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The Emergence of Detente in the Cold War

Studienarbeit 2009 31 Seiten


Table of Contents


Emergence of Cold War

Events of the East-West Conflict
Berlin Crisis 1
The German Question
Korean War
Berlin Crisis II
Cuban Missile Crisis

German Detente

Superpower Detente

End of Detente




In the dictionary detente is explained with a “relaxation of strained relations or tensions and also a policy promoting this[1]. In history there were always times of tensions and detente. However, the concept of detente today is mostly understood within the context of Cold War.

Emerged through the war-time conferences after World War II there was a basic agreement between the Anglo-Americans on the one hand and the Soviet Union on the other that there should be a division of Europe. The spheres of influence divided the world into two sides. Not only were the superpowers involved. Also their allies in Europe and the so called satellite states in the third world played an important role at that time. Especially the two Germany's were part of the negotiation process.

The ideological division between East and West, communism and capitalism, culminated in a nuclear arms race, which had the potential to destroy the whole world. After going through various crises, which will be presented to you in this paper, like for example the extremely dangerous Cuban missile crisis in 1962, the involved states realized that without a rapprochement on governmental level a competition for global predominance would potentially destroy the whole world. One first step on the way to detente was the installation of the Moscow-Washington hotline. The “red telephone” or the “heiße Draht” how we call it in Germany, was approved by an agreement on June 20, 1963 in Geneva, Switzerland.

Other reasons for a political approximation were to be found in the domestic affairs of the U.S.A and the Soviet Union: “From the American perspective, the debacle in Vietnam had, by the late 1960's, proven costly in terms of life lost and the expenditures incurred, while it had simultaneously undermined the United States prestige around the globe. (...) Weaknesses in the Soviet economy - the need for access to Western markets and technology - provided an additional rationale for Moscow's interest in Detènte[2] ”.

During this time another major change in Cold War policy was taking place in Germany. Willy Brandt, Governing Mayor of the Western part of Berlin since 1957 used his biographical experience of going through several Berlin crises, for a possible detente and developed his own ideas of a foreign policy; called “neue Ostpolitik”. After coming into power as chancellor in Germany, he could apply his ideas successfully.

In analogy to the lecture: “The East-West Conflict” this work will present in the following chapters the main events of the Cold War in general, the causes of detente at that time, as well as the most important happenings of detente and its demise. As stated above, detente was not only an occurrence between the two superpowers but also a European and especially German matter. This work will try to present the events between the U.S.A. and the Soviet Union and the German question parallel along the timeline of historical and political events.

The first idea of conducting an experimental approach to the analysis of detente policy today by examining the speech of Barack Obama in Cairo on the June 4, 2009 failed by looking deeper into the political situation today and realizing the uniqueness of the Cold War period. Analogies between the past and the present situation could be found in the economic situation and the also unpopular and long lasting Iraq-war. But certainly there are major differences in the political constellation and dangerousness of tensions. But to understand the mechanisms of detente we have to understand the reasons which led to it. So the reasons for an emerging detente within Cold War history and politics are central to this work.

Emergence of Cold War

To understand the reasons of a detente in the middle of the Cold War we have to reflect upon the origins of Cold War itself.

In the year 1917 the political constellation of the world changed dramatically. The combined effect of the Russian Revolution and the American entry into World War I set in place much of the dynamics that would have a great impact on the international relations of the twentieth century. The Bolshevikian revolution in Russia and the foundation of the USSR became the counterpart of prevailing western assumptions of power and legitimacy. The final collapse of the Central Powers in Europe and the US entry into the war, ending America's isolation from the old continent, created a completely new and fragile Balance between capitalism and communism. The first appearance of a possible Cold War took place shortly after the end of World War I. Western Allies felt betrayed when the Bolsheviks signed a separate peace treaty with Germany before the end of the war and thus enabled the Germans to concentrate on the Western front. Anti-communist feelings poured out during the first Red Scare in the United States in 1919-20. The mutual distrust stayed until 1942 but was gradually replaced by a greater fear of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi-Regime in Germany[3].

So basically the origins of Cold War are to be found in the events of 1917. The fight against National Socialism united the two opponents shortly. But a chance of settlement was hollow. After the defeat of Germany and Japan in 1945 the victorious leaders had not come to an agreement about the of the post war world. The atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by the United States did not help to dismantle the distrust and demonstrated cruelly what now was possible in this conflict for preponderance.

Conflict issues between the blocs after the war were questions of reparation, territory and the fate of Germany. Franklin Roosevelt, Joseph Stalin and Winston Churchill had first seriously discussed the future of post-war Europe in November 1943 when they met at Teheran. The “Big Three” fetched out ideas for a new map of Europe. At their final meeting they agreed that Germany would have to be broken up in some fashion[4]. In February 1945 they met in Yalta and finalized the proposal to divide Germany into four temporary occupation zones. Then on May 8, 1945 Germany surrendered and in July the powers met once more at Potsdam. The Soviets were granted parts of East Prussia. The western Neisse was accepted as the Polish frontier with Germany[5].

