The Meaning of Detente


In 1976, Ronald Reagan challenged Gerald Ford for the Republican Presidential nomination. The policy of detente would become a major point of contention between the two candidates.

The Soviet Union was taking advantage of the US, Reagan asserted. He argued that ‘detente,’ the attempt to lessen tensions between the rival superpowers, had become a one-way road and that America needed to stand up to Kremlin leaders to defend its interests.

Reagan’s charges proved hard to dismiss. The complexity of detente diplomacy made it difficult to explain to the American public, Ford Administration adviser Robert Goldwin had noted in a 1975 memo, but he advised that:

We must not allow the yearning for simplicity to stand in the way of the great objective of finding a basis for peace and decency in the world.

However, the Ford Administration would drop the term ‘detente’ from its political lexicon, though not before much deliberation over the spring of 1976. Below is a memo describing the meaning of detente by Goldwin, written for Dick Cheney in March 1976:

I picture an archer who has his bowstring pulled back, his arrow aimed at another archer, who is in the same position; then, perhaps because they both prefer not to fight if it can be avoided, they both slowly, let their hands move forward, relaxing the tension on the bowstring, but not yet putting down the bow or removing the arrow from its place. That is the meaning of detente.

The Ford Administration struggled to articulate this vision to the American public and counter Reagan’s arguments. Instead the issue was side-stepped and references to detente stopped.

President Ford privately maintained his support for detente right up until Jimmy Carter took office in January 1977. Reagan’s challenge had exposed the complexity of the policy and the inability of its supporters to explain the benefits.

My research looks at the efforts of organisations opposed to ‘accommodation’ of the Soviet Union from 1975 to 1980. The Committee on the Present Danger, for example, argued that detente was dangerous because it suggested the cold war was over, lowering support among Americans for adequate defense expenditures and therefore endangering the US and its allies.

The argument of pro-defense organisations, including the Committee on the Present Danger, was simple: Goldwin’s bow needed to be held at the ready and the arrow kept sharp.

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