History of American Foreign Policy 101: The Cold War Part 2 - Détente and Rapprochement


To make sense of both the world of foreign policy and the world as it is, an understanding of United States foreign policy and its interaction with the policies of other nations is critical. It is the purpose of this series to give the reader an overview of the history of the United States' foreign policy, and show how it has helped shape the path of the United States and of international relations in general. Such illustration will include analyses of the United States' foreign policy in both theoretical assumptions and empirical application. The series will thus provide the reader with a foundation from which they will be able to accurately understand global historical events, and also critically examine and form opinions on the current and future United States' foreign policy.

This 101 series is divided into eight articles including:

  1. History of American Foreign Policy 101: Founding Principles

  2. History of American Foreign Policy 101: Looking West - The Monroe Doctrine and Manifest Destiny

  3. History of American Foreign Policy 101: The Beginnings of Empire and World War I

  4. History of American Foreign Policy 101: The Interwar Period and World War II

  5. History of American Foreign Policy 101: The Cold War - Confrontation and Containment

  6. History of American Foreign Policy 101: The Cold War Part 2 - Détente and Rapprochement

  7. History of American Foreign Policy 101: Unipolarity and the War on Terror

  8. History of American Foreign Policy 101: The Rise of China

The previous article focused on American foreign policy during the first half of the Cold War, and ended with the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962. It discussed the origins of the Cold War and America’s Cold War foreign policy, primarily oriented around the concept of the containment of Communism through various means. In general, the defining policies of American foreign policy in the following years would still be based on containment and the theoretical positions developed previously, though with certain adjustments. American foreign policy after the early 1960s can primarily be categorised loosely into three periods: overwhelming focus on Vietnam in the 1960s and early 1970s, Détente in the 1970s between the United States and the USSR, and the ‘New Cold War’ during the 1980s in which tensions were once again heightened and the USSR began to collapse. The article will proceed by briefly discussing each of these periods and the main characteristics of American foreign policy during each of them. Next, it will analyze the major developments of the Cold War after the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Unknown Author. (1966). Captured communist photo shows VC crossing a river in 1966. Wikimedia Commons.

The 1960s and Vietnam

The 1960s was one of the most interesting periods in the history of the Cold War, with some of the most serious and consequential events taking place within this decade. The early 1960s saw the Cuban Missile Crisis and Berlin standoff bring the USSR and the U.S. extremely close to direct confrontation, while the space race and the construction of the Berlin Wall would also be defining moments. The mid to late 1960s would be some of the most turbulent years in American history: the Civil Rights movement and the Vietnam War threatened to destroy the social fabric of the United States. Preoccupied with the domestic political situation and the war in Vietnam, American policy-makers, most prominently Nixon and Kissinger, sought Détente in relations with the Soviet Union. From the dangerous confrontations of the early 1960s, the time from the late 1960s to the late 1970s would be characterised by Détente: decreased tensions and increased cooperation between the two superpowers.

The defining event for American foreign policy in the 1960s and early 1970s was the War in Vietnam. American policy in Vietnam was based primarily on two assumptions: Domino theory and the belief that the United States’ modern and massive military could defeat the North Vietnamese, or at least prevent them from a takeover of the South (Dailey, 2018). Both assumptions proved to be untrue. Influenced by the Cold War policies of containment and domino theory, successive American presidents, beginning with Eisenhower in the 1950s, began to consider Vietnam as critical in the overall Cold War calculus. In their view, if Vietnam fell to the Communists, all of South East Asia would follow.

Unknown Author. (2007). Domino Theory. Wikimedia Commons.

Vietnam had a complex political history prior to American intervention. A French colonial possession before World War II, the region had been conquered by the Japanese during the war. After Japan’s defeat, the Viet Minh — a national anti-imperialist coalition led by the Indochinese Communist Party — and Ho Chi Minh — a revolutionary and statesman — came to power through the August Revolution and declared independence. The goal of the Viet Minh was straightforward and simple, as it sought Indochinese independence through an anti-imperialist struggle against both the French and the Japanese (Hunt, 2014). During World War II it was the only major anti-French and anti-Japanese resistance group during the war, with a membership of over 500,000 people by the end of World War II, giving it and the Indochinese Communist Party substantial credibility (Pentagon Papers Project, 1972).