The U.S. policy consisted of gaining influence in Europe through economic means. The Marshall Plan was set up on the June 5, 1947 to rebuild and create a stronger foundation for the countries of Western Europe in order to repel communism. The plan was in operation for four years beginning in April, 1948. During that period about 13 billion US Dollars in economic and technical assistance were given to help the recovery of the European countries. The same aid was offered to the USSR and its allies, but they did not accept the proposal. The leaders of the USSR were suspicious of any attempt by the United States to penetrate the recently conquered states of eastern and central Europe by economic means:

“The Truman Doctrine of 1947 served as the basis for a new U.S. policy of containing Soviet expansion and influence, while the Marshal Plan promised the economic rehabilitation of European countries associated with the United States.

The Soviets viewed this new U.S. policy as a direct and immediate challenge to their postwar position and objectives in East-Central Europe. This required an adjustment of Soviet policies in the region, where Stalin accelerated the consolidation of communist regimes, as well as the extension of Soviet Control over the local communist parties[6] ”.

The bloc building was in progress and was hardened by the creation of the two adverse military alliances; the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) based on the North Atlantic Treaty which was signed on the April 4, 1949 and the later foundation of the Warsaw Pact which was initiated in response to West Germanys entering of NATO in 1955. The sheer geopolitical location of Germany and especially Berlin made it unavoidably a point of direct contact between the United States and the Soviet Union. “Berlin presented a difficult problem for the Truman administration. It too was under four-power control and divided into occupation zones but the city was deep within the Soviet zone of Germany. It was both extremely vulnerable and of great symbolic importance[7].

Events of the East-West Conflict

After the setting of frontiers and political constellation was done, the blocs had to deal with inner tensions about how get into the best position against its opponent. Events like the first Berlin crisis, the Korean War and the erection of the Berlin wall coined the policy of mutual distrust. Of Course both powers had their own perspective on the historical events. As already mentioned the Cuban missile crisis takes on a special role in these events which led to the first steps towards detente. Some also important occurrences like for example the Greek Civil War, were left aside because a complete history of Cold War happenings are not the topic and would not fit within the limits of this work. In the following chapter this work will briefly summarize the most important events of the Cold War concerning this paper. The knowledge about these happenings is crucial to the understanding of the emergence of detente at the end of the 1960's.

Berlin Crisis I

As already mentioned Berlin, as a city in the middle of the Soviet occupation zone, always took on a special role within the political “games” of the two superpowers. Due to its geographical position Berlin was extremely vulnerable. In case of a war Berlin would have been the first collateral or dead pledge (Faustpfand) for the Soviets.

In 1948 the Western allies tried to consolidate their occupation zones in Western Germany. Against French opposition, the Western allies decided during the London conference in June, 1948 that Germany should have a formal constitution and hence should become an independent state again. As part of this process the United States, France and Britain took steps to reform the currency in the parts of Germany they occupied. The new currency, over which the Soviets would have no control, was also to become established in the Western parts of Berlin. The USSR of course did not embrace the notion of a new strong Germany with a competing currency in Soviet territory. The Soviet leadership responded by installing their own new currency in East Berlin just 24 hours before the West Mark was about to go into circulation.

Then, on the June 24, 1948, the Soviets started to blockade the city; cutting off all land and rail routes into the Western sectors. Besides the reaction to the latter, one aim was presumably to force the Western allies to allow the Soviets to start supplying Berlin with food and fuel and thereby giving the Soviets practical control over the entire city of Berlin:

“Berlin fell victim to the anomaly of its own geographic location and to the growing cold war atmosphere. In 1948 Russia blockaded the city's western sectors in an unsuccessful attempt to forestall a political consolidation and economic revitalization plan about to be implemented in the western sectors of Germany.

The Western allies responded with a year-long airlift (Operation Vittles). The Russians finally acknowledged the futility of their actions and reopened ground access routes. This first of many Berlin crises further fueled suspicion on both sides and turned West Berlin into a symbol of capitalist 'freedom' held hostage by and fiercely fighting off communist 'tyranny'[8] ”.


[1] Mish, F. C., Merriam-Webster's collegiate dictionary (11. ed. Springfield: Merriam-Webster, 2008)

[2] Hanhimäki, J. and Westad, O., The Cold War (Oxford: University Press, 2003), p.481

[3] Hanhimäki, J. and Westad, O., The Cold War (Oxford: University Press, 2003) p.1

[4] Ball, S.J., The Cold War: An International History, 1947-1991( New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1998) p.18

[5] Ball, S.J., The Cold War: An International History, 1947-1991( New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1998) p.20

[6] Kanet, R. E., Regional Crises and the Cold War In: Schmidt, G. (Hg.), Ost-West-Beziehungen. Konfrontation und Detente; 1945 -1989 (2 Bände. Bochum: Brockmeyer, Bd. 1, 107-125, 1993)p. 113

[7] Ball, S.J., The Cold War: An International History, 1947-1991( New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1998) p.29

[8] Killen, L., The Soviet Union and the United States: a new look at the Cold War (Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1989) p.43f.


ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Buch)
508 KB
Institution / Hochschule
Justus-Liebig-Universität Gießen – Institut für Politikwissenschaft
2010 (Mai)
Detente Cold War Soviet Union USSR United States Berlin Crisis Willy Brandt Superpowers German Treaty Berlin The Wall



Titel: The Emergence of Detente in the Cold War