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History of the
Cold War
Alliances in 1980.

The Cold War period of 1985-1991 began with the rise of Mikhail Gorbachev as Soviet leader. It ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.


Thaw in relations

East-West tensions eased after the appointment of Mikhail Gorbachev. After the deaths of three successive elderly Soviet leaders since 1982, the Soviet Politburo elected Gorbachev Communist Party General Secretary in March 1985, marking the rise of a new generation of leadership. Under Gorbachev, relatively young reform-oriented technocrats, who had begun their careers in the heyday of “de-Stalinization” under reformist leader Nikita Khrushchev, rapidly consolidated power, providing new momentum for political and economic liberalization, and the impetus for cultivating warmer relations and trade with the West.

Reagan and Gorbachev during their first summit meeting in the beach house.

On the Western front, American President Ronald Reagan’s administration had taken a hard line against the Soviet Union, and persuaded the Saudi Arabian oil companies to increase oil production.[1] This led to a three-times drop in the prices of oil, and oil was the main source of Soviet export revenues.[1] Following the USSR’s previous large military buildup, President Reagan ordered an enormous peacetime defense buildup of the United States Military; the Soviets did not respond to this by building up their military because the military expenses, in combination with collectivized agriculture in the nation, and inefficient planned manufacturing, proved a heavy burden for the Soviet economy. It was already stagnant and in a poor state prior to the tenure of Mikhail Gorbachev who, despite significant attempts at reform, was unable to revitalise the economy.[2] In 1985, Reagan and Gorbachev held their first of four “summit” meetings, this one in Geneva, Switzerland. After discussing policy, facts, etc., Reagan invited Gorbachev to go with him to a small house near the beach. The two leaders spoke in that house well over their time limit, but came out with the news that they had planned two more (soon three more) summits.

The second summit took place the following year, in 1986 on October 11, in Reykjavík, Iceland. The meeting was held to pursue discussions about scaling back their intermediate-range ballistic missile arsenals in Europe. The talks came close to achieving an overall breakthrough on nuclear arms control, but ended in failure due to Reagan’s proposed Strategic Defense Initiative and Gorbachev’s proposed cancellation of it. Nonetheless, cooperation continued to increase and, where it failed, Gorbachev reduced some strategic arms unilaterally.

Other major Gorbachev policy initiatives, Restructuring (Perestroika) and Openness (Glasnost), had ripple effects throughout the Soviet world, including eventually making it impossible to reassert central control over Warsaw Pact member states without resorting to military force.

United States President Ronald Reagan delivers speech at the Berlin Wall in June 1987, in which he called for Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev to “Tear Down This Wall!

On June 12, 1987, Reagan challenged Gorbachev to go further with his reforms and democratization by tearing down the Berlin Wall. In a speech at the Brandenburg Gate next to the wall, Reagan stated:

General Secretary Gorbachev, if you seek peace, if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, if you seek liberalization, come here to this gate; Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate. Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall![3]

While the aging Eastern European leaders kept their states in the grip of “normalization”, Gorbachev’s reformist policies in the Soviet Union exposed how a once revolutionary Communist Party had become moribund at the very center of the system. The growing public disapproval of the Soviet war in Afghanistan, and the socio-political effects of the Chernobyl accident in Ukraine increased public support for these policies. By the spring of 1989, the USSR had not only experienced lively media debate, but had also held its first multi-candidate elections. For the first time in recent history, the force of liberalization was spreading from West to East.


Reform spreads through Eastern Europe

As Gorbachev-inspired waves of reform propagated throughout the Eastern bloc, grassroots organizations, such as Poland’s Solidarity movement, rapidly gained ground. In 1989, the Communist governments in Poland and Hungary became the first to negotiate the organizing of competitive elections. In Czechoslovakia and East Germany, mass protests unseated entrenched Communist leaders. The Communist regimes in Bulgaria and Romania also crumbled, in the latter case as the result of a violent uprising. Attitudes had changed enough that US Secretary of State James Baker suggested that the American government would not be opposed to Soviet intervention in Romania, on behalf of the opposition, to prevent bloodshed. [4] The tidal wave of change culminated with the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989, which symbolized the collapse of Eastern European Communist governments and graphically ended the Iron Curtain divide of Europe.

The collapse of the Eastern European governments with Gorbachev’s tacit consent inadvertently encouraged several Soviet republics to seek greater independence from Moscow’s rule. Agitation for independence in the Baltic states led to first Lithuania, and then Estonia and Latvia, declaring their independence. Disaffection in the other republics was met by promises of greater decentralization. More open elections led to the election of candidates opposed to Communist Party rule.

In an attempt to halt the rapid changes to the system, a group of Soviet hard-liners represented by Vice-President Gennady Yanayev launched a coup overthrowing Gorbachev in August 1991. Russian President Boris Yeltsin rallied the people and much of the army against the coup and the effort collapsed. Although restored to power, Gorbachev’s authority had been irreparably undermined. In September, the Baltic states were granted independence. On December 1, Ukraine withdrew from the USSR. On December 31, 1991 the USSR officially dissolved, breaking up into fifteen separate nations.


