Cold War (1979–1985)

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Alliances in 1980:          NATO & Western allies,              Warsaw Pact & other Soviet allies,      nonaligned states,      China and Albania (communist countries not aligned with USSR), ××× armed resistance
West and East Germans at the Brandenburg Gate in 1989.jpg

Part of a series on the
History of the Cold War

Origins of the Cold War
World War II
(Hiroshima and Nagasaki)
War conferences
Eastern Bloc
Western Bloc
Iron Curtain
Cold War (1947–53)
Cold War (1953–62)
Cold War (1962–79)
Cold War (1979–85)
Cold War (1985–91)
Frozen conflicts
Timeline  · Conflicts

The Cold War (1979–1985) refers to the phase of a deterioration in relations between the Soviet Union and the West arising from the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979. With the election of British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in 1979, and United States President Ronald Reagan in 1980, a corresponding change in Western foreign policy approach towards the Soviet Union was marked with the abandonment of détente in favor of the Reagan Doctrine policy of rollback, with the stated goal of dissolving Soviet influence in Soviet Bloc countries. During this time the threat of nuclear war had reached new heights not seen since the Cuban Missile Crisis.

The Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan following the Saur Revolution in that country, ultimately leading to the deaths of around one million civilians.[1] Mujahideen fighters succeeded in forcing a Soviet military withdrawal in 1989. In response, US President Jimmy Carter announced a US-led boycott of the Moscow 1980 Summer Olympics. In 1984 the Soviets responded with their own boycott of the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles, California. Tensions increased when the US announced they would deploy Pershing II missiles in West Germany, followed by Reagan's announcement of the US Strategic Defense Initiative, and were further exacerbated in 1983 when Reagan branded the Soviet Union an "evil empire".

In April 1983 the United States Navy conducted FleetEx '83-1, the largest fleet exercise held to date in the North Pacific.[2][3] The conglomeration of approximately forty ships with 23,000 crewmembers and 300 aircraft, was arguably the most powerful naval armada ever assembled. U.S. aircraft and ships attempted to provoke the Soviets into reacting, allowing U.S. Naval Intelligence to study Soviet radar characteristics, aircraft capabilities, and tactical maneuvers. On April 4 at least six U.S. Navy aircraft flew over one of the Kurile Islands, Zeleny Island, the largest of a set of islets called the Habomai Islands. The Soviets were outraged, and ordered a retaliatory overflight of the Aleutian Islands. The Soviet Union also issued a formal diplomatic note of protest, which accused the United States of repeated penetrations of Soviet airspace.[4] The following September, the civilian airliner Korean Air Lines Flight 007 was downed by Soviet fighter jets over nearby Moneron Island.

In November 1983, NATO conducted a military exercise known as "Able Archer 83". The realistic simulation of a nuclear attack by NATO forces caused considerable alarm in the USSR, and is regarded by many historians to be the closest the world came to nuclear war since the Cuban missile crisis in 1962.[5]

This period of the Cold War would continue through US President Reagan's first term (1981–1985), through the death of Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev in 1982, the brief interim period of Soviet leadership consisting of Yuri Andropov (1982–1984), and Konstantin Chernenko (1984–1985). This phase in the Cold War concluded with the ascension of reform-minded Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in 1985, who brought a commitment to reduce tensions between the East and West, and bring about major reforms in Soviet society.

Rollback strategy[edit]

In 1984, journalist Nicholas Lemann interviewed Reagan Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger and summarized the strategy of the Reagan administration to roll back the Soviet Union:

Their society is economically weak, and it lacks the wealth, education, and technology to enter the information age. They have thrown everything into military production, and their society is starting to show terrible stress as a result. They can't sustain military production the way we can. Eventually it will break them, and then there will be just one superpower in a safe world – if, only if, we can keep spending." [6]

Lemann notes that when he wrote that in 1984, he thought the Reaganites were living in a fantasy world. But in 2016, he says, that passage represents "a fairly uncontroversial description of what Reagan actually did."

The Reagan strategy also included escalating conflicts the Soviets were involved in, especially the Soviet-Afghan war and the Central American crisis. It included diplomatic moves to persuade Western European governments to host American missiles pointed at the Soviet Union. It included a massive Star Wars spending program to invent space-based antimissile systems that would neutralize Soviet military capability.[7]

The strategies were continued until the Revolutions of 1989.[8][9] People in the Eastern European satellite states revolted against their dictatorships, and became parliamentary democracies. Russian people ended their communist system in 1991. Without support from Moscow, many subsidized communist movements in the Asia, Africa, and Latin America virtually collapsed.[10]

Culture and media[edit]

Dozens of the board wargames were published covering both historical and hypothetical conflicts at scales ranging from man-to-man to global thermonuclear war. Historical conflicts include the Falklands War, the Iran–Iraq War, the invasion of Grenada, and the Angolan Civil War. The vast majority of titles concerned contemporary World War III "what-if" scenarios wherein the Cold War turns hot and focused on a presumed Warsaw Pact invasion of Western Europe. Notable games include Ultimatum (1979), The China War (1979), NATO Division Commander (1980), Fifth Corps series (1980), and MechWar 2 (1980), Task Force (1981), Harpoon (1983), Silo 14 (1983), Assault series (1983), Gulf Strike (1983), Firepower (1984), The Third World War series (1984), Air Cav (1985) and Main Battle Area (1985).

In addition, the period witnessed the release of several videogames dealing with the Cold War and Cold War related issues. Examples include Atari's well-known arcade-game Missile Command (1980), the somewhat infamous Raid over Moscow (1984), which lets you blast through soviet airdefence and finally destroy Moscow (hence the name), as well as Theatre Europe and Balance of Power (both 1985), which simulate an all-out conventional, albeit hypothetical, war between the Warsaw Pact forces and NATO troops over control of Central Europe. Some of these games, especially the latter, advise strongly against the use of nuclear weapons, reflecting a widespread fear of nuclear holocaust at the time.

Two films released in 1983, WarGames and The Day After, dealt with potential all-out nuclear war between the US and the Soviet Union. President Reagan was given a private screening of The Day After and was said to be deeply shaken. He revised his posture toward nuclear war in favor of eventual nuclear abolition, at least in part due to his experience watching the film.[11]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Marek Sliwinski, "Afghanistan: The Decimation of a People," Orbis (Winter, 1989), p. 39.
  2. ^ Johnson, p. 55
  3. ^ Richelson, p. 385
  4. ^ 1983: The most dangerous year by Andrew R. Garland,University of Nevada, Las Vegas
  5. ^ Mastny, Vojtech (January 2009). "How Able Was "Able Archer"?: Nuclear Trigger and Intelligence in Perspective". Journal of Cold War Studies. 11 (1): 108–123. doi:10.1162/jcws.2009.11.1.108. 
  6. ^ Nicholas Lemann, "Reagan: The Triumph of Tone" The New York Review of Books 10 March, 2016
  7. ^ Andrew E. Busch, "Ronald Reagan and the defeat of the Soviet empire." Presidential Studies Quarterly 27.3 (1997): 451-466.
  8. ^ Thomas Bodenheimer and Robert Gould. Rollback!: right-wing power in US foreign policy (South End Press, 1989).
  9. ^
  10. ^ Kenneth Roberts, "Bullying and Bargaining: The United States, Nicaragua, and Conflict Resolution in Central America." International Security 15.2 (1990): 67-102.
  11. ^ Mann, James (2009). The Rebellion of Ronald Reagan: A History of the End of the Cold War. New York: Penguin Group. pp. 41–42. 


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