A dynamic new Soviet leader, Mikhail S. Gorbachev, prompted Reagan's turn to moderation. Following the death of Brezhnev in 1982, two more Soviet leaders assumed the helm but died within a short period. Born in 1931, well after the Bolshevik Revolution, Gorbachev represented a new generation of Communist Party leadership in Moscow. Assuming power in 1985, Gorbachev sought to revitalize Soviet society through a series of dramatic reforms. He called the program perestroika, or restructuring, a concept that included sweeping economic and social reforms. The Soviet government authorized joint ventures with foreign companies, allowing some free enterprise to emerge in the socialist economy, and lifted restrictions on free speech and intellectual expression. Gorbachev called that reform glasnost, or openness.
Decrying the Cold War as dangerous and wasteful, Gorbachev unilaterally reduced Soviet investment in the great-power struggle. Declaring that intervention in Afghanistan had been a mistake, he pulled out Soviet troops in 1989. Gorbachev implemented sharp cuts in Soviet defense spending, including the withdrawal of tens of thousands of Red Army troops occupying Eastern Europe. Reagan and his advisers reacted with skepticism to Gorbachev's initiatives in world affairs, but the sweeping changes promoted by the charismatic new Russian leader soon became impossible to ignore. Gorbachev pressed Reagan to join him in bold new diplomatic ventures, and the U.S. president nearly responded at the Reykjavik summit in Iceland in 1986. There the two world leaders flirted with the "zero option"—an agreement to eliminate all nuclear weapons by the year 2000. This breathtaking proposal collapsed, however, over Reagan's refusal to sacrifice research and development of his Strategic Defense Initiative. Despite the summit breakdown, Reagan and Gorbachev had formed a bond, one that led the next year to a successful nuclear arms summit in Washington, D.C. Under the INF Treaty, both sides agreed to dismantle all intermediate range nuclear forces throughout the world. The Soviets agreed to on-site verification of their missile installations, a concession that would not have been possible in the pre-Gorbachev era.
By the time Reagan left office in 1989, the warlike atmosphere he had fostered in the early 1980s was but a distant memory. Both the U.S. and Soviet presidents were calling for an end to the Cold War, but no one envisioned just how sudden, dramatic, and complete that end would be. Perestroika and glasnost could not help but reverberate beyond Russia's borders. The sweeping economic reforms and loosening of restrictions on freedom of speech, the press, and artistic and intellectual life unleashed powerful forces that proved impossible to contain. Before they had run their course, the Communist Party regimes would topple throughout Europe and the Soviet Union and the Cold War would come to an end.
Skeptics assumed Gorbachev would inevitably respond in the fashion of the Chinese Communist Party, which conducted a bloody crackdown on student demonstrators in June 1989 at Beijing's mammoth Tiananmen Square. The United States condemned the repression at Tiananmen but maintained trade, diplomatic, and cultural ties with the People's Republic of China. U.S. national security elites concluded that continuing dialogue with China was too important to make an issue of the regime's repressive action. Rejecting the Chinese model, Gorbachev concluded that the costs—militarily and politically, and in world opinion—were too high to forcefully maintain Soviet hegemony over Eastern Europe. The Soviet leader stunned Western national security experts by renouncing the Brezhnev Doctrine, which held that the Kremlin would use force to maintain communist regimes.