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Why did the USA pursue a policy of detente in the early 1970’s? Essay

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“History has so far shown there is only two roads to international stability, equilibrium and domination.” This quote from American Sectary of State Henry Kissenger describes the situation America faced in the late 1960’s. 1

By the late 1960’s, America was facing a humiliating defeat in Vietnam and many leading American politicians realised that a new type of diplomacy with the Soviet Union and China was necessary to prevent the Cold War escalating into a very hot and almost certainly nuclear war. Henry Kissenger, a respected American scholar and politician looked to peaceful 19th century Europe after the demise of Napoleon Bonaparte to argue that a balance of power was required to maintain world peace. Just as the great powers of 19th century Europe; Great Britain, Prussia, Austria-Hungary and Russia had maintained relatively good relations and peace, then America would have to act similarly in it’s relations with the other great powers of the mid to late 20th century. Kissenger realised that to do so America would have to act diplomatically and sometimes ignore it’s past fundamental beliefs and foreign policies “Statesmen cannot always live by their principles”. 2

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Kissenger convinced American President Richard Nixon that an American policy of detente was required, aside from other reasons; America was no longer able to maintain it’s previous foreign policy, it needed to change direction. Detente is a French word, which can be translated as meaning release from tension. It was this release from tension that the United States of America sought against its chief opponents on the global stage in the early 1970’s the Soviet Union and The People’s Republic of China.

America’s attempts to curtail communism had failed. The two largest, most populous countries in the world had fallen to communism. Other countries like Vietnam and Cuba, despite America’s best efforts had also become communist. It was becoming increasingly clear that America would have to change it’s tactics and accept that communism countries like the Soviet Union were not the evil empires they had made them out to be. President Nixon faced a number of problems both domestically and internationally, none of which would be fixed by America’s then foreign policy. It was clear that America needed to bite the bullet and prepare to negotiate with the Soviet’s and China.

Another factor, which influenced America adopting a policy of d�tente, was the Vietnam War. It was undeniable that the horrors of the Vietnam War had shocked most Americans to the very core. Vietnam was the first war fought in front of the television cameras. American television networks were able for the first time to relay live images from the battlefields back home and the result was utter disbelief. Whereas Americans had once felt detached from war, they could suddenly see the bloody brutality of it as they sat down with their families at dinnertime or just before they went to bed. Unsurprisingly, this dismay led to enormous fear of a potential nuclear war.

Since the seeds of the Cold War were first sown in the aftermath of the Second World War, America and the Soviet Union had aimed to exemplify its military strength by stockpiling nuclear weapons. The devastation of the bombs dropped on Japan in 1946 showed how dangerous nuclear weapons could be and by the 1960’s the Atomic bomb had been replaced by weapons capable of total destruction on a global scale.

Many Americans were also concerned about possible atrocities being committed in their name against innocent Vietnamese citizens. The publication of the story about the My Lai massacre and others like it, combined with fear of nuclear war lead to massive anti-war demonstrations, the largest with more than 500,000 people marching through Washington DC.3

By the early 1970’s, America’s military and economic superiority in the world was significantly depleted. It’s transformation into a super power and the role of international policeman that came with it had severely tested the American economy. America had provided huge amounts of financial aid to many countries across the globe hoping to stop the communist domino effect. The war in Vietnam was estimated to have cost around two thousand million dollars each month.4

In 1964, America had a $7 billion trade surplus; just eight years later had fallen to a $7 billion dollar trade deficit. The overall balance of payments deficit in 1971 had risen to $30 billion by 1971, more than ten times what it had been less than fifteen years previously. Furthermore America was facing stiff trade competition from Western European and Japan, countries they had effectively rebuilt after the Second World War. President Nixon was forced to limit imports and rather than revalue the American dollar, made other countries revalue their currencies in relation to the dollar.5

During the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, America’s military power was dramatically diminished. Although caught up in the Vietnam War, which Kissenger described as “A war we could not win but also seemed unable to end.”6 America had begun a huge slowdown in its production of arms several years before any form of official agreement with made with the Soviet Union. America was still superior to the Soviets in terms of the extent of its military power but the effect of this was having a dangerous effect, as the Soviet’s were always trying to catch up. If America was to slow down it’s production of weapons, the Soviet’s would also have to. Kissenger realised that American relations with the Soviet Union had to be radically improved.

Nixon and his immediate successors as Presidents of the United States (Gerald Ford succeed Nixon after his impeachment in 1974 and Jimmy Carter was elected President in 1976 and continued until 1980) aimed to ease tensions with both China and the Soviet Union with several groundbreaking concessions, meetings and agreements.

China responded to America’s call for d�tente. She was fearful of her isolation in the world, particularly after the way America had behaved in Vietnam. Since 1949, America had supported Chinese Nationalists in Taiwan. Although China had nuclear weapons, her stores were considerably less than either America or the Soviet Union’s. Increased tension with the USSR.

