Cold War Termination

Thomas R. Maddux

Most historians and foreign policy analysts in 1981 did not anticipate that within a decade the Cold War would be over and that it would end with relatively little violence and the end of the Soviet Union. Instead, they expected, like this author, to keep teaching their courses on the Cold War with new sections such as "Renewed Containment," "Détente II," and "Cold War IV." The widespread failure to remember the fundamental historical principle that change is continuous no matter how rigid and intractable problems appear to contemporaries led most historians to view the Cold War as an evolving but never-ending reality of international relations.

Historians did debate the central issues of causation, responsibility, and consequences of the Cold War as it came to its surprising conclusion. In the leading journal in the field, Diplomatic History, published by the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations, specialists reviewed many of the Cold War issues including the interaction of impersonal, structural forces such as the economic challenges faced by both sides and the relative policy contributions of major players such as President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.

Structural forces have received considerably less attention than the players in assessments on the end of the Cold War. There is widespread recognition that a stagnating Soviet economy definitely shaped Gorbachev's policy of perestroika to revive a command economy dominated by the Soviet Communist Party and state. The American economy in 1981, however, also looked shaky. Reagan's predecessor, President Jimmy Carter, had battled soaring inflation and an energy crisis driven by shortages of gasoline and rising prices; Americans also lacked confidence in the face of a mounting challenge from the export-driven Japanese economy. Although Gorbachev struggled to transform the Soviet economy, the American economy revived after a severe recession in 1982 and took off into sustained growth, offering a striking contrast to the Soviet scene. As Soviet party officials attempted to maintain restrictions on use of copiers to limit the circulation of critical writings by Russians, American technology launched the next information revolution with the increasing spread of computers, from the mainframe and minicomputer of business and scientific research to the personal computer of the 1980s.

Cultural forces had less immediate impact on Soviet and American policymakers and remain more elusive with respect to demonstrating their impact on the endgame of the Cold War. Nevertheless, they shaped the long-term competition between the United States and the Soviet Union. By 1980 the Soviet Union had fallen far behind in most significant areas, with a few exceptions such as length of time spent in space by Russian cosmonauts versus American astronauts orbiting the earth in the space shuttle. The Russians had long since lost out with respect to influence around the globe in areas such as the media, consumer products, and lifestyle. The emerging global interdependence of the late twentieth century brought increasing exposure to American television, Hollywood feature films, McDonald's, and American consumerism. As the Soviet Union and its eastern European allies struggled to keep their citizens from leaving, the United States once again became a mecca for global immigration.

The Soviet Union also had lost the ideological competition, a central feature of the Cold War since its origins. Although Gorbachev launched glasnost to open the door to new ideas and to reduce the remaining repression in the Soviet system as it struggled with the legacies of Stalinist totalitarianism, the Soviet leader faced a difficult challenge to overcome both the resistance inherent in the Soviet system as well as the stubborn opposition of party officials who had a vested interest in the status quo. Since Gorbachev emerged from within the party, he also had to grapple with the increasing necessity for a fundamental discarding of Marxist-Leninist doctrine in order to redirect both the economy and the political system in the direction of a European parliamentary system with respect for the rule of law and individual rights. Reagan, however, never had to make any adjustments in his vigorous articulation of America as the land of freedom, and he never passed up a chance (until near the end in 1988) to point this out to Gorbachev on issues ranging from human rights to the continuation of the Berlin Wall.

Yet these structural forces did not predetermine when the Cold War would end and how it would end. The players on both sides, as they interacted with these impersonal pressures, had the most to do with the actual historical dynamics, and the literature has emphasized the role of the players. Early American assessments written by leading U.S. officials including Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger, Secretary of State George P. Shultz, Attorney General Edwin Meese 3d, and White House Chief of Staff Donald T. Regan, as well as Ronald Reagan, give themselves credit for ending the Cold War. Through a peace-through-strength strategy based on increased defense spending, a shift to the new Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) that posed a technological challenge to the Soviet Union, and a willingness to apply significant rhetorical and other pressures against the Soviet empire, Washington brought a successful resolution to the conflict.

