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Cold War (1985–1991)

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The time period of around 1985–1991 marked the final period of the Cold War. It was characterized by systemic reform within the Soviet Union, the easing of geopolitical tensions between the Soviet-led bloc and the United States-led bloc, the collapse of the Soviet Union's influence in Eastern Europe, and the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991.

World map of communist and socialist countries in 1985

The beginning of this period is marked by the ascent of Mikhail Gorbachev to the position of General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. Seeking to bring an end to the economic stagnation associated with the Brezhnev Era, Gorbachev initiated economic reforms (perestroika), and political liberalization (glasnost). While the exact end date of the Cold War is debated among historians, it is generally agreed upon that the implementation of nuclear and conventional arms control agreements, the withdrawal of Soviet military forces from Afghanistan and Eastern Europe, and the collapse of the Soviet Union marked the end of the Cold War.

Thaw in relations


After the deaths of three successive elderly Soviet leaders since 1982, the Soviet Politburo elected Gorbachev Communist Party General Secretary in March 1985, marking the rise of a new generation of leadership. Under Gorbachev, relatively young reform-oriented technocrats, who had begun their careers in the heyday of "de-Stalinization" under reformist leader Nikita Khrushchev, rapidly consolidated power, providing new momentum for political and economic liberalization, and the impetus for cultivating warmer relations and trade with the West.

Reagan and Gorbachev during their first summit meeting in Geneva, 1985

On the Western front, President Reagan's administration had taken a hard line against the Soviet Union. Under the Reagan Doctrine, the Reagan administration began providing military support to anti-communist armed movements in Afghanistan, Angola, Nicaragua and elsewhere.

A major breakthrough came in 1985–87, with the successful negotiation of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF). The INF Treaty of December 1987, signed by Reagan and Gorbachev, eliminated all nuclear and conventional missiles, as well as their launchers, with ranges of 500–1,000 kilometres (310–620 mi) (short-range) and 1,000–5,500 kilometres (620–3,420 mi) (intermediate-range). The treaty did not cover sea-launched missiles. By May 1991, after on-site investigations by both sides, 2,700 missiles had been destroyed.[1][2]

The Reagan administration also persuaded the Saudi Arabian oil companies to increase oil production.[3] This led to a three-times drop in the prices of oil, and oil was the main source of Soviet export revenues.[3] Following the USSR's previous large military buildup, President Reagan ordered an enormous peacetime defense buildup of the United States Armed Forces; the Soviets did not respond to this by building up their military because the military expenses, in combination with collectivized agriculture in the nation, and inefficient planned manufacturing, would cause a heavy burden for the Soviet economy. It was already stagnant and in a poor state prior to the tenure of Mikhail Gorbachev who, despite significant attempts at reform, was unable to revitalise the economy.[4] In 1985, Reagan and Gorbachev held their first of four "summit" meetings, this one in Geneva, Switzerland. After discussing policy, facts, etc., Reagan invited Gorbachev to go with him to a small house near the beach. The two leaders spoke in that house well over their time limit, but came out with the news that they had planned two more (soon three more) summits.

The second summit took place the following year, in 1986 on October 11, in Reykjavík, Iceland. The meeting was held to pursue discussions about scaling back their intermediate-range ballistic missile arsenals in Europe. The talks came close to achieving an overall breakthrough on nuclear arms control, but ended in failure due to Reagan's proposed Strategic Defense Initiative and Gorbachev's proposed cancellation of it. Nonetheless, cooperation continued to increase and, where it failed, Gorbachev reduced some strategic arms unilaterally.

Fundamental to the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the Gorbachev policy initiatives of Restructuring (Perestroika) and Openness (Glasnost) had ripple effects throughout the Soviet world, including eventually making it impossible to reassert central control over Warsaw Pact member states without resorting to military force.

United States President Ronald Reagan delivers a speech at the Berlin Wall in June 1987, in which he called for Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev to "Tear Down This Wall!". Famous passage begins at 11:10 into this video.

