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Reasons for Detente 1963-1975

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Detente was a short period of time of improved relations between the United States and the Soviet Union between the 1960’s and the 1970’s. Detente is French for “relaxation”. Although Detente was designed to end Cold War tension, it eventually became a “thawing out” period. Detente reached it’s zenith with the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty of 1968, the SALT (Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty) of 1972 and the Helsinki Accords in 1975. Both the US and the USSR various had reasons to seek Detente.

The Cuban Missile Crisis, that started October 18 1962 and lasted until the 29, made everyone uneasy. There was fear that a Third World War would break out if tensions did not improve. Nuclear weapons became a big concern; by 1969 the Soviet Union had matched the United States in their number of nuclear weapons. A state of mutually assured destruction (M.A.D) had obviously been reached. Mutually assured destruction meant that even if the Soviet Union attacked America with nukes, American would be capable to attack back and there would be no winners. People around the world feared a nuclear holocaust. While Dwight Eisenhower was president, the ideas of brinkmanship and massive retaliation were adopted. Both the US and the USSR believed that the more nuclear weapons a country had the stronger chance they stood. Massive retaliation meant that if the US was attacked by the USSR that they would use all available resources (mainly nuclear weapons) to destroy them.

The military term “brinkmanship” means: “unions that threaten to strike and spouses that threaten divorce can also be involved in games of brinkmanship.” Both the United States and the USSR were aware that if one of them attacked the other, it would be obliterate both countries. They both used a “second-strike” capability that made it possible for them to launch an attack even after being attacked. In theory, if one country attacked the other, and the other attacked back the world itself could be annihilate. With this knowledge, both the US and the Soviet Union held back and avoided attacking each other. But the necessity of reducing the risk of a nuclear war pushed both the US and the USSR towards Detente. The Nuclear Test Ban treaty of 1963 followed by the Non-Proliferation Treaty of 1968 were the first steps towards Detente.

Prior to the Vietnam War, the USA avoided making any compromises with the Soviet Union. But the experiences the Vietnam War brought forced Americans to rethink the situation. The Vietnam War diverted large sums of money that would have otherwise gone to improve America. At its peak, America was sending 729.2 million dollars worth of economic aid to South Vietnam. Americans were promised social reform by Kennedy (New Frontier, and Johnson (New Society) etc. Due to military spending, these social reforms never happened. The horrors of the Vietnam War made Americans hesitant to support any further involvement in wars. Detente would allow America to upload their interests without having to break out the military. More could be gained through talking and negotiation than by military conformation and allow the US to bring some of their troops stationed around the world back home. After the loses in Vietnam, America need a break from war. The reduction of tensions would free up the money being used by the military and could be redirected to improve the lives of American citizens.

The Soviet Union was creating weapons of mass destruction in attempts to catch up with the United States in the arms race at the expense of their people. The living standards remained poor in the USSR regardless of the promises made by Khrushchev to improve the standard of living. The nuclear arms race was left the Soviets with a continuing economic problem. The majority of their money was being used to make weapons while their people were starving. Peace with America meant that they could get agricultural aid and access to grain supplies. Soviets also saw Detente as an opportunity to get a hold of western technology that could greatly improve Soviet society.

The Sino-Soviet split caused great concern for the Soviet Union. Sino-Soviet relations started hit a rocky road in the late 1950’s, reached the climax in 1969 and lasted until the late 1980’s. The two once allied countries split over “ideological” differences. Both the Soviets and the Chinese accused the other of “Revisionism” and was moving away from pure communism. Mao felt that the Soviets were going soft and giving in to the Americans with their policy of “Peaceful Coexistence”. China had long asked the Soviets for nuclear weapons and finally developed its own atomic bomb in 1964. China seeked to be the Communist leader of the world and snub the Soviets out. In 1969, the USSR and China went to War against one along the Ussuri River over a border dispute. The Soviets feared strong Sino-American relations and therefore made an attempt towards Detente.

Even though both the US and the USSR tried to reduce Cold War tensions, Detente did not last very long. Different people have formed different opinions about Detente and how successful it really was. Most agree that Detente reduced the likelihood of a nuclear holocaust and allowed America to reduce taxes. While many anti-communist right wingers believe that it was a wrong move that allowed the Soviet Union to remain in power longer. But given the ideological differences, it would have been difficult for Detente to last for longer than it did. The Soviets invaded Afghanistan in 1979 and the relations between the two super powers began to ebb. The crisis in Poland regarding the Polish Trade Union federation and an eventual escalation in the arms race brought Detente to a end in the early 1980’s.

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