The eighties, in particular, are considered the years of the End of the Cold War, the second half of the decade. Ronald Reagan (1980-1988) was the President of the United States during most of the End of the Cold War, because in the last two years George Bush was the President. So Reagan was the dominant figure in Cold War politics during the first half of the eighties. The Reagan administration preferred confrontation with the Soviet Union than negotiation, so it meant a short period of tension between the two superpowers.
On the other hand, in the Soviet Union there were four general secretaries of the Soviet Communist Party. The first one was Brezhnev (1964-1982). He was a man who represented the old scholarship (gerontocracy), he ordered the military intervention on Czechoslovakia, he met with Nixon at Moscow, and signed SALT and SALT II treaties… The second was Yuri Andropov (1982-1984) and the next was Constantin Chernenko (1984-1985). The death of Chernenko meant the end of the rule of the “gerontocracy”. The gerontocracy generation was a group of old aged men that ruled the Soviet Union from the end of the Second World War. Their policy ideas were orthodox. In other words, they did not like changes and they thought that there was only one way to perform communism.
By contrast, there was a new generation led by Mikhail Gorbachev (1985-1991) because of this it has been named: Gorbachev generation. Gorbachev was the last ruler of the USSR. He became the secretary of the Soviet Communist Party when Chernenko dies in 1985. In August 1991 Gorbachev resigned as a secretary of the Communist Party and at the end of the year the Soviet Union was disbanded and became the Commonwealth of Independent States.
Probably the Reagan administration and the rule of Gorbachev stage was denoted by the changes occurred in the Soviet Union. These changes were glasnost (openness) and perestroika (reorganisation) of the economy. Furthermore the Reagan's foreign policy was also important.
Reagan and the Evil Empire:
In November 1980 Ronald Reagan became President of the United States. He arrived to presidency with no diplomacy experience, but his term of office was dominated by foreign policies. In particular, the relationship with the Soviet Union that was named an evil empire and the focus of evil in the world by Reagan. Obviously Reagan was an anti-Communist. Reagan political ideology was clear since his early and ardent alienation from the New Deal, Reagan has been and aggressive exponent of a traditional strain of Republican conservatism.
We have to think about Reagan's role at the End of the Cold War. This is not easy task because we do not have enough perspective to get an impartial view. In spite of this, Reagan and the rest of the world did not imagine that the Cold War came to an end so suddenly. This idea was based on a fear and exaggeration of the Soviet Union's power in the eighties. Reagan frightened Americans for the campaign in 1980 and the rest of the world was alarmed by Reagan's bellicosity. As a consecuence Reagan's supporters sincerely believe that Moscow has gained an advantage over the United States in military power and that only a build-up of American strength can right the balance and preserve the peace. So Reagan offered himself as the leader who restored American hegemony in the world.
Because of this when Reagan became president he abandoned détente and started to build up an American military power to negotiate from a position of strength. On the contrary, the United States led by its President started to work at full speed to defeat the Soviets. To get surrender of the Soviet Union, Reagan restored programs that were cancelled and he developed the Strategic Defence Initiative (1983). It was known as Star Wars and it was the most ambitious armamenthistic plan. The ballistic missile defence was a demonstration of economic power and technological development.
However from March 1985 the framework changed suddenly. An open-minded person came to the power at the Soviet Union. That person was Mikhail Gorbachev.
When Gorbachev became the Secretary General of the Communist Party he thought that the Soviet Union faced tremendous (…) problems. In Bialer words: The party-state administration became highly bureaucratised, penetrated through and through by a corporatist spirit, thoroughly corrupted in its particular segments by mafia-like informal associations. So we can assume that the main problem was the internal situation, but also there were other problems related with the Cold War. These problems were the Afghanistan War and the relationship with the West, particularly the United States. To resolve this, Gorbachev announced his intention of taking radical initiatives to reform the Soviet Union both politically and economically.
The glasnost was the political transformation. We can understand glasnost as a political openness, which let the gradual erosion of censorship and the progressive elimination of taboos on subjects that had previously been impossible to discuss in the mass media. As a result of this the Soviet Union suffered a political democratisation and the arising of the political diversity.
The economical reform or perestroika was more complicate. The economy of the Soviet Union was brought down by an omnipresent party-state and complex bureaucracy. To put it in a different way, the Stalinist model of the economy depended on administrative activity and not on self-generating and self-enforcing economic forces. When Gorbachev put to work the perestroika he wanted to maintain with economic communist system, but at the same time, let a little space to private initiative. That is, Gorbachev wanted to revive the Soviet economy, but he accelerated the deterioration of the Soviet economy.
Gorbachev's internal policies influenced the relationship between the United States and the Soviet Union and the development of the Cold War. In particular, the difficulty and schedule of Gorbachev's domestic reforms, and their likely consequences.
