The End of the Cold War

Ronald Reagan achieved stardom as an actor in Hollywood movies and television before turning to politics. He first achieved political prominence with a nationwide televised speech in 1964 in support of Barry Goldwater. In 1966 Reagan won the governorship of California and served until 1975. He narrowly missed winning the Republican nomination for president in 1976 before succeeding in 1980 and going on to win the presidency from the incumbent, Jimmy Carter.

In foreign policy, Reagan sought a more assertive role for the nation. Despite its outspoken anti-Communist rhetoric, the Reagan administration's direct use of military force was restrained. On October 25, 1983, U.S. forces landed on the Caribbean island of Grenada after an urgent appeal for help by neighboring countries. In relations with the Soviet Union, President Reagan's declared policy was one of peace through strength. He was determined to stand firm against the country he would in 1983 call an "evil empire." Two early events increased U.S.-Soviet tensions: the suppression of the Solidarity labor movement in Poland in December 1981, and the destruction with 269 fatalities of an off-course civilian airliner, Korean Airlines Flight 007, by a Soviet jet fighter on September 1, 1983. The United States also condemned the continuing Soviet occupation of Afghanistan and continued aid begun by the Carter administration to the mujahedeen resistance there.

During Reagan's first term, the United States spent unprecedented sums for a massive defense build-up, including the placement of intermediate-range nuclear missiles in Europe to counter Soviet deployments of similar missiles. And on March 23, 1983, in one of the most hotly debated policy decisions of his presidency, Reagan announced the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) research program to explore advanced technologies, such as lasers and high-energy projectiles, to defend against intercontinental ballistic missiles. Although many scientists questioned the technological feasibility of SDI and economists pointed to the extraordinary sums of money involved, the administration pressed ahead with the project.

After re-election in 1984, Reagan softened his position on arms control. Moscow was amenable to agreement, in part because its economy already expended a far greater proportion of national output on its military than did the United States. Further increases, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev felt, would cripple his plans to liberalize the Soviet economy.

A major change in the cold war took place in 1985. That is when Mikhail Gorbachev became leader of the Soviet Union. Gorbachev held four meetings with President Ronald Reagan. In November 1985, Reagan and Gorbachev agreed in principle to seek 50-percent reductions in strategic offensive nuclear arms as well as an interim agreement on intermediate-range nuclear forces. In December 1987, they signed the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty providing for the destruction of that entire category of nuclear weapons. By then, the Soviet Union seemed a less menacing adversary. Reagan could take much of the credit for a greatly diminished Cold War, but as his administration ended, almost no one realized just how shaky the USSR had become.

In 1988 the Republican nomination went to Vice President George Herbert Walker Bush, who was elected the 41st president of the United States. Bush campaigned by promising voters a continuation of the prosperity Reagan had brought. In addition, he argued that he would support a strong defense for the United States more reliably than the Democratic candidate, Michael Dukakis.

When Bush became president, the Soviet empire was on the verge of collapse. Gorbachev's efforts to open up the USSR's economy appeared to be floundering. Gorbachev withdrew Soviet forces from Afghanistan. By 1989 there was widespread unrest in Eastern Europe. Gorbachev did not intervene as these countries cut their ties with the Soviet Union. In less than a year, East and West Germany became one nation again. A few months after that, the Warsaw Pact was dissolved.

Perhaps the most central conflict of the Cold War, probably the defining conflict, was the division of Germany. Thus, arguably, 09 November 1989 marked the end of the Cold War, as it marked the effective end of the division of Germany between east and west. November 9, 1989, will be remembered as one of the great moments of German history. On that day, the dreadful Berlin Wall, which for twenty-eight years had been the symbol of German division, cutting through the heart of the old capital city, was unexpectedly opened by GDR border police. In joyful disbelief, Germans from both sides climbed up on the Wall, which had been called "the ugliest edifice in the world." They embraced each other and sang and danced in the streets. Some began chiseling away chips of the Wall as if to have a personal hand in tearing it down, or at least to carry away a piece of German history. On December 22, the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin was opened for pedestrian traffic.

In mid-1991, hard-liners attempted a coup d'etat, only to be foiled by Gorbachev rival Boris Yeltsin, president of the Russian republic. At the end of that year, Yeltsin, now dominant, forced the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

The reasons for the collapse of the Soviet Union remain hotly debated today. Nevertheless, a few observations are possible. One is that the substantial military buildup ordered by President Reagan raised the Soviets' cost for maintaining their relative military power. Another is that Reagan's proposed "Star Wars" missile defense shield threatened to shift the competition to the mastery of new technologies, an arena in which the Soviet Union - a closed society-was not well-suited to compete. These arguments, while popular in some quarters, are not plausible.

The Soviet command economy was already faltering. Whatever the ability of the communist model to successfully industrialize, the budding new world of information technologies posed insurmountable challenges to a society that closely monitored its citizens and supervised even their use of photocopying machines. Far-sighted leaders like General Secretary Gorbachev understood this. The reforms he introduced, but ultimately could not control, led to the breakup of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War.

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