How Did the Cold War End?
First, here’s a quick rundown of the Cold War up to the late 1970s.
The Cold War was a long period of tension between the United States and the Soviet Union following the breakdown of relations after World War II. It’s generally believed to have begun around 1947 when the U.S. adopted the Truman Doctrine, a policy of containing the spread of Soviet influence across the world. Two large factions were formed around the two superpowers, and had something of a stabilizing effect on the region with both sides not wanting to provoke the other.
An even greater deterrent came from nuclear weapons. In 1945, the United States was the world’s only nuclear power, but this monopoly came to an end with the successful Russian detonation of an atomic bomb in Kazakhstan. It wasn’t long before the second generation of nuclear weapons came into being; the hydrogen bomb was about 700 times more powerful than the devices which devastated Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The first American H-bomb exploded in 1952, and the Russians caught up three years later. Ultimately the nuclear arms race became about maintaining what one strategist termed the ‘delicate balance of terror’.
By the 1970s, attempts to ease tensions between the U.S. and Russia led to a series of talks over arms control: the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks. SALT-I and SALT-II led to some tentative agreements over limiting nuclear arms and testing. The policy of détente, the relaxing of tensions, began with President Nixon’s visit to Moscow in 1971. His successors Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter continued the negotiations over nuclear weapons. Domestically, Carter faced criticism from conservatives who argued for a tougher stance on communism, while internationally a large American military build-up and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan severely damaged relations.
The Soviet intervention in Afghanistan came on December 25th, 1979, just a few months after the SALT-II negotiations. The Soviet-Afghan War lasted nine years and proved to be a costly war of attrition in which the Russian 40th Army failed to subdue the Mujahedeen fighters rebelling against the Moscow-backed Afghan government. The conflict is sometimes compared to the Vietnam War as in both cases the military superpower could not overcome both the hostile terrain or determined enemy. American assistance to the Afghan rebels was funneled in through Pakistan. What had initially been envisioned as a short intervention to prop up a friendly government became an unwinnable nightmare. By 1986 the new Russian leader Mikhail Gorbachev likened the war to ‘a bleeding wound’ and actively sought a way out of the mess.
The election of Ronald Reagan as President in November 1980 signaled a new phase of the Cold War. The policy of détente died under Carter and was buried by Reagan. Reagan was a staunch opponent of communism, referring to the Soviet Union as the ‘Evil Empire’ in a speech in 1983. This rhetorical saber-rattling was backed by a large increase in military spending. As well as conventional weapons, Reagan pursued a project aimed at creating a defense network that could destroy an incoming nuclear missile. The project, dubbed the Star Wars Program by Ted Kennedy, spent over $30 billion without succeeding. By the mid-1980s Reagan would walk back his previous comments about the Soviet Union as he established a positive working relationship with the new Soviet Premier, Mikhail Gorbachev.
Gorbachev succeeded Konstantin Cherenko as General Secretary of the Communist Party on March 10, 1985. Gorbachev inherited a difficult situation: the war in Afghanistan, the prospect of a renewed arms race with the U.S., and a stagnant economy. He embarked upon an ambitious plan to reform the Soviet Union from within, with his main policies being Glasnost and Perestroika. Glasnost referred to political openness, essentially opening up politics in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe to non-communist parties. Perestroika referred to economic reforms to encourage better working conditions and individual innovation. For the first time since the 1920s, individuals and cooperatives were allowed to become business owners and the Soviet Union sought foreign investment.
At the same time, Gorbachev cut military spending and reduced the Soviet nuclear arsenal. His efforts won him acclaim abroad but resentment from some quarters at home. 1989 proved to be a pivotal year in the Cold War and the dissolution of the Soviet Union; Gorbachev’s commitment to Glasnost would be put to the test.
In neighboring countries, the political environment was also changing. Poland elected a non-communist as Prime Minister on August 24th, 1989, the first since 1946 and no protest came from Moscow. Hungary was next in October and the following month the Berlin wall was demolished, paving the way for complete German reunification in 1990. Another peaceful separation came with the Velvet Revolution which saw Czechoslovakia break away in December. The Velvet Revolution would lead to the Velvet Divorce, an amicable split into the Czech and Slovak Republics in 1993. Not every break from communism was peaceful; the Romanian government was overthrown and long-time leader Nicolae Ceaușescu and his wife Elena were executed in December 1989.
As the allies drifted away from the Soviet influence, alarmed military officials placed Gorbachev under house arrest in August 1991 but the coup failed after three days thanks to support from Boris Yeltsin who denounced the attempt.
Just a few months later, on Christmas Day 1991, Mikhail Gorbachev announced the dissolution of the Soviet Union and his resignation. His bold reforms helped to end the Cold War but accelerated the demise of the Soviet Union. He would later remark that the old system collapsed before the new one could begin.
I hope this overview was helpful! Thanks for watching, and happy studying!