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- For the Spanish amulet, see: Detente bala.
Détente was the general reduction in the tension between the Soviet Union and the United States and a "thawing" of the Cold War that occurred from the late 1960s until the start of the 1980s. More generally, it may be applied to any international situation where previously hostile nations not involved in an open war "warm up" to each other and threats de-escalate.
Both sides 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 Europe the Ostpolitik of Willy Brandt was decreasing tensions and 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 Europeans from their American ally.
The Sino-Soviet Split had caused great concern in the Soviet Union. The leadership was terrified of the potential of a Sino-American alliance against them and thus felt improving relations with the United States would be necessary. Improved relations with China also helped thaw the American view of communism in general.
There was rough parity in nuclear weapons and it was clear that a state of mutually assured destruction had been reached, and there were new fears connected to the realization that there was a possibility that the "relative gains" theory as to the predictable consequences of war was no longer appropriate. A "sensible middle ground" was the goal.
Both Brezhnev and Nixon felt that improved relations would lead to a domestic popularity boost and secure their positions of power.
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 elements of Détente. These earlier treaties did little to curb the superpower's abilities, however, and were mostly to limit the nuclear ambitions of third parties that could endanger both superpowers.
The most important treaties were not signed until Nixon took power. Beginning in 1969 at a summit in Helsinki the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks led to the signing of the SALT I treaty in 1972, this treaty limited each power's nuclear arsenals. It was quickly out of date as a result of the development of MIRVs, however. In the same year SALT I was signed the Biological Weapons Convention and the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty were also agreed to. Talks on SALT II also began in 1972.
Trade relations between the two blocks increased substantially, most notable were the vast shipments of grain that were sent from the west to the Soviet Union each year, and helped make up for the failure of collectivized agriculture.
Despite the growing amicability of the two superpowers heated competition continued between the two, especially in the Third World. Wars in South Asia in 1971 and the Middle East in 1973 saw the superpowers back their sides with materiel and diplomatic support. In Latin America the Soviet Union continued efforts to foment revolutions, while the United States continued to block any leftward shift in the region. For much of the Détente period the Vietnam War continued to rage. Neither side trusted the other fully and the potential for nuclear war remained. Each side continued to have thousands of ICBMs pointed at the other’s cities, submarines in the oceans of the world, and forces guarding disputed borders in Korea and Europe. The espionage war continued unabated as defectors, reconnaissance satellites, and signal interceptions were still a priority for both sides.
End of Détente
Détente began to unravel in 1979 due to a series of events. The Iranian Revolution and the subsequent hostage crisis embarrassed the United States and lead much of the American public to believe their nation had lost its international power and prestige.
The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan 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 Moscow. American President Jimmy Carter boosted the U.S. defense budget and began to heavily subsidize the anti-Soviet fighters in Afghanistan.
The 1980 American presidential election saw Ronald Reagan elected on a platform opposed to the concessions of Détente and committed to restarting the arms race. Negotiations on SALT II were abandoned and relations once again soured.
Opinions on Détente
Opinions on Détente remain divided. In the United States the right wing Anti-Communist opinion of the détente era is that it was a mistake that enabled the Soviet Union to survive for a longer period of time. The left-liberal opinion is that any reduction of the likelihood of nuclear Armageddon is a positive outcome and that the United States also needed as respite from the taxing arms race. Realist opinion tends to agree that détente-like agreements could only ever be short term, because such calm between sovereign nation states is a deviation from the norm.
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