In the nuclear era . . . it is our responsibility to contain Soviet power without global war . . .
The policies pursued by this administration have been designed to prevent Soviet expansion but also to build a pattern of relations in which the Soviet Union will always confront penalties for aggression and also acquire growing incentives for restraint. . . .
In other words, the Nixon administration thought that a firm and patient resistance to Soviet encroachment (a policy known as containment) coupled with a willingness to cooperate when Soviet behavior warranted, might protect the free world, and, over time, compel Soviet leaders to face up to their system’s internal contradictions. (For more on containment, see letter C here.)
The Soviets held a different view. Neither detente nor peaceful coexistence meant any Soviet renunciation of their global ideological mission. Brezhnev argued:
It could not be clearer, after all, that detente and peaceful coexistence have to do with interstate relations. This means above all that disputes and conflicts between countries are not to be settled by war, by the use or the threat of force. Detente does not in the slightest abolish, nor can it abolish or alter, the laws of the class struggle . . . . We make no secret that we see detente as the way to create more favorable conditions for peaceful socialist and communist construction.
Whereas the US saw detente as a way to manage the Soviets’ emergence on the world scene, the Soviets saw it as a way to manage America’s transition to a new and lesser status without undue resistance.
Detente ended after the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan. Ronald Reagan’s election as president in 1980 solidified the close of detente and saw a return to Cold War tensions, a period now known as the Second Cold War. In his first press conference, President Reagan said:
‘Detente’ has been a one-way street that the Soviet Union has used to pursue its aims.
Photograph by Liz West (Flickr).