However, after declaring independence, Ho’s Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV) would only rule for 20 days, as the French would quickly overthrow the government and declare French authority once again in Indochina in an attempt to retake their colonial possession (Meaker, 2013). By the 1950s, the struggle between the French and Viet Minh would become enmeshed in the Cold War, with the Soviet Union and China backing Ho and the Communist party in Hanoi while the Americans and British, sought to prevent the rise of a Communist government in power, recognised the French-backed state of Vietnam based in Saigon (McNamara et al., 2000). After the final defeat of the French at Dien Bien Phu in 1954, the Geneva Accords were signed, temporarily splitting Vietnam at the 17th parallel and calling for national popular elections in 1956. Despite such development, the United States supported Ngo Dinh Diem, a corrupt anti-Communist leader in the South of the country who repressed anyone suspected of ties with Communism, refused to participate in national elections (Pentagon Papers Project, 1972). According to President Eisenhower himself, elections could not be held because “possibly eighty per cent of the population would have voted for the Communist Ho Chi Minh as their leader“ (Eisenhower, 1963, p. 372), reflecting the nationwide popularity enjoyed by Ho.

Kightlinger, J. (1961). B1274-16 President Johnson Listens to a Tape Sent By Captain Charles Robb, His Son-In-Law, from Vietnam. VietnamWarSummit.Org.

Initially, the United States only provided military advisors to the South Vietnamese government: 3,200 in 1961, and subsequently increased to more than 23,000 in 1963 (Dailey, 2018). After the 1864 Gulf of Tonkin incident, in which the United States dubiously claimed a destroyer was attacked along the North Vietnamese coast, president Lyndon B. Johnson dedicated American troops to the battle for the first time. Despite constant troop increases, 184,300 in 1965, 385,300 in 1966, 485,600 in 1967, and finally 536,100 in 1968, the war dragged on with little success (Dailey, 2018). There were various reasons for the inability of U.S. troops to make progress in the war: on the one hand, morale was low, drug use was prevalent, and even the fragging of officers was not uncommon, with 900 fragging cases from 1969-1972 alone (Lepre, 2011). On the other hand, the American troops were generally inexperienced, while battling against a seasoned guerilla force and population who had been contending for years and knew the terrain and how to fight against a more advanced military force. One illustration of this inexperience is simply the average age of American soldiers in Vietnam, an almost unbelievable 19 years of age (Dailey, 2018).

By 1972, due to mounting costs and domestic opposition at home, Nixon would focus on a policy of Vietnamisation, largely withdrawing American forces and transferring responsibility to the South Vietnamese army (Miller, 2020). The US’s role in achieving victory would rely instead on massive bombing campaigns in the north. Already by 1966, the United States had dropped more bombs on North Vietnam than it had dropped during the entire Korean War (1950 - 1953) (Clapson, 2019). By the end of the war American bombing had killed 100,000 North Vietnamese civilians and hit approximately 70% of the rural north (Dailey, 2018). Furthermore, without public or congressional knowledge, Nixon authorised the bombing of Cambodia and Laos. American bombing in Cambodia would lead to an estimated 150,000 Cambodian deaths (Owen, 2015), while In Laos, the U.S. would drop more than 2.5 million tons of ordinance, making it the most heavily bombed country per capita in history (Warner, 1998).

U.S. Navy National Museum of Naval Aviation. (1967). A-4E Skyhawks attacking Phuong Dinh bridge Vietnam 1967. Wikimedia Commons.

Despite the massive bombing campaigns, the North Vietnamese would achieve victory with a rapid offensive in early 1975, and the subsequent fall of Saigon in April 1975. The effect on American foreign policy would be substantial: the ‘Vietnam Syndrome’ would result in a public aversion to future American military involvement overseas, while on the international scene America’s image and credibility were greatly damaged (Kalb, 2013). The hypocrisy of the ’land of the free’ and the ’anti-imperialist’ United States defending the corrupt and unpopular South Vietnamese state, violating international law, and killing hundreds of thousands of civilians would indeed lead to a major loss of credibility in the third world, and would alter perceptions of the United States both domestically and worldwide (Dailey, 2018). The massive loss in credibility that the Vietnam War had on the United States, both domestically and internationally, would also call into question the very meaning of what America stood for. Such acts of imperialism required a constant and flexible ideological revisionism — the intentional manipulation and reformulation of American values such as ’defending freedom’ in order to justify the current actions of an administration. As a result of the war in Vietnam, Nixon would proclaim in 1969 what came to be known as the Nixon Doctrine: a temporary lapse from containment, declaring that the US would no longer be willing to dedicate its own troops to anti-communism. However, the United States would continue supporting anti-communist regimes throughout the world through other forms of military and economic aid, and political pressure (Anderson, 2017).


