Richard Nixon (right) meets with Leonid Brezhnev during detente

From the mid-1960s the Cold War appeared to soften, with a gradual but noticeable easing of tensions between the US, USSR and some of their allies. This decade-long thaw in international relations is known by various names: in the West it is called detente, in Soviet Russia it was known as razryadka and in West Germany it was generally referred to as Ostpolitik. The period of detente produced better communications and a greater level of respect between the nuclear superpowers. Detente did not end the Cold War, however it produced some significant achievements. The greater willingness to communicate led to arms reduction summits, the signing of anti-nuclear proliferation agreements and a reduction in nuclear arms stockpiles. There was new political recognition of communist nations, the most significant of which was Richard Nixon’s 1972 visit to Maoist China. Detente also resulted in improved diplomatic communication, even some minor economic and trade agreements between East and West. Though the Cold War was far from over, detente was a period of mutual acceptance by both superpowers. Though their ideological and economic systems may have rendered them incompatible, they acknowledged that there had to be systems for communicating and working together.

There are different opinions about the nature and the true meaning of Cold War detente. To some, detente simply marked a normalisation in superpower relations; it became impossible for the superpowers to maintain the hostility and belligerence that had existed for a quarter-century. Some attribute this change in attitude to a change of leadership. In the first years of the Cold War, foreign policy had been defined by assertive ideologues like Stalin, Truman and John Foster Dulles. But by the late 1960s and early 1970s these men were long gone; they had been replaced by political pragmatists like Richard Nixon and Leonid Brezhnev. Detente-era leaders had to wrestle with domestic issues as well as Cold War struggles; they came to believe that arms spending and direct confrontation was costly, dangerous and unpopular. Governments had to find new, more sophisticated and subtle ways of waging the Cold War. Raymond Garthoff supports this idea, suggesting that detente represented a change in methodology, not a ‘winding down’ of the Cold War:

“The agreements [of detente] cannot be said to have played any substantial role in affecting the course of the Cold War and its final settlement. They did not have any weakening effect on US or Western resolve or behaviour, as some critics had feared, nor can it be demonstrated that they moderated the pursuit of advantage … as both continued to wage the Cold War. Detente was a more sophisticated and less belligerent way of waging the Cold War, rather than an alternative to it.”

Some of the factors that contributed to the rise of detente include:


An American cartoon depicting the superpower relation during detente

Fears about nuclear weapons. The Cuban missile crisis of 1962 triggered paranoia and public concern about the dangers of nuclear war. Over time, nuclear powers came under international pressure to reduce stockpiles of nuclear warheads and missile systems. Pressure groups like the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND, formed 1957) and Greenpeace (formed 1971) lobbied against the further production and proliferation of nuclear weapons. American stockpiles of nuclear weapons peaked at more than 30,000 in the mid-1960s, then slowly declined. In July 1968 the US, USSR and Great Britain signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty, an international agreement to limit the spread of nuclear weapons while working towards nuclear disarmament.

Economic factors. The Cold War arms race was a costly business for both the US and USSR. Both faced additional, though contrasting economic problems during the 1970s. America spent billions of dollars on its involvement in Vietnam, while the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) oil embargo of 1973 also led to disruptions in oil supply, higher fuel prices, a stockmarket slump and other detrimental effects on the US economy. The Soviet economy, which had grown rapidly through the 1950s and 1960s, began to stall after 1970. Of particular concern was a lack of growth in the agricultural sector, which caused food prices to increase by between 50 and 100 per cent. Having to prop up several failing Soviet bloc states placed additional strains on the Russian economy.


New Zealanders protest against US nuclear warships in the Pacific

Domestic issues. During detente, both major powers were distracted by internal problems that drew attention away from foreign policy. In the US, domestic opposition to the Vietnam War and military casualties there deterred strong action against communism elsewhere in the world. America in the early 1970s was also distracted by the unfolding Watergate scandal, which ended in 1974 with the resignation of president Richard Nixon. The Soviet Union was preoccupied with economic problems, such as falling crop yields, internal opposition and problems within the Soviet bloc. Brezhnev dealt with opposition by winding back some of the liberal reforms implemented by Khrushchev, expanding the powers of the KGB and tightening press control and censorship.