On June 12, 1987, Reagan challenged Gorbachev to go further with his reforms and democratization by tearing down the Berlin Wall. In a speech at the Brandenburg Gate next to the wall, Reagan stated:

General Secretary Gorbachev, if you seek peace, if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union, Central and South-East Europe, if you seek liberalization, come here to this gate; Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate. Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall![5]

While the aging communist European leaders kept their states in the grip of "normalization", Gorbachev's reformist policies in the Soviet Union exposed how a once revolutionary Communist Party of the Soviet Union had become moribund at the very center of the system. Facing declining revenues due to declining oil prices and rising expenditures related to the arms race and the command economy, the Soviet Union was forced during the 1980s to take on significant amounts of debt from the Western banking sector.[6] The growing public disapproval of the Soviet–Afghan War, and the socio-political effects of the Chernobyl accident in Ukraine increased public support for these policies. By the spring of 1989, the USSR had not only experienced lively media debate, but had also held its first multi-candidate elections. For the first time in recent history, the force of liberalization was spreading from West to East.

Revolt spreads through Communist Europe

The Pan-European Picnic took place in August 1989 on the Hungarian-Austrian border.

Grassroots organizations, such as Poland's Solidarity movement, rapidly gained ground with strong popular bases. In February 1989 the Polish People's Republic opened talks with opposition, known as the Polish Round Table Agreement, which allowed elections with participation of anti-Communist parties in June 1989.

The initially inconspicuous opening of a border gate of the Iron Curtain between Austria and Hungary in August 1989 then triggered a chain reaction, at the end of which the German Democratic Republic no longer existed and the Eastern Bloc had disintegrated. The idea for the Pan-European Picnic came from Otto von Habsburg and was intended as a test of whether the Soviet Union would react when the iron curtain was opened. The Pan-European Union Austria then advertised with leaflets in Hungary to make East Germans aware of the possibility of escape. The result of the greatest mass exodus since the building of the Berlin Wall and the non-reaction of the Eastern bloc states showed the oppressed population that their governments had lost absolute power. Subsequently, large numbers of East German refugees attempted to flee through Hungary and the weak reactions showed that the communist leaders lost even more power.[7][8][9][10]

Also in 1989 the Communist government in Hungary started to negotiate organizing of competitive elections which took place in 1990. In Czechoslovakia and East Germany, mass protests unseated entrenched Communist leaders. The Communist regimes in Bulgaria and Romania also crumbled, in the latter case as the result of a violent uprising. Attitudes had changed enough that US Secretary of State James Baker suggested that the American government would not be opposed to Soviet intervention in Romania, on behalf of the opposition, to prevent bloodshed.[11] The tidal wave of change culminated with the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989, which symbolized the collapse of European Communist governments and graphically ended the Iron Curtain divide of Europe.

The collapse of the Eastern European governments with Gorbachev's tacit consent inadvertently encouraged several Soviet republics to seek greater independence from Moscow's rule. Agitation for independence in the Baltic states led to first Lithuania, and then Estonia and Latvia, declaring their independence. Disaffection in the other republics was met by promises of greater decentralization. More open elections led to the election of candidates opposed to Communist Party rule.

In an attempt to halt the rapid changes to the system, a group of Soviet hard-liners represented by Vice-president Gennady Yanayev launched a coup overthrowing Gorbachev in August 1991. Russian President Boris Yeltsin rallied the people and much of the army against the coup and the effort collapsed. Although restored to power, Gorbachev's authority had been irreparably undermined. In September, the Baltic states were granted independence. On December 1, Ukraine withdrew from the USSR. On December 26, 1991, the USSR officially dissolved, breaking up into fifteen separate nations.