Détente, French for ‘relaxation of tension’, refers to the period of general easing of geopolitical tension between the United States and the Soviet Union beginning around 1969 (Hunt, 2014). Though mistrust and geopolitical conflict between the two superpowers would continue through proxy conflicts, notably in the developing world, the USSR and United States would find common ground on topics such as arms control (SALT I) and the Helsinki Accords and hold regular summit meetings for greater dialogue (Hunt, 2014). The period is most interesting for the geopolitical motivations behind Détente for both the United States and the USSR.

Knudsen, R. (1965). Leonid Brezhnev and Richard Nixon talks in 1973. Wikimedia Commons.

According to Williams (1987), Détente came out of “a conjunction of historical circumstances in which both the United States and the USSR — for very different reasons — saw an advantage in moderating and regulating their relationship” (p. 55). In other words, through a confluence of geopolitical and domestic political circumstances, a relaxation of tensions was beneficial to both sides at the time. For Nixon, his visits to Beijing and to Moscow in 1971 were convenient in that they were foreign policy gambles which paid off immensely as a ploy to play China and the Soviets off against one another. One of the greatest foreign policy successes in recent history, Nixon’s visit to China — the first for an American president — would lead to official diplomatic relations with China, along with access to the massive Chinese market (Dailey, 2018). Additionally, these foreign policy successes brought focus away from the internal strife that had bitterly divided the United States in the 1960s and 1970s, while Détente also allowed the United States to focus on Vietnam. In this vein, the United States envisioned Détente as a means of backing down from the policy of military containment practised by previous administrations, and a means to discipline Soviet Power by “encouraging the Soviets to engage […] in self-containment” (Williams, 1987 p. 60).

For the Soviets, Détente also had its merits. The Sino-Soviet split in 1969 had aggravated relations between the Soviets and China, as they broke political relations over differing interpretations and applications of Marxism, with Mao and the Chinese accusing the Soviets of revisionism, criticising the Soviet policy of peaceful coexistence with the West (Lüthi, 2010). The Sino-Soviet split, which would also split the Communist second world, would lead to a period of ’tripolarity’ and ’triangular diplomacy’ between the three powers (Williams, 1987, p. 60). During this timeframe, each would attempt to use their relationship with one of the other two powers in order to gain leverage in relations with the other. Viewed through the lens of tripolarity, Soviet leaders had no desire to see its two biggest competitors, China and the United States, encircle them. In this sense, peace with the West would “enable the Soviet Union to focus more on the dispute with China […] but also offer opportunities for increased trade and technology transfer” with the United States (Williams, 1987, p. 61). Additionally, similarly to the United States, the Soviets also had pressing internal issues at the time, the most notable of which was their weak economy (Williams, 1987).

Library of Congress. (1975). Henry Kissinger with Anwar Sadat. Wikimedia Commons.

Détente, though signalling better relations between the Soviets and the United States, did not preclude conflict via proxy in the third world, or American intervention anywhere it suspected the lurking of Communism. In the Middle East, the United States would back Israel against its Arab neighbours, primarily supplied and backed by the Soviet Union. After the Six Day War and the Yom Kippur war in 1973, Israel, with the help of the United States, would solidify itself as a regional power under the wing of the United States, with the Egyptian military regime also landing in the United States pocket as henceforward US-dependent (Anderson, 2017, p. 89).

In Latin America, the Mann Doctrine and Operation Condor were both indicative of American foreign policy towards its southern neighbours. The Mann Doctrine, the official position of the Johnson regime regarding South America, called for intervention in the region against any communist government, regardless of their policies, while also calling for the allowance of dictators if friendly to American business interests (Lafeber, 1993). Mann would support the military overthrow of the democratically elected government in Brazil in 1964, diverting U.S. aid away from the central government (Muller, 1985). The Brazilian military was also “encouraged by American policymakers at the highest level in Washington, who gave an obvious and unequivocal ’green light’ signal in announcing [...] the ’Mann Doctrine’ [...] and by the American Embassy in Brazil, which offered war material in case the coup should lead to civil war“ (Muller, 1985, p. 449). The United States itself would invade the Dominican republic in 1965, to prevent what Johnson viewed as a potential second Cuban Revolution (Coleman, 2015).

