A Failed Empire: The Soviet Union in the Cold War from Stalin to Gorbachev

By Vladislav M. Zubok | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 7
BREZHNEV AND THE
ROAD TO DÉTENTE,
1965–1972

We must conduct negotiations in a big way, not a small-minded
way. And the arrangement we achieve should encourage
tranquility in the world.

—Brezhnev to Kissinger, April 21, 1972

On May 29, 1972, Richard Nixon and Leonid Brezhnev met in the richly adorned and ancient St. Catherine Hall of a historic Kremlin palace to sign an array of bilateral documents, among them the Strategic Arms Limitations Agreement, the Antiballistic Missile Treaty, and “The Basic Principles of U.S.-Soviet Relations.” This solemn occasion was the peak of Brezhnev’s political career. It was also the highest point of international prestige of the Soviet Union since the beginning of the Cold War.

The origins and meaning of détente have always been subjects of controversy. Beginning in the mid-1970s, neoconservative critics of the Nixon, Ford, and Carter administrations attacked détente as immoral appeasement of Soviet power. They also believed that the Soviet Union used détente as a devious camouflage for its secret plans of global aggression and military superiority. Supporters of détente defended it as the only prudent choice in a world of nuclear terror and as the only means to move toward the reunification of a Europe divided by the Cold War. In recent years, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, both sides have claimed they were right. The critics have argued that the rearmament and global attack on Soviet interests under Reagan helped overcome the legacy of détente and assured Western victory. Proponents assert that détente contributed to ending the superpower confrontation, since it inadvertently led to the “imperial overstretch” of the Soviet Union and was thus an important element in the causal chain leading to Soviet decline and collapse.1

The preponderance of détente studies has been on the Western side. The Soviet side of the story is sketchy and incomplete.2 Earlier studies of détente greatly advanced our understanding of the nature of Soviet politics and policy

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