Russia and the other Soviet successor states have faced a chaotic and harsh transition from a command economy to free market capitalism following the collapse of the Soviet Union. A large percentage of the population currently lives in poverty. GDP growth also declined, and life expectancy dropped sharply. Living conditions have also declined in other parts of the former Eastern bloc.

U.S. President Reagan and Soviet General Secretary Gorbachev signing the INF Treaty, 1987.

In addition, the poverty and desperation of the Russians, Ukrainians and allies of post-Cold War have led to the sale of many advanced Cold War-developed weapons systems, especially very capable modern upgraded versions, around the globe. World-class tanks (T-80/T-84), jet fighters (MiG-29 and Su-27/30/33), surface-to-air missile systems (S-300P, S-300V, 9K332 and Igla) and others have been placed on the market in order to obtain some much-needed cash. This poses a possible problem for western powers in coming decades as they increasingly find hostile countries equipped with weapons which were designed by the Soviets to defeat them. The post-Cold War era saw a period of unprecedented prosperity in the West, especially in the United States, and a wave of democratization throughout Latin America, Africa, and Eastern Europe.

Sociologist Immanuel Wallerstein expresses a less triumphalist view, arguing that the end of the Cold War is a prelude to the breakdown of Pax Americana. In his essay "Pax Americana is Over," Wallerstein argues, "The collapse of communism in effect signified the collapse of liberalism, removing the only ideological justification behind US hegemony, a justification tacitly supported by liberalism's ostensible ideological opponent."[5]

Cold War institutions such as NATO have found new roles, while other products of the Cold War-era such as the European Union have become more successful.[citation needed] The space exploration has petered out in both the United States and Russia without the competitive pressure of the space race. Military decorations have become more common, as they were created, and bestowed, by the major powers during the near 50 years of undeclared hostilities.

Territorial gains and losses

Nations that gained territory after the Cold War

Nations that lost territory after the Cold War

Philosophy of the Cold War

Throughout the Cold War philosophy was in the undergrowth of the war between the United States and Soviet Union diplomatically.

  • An aggressive enemy should be handled with an option that does not escalate the situation or humiliate them. A surprise attack on the enemy is not a preferred course of action because it incites a violent response and worsens the situation.
  • A negotiated solution serves the interests of not only a military solution, but also the interests of both parties. Firmness, flexibility, and willingness to consult the other side confidentially, regardless of the situation, are necessary attributes.
  • Nuclear weapons, due to their destructivity, must be dealt with by a low-tech, highly skilled intelligence community.

Timeline of main events

See also


  1. ^ a b Gaidar, Yegor. "Public Expectations and Trust towards the Government: Post-Revolution Stabilization and its Discontents". Retrieved 2008-03-15. 
  2. ^ Gaidar, Yegor (2007-10-17) (in Russian). Collapse of an Empire: Lessons for Modern Russia. Brookings Institution Press. pp. 190–210. ISBN 5824307598. 
  3. ^ "Reagan's 'tear down this wall' speech turns 20". USA Today. 2007-06-12. Retrieved 2008-03-20. 
  4. ^ Garthoof, Raymond L. "The Great Transition: American-Soviet Relations and the End of the Cold War" (Washington: Brookings Institution, 1994).
  5. ^ Wallerstein, Immanuel. "Pax Americana is Over" [1]
  6. ^ Soviet Union Defiance in the Streets, Time, March 07, 1988


  • Ball, S. J. The Cold War: An International History, 1947-1991 (1998). British perspective
  • Beschloss, Michael, and Strobe Talbott. At the Highest Levels:The Inside Story of the End of the Cold War (1993)
  • Bialer, Seweryn and Michael Mandelbaum, eds. Gorbachev's Russia and American Foreign Policy (1988).
  • Brzezinski, Zbigniew. Power and Principle: Memoirs of the National Security Adviser, 1977-1981 (1983);
  • Edmonds, Robin. Soviet Foreign Policy: The Brezhnev Years (1983)
  • Gaddis, John Lewis. The Cold War: A New History (2005)
  • ---. The United States and the End of the Cold War: Implications, Reconsiderations, Provocations (1992)
  • ---. Long Peace: Inquiries into the History of the Cold War (1987)]
  • ---, and Walter LaFeber. America, Russia, and the Cold War, 1945-1992 7th ed. (1993)
  • Garthoff, Raymond. The Great Transition:American-Soviet Relations and the End of the Cold War (1994)
  • Hogan, Michael ed. The End of the Cold War. Its Meaning and Implications (1992) articles from Diplomatic History online at JSTOR
  • Kyvig, David ed. Reagan and the World (1990)
  • Matlock, Jack F. Autopsy of an Empire (1995) by US ambassador to Moscow
  • Mower, A. Glenn Jr. Human Rights and American Foreign Policy: The Carter and Reagan Experiences ( 1987),
  • Powaski, Ronald E. The Cold War: The United States and the Soviet Union, 1917-1991 (1998)
  • Shultz, George P. Turmoil and Triumph: My Years as Secretary of State (1993).
  • Sivachev, Nikolai and Nikolai Yakolev, Russia and the United States (1979), by Soviet historians
  • Smith, Gaddis. Morality, Reason and Power:American Diplomacy in the Carter Years (1986).

External links


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