The Cold War: A Very Short Introduction

By Robert McMahon | Go to book overview

Chapter 7
The rise and fall of
superpower detente,
1968–79

During the 1970s, a somewhat obscure French term denoting the relaxation of tensions among former rivals suddenly entered the working vocabularies not just of statesmen but of ordinary citizens across the globe. Detente served as a convenient shorthand for the more stable and cooperative relationship being forged by the Cold War's primary protagonists, a phenomenon that came to dominate the international politics of that decade. Under the leadership, on the Soviet side, of Communist Party Chairman Leonid Brezhnev and, on the American side, of Presidents Richard M. Nixon, Gerald R. Ford, and Jimmy Carter, the two superpowers sought to regulate their continuing rivalry more effectively. They worked to lessen the danger of nuclear war through the negotiation of verifiable arms control agreements, a hallmark of detente. At the same time, the two superpowers expanded trade links, technology transfers, and scientific sharing, while also labouring to formulate a core set of ‘rules’ to govern their relationship.

Detente did not mean replacing the Cold War with a structure of peace, to be sure, despite the pious rhetoric from both sides that so stated. Rather, it meant managing the Cold War in a safer and more controlled manner so as to minimize the possibility either of accidental war or of a destabilizing arms spiral. Competition continued, especially in the Third World, which remained a cauldron of instability and revolutionary change. Each side,

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