Ministerio de Relaciones Exteriores de Chile. (1976). Entrevista Kissinger-Pinochet. Wikimedia Commons.

Despite the benefits of Détente, including the decreased potential for nuclear war, such an approach would begin to decline in the mid-1970s. The first stumbling block was the Middle East, where Egypt and Israel had engaged first in the Six Day War, and then in the Yom Kippur War. Though not directly confronting the other, the Soviets militarily supplied and supported the Egyptians and Anwar Sadat, while the United States supported Israel. The United States saw Israel as a potential regional power and a critical ally in a region with growing importance due to its massive oil reserves. During the Yom Kippur War of 1973, the United States viewed “Soviet willingness to condone if not encourage the Egyptian attack on Israel, Soviet arms supplies to [Egypt], the call for the use of oil as a weapon, and the Soviet threat to intervene” to save the Egyptian Army, as violations of agreements between the superpowers about consulting each other and refraining from unilateral action (Williams, 1989, p. 59). However, both the Soviets and the United States were still able to broker a ceasefire between Israel and Egypt, resulting in the geopolitical success of some measures (Williams, 1989).

The second stumbling block was American domestic opposition. Nixon and Kissinger had been the primary architects of Détente in the American camp, and with the Watergate scandal in full view impeachment loomed for Nixon, while the fate of Détente seemed uncertain, given that the hawks in congress viewed it as being ’soft’ on the Soviets (Williams, 1989). Furthermore, in 1974, congressional critics of Détente passed a series of measures that “effectively restricted Soviet-American trade and thereby undermined one of the pillars of Détente” (Williams, 1989, p. 59). With the resignation of Nixon, Détente lost much of its credibility. The final blow would come with the election of Ronald Reagan, who promised a much tougher approach to the USSR and Communism.

Steward, D. (1988). Mujahideen soldiers camp for the night in the rubble of a city. Getty Images.

The New Cold War

The New Cold War is a term that generally refers to the period of heightened tensions between the USSR and the United States during 1979 - 1985, after the prior period of Détente. The beginning of this period is generally seen as the invasion of Afghanistan by the Soviets, who intervened in order to prop up the struggling Communist regime which had come to power after the Saur Revolution. With the election of Reagan in 1981, confrontation once again seemed possible between the two superpowers, as Reagan came to power on a strict anti-communist platform, stating winning the Cold War as his top Foreign Policy priority (Prados, 2010). The Reagan Doctrine committed the United States to provide covert aid to anti-communist movements throughout the third world in an attempt to roll back Communism in a more aggressive form than in previous administrations. This would involve aiding unsavoury anti-communist groups in Latin America, such as the Nicaraguan Contras, and also the CIA provision of massive funds and advanced weaponry to the Pakistani Government and ISI to train the Mujahedeen, Islamic warriors committed to Jihad and the expulsion of the Soviets. With support primarily from the CIA, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan, the Mujahedeen would eventually defeat the Soviets, with many of them later joining together to create the Taliban (Fraser, 2019).

Reagan’s foreign policy goal of winning the Cold War was achieved in three primary ways: diminishing the Soviets’ resources through manipulation of global markets, increasing American defence spending to improve their relative bargaining position, and in this way forcing the Soviets into an arms race they could not afford (Schweizer, 2016). Regarding the first point, considerable damage was done to the Soviet economy by an American technological embargo which targeted Russian oil production, as well as through ”a quadrupling of Saudi output that lowered oil prices by 60 per cent” (Anderson, 2017, p. 88). One of the most notable ways in which Reagan attempted to drive the Soviets into an arms race which would bankrupt them was his backing of the development of the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), a proposed missile defence system which would supposedly render nuclear weapons obsolete. Labelled as ’Star Wars’ by its critics, it was a technologically dubious concept, but one which “intimidated a cornered Soviet leadership […] flailing about in bungled attempts to revive the economy at home, and increasingly desperate for Western approval abroad” (Dailey, 2018, p. 288). These policies, combined with the deterioration of the Soviet economic situation at home as a result of the Afghanistan War, an inefficient and moribund economic system, and the failure of Glasnost and perestroika to produce a viable alternative, would result in the Soviet retreat from Eastern Europe, the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

White House Photographic Office. (1987). Reagan and Gorbachev Signing. Wikimedia Commons.