End of the Cold War


After the end of the Revolutions of 1989, Gorbachev and President Bush Sr. met on the neutral island of Malta to discuss the events of the year, the withdrawal of the Soviet military from Eastern Europe, and the future course of their relationship. After their discussions, the two leaders publicly announced they would work together for German reunification, the normalization of relations, the resolution of Third World conflicts, and the promotion of peace and democracy (referred to by President Bush as a "New World Order").[12]

Between the Malta Summit and the Dissolution of the Soviet Union negotiations on several arms control agreements began, resulting in agreements such as START I and the Chemical Weapons Convention. Additionally, the United States, still believing the Soviet Union would continue to exist in the long term, began to take steps to create a positive long-term relationship.[13]

This new relationship was demonstrated by the joint American-Soviet opposition to Iraq's invasion of Kuwait. The Soviet Union voted in the United Nations Security Council in favor of Resolution 678 authorizing the use of military force against its former Middle Eastern ally.[14]

Several conflicts in third world nations (i.e. Cambodia, Angola, Nicaragua) related to the Cold War would come to an end during this era of cooperation, with both the Soviet Union and the United States working together to pressure their respective proxies to make peace with one another. Overall, this détente which accompanied the final twilight of the Cold War would help bring about a relatively more peaceful world.[15]

As a consequence of the Revolutions of 1989 and the adoption of a foreign policy based on non-interference by the Soviet Union, the Warsaw Pact was dissolved and Soviet troops began withdrawing back to the Soviet Union, completing their withdrawal by the mid-1990s.[16][17]

The United States had established a complex global presence by the 1990s and policymakers felt that some structure to explain the "threats, interests and priories" that guide foreign policy was needed, but there was no agreement how to proceed. Anthony Lake has said that attempts at doctrine making during this period risked introducing "neo-know-nothing" isolationism or what he termed "irrational" ideas. The goal then of Bush Sr. and Clinton during their terms in office was to develop foreign policy objectives that would support consensus rather than accelerate fragmentation inside America's sphere of influence.[18]



Scholars have pointed to materialist and ideational reasons for the end of the Cold War. Materialists emphasize Soviet economic difficulties (such as economic stagnation and sovereign debt),[19] whereas ideationalists argue that the worldviews and personas of Gorbachev and Reagan mattered. Ideationalists point to a Gorbachev and Reagan's mutual desire to abolish nuclear weapons,[20] as well as Gorbachev's perceptions of the legitimate ends and means of foreign policy.[21]



Countries such as the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, and Slovakia experienced economic reconstruction, growth and fast integration with EU and NATO while some of their eastern neighbors created hybrids of free market oligarchy system, post-communist corrupted administration and dictatorship.

Russia and some other Soviet successor states faced a chaotic and harsh transition from a command economy to free market capitalism following the dissolution of the Soviet Union. A large percentage of the population lived in poverty, GDP growth declined, and life expectancy dropped sharply. Living conditions also declined in some other parts of the former Eastern bloc.

Soviet General Secretary Gorbachev and U.S. President Reagan signing the INF Treaty, 1987

The post–Cold War era saw a period of unprecedented prosperity in the West, especially in the United States, and a wave of democratization throughout Latin America, Africa, and Central, South-East and Eastern Europe.

Sociologist Immanuel Wallerstein expresses a less triumphalist view, arguing that the end of the Cold War is a prelude to the breakdown of Pax Americana. In his essay "Pax Americana is Over", Wallerstein argues, "The collapse of communism in effect signified the collapse of liberalism, removing the only ideological justification behind US hegemony, a justification tacitly supported by liberalism's ostensible ideological opponent".[22]

Space exploration has petered out in both the United States and Russia without the competitive pressure of the space race. Military decorations have become more common, as they were created, and bestowed, by the major powers during the near 50 years of undeclared hostilities.

Ethiopian tanks pass a Communist memorial in Addis Ababa during the Ethiopian Civil War, 1991.