In 1971 China invited an American table tennis team to take part in a tournament, a monumental step. America responded by easing trade restrictions with China and supporting China’s application for membership of the United Nations, something that previously it had blocked completely. When China was accepted as a member of the United Nations in October 1971, President Nixon became the first President of the United States ever to visit China, even if a massive American naval force was kept at Taiwan in case. Nixon’s successor President Ford also visited China and in 1978, President Carter withdrew America’s official recognition of Taiwan.

The Soviet Union also wanted a policy of d�tente with the United States. The Soviet government was spending huge amounts on defence. Estimates suggest that in the year 1969-70, the Soviet Union spent the equivalent of $53 billion on defence. America’s defence spending was around $78 billion, but not only was it fighting the Vietnam War, its gross national product was more than twice that of the Soviet Union7. Such high spending on defence had left little to be spent on other areas and huge parts of the Soviet Union were facing famine and the Soviet government feared mass uprising and rioting. China’s improved relations with America and Japan left the Soviet’s feeling almost circled and they wanted to ensure their own security, realising that a policy of d�tente with the West was the best chance at securing such an aim.

In November 1971, America agreed to sell $136m wheat, and $125 oil drilling equipment to the Soviet’s. In return, the Soviet’s agreed to help America to force the North Vietnamese Communist regime to end the Vietnam War.

Following his visit to China, Nixon also visited the Soviet Union where he met President Brezhnev. America and the Soviets agreed to limit the stockpiles of missiles and relax trading restrictions and an arms control agreement the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT 1) which limited the production of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and sub-launched missiles, restricted anti-ballistic missiles, limited each super power to two defensive complexes. SALT I was a very real attempt by both America and the Soviet Union to ease tension between their two countries and reduce the risk of a nuclear war by limiting production of nuclear weapons. SALT I did not try to limit other weapons of mass destruction that both countries were developing or even more traditional features of war, but it was a very clear that the policy of d�tente between the Soviet Union and America had enabled them to considerably improve their relations.

One of the greatest achievements of the American policy of d�tente was The Berlin Agreement of 1972, which aimed to ease the major tension over the city of Berlin since the end of the Second World War, heightened greatly after the building of the Berlin Wall in 1961. Nixon realised that America would have to give way in certain areas to gain in others, in return for American recognition of the German Democratic Republic and the abandonment of it’s policy of seeking German reunification, the Soviet’s agreed to ease travel restrictions between the divided German city.

The Helsinki Agreement of 1975 saw America, the Soviet Union and the major European powers accept the European frontiers that had been set up after the Second World War. The Soviet’s agreed that they would allow the people of Eastern Europe to have basic human rights such as the freedom of speech and accepted that West Berlin belonged to the and in return both the Soviet controlled German Democratic Republic and the Federal Republic of Germany were admitted to the United Nations.

Combined with it’s own need of a relaxation of pressure between itself and the Soviet Union, America favoured a policy of detente to deal with the worsening of relations between China and the Soviet Union which lead American Secretary of State Henry Kissinger to claim that “The deepest international conflict in the world today is not between us and the Soviet Union but between the Soviet Union and Communist China.”8

The Soviet Union and China’s communist camaraderie had gradually broken down during the 1950’s because of disagreements about which country was most true to traditional communism and the Soviets refusal to give back land taken from China in the 19th century.

America may not have wanted to become involved in a war with either the Soviet Union or China but it didn’t them to go to war against each other either. Nixon and Kissenger used detente to play the two countries against one another, both eager to have better relations with America, which helped secure peace for fear of upsetting America and pushing them to side with one against the other which could have a catastrophic ramifications for the country left on it’s own.

D�tente proved a huge success throughout most of the 1970’s. Gradually some of the American hatred, scepticism and fear of communism was chipped away as American relations improved with the Soviet Union and China. However, unfortunately, it soon returned and during the 1980’s, the Soviet’s and Chinese seemed as threatening as they had done before the beginning of d�tente.


1] http://www.insults.net/html/political/henrykissenger.html

2]S.R. Ashton, In Search of D�tente, The Politics of East-West Relations Since 1945, Macmillan Press, 1989, p 118

3]Moratorium demonstration of 500,000 in Washington D.C. on Nov. 15 1969 largest anti-war demonstration


5]S.R. Ashton, In Search of D�tente, The Politics of East-West Relations Since 1945, MacMillian Press, 1989, p 115

6]S.R. Ashton, In Search of D�tente, The Politics of East-West Relations Since 1945, Macmillan Press, 1989, p 114

7]S.R. Ashton, In Search of D�tente, The Politics of East-West Relations Since 1945, Macmillan Press, 1989, p 119

8] http://www.insults.net/html/political/henrykissenger.html


S.R. Ashton, In Search of D�tente, The Politics of East-West Relations Since 1945, MacMillian Press, 1989

John Baylis & Steve Smith, The Globalisation of World Politics (2nd Edition), Oxford University Press (2000)

T.E. Vadney, The World Since 1945 (Third Edition), Penguin Books, 1998

J. Gladdis, Russia, The Soviet Union and the United States, An Interpretative History, New York:McGraw-Hill, 1990


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