronald Reagan's reference to the USSR as ‘the evil empire’ showed that the era of détente was at an end.
The success of détente The 1960s and 1970s saw a reversal of some of the tension and fear that had arisen between East and West since 1945. Détente had made the USA and USSR search for a new understanding, and where areas of mutual concern were found, détente was a success. However, the extent of détente should not be exaggerated, as the Cold War continued until the late 1980s. Only the eventual collapse of Soviet power between 1989 and 1991 created the circumstances for total détente to occur.
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