The End of the Cold War

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By — McGraw-Hill Professional
Updated on Feb 4, 2012

The End of the Cold War

The Cold War had dragged on for forty years, with no real move by either side toward a settlement or a significant lessening of tension. Reagan’s solution to the Cold War was to build up American nuclear defenses. He believed that a mighty American nuclear arsenal would frighten the Communist nations into abandoning the Cold War. The Strategic Defense Initiative, nicknamed Star Wars after a popular science-fiction movie of the time, was a space-based missile defense system.

As things turned out, the United States took no direct action to end the Cold War. However, Reagan’s military buildup had forced the Soviets to follow his example, and this brought the Soviet economy to the brink of ruin. It certainly had an effect on the Soviet Union’s ability to spend money on controlling all of Eastern Europe. Apart from this, and from providing an example of a working republic with a capitalist economy, the United States did not play any role in ending the Cold War. It was ended by Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and by the people of Eastern Europe.

By the 1980s, many Eastern European nations had had more than enough of being forced to live under Communist governments that were under Soviet control. Beginning around 1980, soaring prices led Polish laborers to stage a series of strikes and to demand the right to form trade unions. The Polish government gave in to the workers’ demands in September, and the workers formed Solidarity, which began as a national council to coordinate independent trade unions, and became a major political force in the country. Solidarity members created a list of demands that made it clear they wanted real reform, not just higher wages: a union’s right to strike, freedom for dissenters being held in prison, and the lifting of censorship. Dockworker Lech Walesa, who headed Solidarity, would later become the president of a democratic Poland.

In 1985, Mikhail Gorbachev became the head of the Soviet Union. Born in 1931 to a peasant family in the North Caucasus region, Gorbachev was well aware that major political changes were necessary; he knew that the Soviet Union could not keep pace with American military spending. To remedy the economic and social problems of the USSR, Gorbachev instituted glasnost (openness) and perestroika (a restructuring of the economy and society). Glasnost was intended to encourage open debate within the Soviet Union; Gorbachev believed that the economic and social problems the country faced demanded input from all segments of society, not just Communist Party members. He relaxed censorship and instituted policies that encouraged writers and intellectuals to speak out about society’s problems and suggest their own solutions.

Perestroika called for increases in foreign trade and reductions in military spending. During a 1987 meeting, Reagan and Gorbachev signed the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, which eliminated all medium-range nuclear missiles from Europe. This made Gorbachev very unpopular with the Soviet military, which was convinced that this action made the USSR vulnerable to attack.

In 1988, Gorbachev thoroughly reorganized the Soviet government, making it more representative and giving greater power to a legislature that for years had existed only as the premier’s rubber stamp. The era of one-party rule in the Soviet Union was over; non-Communists were allowed to run for office at the national, republic, and local levels in 1989.

In July 1988, a severe economic slump and Gorbachev’s own awareness of the changed atmosphere in Eastern Europe caused him to announce that the Soviet Union would withdraw from any interference in the self-government of other nations. Eastern Europe would have to take care of itself from now on; the Soviet Union could no longer afford to control and monitor nations outside its own borders.

In 1989, the Berlin Wall fell. People all over the world watched television, astounded, as young Germans attacked the wall on both sides with sledge- hammers and pickaxes, clambering to the top and pulling their friends up to dance and cheer alongside them. Berliners poured freely through the Branden- burg Gate in both directions for the first time since 1961. During the follow- ing weeks, border restrictions throughout Eastern Europe were removed, and easterners could once again travel freely to the West. In 1990, East and West Germany were officially and formally reunited under one government. After nearly 50 years, the Iron Curtain had come down.

The map below shows the changes in Central and Eastern Europe after the fall of the Iron Curtain. Compare the two maps below.

Post Cold War Europe

US History End of Cold War Europe Map


Beginning of the Cold War

US History Beginning of Cold War Europe Map


Practice questions for these concepts can be found at:

The Cold War Ends Practice Test

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