COLD WAR OVERVIEW       home | history

End of the Cold War

From March 1985 and through the rest of his presidency, Reagan would be dealing with the Soviet leader Michael Gorbachev. Back in December, Margaret Thatcher had said, "I like Mr Gorbachev. We can do business together." In April 1985, Reagan wrote in his diary:

Gorbachev will be as tough as any of their leaders. If he wasn't a confirmed ideologue, he never would have been chosen by the Politburo.

Gorbachev had plans for ending economic stagnation. He told his comrades that he was for saving their ship and that ship, he said, was socialism. Gorbachev wanted to reduce military spending. The Soviet military, he believed, was absorbing too much wealth and scarce resources. He believed that one way to reduce military spending was an arms agreement with the United States. The military wanted to keep up with the US, but Gorbachev argued with them. Reagan's "star wars" or SDI idea and his talk about an "evil empire" made Gorbachev's arguments more difficult, but Gorbachev went ahead and let military spending decline.

Unlike his predecessors, Gorbachev wasn't applying a Marxian class struggle to foreign policy, and he wasn't paranoid about trickery of US leaders only pretending to believe in peaceful coexistence. He agreed with Reagan to have talks.

In November,1985, before his flight to meet Gorbachev in Geneva, Reagan described America's goal as,

...not only to avoid war, but to strengthen peace; not only to prevent confrontation, but to begin the process of removing the sources of tensions.

Like Margaret Thatcher, Reagan developed a liking for Mr Gorbachev. In October 1986 they had another summit meeting, in Iceland's capital, Reykjavík, where there was friendship but negotiations failure.

Reagan writes that he let Gorbachev know that "the people of America regarded Soviet aggression in Afghanistan as an example of a giant country trying to impose its will on a tiny one." Reagan's ambassador the Soviet Union, Jack Matlock, was to describe Reagan also as wanting

to convince Gorbachev, among other things, that the United States was not trying to break up the Soviet Union or to use arms reduction in order to create a military advantage. (Matlock, Superpower Illusions, a book endorsed by Reagan's Secretary of State, George P. Shultz.)

In a speech in Berlin in June 1987, Reagan said: "Mr Gorbachev, tear down this wall." Whatever Reagan's intentions, it changed nothing. East Germany (the German Democratic Republic) had been a member of the United Nations since 1973. It had relations with West Germany (the Federal Republic). And Gorbachev's relations with East Germany's ruler, Erich Honecker, were strained. The Berlin Wall and questions about Germany's reunification were matters that Gorbachev chose to leave to the East Germans.

Regarding his talks with Gorbachev, Reagan was to write in his memoirs,

Despite the perception by some that the Reykjavik summit was a failure, I think history will show it was a major turning point in the quest for a safe and secure world ... we agreed on the basic terms for what fourteen months later would become the INF agreement — a treaty that for the first time in history provided for the elimination of an entire class of nuclear weapons; we created a framework for the START agreement to reduce long-ranter missiles on each side as well as for agreements on reduction of chemical weapons and conventional forces, while preserving our right to develop the Strategic Defense Initiative [Star Wars].

The Cold War was a state of mind that for Gorbachev and Reagan was ending. Regarding his talks with Gorbachev, Reagan said to his fellow Americans, "Let there be no talk of winners and losers. Even if we think we won, to say so would set us back." The Cold War state of mind existed with some others. Fears and hostilities still existed in the Soviet Union and, in the United States, conservatives outside the Reagan were complaining. Howard Phillips called Reagan "a useful idiot for Soviet propaganda" and "an apologist for Gorbachev." William F. Buckley complained thatƒ "To greet it [the Soviet Union] as if it were no longer evil is on the order of changing our entire position toward Adolf Hitler."

President Reagan visited the Soviet Union in May 1988, and at a news conference there Reagan was asked by journalists whether he still thought the Soviet Union was an evil empire. "No," he replied, "that was another time, another era."

