Nixon and arms control
Nixon in China
Nixon tried to get better relations not only with the Soviet Union, but also with communist China. The world was surprised when Nixon announced in 1971 that he would visit China. Since 1949 the US government had treated China with contempt and had refused to 'recognize' the communist government. The visit took place in 1972 and led to much better relations between the two countries.
In dealing with the Soviet Union, Nixon emphasized the need for arms control negotiations. The Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT I ) began in 1969 and led to the signing of an agreement on intercontinental Ballistic Missiles in 1972. Nixon stated that American Policy on nuclear weapons was now one of 'sufficiency', rather than 'superiority': this meant that the Americans wanted enough weapons to defend themselves and were no longer committed to having more an the Soviet Union.
Detente also increased trade between the superpowers. In 1972 the US government agreed to supply wheat to the Soviet Union and soon a large proportion of all American wheat was exported to the Soviet Union.
In Europe, detente meant a reduction of tension over the divisions of Germany. In 1974 the USA formally recognized East Germany as an independent country. Detente allowed the two German states to establish better relations with each other.
Detente continued after Nixon's fall from office during the Watergate Scandal in 1974. Brezhnev, the Soviet leader organized a conference on the future of Europe in Helsinki between 1973 and 1975. This produced agreements on ways of avoiding confrontation between East and West and economic co-operation. The Helsinki agreements also committed all parties to respect human rights. Communist countries did very little to honor the pledge on human rights.
The end of detente
The US president, Jimmy Carter (in office 1977-80) attempted to achieve more arms reductions through the SALT 2 talks. These talks were very protracted. Carter annoyed Brezhnev by trying to link cuts in weapons to discussions of human rights in the communist countries.
A SALT 2 treaty was finally signed in 1979. This set further limits on the number of nuclear weapons that each side could hold. The SALT 2 treaty was never ratified by the US Congress because the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in December 1979. The sending of troops into Afghanistan marked the end of the period of detente. The USA boycotted the Moscow Olympics in 1980 in order to show disapproval for the Soviet nation.
In 1981, Carter was replaced by a hard-line President, Ronald Reagan, who rejected detente and who started a new arms race with the Soviet Union. The early 1980s have been called the Second Cold War. Reagan attacked Soviet communism in his speeches and talked of the need to oppose an 'evil empire'. His scientists were instructed to explore ways of giving the USA nuclear superiority by developing ways of shooting down Soviet missiles in space. This project was known as Star Wars, or the Defense Strategic Defense Initiative.