In this framework we have to answer next question: Was communist system reformable? There is not agreement upon this question. Garthoff believes that restructuring was not possible, and Hewett affirms that it was possible, in fact, he thought that it is being reformed. In any case when Gorbachev tried to reform the Soviet Union, it just disappeared.
To answer the main question of this essay: Why did the Cold War end so suddenly? We have to go back and search at the beginning, to discover why the Cold War began.
During the Cold War there was a belief that confrontation between The Soviet Union and the United States was inevitable. Soviet leaders and all Communist Parties of the world believed that communism was predestined to triumph in the world. And of course the Americans thought those Soviets could enhance their own power and lead the world. However, the American view was wrong in believing that Communist ideology could destabilise the Free World. Because the Soviet Union was far weaker politically, structurally and economically than was generally believed.
Eleven years after Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe proclaimed the end of the Cold War and we can see that communism is discredited. So we believe that this could probably be a substantial factor for the end of the Cold War. But the United States and the Soviet Union existed before the beginning of the Cold War and in many countries communism was discredited before the end of the Cold War. So we can assume that tension in the Cold War was not a result of the ideological confrontation between communism and democracy.
If as Garthoff suggested ideology was not the key of the confrontation of the two superpowers, which has been the key? Probably the Cold War was just a fight between two superpowers that sought control and led the world. In this case, when one of these countries became weak and lost its power the conflict would have disappeared.
Does it mean that Gorbachev weakened the USSR? As we demonstrated in previous sections the Soviet system was damaged before Gorbachev came to power. Gorbachev did not want destroy the Soviet Union, but he gave it the coup the grace. That is, Gorbachev was the man who brought the Cold War to an end because he changed these beliefs.
Probably Reagan's attitude provokes Soviet leader to accelerate the rearmament, but this task was impossible. As a consequence when the Gorbachev generation came to the power to weighed up an internal reform (perestroika) to catch up the Americans. This was the beginning of the end of the Soviet Union. It was a system based on economic planning, so when the Soviets tried to adapt the old structure to the new times the whole of the organisation fell so rapidly that nobody could stop it.
To sum up, we consider that Reagan's foreign policy conditioned the end of the Cold War, but Gorbachev's behaviour brought about the end of the Soviet Union.
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COOHEN, W. I.: The Cambridge History of American Foreign Relations, Volume IV, 1993.
DALLEK, R.: Ronald Reagan. The Politics of Symbolism, 1984.
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DUMBRELL, J.: American Foreign Policy. Carter to Clinton, 1997.
GARTHOFF, R.: “Why did the Cold War arise, and Why did it end?” in Diplomatic History, vol. 16, No 2, spring 1992.
GORBACHEV, M.: Memoirs, Doubleday, 1996.
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SALAMON, L. and LUND, M.: The Reagan Presidency and the Governing of America, 1984.
STARES, P.: The Militarization of Space. US Policy, 1945-1984, 1985.
STEEL, R.: “The End and the Begining”, in Diplomatic History, vol. 16. No 2, spring, 1992.
SMITH, J.: The Cold War, Blackwell, 1999
SMITH, J.: The Cold War, Blackwell, 1999 p. 128
Op. Cit.: SMITH, J.: The Cold… p.135.
KONSTANTIN, S.: “The Gorbachev Generation”, in GUNLICKS, A. and TREADWAY, J.: The Soviet Union under Gorbachev, Preager, 1987. p. 33.
MALDWYN, J.: The Limits of Liberty. American History 1607-1992, 1995. p. 548. Op. Cit.: SMITH, J.: The Cold… p. 129.
CHUBB, J. and PETERSON, P.: The New Direction in American Politics, 1985. p. 124.
DALLEK, R.: Ronald Reagan. The Politics of Symbolism, 1984. p. 161.
Cited in: Op. Cit.: SMITH, J.: The Cold… p. 129
Op. Cit.: SMITH, J.: The Cold… p. 133. STARES, P.: The Militarization of Space. US Policy, 1945-1984, 1985. p. 225.
GORBACHEV, M.: Memoirs, Doubleday, 1996. p. 171.
BIALER, S.: “Domestic and International Factors in the Formation of Gabachev's Reforms” in DALLIN, A. and LAPIDUS, G.: The Soviet System in Crisis, Westview Press, 1991. p. 30
To see different points of view: GARTHOFF, R.: “Why did the Cold War arise, and Why did it end?” in Diplomatic History, vol. 16, No 2, spring 1992. p. 290. HEWETT, Ed: “Is Soviet Socialism Reformable?” in DALLIN, A. and LAPIDUS, G.: The Soviet System in Crisis, Westview Press, 1991. p. 374.
Why did the Cold War End so Suddenly