Causes of Détente (CIE A-Levels Cold War)

Written by Aaron

The key question in the CIE Cold War syllabus is:

Why was there a move towards détente in the 1970s?

The topic of détente is split in half, with the causes of détente being discussed in Theme 1 of the CIE Paper 4 syllabus, and the success/failure of détente discussed in Theme 2. We’ll focus on conquering Theme 1 in this guide.

What kinds of questions could you face under this key topic?

  • General questions e.g. What was the most important factor behind détente?
  • Analyse a specific factor e.g. To what extent did the Vietnam War push the USA towards détente?

The second kind of question (analyse specific factors) may seem daunting, but it’s very simple. Your first instinct might be to just talk about the Vietnam War’s impact on détente, but as you might notice, there’s not much space to create a deep, long argument.

The key here is to compare that specific factor (e.g. Vietnam) to other factors (e.g. risk of nuclear war). This doesn’t mean mention Vietnam in only one paragraph. It means that you have room to explore other factors (but still maintain a focus on Vietnam).

We’ll cover 4 Main Causes of Detente:

  1. Fear of Nuclear War
  2. Ostpolitik
  3. Vietnam War + US Needs
  4. USSR’s Needs

So in the end, the best way to master this topic in the course is just to go over all the causes of détente — once you’ve done that, don’t worry too much about any specific cause, because you’ll have enough material from other causes to throw at the essay regardless of which specific cause they throw at you.

Causes of Détente

1) Fear of Nuclear War

Causal Link:

  • Both sides fearful of nuclear war, given that the world was brought to the brink of destruction in the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis.
  • From this, explain how the Cuban Missile Crisis motivated the Washington-Moscow Hotline in 1963 (direct communication between both leaders).
  • Then a slew of treaties to control nuclear weapons were passed: Partial Test Ban Treaty 1963, Outer Space Treaty 1967, and most importantly the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty 1968. (See Guide to Treaties).
  • More negotiations to control the arms race started in 1969 in Helsinki, Finland. This culminated in SALT I in 1972, an (arguably) major achievement in relations. (Make sure you learn up about the SALT provisions here. You must know its details)

Using the above sequence of logic and examples, you can explain how the Fear of Nuclear War motivated détente.

Arguing it Out:

The average student would merely argue “Nuclear war scary. So they signed SALT”, then proceed to describe SALT in detail.

A better argument would be to stress and show how both sides only started talking because they feared nuclear war, which in turn was a fear borne from the Cuban Missile Crisis. Use the causal link above to show bettering of relations gradually, culminating in détente. Then only you talk about the significance of SALT.

Undermining it:

If you’re trying to undermine this factor, you could argue that they weren’t really fearful of nuclear destruction because of MAD (read: Mutually Assured Destruction). Rather, SALT was born from other factors, like a desire to stop spending on nuclear weapons (economic factors).

2) Ostpolitik

Neue Ostpolitik = “New Eastern Policy” in German. This factor is basically the push for better relations between West Germany and USSR/East Germany due to the election of Willy Brandt as West German chancellor.

Causal Link:

1969 – Election of Willy Brandt (Social Democrats) as Chancellor of West Germany.

1970 – Treaty of Moscow signed between USSR-West Germany. West Germany recognises East Germany + post-WW2 borders (specifically, the Oder-Neisse line) + pledge of non-violence

1970 – Treaty of Warsaw. West Germany and Poland agree to accept the existing borders, pledge non-violence.

1971 – Quadripartite Agreement. Signed between USSR/USA/France/UK. Re-established ties between both Germanies.

1972 – Transit Treaty. Secured rights of both citizens of both West/East Germany to visit each other (family emergencies only)

1972 – Basic Treaty. Both sides recognise each other as sovereign powers. Both admitted to UN. Hallstein Doctrine abandoned. (This is the climax — huge achievement here)

The Hallstein Doctrine was a West Germany policy to break off diplomatic relations with states that recognised East Germany.

Arguing it Out:

A typical average response is to mention the word Ostpolitik, then argue general notions of ‘better relations’ between both Germanies.

A better argument involves (1) knowing the exact agreements and citing them (2) stressing and showing that it was specifically Willy Brandt’s election that led to such a quick bettering of relations.

You can note that these agreements were all in quick succession (1969 elected, by 1972 five agreements signed). You can also note that West Germany had previously been under Christian Democrat Union (CDU) control prior to Willy Brandt. In fact, Willy Brandt and his Social Democrats faced hardline opposition from the CDU when signing the treaties above.

This gives strong proof to show that it was indeed Willy Brandt’s election that led to détente.

Undermining it:

It’s hard to undermine this factor, but you can note that at best, this factor was Europe-centric. It wasn’t necessarily a factor for détente between the USA and USSR.

