The Past Three Decades: Years of Crisis - Years of Triumph
|Digital History ID 3362|
As president, Richard Nixon radically redefined America's relationship with its two foremost adversaries, China and the Soviet Union. In a remarkable turnabout from his record of staunch anti-communism, Nixon opened relations with China and began strategic arms limitation talks with the Soviet Union. The goal of détente (the easing of tensions between nations) was to continue to resist and deter Soviet adventurism while striving for "more constructive relations" with the Communist world.
Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger believed that it was necessary to curb the arms race, improve great-power relationships, and learn to coexist with Communist regimes. The Nixon administration sought to use the Chinese and Soviet need for Western trade and technology as a way to extract foreign policy concessions.
Recognizing that one of the legacies of Vietnam was reluctance on the part of the American public to risk overseas interventions, Nixon and Kissinger also sought to build up regional powers that shared American strategic interests, most notably China, Iran, and Saudi Arabia.
By the late 1970s, an increasing number of Americans believed that the Soviet hard-liners viewed détente as a mere tactic to lull the West into relaxing its vigilance. Soviet Communist Party Chief Leonid Brezhnev reinforced this view, boasting of gains that his country had made at the United States's expense--in Vietnam, Angola, Cambodia, Ethiopia, and Laos.
An alarming Soviet arms buildup contributed to the sense that détente was not working. By 1975, the Soviet Union had 50 percent more intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) than the United States, three times as many army personnel, three times as many attack submarines, and four times as many tanks. The United States continued to have a powerful strategic deterrent, holding a 9,000 to 3,200 advantage in deliverable nuclear bombs and warheads. But the arms gap between the countries was narrowing.