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Diplomacy and Conflict • Cold War Leadership

Détente was first promoted by U.S. president Richard Nixon and his secretary of state, Henry Kissinger, who crafted a pragmatic foreign policy less concerned with moral demands for human rights and more concerned with international stability. With this premise, Nixon and Kissinger opened diplomatic relations with the People's Republic of China and also joined Soviet general secretary Leonid Brezhnev in a series of summits. With a new focus on stability, both superpowers abandoned nuclear brinkmanship. Détente included arms talks, trade agreements, cultural exchanges, and lowered tensions.

Increased stability was also the goal of West German chancellor Willy Brandt's policy of Ostpolitik in the same period, which led to a treaty between West Germany and the Soviet Union that recognized the postwar border the Soviet Union had set for Poland. In return, the Soviet Union recognized the postwar division of Berlin, making the Soviets less likely—as Khrushchev once had done—to threaten to drive French, British, and American forces from Berlin.

Détente—always strained over issues of human rights—was shattered in 1979 when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, a maneuver that renewed hostilities and brinkmanship, particularly on the part of new U.S. president Ronald Reagan.

Summits and the SALT Treaties

One of the chief aims of détente was to lessen the odds for nuclear war. Following up on the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (1963) and the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (1968), in 1969 the Soviets and Americans opened the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT I). These concluded in 1972 at the Moscow Summit with an agreement to limit the number of intercontinental missiles and submarine-based ballistic missiles that either side could possess.

Accepting the logic of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD), SALT I was also accompanied by the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty forbidding either side from creating missile-defense systems. The goal was to prevent either superpower from trying to provoke and then "win" a nuclear conflict.

The SALT II talks during 1972–1979 sought to create parity in every category of weapon, followed with agreements to trim stockpiles. General Secretary Brezhnev and President Jimmy Carter signed the treaty in 1979. After the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, in January 1980 Carter urged the Senate to delay its ratification vote.

Angolan and Ethiopian Civil Wars

During the period of détente, the superpowers frequently entered anticolonial struggles. While the French—after two prolonged wars—had abandoned colonial Indochina in 1954 and Algeria in 1962, the Portuguese were determined to maintain their African colonies, particularly Angola with its diamond mines.

The ensuing warfare was long and brutal. By the late 1960s, half of Portugal's budget was dedicated to maintaining its African colonies. After a coup in Portugal, its former colonies were granted independence in 1975, but the ensuing power vacuum left the region unstable and civil wars continued in both Angola and Mozambique.

China, Cuba, the Soviet Union, and the United States all supported varying factions in these African conflicts. The civil war in Angola dragged on another 15 years. At times, these wars pitted Marxist factions against one another, as when the Marxist regime in Somalia—formerly under British and French control—attacked another Marxist regime in Ethiopia in 1977 to annex ethnic Somalis.

Nationalism and Domestic Terrorism

While the superpowers sought a fragile international stability—leading, for example, to U.S. president Gerald Ford's decision not to invite Soviet dissident Alexander Solzhenitsyn to the White House and thus offend the Soviet Union—dissidents and extremist groups challenged the status quo and claimed the moral high ground. The youth counterculture movement, galvanized by fury over the United States' war in North Vietnam, spawned numerous radical groups that seized on Marxist or Maoist philosophies.

The Weather Underground, a splintered faction of the Students for Democratic Society, began to carrying out bombings in the United States. In Europe, the Red Army Faction in West Germany and the Red Brigade in Italy carried out kidnappings and assassinations. In 1978, the Red Brigade kidnapped and killed former Italian prime minister Aldo Moro.

Nationalist separation movements also came to the fore as the Irish Republican Army, seeking independence from the United Kingdom, planned bombings and assassinations, and the British Army carried out brutal reprisals. The Basque independence movement employed terror in Spain, while the Armed Forces of Puerto Rican National Liberation (FALN) mounted bombings to spearhead independence from the United States.

The Palestinian struggle against Israel was viewed as another episode in anticolonialism. Founded in 1970, the Black September group—an offshoot of Fatah originally formed over anger at Jordan's treatment of Palestinian exiles—planned and carried out the kidnapping and killing of 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympics in Munich.

Cold War in Middle East

With its possession of oil wealth, the Suez Canal, and valuable shipping lanes, the Middle East had great strategic importance to both superpowers. In 1967, Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser, then a client of the Soviet Union, massed troops in the Sinai and placed a blockade on shipping to Israel. In what is called the Six-Day War, the Israeli Army—backed with U.S. weaponry—made a preemptive strike, removing the Egyptian air force, advancing into the Sinai, and then making further incursions that gained Israel the Golan Heights from Syria and the West Bank from Jordan.

When the United States and Soviet Union met at the Moscow Summit in 1972, Nasser's successor, Anwar Sadat, was concerned. True to Egypt's nonalignment strategies, Sadat shifted allegiance to court U.S. support. He ordered 15,000 Soviet military advisors removed from Egypt, launched an unexpected attack on Israeli-occupied Sinai in 1973, and encouraged Syria's assault on the Golan Heights. Sadat did not expect to win the war but rather to make long-term gains with aid from the United States.

In 1978, President Carter mediated peace talks between Israel and Egypt. The Camp David Accords returned the Sinai to Egypt, ended Egypt's embargo on Israel, and was accompanied by massive yearly military aid to both Israel and Egypt. The terms were of the win-win variety for the two countries, but not for both leaders—although Sadat and Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin shared the Nobel Peace Prize for their negotiations in 1978, Sadat was assassinated for his involvement three years later.

Detente Detente Detente—always detente detente,

Fred R. Nadis
Fred Nadis has a PhD in American studies from the University of Texas, Austin and writes about technology, science, and popular culture. At ABC-CLIO, he was a project editor for the 21-volume World History Encyclopedia (2011). He also is the author of Wonder Shows: Performing Science, Magic, and Religion (Rutgers University Press, 2005), and The Man from Mars: Ray Palmer's Amazing Pulp Journey (Tarcher/Penguin, 2013).

MLA Citation

Nadis, Fred. "Détente." World History: The Modern Era, ABC-CLIO, 2019, worldhistory.abc-clio.com. Accessed 25 Aug. 2019.

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Entry ID: 2155829

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