3) Vietnam War & US Needs

There are two sub-factors at play here. Think of it as:

Vietnam War + 1973 Oil Crisis = US economic problems = detente

Vietnam War = reluctance to engage internationally = detente

Quick Economic Facts:

USA faces stagflation (high inflation + unemployment)
Unemployment at 8.8% 
Average inflation of 7% in the decade
Oil prices quadruple between 1973-1974 ($3 to $12)
$111 billion spent between 1965-1975 on Vietnam War

Oil priced quadrupled due to the 1973 Oil Crisis, where a big oil cartel called OPEC decided to place an embargo on the USA due to its support of Israel in the Yom Kippur War.

The 1973 Oil Crisis is an important factor in its own right, and played a part in the ‘stagflation’ during the decade.

Arguing US Economic needs:

Vietnam War + 1973 Oil Crisis = US economic problems

For this causal link, you can explain how the 1973 Oil crisis obviously contributed to oil prices increasing (ouch), and inflation/stagflation. The Vietnam War contributed to unemployment (returning veterans), and involved a tonne of government expenditure ($111 billion).

US economic problems = detente

This part of the link is harder. You can argue that a bad economic position made the arms race more painfully expensive. So seeking a ‘freeze’ on the arms race via SALT I made sense. A poor economy may have also made the USA less confrontational and more inward-focused.

Undermining US Economic needs:

You want to focus on the US economic problems = detente link. You can point out that SALT I was signed before the Oil Crisis and before withdrawal from Vietnam. This suggests a major achievement of detente, SALT I, was not caused by either economic factor. You can also point out this had little towards Europe (Ostpolitik), another major achievement of detente.

Arguing Needs After Vietnam:

Vietnam War = reluctance to engage internationally = detente

Let’s tackle the whole causal link at once.

For this argument, you can use the following to show why the USA would want detente because of Vietnam:

  • Economic costs, as explained above already.
  • Public discontent with the war
    • Disgust over the My Lai Massacre 1968
    • Disgust over the Kent State Massacre 1970
    • Conscription of soldiers
  • Vietnam Syndrome (aversion to US overseas military involvement)
    • High human cost of war (58,000 US soldiers dead, 300,000 wounded)
    • Feeling that the USA could not possibly win a war abroad

The key here is showing how public discontent + Vietnam syndrome fed a desire to pull out from foreign entanglements, hence leading to detente.

The My Lai Massacre saw US soldiers kill 504 unarmed civilians.

The Kent State Massacre saw 4 US student protestors killed at Kent State University in the USA. They were shot by the state guards while protesting.

Undermining Needs After Vietnam:

For this, you can point out that the Vietnam War was still being fought while the US pursued detente via SALT I. (As a counter-argument, you could say the war was winding down). You can also point out the US was still involved in military interventions e.g. Yom Kippur War 1973 and Chilean Coup 1973.

4) USSR Needs

Two subfactors at play here as well:

Problems in Eastern Europe

Economic/Technological Problems

Arguing Problems in Eastern Europe

This is really a minor point. The Prague Spring in Czechoslovakia led the USSR to invade. This also led to the establishment of the Brezhnev Doctrine: the USSR would intervene in any country straying from communist norms of development.

This also led to the establishment of the Brezhnev Doctrine: the USSR would intervene in any country straying from communist norms of development.

At best, this is a contributory factor, not a main one. If you want to use it, you can slip it in while talking about economic/technological needs.

Arguing Economic/Technological Problems:

GDP Growth falls from 6% in 1950 to 3% in 1970-75
Known as the Era of Stagnation
USA has 50x more computers than USSR
USSR still using antiquated ‘IBM360’ computer systems

The key here is that the USSR had a hit a period of stagnation. Too much investment in the military/heavy industry meant they were weak at producing consumer goods and had to import grain from the West as well.

Because of poor technology, they also had to import superior capital goods from the West.

The USSR would sell fuel / raw materials to the USA to earn hard currency it would then use to buy those imports of grain/consumer goods/superior capital goods.

Same with the USA — poor economics made it harder to continue the arms race and confrontation.

You could even go a step further and argue that the 1973 Oil Crisis made it lucrative for the US to seek oil from the USSR rather than its traditional Middle Eastern partners (who had imposed an embargo).

Undermining Economic/Technological Problems:

You can point out that USSR economic problems alone wouldn’t motivate detente. They needed buy-in from the USA as well — both parties needed reason to seek detente before it could happen, but maybe the USSR was more on dependent on the USA seeking detente then otherwise. After all, the USA had a military/economic advantage all the time — maybe the USA were the ones that called the shots when it came to detente.