Though the Second half of the Cold War would see a diminished chance of direct confrontation between the United States and the USSR, the battle between the two for ideological and economic superiority would still be the defining feature of international relations from the 1960s until the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. With the United States embroiled in domestic turmoil for much of the 1960s and 1970s, the aims of the foreign policy during this period would primarily be oriented toward détente with the Soviet Union, while engagement with China and interventions in the third world, especially in Latin America, became the means by which the Cold War was primarily waged. As will be illustrated in the next article, with the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 the United States would find itself as the sole superpower in a unipolar international system, with the power to shape the world and its affairs as no other nation had had before in human history.

Bibliographical References

Anderson, P. (2017). American Foreign Policy and Its Thinkers (Reprint ed.). Verso.

Clapson, M. (2019). American Bombing of Civilians since 1945. In The Blitz Companion: Aerial Warfare, Civilians and the City since 1911 (pp. 147-172). University of Westminster Press. http://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctvggx2r2.13

Coleman, D. (April 28, 2015). The Dominican Intervention. NSA Archives. Retrieved 24 September, 2022.

Dailey, J. (2018). Building the American Republic, Volume 2: A Narrative History from 1877 (1st ed.). University of Chicago Press.

Eisenhower, D. (1963). Mandate for Change. Doubleday & Company.

Fraser, A. H. (2019). Pakistan and the Taliban: South Asian Geopolitics and the Reemergence of the Taliban in Afghanistan. American Intelligence Journal, 36(2), 99–107. https://www.jstor.org/stable/27066378

Hunt, M. H. (2014, June 27). The World Transformed, 1945 to the Present: A Documentary Reader. Oxford University Press, USA.

Kalb, M. (2016, July 29). It’s Called the Vietnam Syndrome, and It’s Back. Brookings. Retrieved September 23, 2022, from https://www.brookings.edu/blog/up-front/2013/01/22/its-called-the-vietnam-syndrome-and-its-back/

LaFeber, "From the Good Neighbor to Military Intervention" (1993), pp. 187–188.

Lepre, G. (2011, January 15). Fragging: Why U.S. Soldiers Assaulted Their Officers in Vietnam (Modern Southeast Asia) (1st ed.). Texas Tech University Press.

Lüthi, L. M. (2010, December 16). The Sino-Soviet Split: Cold War in the Communist World (Princeton Studies in International History and Politics). Princeton University Press.

McNamara, R. S., Blight, J. G., Brigham, R. K., Biersteker, T. J., & Schandler, C. H. (2000, May 19). Argument Without End: In Search of Answers to the Vietnam Tragedy (1st ed.). PublicAffairs.

Meaker, S. S. F. (2013, December 16). Unforgettable Vietnam War: The American War in Vietnam - War in the Jungle.

Miller, P. D. (2020). Vietnamization, 1966-1973. In Withdrawal Deadlines In War: Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan (pp. 4-12). Atlantic Council. http://www.jstor.org/stable/resrep24664.4

Owen, T. (2015). Making More Enemies than We Kill? Calculating U.S. Bomb Tonnages Dropped on Laos and Cambodia, and Weighing Their Implications. The Asia-Pacific Journal, 13(17). https://doi.org/10.1211/pj.2022.1.132465

Pentagon Papers Project. (1972). The Pentagon paper. Los Angeles, Calif.: Pentagon Papers Peace Project. Retrieved from the Library of Congress https://lccn.loc.gov/2016202039

Prados, J. (2010, December 1). How the Cold War Ended: Debating and Doing History (Issues in the History of American Foreign Relations). POTOMAC BOOKS.

Warner, R. (1998, June 1). Shooting at the Moon: The Story of America’s Clandestine War in Laos (1st Edition). Steerforth.

Williams, P. (1987). Soviet-American Relations. Proceedings of the Academy of Political Science, 36(4), 54–66. https://doi.org/10.2307/1173833

Schweizer, P. (2016, October 25). Victory: The Reagan Administration’s Secret Strategy that Hastened the Collapse of the Soviet Union. Lume Books.

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