Attempts to reduce tension between East and West


After the scare of the Cuban Missile Crisis and then the humiliation of the Vietnam War, the 1970s saw the USA, the USSR and China making an effort to improve relations. This led to a period known as détente, a word meaning the relaxing of tension.

What evidence was there that tensions between East and West were easing in the 1970s?

A list of evidence demonstrating the easing of tensions (détente) in the Cold War in the 1970s
  • The arms race was expensive: sides began to realise that money for nuclear weapons would be better spent to improve living conditions at home.
  • The new US President, Richard Nixon, knew the war in Vietnam needed to be brought to an end. (The USA would eventually leave Vietnam in 1974).
  • The relationship between the USSR and China, the world’s most important communist nations, had soured. This was known as the Sino-Soviet split. For the USA it meant it was easier to establish diplomatic relations with China. Nixon made a symbolically important visit to China in 1972, which showed that he was trying to improve relations with the communist superpower, and subsequently the US dropped its objection to China joining the United Nations. Nixon hoped that the Chinese would help push the North Vietnamese to a resolution in Vietnam.
  • In 1972 SALT I (Strategic Arms Limitation Talks) was signed by Nixon and the Soviet leader, Leonid Brezhnev. The agreement restricted the number of ICBMs (Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles) both sides could have, but was criticised by some for not limiting the production of new nuclear weapons.
  • In 1975 American astronautsastronauts and Soviet cosmonauts met and symbolically shook hands in space.
  • In 1975, the Helsinki Agreement was signed by 35 countries including the USA and the USSR. These countries were signing up to recognise the European borders established after World War Two as well as to some basic human rights such as freedom of speech. This effectively meant that the Western Allies recognised Soviet control over Eastern Europe. It also meant that, after decades of communist dictatorship, the Soviet Union had signed up to a basic human rights agreement.
Image of American astronaut Thomas Stafford and Russian cosmonaut Aleksey Leonov shaking hands in space in 1975.
The American astronaut Thomas Stafford (left), and the Russian cosmonaut Aleksey Leonov shaking hands in the connecting passage between APOLLO cabin and SOYOUZ cabin. This space encounter took place during an American-Soviet mission into space

So, where did it all go wrong?

Portrait of Jimmy Carter
US President Jimmy Carter

  • In 1977, a new US President, Jimmy Carter, entered the White House. Carter was a Democrat and had a different view on the USA’s foreign relations and place in the world, and he criticised the USSR for its human rights abuses.
  • Between 1977 and 1979 the USSR began to replace its out-of-date nuclear missiles in Eastern Europe with SS-20 missiles. These were a new type of battlefield nuclear weapon, leading many in the West to believe that the Soviets had not abandoned the idea of nuclear war or expansionism in Europe. The USA responded by developing Cruise Missiles and deploying its own battlefield nuclear weapons to Europe.
  • With the arms race apparently on again, and then the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, the US Congress refused to ratify SALT II, a second agreement of the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks, because it as far as they could see the USSR had broken its commitment to limiting the creation of new nuclear weapons.