During 1988, Gorbachev announced that the Soviet Union would abandon the Brezhnev Doctrine – the declared policy to intervene in the internal affairs of another socialist state – like Hungary, Czechoslovakia or Poland – if the leading role of that state's communist party was threatened. In the Soviet Union, ending the Brezhnev Doctrine was was jokingly dubbed the "Sinatra Doctrine" – each allowed to do it their own way.

Reagan left office in January 1989. In February, the Soviet Union announced that all of its troops had left Afghanistan. In the Soviet Union in March, millions voted for a new parliamentary body that was to include non-Communist Party candidates.

In June, the foreign ministers of Hungary and Austria cut through some barbed wire between their two countries, putting a symbolic end to their "iron curtain" barrier. And in July, President George H. W. Bush spoke in Poland about their climb to democracy." Then he went to Hungary and promises to open US markets to Hungarian goods and to send Peace Corps volunteers to teach English.

In August in Poland the results of June elections were implemented and Communist Party rule officially ended. Communists retained the interior and defense ministries.

In October, the People's Republic of Hungary became the Republic of Hungary. The ruling Communist Party renamed itself the Socialist Party and had a plan for multiparty elections. In Czechoslovakia, thousands chanted for freedom and democracy. Authorities crushed the demonstration and arrested leading dissidents, including Vaclav Havel. The crowd shouted "gestapo" and "the world is watching." Mikhail Gorbachev urged Czechoslovakia's government to respond to the need for change.

In November 1989 the Communist government in East Germany resigned. The government allowed travel without visas to West Germany. This made the Berlin Wall useless. Great crowds of tourists from East Berlin flocked into West Berlin. Celebrating Germans began tearing down the Berlin Wall.

Late in November, demonstrations and a general strike in Czechoslovakia were followed by a promise of free elections within a year. By the end of the year, Czechoslovakia had the playwright-dissident Vaclav Havel for its president. Alexander Dubcek, the liberal Communist deposed by the Soviet Union in 1968, was cheered and became parliament chairman. In Romania, the communist leaders Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife were put in front of a firing squad. The wife, Elena, wept and complained that she had been "like a mother." Also in December, Gorbachev and Bush meet off the coast of Malta and released statements that the Cold War between their nations may be coming to an end.

Nationalism, meanwhile, was tearing apart what Reagan had called the Soviet Empire, otherwise known as the Soviet Union. The relaxation of censorship and attempts to create more political openness had stimulated long-suppressed nationalist and anti-Russian feelings inside the union's various republics.

An amendment to the Soviet Union's Constitution, in March 1990, gave parties other than the Communist Party the right to participate in elections (something that Chinese Communist party had not done). Soon after the constitutional amendment, calls in the Soviet Republics for greater independence from Moscow's grew louder, especially in the Baltic republics of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia, which had been annexed into the Soviet Union by Joseph Stalin in 1940. Nationalist feeling also took hold in Georgia, Ukraine, Armenia, and Azerbaijan. In July, Belarus declared its sovereignty, a step toward independence from the Soviet Union.

Some in the United States have connected the end of the Cold War with the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Others leave the Soviet Union's demise as separate from the relations between the Soviet Union and the capitalist countries, which is what the Cold War was about. Events leading to the end of the Soviet Union were an internal matter that included an unsuccessful coup in August 1991 that left Gorbachev with no effective power base beyond the armed forces. During the coup, Gorbachev's political rival, Boris Yeltsin, advanced himself as a leader and took hold of the Russian government as well as the remnants of the Soviet armed forces.

On 25 December 1991, Russia – more precisely, the Russian Federation – became an independent state. The Soviet Union formally dissolved itself, in its body called the Supreme Soviet, on December 26. In the United Nations, Russia took the seat that had belonged to the Soviet Union.

In the United States, anti-communists had been heard saying that the nature of Communism was such that its adherents ruling from Moscow would never liberalize or voluntarily back down from their goal of taking over the world. But they did.

Copyright © 2016 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.