The United States and the Soviet Union hated each other, didn't they? There would be no way they could sign treaties and send a joint mission to space! Well, think again. The 1970s period of détente defies those expectations!

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The United States and the Soviet Union hated each other, didn't they? There would be no way they could sign treaties and send a joint mission to space! Well, think again. The 1970s period of détente defies those expectations!

Détente Meaning

'Détente' which means 'relaxation' in French, is the name for cooling tensions between the Soviet Union and the United States during the Cold War. The period in question lasted from the late 1960s until the late 1970s. During this time, each superpower favoured negotiation over increasing tensions, not to sympathise with the other, but for their self-interest. Historians generally agree that détente formally began when US President Richard Nixon visited Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev in 1972. First, let's see why détente was necessary for both sides.

Détente Cold War

Since the end of World War II, the United States and the Soviet Union were engaged in a 'Cold War'. This was an ideological conflict between capitalism and communism that fell short of all-out military warfare. However, tentative steps toward de-escalation in the form of the Limited Test Ban Treaty of 1963 showed signs of a different approach.


The ideology of the United States. It focused on private-owned companies and a market economy with an emphasis on the individual over the collective.


The ideology of the Soviet Union. It focused on state-controlled production and social equality with an emphasis on the collective over the individual.

By the time Nixon and Brezhnev were leaders at the end of the 1960s, there were some signs of restraint and pragmatism from two seasoned political campaigners.

Causes of Détente

Now we will examine the main factors that contributed to this phase of the Cold War.

The threat of nuclear warfareThe largest contributing factor to détente. After the world had come so close to nuclear warfare with the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, there were pledges from the United States and the Soviet Union to curb their nuclear weapon production and stall the Nuclear Arms Race.Concrete legislation came in the form of the Limited Test Ban Treaty (1963) which banned participants including the United States and the Soviet Union from nuclear testing overground and the Non-Proliferation Treaty (1968) signed as a promise to work towards disarmament and use of nuclear energy. With the worry that more nations, such as China had developed nuclear weapons, the seeds were set for further agreements.
Sino-Soviet relationsThe worsening of Soviet relations with China gave the United States a chance to capitalise on this split. Chinese dictator Chairman Mao had previously idolised Stalin but did not see eye to eye with his successors Khrushchev or Brezhnev. This came to a head in 1969 when there were border clashes between Soviet and Chinese soldiers. Nixon and his Security Advisor Henry Kissinger began to establish a rapport with China, initially with "ping-pong diplomacy". In 1971 the United States and Chinese table tennis teams were competing in a tournament in Japan. The Chinese invited the United States team to visit China and paved the way for Nixon to do so a year later after 25 years of ignoring the legitimacy of communist China under Mao. This worried the Soviet Union which feared China may turn against Moscow.
Economic impactThe Arms Race and the Space Race, which had lasted for over 20 years were beginning to take their toll. The United States was waging an ultimately unwinnable Vietnam War, wasting millions of dollars alongside American lives. In contrast, the Soviet economy, which was growing until the late 1960s began to stall with food prices rapidly increasing and the price of propping up failed communist states with military intervention and spying proving a burden.
New leadersIn the early years of the Cold War, the American and Soviet leaders had fuelled the ideological split by their words and actions. The 'Red Scare' under Presidents Truman and Eisenhower and Nikita Khrushchev's rants were particularly notable for this. However, one thing that Brezhnev and Nixon had in common is political experience. They both recognised that after years of escalating rhetoric there had to be a different method to achieve the desired outcomes for their respective nations.

There was not a single reason for détente. Rather, it was a result of a combination of circumstances that meant that improved relations suited both parties. However, these were not borne out of a desire to reconcile completely.

Detente Henry Kissinger in later life StudySmarterFig. 1 - Henry Kissinger in later life

Détente Timeline

With the causes of détente established, it's now time to dive into the key events of the period.

SALT I (1972)

A desire for legislation against nuclear weapons began under the presidency of Lyndon Johnson and talks began as early as 1967. He was worried that Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) interceptors ruined the notion of a nuclear deterrent and mutually assured destruction, where if one nation fired the other could fire back. Upon his election win, Nixon reopened talks in 1969 and finalised them with a visit to Moscow in 1972. During this trip, the leaders took further tangible steps to limit nuclear weapons culminating in the biggest achievement of détente.

The first Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT) was signed in 1972 and limited each country to 200 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) interceptors and two sites (one protecting the capital and one the Intercontinental-Ballistic Missile (ICBM) sites).

Detente Richard Nixon and Leonid Brezhnev sign the SALT I treaty in Moscow StudySmarterFig. 2 - Nixon and Brezhnev sign the SALT I Treaty

There was also an Interim Agreement to halt the production of ICBM and Submarine Launched Ballistic Missiles (SLBM) whilst other treaties were negotiated.

What was the Basic Treaty?

In the same year as the agreement of SALT I, the United States-backed West Germany and Soviet-backed East Germany signed the "Basic Treaty" to recognise each other's sovereignty. West German chancellor Willy Brandt's policy of 'Ostpolitik' or 'politics of the east' was a large reason for this relaxation of tensions that mirrored détente.

Another important treaty concerning Europe took place in 1975. The Helsinki Accords were signed by the United States, the Soviet Union, Canada and Western European nations. This asked the Soviet Union to respect the sovereignty of eastern bloc European nations, open up to the outside world and establish political and economic ties across Europe. However, the treaty was unsuccessful because it scrutinised the Soviet Union's human rights record. The Soviets had no intention of changing their direction, reacting angrily and disbanding organisations that meddled in their internal affairs to find human rights abuses.