The most thorough development of this perspective appears in Peter Schweizer's Victory: The Reagan Administration's Secret Strategy that Hastened the Collapse of the Soviet Union. Relying extensively on interviews with leading officials including Weinberger, National Security Advisers Robert McFarlane and John Poindexter, and other officials who supported a hard line with respect to the Soviet Union, Schweizer focuses on the development and implementation of a strategic offensive led by William Casey, the director of the Central Intelligence Agency. Casey's campaign aimed at resisting, weakening, and rolling back the Kremlin's effort to control Afghanistan, to retain a communist regime in Poland and hegemony in eastern Europe, and to increase Soviet access to Western technology and markets in order to modernize the Soviet economy and military forces. By the time Gorbachev took over as general secretary of the Soviet Communist Party in March 1985, the victory campaign had, according to Schweizer, significantly contributed to the problems that Gorbachev faced, so that he had few alternatives but to seek an accommodation with Reagan.

A second influential perspective puts more emphasis on the contributions of Reagan and Gorbachev and their chief diplomatic advisers, Secretary of State George Schultz and Soviet foreign minister Eduard Shevardnadze, than on Schweizer's hard-liners. In The Turn: From the Cold War to a New Era, Don Oberdorfer, a distinguished diplomatic correspondent for the Washington Post, emphasizes Reagan's shift to diplomacy with respect to Moscow by 1983 and the willingness of Gorbachev and Shevardnadze to bring a fresh perspective and approach to Soviet diplomacy. Although Reagan and Gorbachev never achieved final agreements on all arms control issues, such as strategic missiles and SDI, Oberdorfer gives them credit for making considerable progress toward an end to the Cold War. He also gives credit to Reagan's successor, George H. W. Bush, and Secretary of State James Baker, despite their cautious initial response to Gorbachev, for managing the U.S. response to the collapse of the Soviet empire in eastern Europe and the Soviet Union itself. In The Great Transition, Raymond Garthoff, a former Department of State official, shifts more of the credit for the way the Cold War ended to Gorbachev. Garthoff believes the hard-liner offensive, including Reagan's Cold War rhetoric, contributed to the resistance of Soviet officials to Gorbachev's initiatives and reduced opportunities for earlier accommodation and agreements on strategic weapons and SDI.

A third perspective focuses more directly on Gorbachev and his efforts to reorient Soviet domestic and Cold War policies. These studies have made extensive use of Soviet memoirs, interviews, and published sources and significantly enhance understanding of Gorbachev's role. In Russia and the Idea of the West, Robert English focuses on the origins of new thinking in the Soviet Union that came to fruition in Gorbachev's policies. English correctly notes that most of the new thinking emerged before Reagan arrived in the White House and that Reagan's military buildup, SDI, and the hard-liner "victory" campaign may have made it more difficult for Gorbachev to gain power and, with his "new thinking" advisers, implement fundamental changes in Soviet outlook and policies. Matthew Evangelista's Unarmed Forces and a 2001 article in the Journal of Cold War Studies has also expanded our understanding by focusing on Gorbachev's political skills, which helped him persuade his Soviet critics to go along with his significantly new proposals on arms reductions, withdrawal from Afghanistan, and his goal of allowing the eastern Europeans to determine their own domestic systems.


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See also Arms Control and Disarmament ; Cold War Evolution and Interpretations ; Cold War Origins ; Cold Warriors ; Covert Operations ; Doctrines ; Globalization ; Post–Cold War Policy .

User Contributions:

Thank you for posting these pgantinis, Jim. We in the United States many times do not understand the enormous loss suffered by the Russian people during WWII. Because much of the war was fought on their own land - they lost over 30 million people (many many women and children). While I was living in Memphis, there was a special exhibit of Russian artifacts, art, photos, ephemera, movies, etc from the war that made it all too graphic how devastating "The Great Patriotic War" was to them. We were Allies back then and this in no way diminishes the sacrifices made by our brave boys, but it is much worse when the fighting happens on your own soil. One thing that stuck with me about the exhibit was a reconstructed apartment from the seige of Leningrad - the seige lasted for 900 days and people resorted to stripping the wall paper off the walls and eating it.The art produced from that time period really touches you to the core. Another great artist that portrayed the ravages of war was Kathe Kollwitz.

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