See also



  1. ^ Lynn E. Davis, "Lessons of the INF Treaty." Foreign Affairs 66.4 (1988): 720–734. in JSTOR
  2. ^ CQ Press (2012). Guide to Congress. SAGE. pp. 252–53. ISBN 978-1-4522-3532-5.
  3. ^ a b Gaidar, Yegor. "Public Expectations and Trust towards the Government: Post-Revolution Stabilization and its Discontents". Retrieved 2008-03-15.
  4. ^ Gaidar, Yegor (2007-10-17). Collapse of an Empire: Lessons for Modern Russia (in Russian). Brookings Institution Press. pp. 190–210. ISBN 978-5-8243-0759-7.
  5. ^ "Reagan's 'tear down this wall' speech turns 20". USA Today. 2007-06-12. Retrieved 2008-03-20.
  6. ^ Leebaert, Derek (2002). The Fifty-Year Wound. New York, USA: Little, Brown and Company. p. 595.
  7. ^ Michael Frank: Paneuropäisches Picknick – Mit dem Picknickkorb in die Freiheit (German: Pan-European picnic - With the picnic basket to freedom), in: Süddeutsche Zeitung 17 May 2010.
  8. ^ Thomas Roser: DDR-Massenflucht: Ein Picknick hebt die Welt aus den Angeln (German - Mass exodus of the GDR: A picnic clears the world) in: Die Presse 16 August 2018.
  9. ^ „Der 19. August 1989 war ein Test für Gorbatschows“ (German - August 19, 1989 was a test for Gorbachev), in: FAZ 19 August 2009.
  10. ^ Miklós Németh in Interview, Austrian TV - ORF "Report", 25 June 2019
  11. ^ Garthof, Raymond L. "The Great Transition: American-Soviet Relations and the End of the Cold War" (Washington: Brookings Institution, 1994).
  12. ^ "1989: Malta summit ends Cold War". British Broadcasting Corporation. 1989-12-03. Retrieved 2018-03-31.
  13. ^ Arjen Molen (2015-09-14), Cold War - Conclusions 1989-1991 - Part 24/24, archived from the original on 2021-12-19, retrieved 2018-03-31
  14. ^ "S/RES/678(1990) - E". undocs.org. Retrieved 2018-03-31.
  15. ^ Cohen, Michael (December 15, 2011). "Peace in the Post-Cold War World". The Atlantic. Retrieved March 31, 2018.
  16. ^ Bohlen, Celestine (February 26, 1991). "Warsaw Pact Agrees to Dissolve Its Military Alliance by March 31". The New York Times. p. 1,10. Retrieved March 31, 2018.
  17. ^ Marshall, Tyler (April 1, 1993). "Few Russian Troops Remain in Ex-Satellite States: Military: Of an estimated 600,000 in Eastern Europe in the late 1980s, only about 113,000 haven't gone home". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved March 31, 2018.
  18. ^ Brands, Hal (2008). From Berlin to Baghdad: America's Search for Purpose in the Post-Cold War World. The University Press of Kentucky. p. 3. ISBN 9780813159324. Retrieved 29 July 2019.
  19. ^ Bartel, Fritz (2021), Bartel, Fritz; Monteiro, Nuno P. (eds.), "Overcoming Stagnation", Before and After the Fall: World Politics and the End of the Cold War, Cambridge University Press, pp. 27–44, doi:10.1017/9781108910194.003, ISBN 978-1-108-90677-7, S2CID 244846930
  20. ^ Jervis, Robert (2021), Bartel, Fritz; Monteiro, Nuno P. (eds.), "The Nuclear Age", Before and After the Fall: World Politics and the End of the Cold War, Cambridge University Press, pp. 115–131, doi:10.1017/9781108910194.008, ISBN 978-1-108-90677-7, S2CID 244858515
  21. ^ Radchenko, Sergey (2021), Bartel, Fritz; Monteiro, Nuno P. (eds.), "Mikhail Gorbachev", Before and After the Fall: World Politics and the End of the Cold War, Cambridge University Press, pp. 45–61, ISBN 978-1-108-90677-7
  22. ^ "Wallerstein, Immanuel. "Pax Americana is Over"". Archived from the original on 2012-02-04. Retrieved 2006-02-22.
  23. ^ "Mongolia - Countries - Office of the Historian". history.state.gov. Retrieved 2020-06-15.
  24. ^ (in English) 1988 soviet ramming USS Yorktown CG 48 in black sea (video)
  25. ^ Soviet Union Defiance in the Streets, Time, March 07, 1988
  26. ^ Roger East, Jolyon Pontin, Bloomsbury Publishing, 6 oct. 2016, Revolution and Change in Central and Eastern Europe: Revised Edition, p. 182
  27. ^ Florin Abraham, Bloomsbury Publishing, Nov 17, 2016, Romania since the Second World War: A Political, Social and Economic History, p. 107
  28. ^ The New York Times, 10 December 1989