Arab - Israeli Conflict (1973)

After losing the Six-Day War in 1967, the Soviet Union provided Egypt and Syria with the weapons and capability of enacting revenge on Israel, which was funded by the United States. The surprise attack on the Yom Kippur Jewish Holiday was met with stiff Israeli resistance and looked to be making intentions of détente a pipe dream. However, Kissinger once again played an important role. In what became known as 'shuttle diplomacy' he tirelessly flew from country to country to negotiate a ceasefire. Eventually, the Soviets agreed and a peace treaty was hurriedly drawn up between Egypt, Syria and Israel, however, relations between the two superpowers were damaged. Nonetheless, it was an achievement that a prolonged conflict was avoided.

Apollo-Soyuz (1975)

An example of Soviet and US collaboration during the détente period was the Apollo-Soyuz joint space mission which brought an end to the Space Race. Until this point, the Soviet Union had made Yuri Gargarin the first man in space but the United States countered by putting the first man on the moon in 1969. The Apollo-Soyuz mission demonstrated that collaboration was possible with each shuttle performing scientific experiments from the orbit of the earth. New US President Gerald Ford and Leonid Brezhnev also exchanged gifts and had dinner before the launch, something that would have been unthinkable in previous decades.

SALT II (1979)

Negotiations for a second Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty or SALT II started shortly after SALT I was signed, but it wasn't until 1979 that agreements were made. The issue was nuclear parity as the Soviet Union and United States' portfolios of nuclear weapons differed. In the end, the two nations decided that around 2400 variations of nuclear weapons would be the limit. In addition to this, Multiple Nuclear Reentry Vehicles (MIRV), weapons with more than one nuclear warhead, were limited.

The treaty was much less successful than SALT I, drawing criticism from each side of the political spectrum. Some believed that the United States were handing the Soviet Union the initiative and others thought that it did little to affect the Arms Race. SALT II was never passed through the Senate as the United States President Jimmy Carter and American politicians were furious about the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in the same year.

The End of Détente

Relations between the two superpowers began to deteriorate once more with the refusal of the SALT II treaty in America because of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. This, and other Soviet military activity continued through the 1970s as a result of the Brezhnev Doctrine, meaning that they intervened if communism was under threat in any state. Perhaps this was used as an excuse to change direction by the United States because they had been bombing and intervening in Vietnam until 1973, so there was reciprocity with the Soviet action. Either way, once 1980 rolled around the United States' boycott of the Moscow Olympics signalled the end of détente.

Detente Moscow Olympic torch StudySmarterFig. 3 - Moscow Olympic torch

Ronald Reagan succeeded Jimmy Carter in 1981 and began to heighten Cold War tensions once more. He branded the Soviet Union an 'evil empire' and increased United States defence spending by 13%. The renewed vigour of the United States in the Arms Race and the stationing of nuclear weapons in Europe showed the aggressive stance of the United States and proved that the period of détente was truly over.

The Rise and Fall of Détente Summary

For historian Raymond Garthoff, détente was never going to be permanent. Both the Soviet Union and the United States saw the economic value of a change of tactic and wanted to avoid the destruction of a nuclear conflict. However, neither abandoned their ideological stance during détente, in fact, they just employed different methods to subvert each other and were never able to view situations from the other's perspective

It was a compact calling for self-restraint on each side in recognition of the interests of the other to the extent necessary to prevent sharp confrontation. While this general concept and approach were accepted by both sides, regrettably each side had differing conceptions of the proper restraint it - and the other side - should assume. This discrepancy led to reciprocal feelings of having been let down by the other side."

- Raymond L. Garthoff, 'American-Soviet Relations in Perspective' 19851

In many ways, after thirty years of the Arms Race and exchanging rhetorical blows, the two heavyweights just needed a breath before the next bout. The conditions in the late 1960s meant that the situation was ripe for diplomacy, albeit short-lived.

Détente - Key takeaways

  • Détente was a term used to describe the relaxing of tensions and diplomacy between the Soviet Union and the United States from the late 1960s to the late 1970s.
  • The reasons for détente were the threat of nuclear war, the Sino-Soviet split, the economic impact of waging ideological warfare and the new leaders of the two superpowers.
  • The biggest achievement of the period was the SALT I treaty, but further collaboration could be found in the Apollo-Soyuz space mission.
  • SALT II was signed in 1979 but never passed through US Senate after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. This brought an end to détente.
  • There was never a desire from the United States or the Soviet Union to end the Cold War during this time, only to wage it differently, for self-interested purposes.


  1. Raymond L. Garthoff, 'American-Soviet Relations in Perspective', Political Science Quarterly, Vol. 100, No. 4 541-559 (Winter, 1985-1986).

Frequently Asked Questions about Détente

Détente is the name given to the period between the late 1960s and late 1970s characterised by a cooling of tensions and improvement in the United States and the Soviet Union's relations.

Détente is a French word that means relaxation and was applied to the period of the Cold War which involved improved relations between the United States and the Soviet Union.

An example of détente is the SALT talks which put limits on the number of nuclear weapons that the United States or the Soviet Union could have at a given time.

The Soviet Union wanted détente because their economy was stalling in the late 1960s, with food prices doubling and they could not afford to continue spending on nuclear weapons.

The main reason for détente was that temporarily improving relations and avoiding a nuclear arms race had economic benefits for the United States and the Soviet Union.

Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

What does 'detente' mean?

Why did the US and China's meeting worry the USSR?

What did the Helsinki Accords address?


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