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Diplomacy and Conflict • Cold War Leadership

During the Cold War, although the long-term strategy of the United States was to contain Soviet expansion, it was not always clear that direct conflict between the two superpowers would be avoided. In 1961, during the Cuban Missile Crisis, the United States and the Soviet Union came to the edge of nuclear war. Decades of proxy wars followed, with Soviets supporting anticolonial movements and other insurgencies throughout the Third World.

Both superpowers built up their nuclear arsenals. Paradoxically, a policy of mutually assured destruction (MAD), based on the notion that neither side would survive a nuclear war, helped keep the larger peace despite the weapons buildup. By the late 1960s, both superpowers used diplomacy to reduce arms and ease the inflexibility of the conflict.

Cuban Missile Crisis

Fidel Castro's revolution in Cuba succeeded in 1959, pleasing Soviet leaders who believed that Cuba could inspire other revolutions in Latin America. Viewing a communist regime barely 100 miles from the United States as a threat, U.S. president Dwight D. Eisenhower's administration developed a plan for counter-revolution. Under the leadership of the next president, John F. Kennedy, the result was the disastrous landing of anti-communists at the Bay of Pigs in early 1960.

The following year, U.S. spy planes discovered that the Soviet Union was transporting nuclear-armed missiles to Cuba, and the United States imposed a naval blockade. Last minute negotiations ended this conflict, which nearly flared into nuclear war. The first negotiations for nuclear arms limitations followed.

Vietnam War

After communist guerilla fighters defeated French colonial forces in Vietnam, a 1954 treaty temporarily divided the country at the 17th parallel, with a communist-backed provisional government to the north and a Western-backed government to the south. Instead of unifying the country, elections led to separate Korean governments. In the southern countryside American-backed leader Ngo Dinh Diem had little support. Fighters from the north aided rural uprisings, and the conflict became a civil war.

In part because of its commitments to SEATO (the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization), and in part a determined effort at nation building, throughout the 1960s and into the 1970s the United States continued to back unpopular governments in the south with ground troops and extensive bombing campaigns. The ongoing and ultimately failed war damaged America's reputation.

Brezhnev Doctrine

In Vietnam and other proxy wars, the United States tended to support reactionary forces in global conflicts, losing ground in the ideological battle with communism. Yet the Soviet Union also exercised brute power to quell popular uprisings in Warsaw Pact nations. Khrushchev's denunciations of Stalin's crimes had encouraged earlier attempts at reform in Poland and Hungary. In 1956 Khrushchev mobilized Soviet forces to crush a Hungarian rebellion.

In the 1960s, student unrest worldwide over U.S. "imperialism" in Vietnam reinvigorated protests in Warsaw Pact nations. The Soviet premier Leonid Brezhnev moved troops and tanks into Czechoslovakia in 1968 and announced, in the "Brezhnev Doctrine," that the Soviet Union had the right to suppress threats to communist governments.


U.S. president Richard Nixon chose to downplay the moral battle between the United States and the Soviet Union and instead worked on a pragmatic level to lessen tensions and stabilize international relations. Western leaders such as Willy Brandt of West Germany negotiated with the Soviets. Nixon also held summits with Brezhnev and, taking advantage of deteriorating relations between the Soviets and the Chinese, also opened diplomacy with China.

A new round of nuclear talks, Salt II, began in 1972. While negotiators signed onto this new deal in 1979, the groundwork of détente—that is, an avoidance of discussion of Soviet human rights abuses—was deteriorating. When Brezhnev decided to invade Afghanistan to prop up an unpopular communist government, détente was officially over.

The Cold War landscape was one of worldwide ideological and military conflict. The threat of nuclear war and the policy of mutually assured destruction intensified this conflict —a split so intense that that Swiss psychoanalyst Carl Jung described the world as "schizophrenic." The outbreak of nuclear war and the end of civilization was a stark possibility. Seeking to lessen tensions and stabilize the status quo, in this period the superpowers worked to lessen tensions and achieve arms reductions through détente.

Detente detente—that 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. "Crises, Confrontation, and Détente." World History: The Modern Era, ABC-CLIO, 2019, worldhistory.abc-clio.com/Search/Display/2005446. Accessed 25 Aug. 2019.

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Entry ID: 2155829

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