Further reading

  • Ball, S. J. The Cold War: An International History, 1947–1991 (1998). British perspective
  • Beschloss, Michael, and Strobe Talbott. At the Highest Levels:The Inside Story of the End of the Cold War (1993)
  • Braithwaite, Rodric et al. "Could the Soviet Union Have Survived? We ask four historians whether the demise of one of the 20th century's superpowers was as inevitable as it now seems." History Today (Oct 2020) 70#10 pp 8–10 [online].
  • Brooks, Stephen G., and William C. Wohlforth. "Power, globalization, and the end of the Cold War: Reevaluating a landmark case for ideas." International Security 25.3 (2001): 5-53. [online]
  • Engel, Jeffrey A. When the World Seemed New: George H. W. Bush and the End of the Cold War (2017)
  • Gaddis, John Lewis. The Cold War: A New History (2005) online
  • Gaddis, John Lewis. The United States and the End of the Cold War: Implications, Reconsiderations, Provocations (1992) online
  • Garthoff, Raymond. The Great Transition: American-Soviet Relations and the End of the Cold War (1994) online
  • Goertz, Gary and Jack S. Levy, eds. Causal explanations, necessary conditions, and case studies: World War I and the End of the Cold War (2005), 10 essays from political scientists; online
  • Hogan, Michael, ed. The End of the Cold War. Its Meaning and Implications (1992) articles from Diplomatic History
  • Kalinovsky, Artemy M. "New Histories of the End of the Cold War and the Late Twentieth Century." Contemporary European History 27.1 (2018): 149–161. online
  • Kegley Jr, Charles W. "How did the cold war die? Principles for an autopsy." Mershon International Studies Review 38.Supplement_1 (1994): 11–41.
  • Kenney, Padraic. 1989: Democratic Revolutions at the Cold War's End: A Brief History with Documents (2009) covers Poland, the Philippines, Chile, South Africa, Ukraine, and China
  • Leffler, Melvyn P. For the Soul of Mankind: The United States, the Soviet Union, and the Cold War (2007) pp 338–450.
  • Mann, James. The Rebellion of Ronald Reagan: A History of the End of the Cold War (2010). popular
  • Matlock, Jack F. Autopsy on an Empire (1995) online by US ambassador to Moscow
  • Matlock, Jack F. Reagan and Gorbachev : how the Cold War ended (2004) online
  • Powaski, Ronald E. The Cold War: The United States and the Soviet Union, 1917–1991 (1998)
  • Romero, Federico. "Cold War historiography at the crossroads." Cold War History 14.4 (2014): 685–703. online
  • Shultz, George P. Turmoil and Triumph: My Years as Secretary of State (1993), a primary source
  • Westad, Odd Arne. The Cold War: A World History (2017) pp 527–629
  • Wilson, James Graham. The Triumph of Improvisation: Gorbachev's Adaptability, Reagan's Engagement, and the End of the Cold War (2014)
  • Wohlforth, William C. "Realism and the End of the Cold War." International Security 19.3 (1994): 91–129. online
  • Zubok, Vladislav M. "Gorbachev and the End of the Cold War: Perspectives on History and Personality," Cold War History (2002) 2:2, 61–100, DOI: 10.1080/713999954
  • Zubok, Vladislav M. A failed empire: the Soviet Union in the Cold War from Stalin to Gorbachev (2009). online