The Sino-Soviet split. Through the 1960s, domestic political events and ideological differences caused the USSR and China to drift apart. By 1967 Moscow and Beijing were barely on speaking terms. Two years later, border clashes between Russian and Chinese soldiers threatened to plunge the two nuclear powers into a full-scale war. It was later revealed that Russia had more nuclear battle plans against China than against the US. American planners saw advantages in widening the Sino-Soviet split, which they did through both covert and diplomatic means, such as Richard Nixon’s visit to China in 1972.


West German leader Willy Brandt (left) meets with East German premier Willi Stoph in 1970

The ‘German detente. In West Germany, the 1969 election of Willy Brandt as chancellor heralded a new approach to the Cold War there. Brandt – more left-wing than previous West German leaders, though far from a communist – favoured rapprochement, or a re-establishing of friendly relations, with communist East Germany and other Soviet bloc nations. Brandt’s foreign policy, called Ostpolitik, was a more practical and realistic approach to breaking down the divisions between the Soviet block and western Europe. The most important policy, Brandt argued, was to permit and encourage trade deals across the Berlin Wall with East Germany. He believed these new trade links would encourage greater communication and cultural exchange, making Soviet bloc nations less defensive and more open to reform. Brandt’s Ostpolitik was very unpopular with conservatives, both in West Germany and internationally, however it was generally successful and played an important role in reducing European tensions. Ostpolitik also referred to a similar approach employed by Pope Paul VI and the Vatican, who also sought greater communication with the leaders of Soviet bloc nations.

Economic transformation

“In the early 1970s the Nixon administration claimed that the era ‘of confrontation’ with the Soviet Union was at an end, and that the era ‘of negotiation’ was beginning. In 1981 the Reagan administration came to office not with a commitment to negotiate with the Soviet Union but a promise to restore American strength and prestige. The 1970s were characterised by the incoming administration as a ‘decade of neglect’ in which the United States – seduced and blinded by detente and hampered by Vietnam and Watergate – had failed to provide for its own security.”
Mike Bowker, historian
Richard Nixon meets Chinese communist leader Mao Zedong in 1972

Richard Nixon meets Chinese communist leader Mao Zedong in 1972

The onset of detente paved the way for several international visits and bilateral conferences. In 1972, with the Vietnam War still raging, US president Richard Nixon visited communist China, where he met the ailing Chinese dictator Mao Zedong. Nixon’s trip surprised the world and set in motion the restoration of Sino-American diplomatic relations. Though some claimed the anti-communist Nixon had betrayed his own political values, most Americans were weary of the Vietnam War and supported improved relations with China. Nixon’s visit also caused some nervousness in the Kremlin; the one thing Soviet politicians feared was a US-China alliance. In May 1972, Nixon followed his visit to China with a state visit to Moscow. He conducted extensive meetings with Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev, signing trade agreements as well as two treaties to reduce arms manufacture. Nixon returned to the USSR in 1974, while Brezhnev himself visited the US in 1973.

The advances of detente continued through the 1970s. In August 1975, the US, USSR and 33 other nations signed the Helsinki Accords, a non-binding agreement aimed at enhancing relations between communist nations and the West. There were also several Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT) held during the 1970s, resulting in two weapons-reduction agreements: SALT I (1972) and SALT II (1979). Other multilateral treaties, both signed by the US and USSR, outlawed biological weapons production and limited numbers of ballistic missiles (both 1972). In 1975 the Space Race came to an end, with the launching of the Apollo-Soyuz project, the first joint American-Soviet space mission. The Soviet Union also increased its trade with the West, importing large amounts of American grain to offset the slump in its own agricultural production. Soviet imports of Western consumer goods also increased sharply, doubling by 1979.



1. Detente was a period of improved relations between the superpowers, leading to less hostility and confrontation.
2. The causal factors for detente included domestic concerns, nuclear fears and pragmatic political leadership.
3. Detente produced better communication, including nuclear reduction treaties and Nixon’s 1972 visit to China.
4. It also eased tensions in Europe, chiefly through the Ostpolitik trade policies of West Germany’s Willy Brandt.
5. Detente did not end the Cold War, which continued behind the scenes in proxy conflicts such as Vietnam – however it reduced the risk of a direct confrontation between the US and USSR.