Détente, the Cold War & Nixon: Definition & Policy

Instructor: Matthew Hill

Matthew Hill received Bachelor of Arts in Religious Studies and Psychology from Columbia International University. Hill also received an M.A. and Ph.D. in History from Georgia State University. He has over 10 years of teaching experience as a professor and online instructor for courses like American History, Western Civilization, Religious History of the United States, and more.

Détente marked a shift in Cold War policy under President Nixon. It was designed to relax tensions with the Soviet Union, reduce nuclear arsenals, and limit military commitments.

Roots of Détente

Nixon's policy of détente - a French word meaning 'release from tensions' - marked a crossroads in American foreign policy and a timely commitment to reduce U.S.-Soviet tensions. The policy of détente was rooted both in world events and in a new ideological orientation by the Nixon White House.

Previous administrations had struggled with how best to manage U.S.-Soviet tensions. The Truman Doctrine, for example, was a U.S. pledge to support any nation struggling against communist aggression. However, the Truman Doctrine did not specify what American defense priorities should be, and in principle, it committed the country to endless wars. As a case in point, it culminated in the Korean War.

The fall of China to the communists in 1949 appeared to have created a powerful new ally for the Soviet Union. When Eisenhower took office, he removed U.S. troops from Korea and began a buildup of America's nuclear arsenal in place of conventional weapons and ground forces. This created the idea that the threat of 'mutually assured destruction' would discourage a nuclear war.

When Kennedy took office, he opted for a 'flexible response'. Nuclear weapons were not practical in most situations, and the Cuban Missile Crisis illuminated the dangers of the nuclear age. In response, Kennedy created Special Forces units for small-scale ground operations. However, this policy enabled the escalation of the U.S. involvement in the Vietnam conflict, which President Johnson plunged the U.S. into, vastly overextending America's reach. This was the situation Nixon inherited when he was elected.

President elect Richard Nixon meets with President Lyndon Johnson
Nixon and Johnson

Nixon Pursues Détente

Nixon recognized the need for a new foreign policy without abandoning the logic of containment (preventing hostile influences from expanding). This new policy proscription can be seen in two primary ways. First, Nixon recognized that the world could not be easily divided into democratic and communist blocs. Several newly independent nations, such as India, had adopted a policy of non-alignment; also, the China-Soviet feud further illustrated the diversity even within the communist world. Second, the Soviet Union had reached nuclear parity, or equality, with the U.S. in nuclear weapons, and it became too dangerous to continue this rigid standoff.

To remedy this situation, Nixon announced the Nixon Doctrine, whereby the U.S. would scale back its military commitments and pass more responsibility onto its allies. However, it would continue to support its allies solely through military and financial aid. Nixon stated: 'Its central thesis is that the United States will participate in the defense and development of its allies and friends, but that America cannot - and will not - conceive all the plans, design all the programs, execute all the decisions and undertake all the defense of the free nations of the world.' The lesson Nixon learned from the Vietnam War was that the U.S. had to scale back its military commitments.

President Nixon dining with Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai
Nixon in China

Détente in China

The U.S. and China had not had diplomatic relations since 1949. Nixon saw an opportunity to repair the relationship between China and the U.S. He also realized that there really was no united communist bloc, given the Sino-Soviet split, and that he could drive a wedge between the Soviet Union and China. In July 1971, he secretly sent Secretary of State Henry Kissinger to China on a diplomatic mission, following up with a visit of his own in February 1972 to meet with Premier Zhou Enlai and Chairman Mao Zedong. These historic meetings ended with reopening China to the United States and a promise to restore full diplomatic relations, which was finalized under President Carter. Incredibly, Nixon had pulled off what no U.S. president had done in over twenty years.

President Nixon meets with Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev
Nixon and Brezhnev

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