Détente was a permanent relaxation in the international affairs during the Cold War. It was a term generally associated with the relations between USA, USSR and China. The détente was witnessed in the 1970s, mainly because there was a growing fear of a nuclear holocaust especially with the growth in those countries that had nuclear weapons, such as USA and USSR. The détente consisted of many events, right from the decisions made after the Cuban Missile Crisis, to the Helsinki agreement in 1975. In doing so, it seemed to ease tensions between the USA and USSR in the 1970s.
The United States had an atomic monopoly for only a very brief period; this ended in 1949 with the Soviet development of nuclear technology, followed by that of the UK, France and China in 1964. The proliferation of weapons was not simply the stockpiles of weapons but also the expansion of the number of countries that counted as nuclear powers. This proliferation led to necessary negotiations about the extent and limitations of these weapons. The USA and USSR found themselves on the same side in this particular endeavor: neither sought to increase the number of countries that had nuclear weapons. Even in the midst of conflicts in Vietnam, the Congo and Latin America the USA, the UK and the USSR brokered and signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in July 1968. This was an amendment to the 1963 Test Ban Treaty, in which the USA and the USSR agreed to cease underwater, space and atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons.
Although Brezhnev proved to be a hardliner, he was also a realist, and in 1967 accepted President Johnson’s invitation to begin bilateral talks regarding arms limitations. They were hindered somewhat by US domestic politics but eventually evolved into the Strategic Arms Limitations Talks (SALT). Formal negotiations took place, beginning in 1969 under President Nixon and Brezhnev. Salt 1, as it was later called, was implemented in 1972. According to the terms of the treaties signed, the USA and USSR agreed to freeze the number of ballistic missile launchers and would only allow the use of new submarine ballistic missile launchers as these and older intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) launchers were removed from use.
They also signed the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, which limited the number of ABM systems that would defend areas from nuclear attack. This was followed by SALT 2, brokered through a series of talks that took place between 1972 and 1979. The main difference is that SALT 2 involved negotiations to reduce the number of nuclear warheads possessed by each side to 2250 and banned new weapon programs from coming into existence.
Thus, the nuclear arms agreements were the most high-profile areas of détente, but there were other treaties that signaled a willingness to change entrenched Cold War policies on both sides. In 1970, the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG) signed a treaty with the USSR recognizing the borders of Germany, including the Oder-Neisse line that delineated the border of Poland and the German Democratic Republic (GDR). Shortly thereafter, another agreement was signed in which it was decided that Berlin would be represented by the FRG in international matters but it would not become part of the FRG. Lastly, with regard to Germany, 1972 saw the normalization of relations between the two German states, including the establishment of permanent missions and the admission of both states into the UN. This complemented the West German policy of Ostpolitik, a distinct shift toward Eastern Europe in an attempt to improve relations with the GDR that, it hoped, would eventually lead to reunification.
However, the most wide-ranging aspect of détente was finalized in Helsinki in 1975 with the conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE). The final act dealt with security in Europe in which post-war frontiers were accepted; co-operation in science, technology and environmental concerns; and human rights. The improvement of relations between East and West seemed to be at its high point, yet five years later, Soviet actions in Poland and Afghanistan renewed Cold War tensions. Hence, as the historian John Lewis Gaddis believed, the détente was not an end to cold war tensions but rather a temporary relaxation that depended upon the unlikely intersection of unconnected phenomena. Furthermore, the historians, Melvyn P. Leffler and Odd Arne Westad, explain how the Cold War seemed to stabilize after the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 and how this sense of increased stability developed into the detente era of the early 1970s. However, these historians also throw light on the fact that it were the interests and ideologies of the superpowers which eroded the detente process.
While historians like Kitt Johnson believe that it reduced tension overall for the superpowers and stabilized relation between them, others argue that the détente prolonged the tensions in the cold war. In addition, the treaties and agreements did not achieve much. In doing so, the détente was designed to freeze the Cold War, as believed by many, rather than to end it.