In diplomacy, politics, or international relations studies, détente is a concept used in relation to the Cold War easing of tensions between the Soviet Union and the United States, with their subsequent blocs. The Cold War (1945–1991) was marked by several periods of high tension, separated by several periods of relaxation (détente) and a greater sense of national security, but there is no universally accepted periodization or definition of Cold War détente. This entry examines the periods of détente and the leaders, events, and agreements that played a role in orchestrating the times of peace between the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

Unsuccessful attempts of U.S.-Soviet détente were made as early as 1955, 1959, and 1961, during the Geneva summit, a meeting between the U.S. president Dwight Eisenhower and Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, and the Vienna summit, respectively. Conventionally, however, détente is associated with the 1970s foreign policy employed by the administrations of U.S. presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford, and it refers to the United States’ attempts to refine its relations with the Soviet Union in order to increase predictability and reduce the potential for direct military confrontation. According to different interpretations, détente was achieved from 1965 to 1979, 1962 to 1979, 1965 to 1985, or 1969 to 1979.

In terms of nuclear weapons and technology, in the early 1960s, the United States was in a position of advantage, but by the late 1960s, the Soviets had reached strategic and nuclear parity, with each country capable of completely destroying the other. In the late 1960s, the United States’ resources were drained not only by the arms race but by the Vietnam War as well, and the government’s legitimacy was shaking. On becoming the president in January 1969, Nixon, together with Henry Kissinger—national security advisor (1969–1973) and secretary of State (1973–1977)—assembled the basis of a new foreign policy centered on détente with the Soviet Union and rapprochement with China, aiming to prevent nuclear war and to build a less dangerous world.

The entire period of détente was characterized by negotiations and the signing of treaties designed to increase international security. The most notable are the Strategic Arms Limitations Talks (SALT), the SALT Agreements, and the Anti-Ballistic Missiles Treaty. The SALT were rounds of bilateral Soviet-U.S. negotiations on the issue of armament control. Held between 1969 and 1972, and between 1972 and 1979, these talks resulted in two agreements, respectively: (1) SALT I, signed in 1972 in Moscow by the Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev and Nixon, and (2) SALT II, signed in 1979 in Vienna by Brezhnev and U.S. president Jimmy Carter. These agreements limited and reduced the number of nuclear weapons and strategic forces. After more than 4 years of bilateral negotiations, the Anti-Ballistic Missiles Treaty was signed in Moscow in 1972 by Brezhnev and Nixon, which limited the systems of antiballistic missiles used to intercept incoming nuclear missiles. Besides the arms control agreements, several minor agreements contributed in the 1970s to the normalization of cultural and economic relations between Moscow and Washington.

The era of détente was not spared of moments of tense international relations, though. The Yom Kippur War (October 6–25, 1973), the 1975 Soviet military support for the procommunist insurgents in Angola, and the 1975 Soviet aid for the Portuguese Communist Party proved that the Soviet-U.S. détente was a rather fragile concept. In the mid-1970s, U.S. domestic criticism against détente increased so much that President Ford banned the use of the word by his administration. As the next president, Carter centered U.S. relations with the Soviets on the reduction of nuclear weapons and the promotion of human rights, but the latter was interpreted in Moscow as an attempt at interfering in the Soviet Union’s domestic affairs and did not favor an improvement of bilateral relations.

Détente was defined, understood, and implemented differently by the Cold War practitioners of international politics. Although it took form within the U.S. policy toward the Soviet Union, it gradually affected the general East-West relations, favoring negotiations, collaboration, and relaxation of tensions not only between Moscow and Washington but also between the West and the East in general. In the beneficial context of détente, the relations between West Germany and East Germany normalized (1971–1972); a four-power agreement on Berlin was concluded (June 3, 1972); and bilateral treaties were signed between West Germany and the Soviet Union (1970), Poland (1970), and other Eastern European countries. Another major result of détente was the opening in 1973 of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe, which gathered 35 participating states from both sides of the Cold War. While superpower détente focused on the reduction of nuclear weapons, the conference—an outcome of European détente—focused on human rights as well.

Elena Dragomir

See also Berlin Wall ; Cold War ; Cuban Missile Crisis ; Nuclear War ; Surveillance During the Cold War

Further Readings

Bischof, Günter, et al., eds. The Vienna Summit and Its Importance in International History. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2014.

Dahlman, Ola, et al. Nuclear Test Ban: Converting Political Vision to Reality. Berlin, Germany: Springer, 2009.

Hanhimäki, Jussi M.The Rise and Fall of Détente: American Foreign Policy and the Transformation of the Cold War. Washington, DC: Potomac Books, 2013.

Nuti, Leopoldo, ed.The Crisis of Détente in Europe: From Helsinki to Gorbachev, 1975–1985. New York, NY: Routledge, 2008.

White, Brian. Britain, Détente and Changing East-West relations. New York, NY: Routledge, 1992.