In his famous article in 1947 advocating a strategy of containment against the Soviet Union, the foreign service officer George F. Kennan addressed the issue of how to achieve a successful conclusion to the expanding conflict with the Soviet Union. Kennan suggested that a patient and thoughtful policy that blended pressure and negotiations would ultimately be successful when the Soviet Union found it impossible to hold on to its new empire in eastern Europe, given the powerful nationalist forces at play in the relationship, and when the Soviet leaders abandoned their Marxist-Leninist attachment to supporting revolutionary movements and accepted normal international relations with Western capitalist states.
Kennan came fairly close to anticipating the most significant forces shaping the eventual end of the Cold War, as formally announced by the Western allies and their new Soviet partner, Gorbachev, in 1990. The U.S. strategy of containment—pursued in different forms with different rhetoric by all presidents since 1945, and pursued with failure and excess in some areas—shaped the resistance that Soviet leaders faced, both to their domestic system and revolutionary-imperial foreign policies. The broader success of the American economy, technology, commitment to freedom, and cultural appeal also ultimately stood in striking contrast to what the Soviet system looked like in all of these areas.
The end result, however, was not predetermined. Although the general economic, political, and ideological decay of the Soviet system certainly shaped Soviet policy, different leaders than Gorbachev, Shevardnadze and other "new thinking" advocates could have resisted these forces. They could have held onto eastern Europe with force if necessary and circled the wagons against the Reagan hard-liner campaign, which faced its own problems with budget deficits, the SDI controversy, and public and congressional resistance that limited the most significant Reagan Doctrine campaign to aid freedom fighters in Nicaragua.
Gorbachev and his new thinking advisers, along with Reagan and Shultz and their successors, Bush and Baker, contributed the most to shaping the endgame of the Cold War. Despite his career orientation and commitment to the Soviet Communist Party, Gorbachev made revolutionary changes in Soviet foreign policy even if his efforts to reform the Soviet economy lacked similar success. Through long exposure to new thinking ideas and advocates, Gorbachev moved as skillfully as he could to win over both Soviet hard-liners and Reagan and his advisers to a significant relaxation of the Cold War, the nuclear arms race, and the expensive and destructive global Cold War competition between the two countries. When faced with resistance at home and abroad from Reagan's Cold War suspicions and inflexibility on SDI, Gorbachev stepped up both campaigns, pushing the Soviet Union toward a Western parliamentary system and moving to abandon the fundamental Marxist-Leninist class and revolutionary precepts undergirding the Soviet perspective on international relations.
Washington policymakers certainly contributed significantly to both the way the Cold War ended and the fact that it ended. The support that Reagan and the hard-liners achieved for their "victory" version of containment, particularly in their aid to the Afghanistan resistance and to Solidarity in Poland, contributed to Gorbachev's successful reorientation of policy in both areas as necessary steps to wind down the Cold War. SDI and the defense buildup, on the other hand, probably increased the resistance of Soviet conservatives and the military to any arms control agreements and delayed Gorbachev's efforts to achieve significant reductions in this area. Yet Reagan did not remain just a preacher for the hard-liner campaign. In response to the persistent campaign of George Shultz and the overall impact of Gorbachev's personality and policies, Reagan warily but steadily opened up negotiations with the evil empire and, ultimately, agreed to significant changes in arms control. Although Bush and Baker initially stepped backward, they did engage in increasing meetings, visits, talks, and summits with Gorbachev in order to manage successfully the spectacular revolution of 1989 in eastern Europe, the reunification of Germany, and the U.S. effort to establish a new relationship as the Soviet Union gave way to Russia and Gorbachev exited the stage.