After World War II, tensions arose between two great world powers, the United States and the Soviet Union. While there was no direct conflict between the two, their rivalry affected the entire world during what we call the Cold War. What brought the Cold War to an end?
The Cold War ended with the dissolution of the Soviet Union on December 25, 1991. Mikhail Gorbachev hoped to save the USSR through political and economic restructuring, which included freer elections. Those elections resulted in citizens overthrowing the communist governments in Eastern Europe and Russia.
The heads of the US and USSR declared the Cold War over at the Malta Summit on December 3, 1989, but the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 marked the real conclusion of the Cold War. Here, we’ll explore some of the factors and events that led to this end.
Why Did the Cold War End Peacefully?
The Cold War ended peacefully because the arms race with the US strained the declining Soviet economy. The Soviets eventually sought arms reduction treaties to relieve the strain and the threat of nuclear warfare while relaxing political control. Nuclear weapons and mutual-defense treaties also discouraged direct conflict.
The name “Cold War” comes from the fact that there was no direct military engagement between the US and USSR during this geopolitical episode.
Instead, the Cold War describes the extremely tense political situation between the United States of America (USA) and the Soviet Union or Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), as well as their respective allies.
The prospect of mutually assured destruction from nuclear warfare meant that both sides preferred to fight indirectly, supporting the enemies of the other in the form of proxy wars (source).
Both sides also competed on the international stage in areas ranging from sports to space exploration.
Communism vs. the Free Market
The US and the USSR subscribed to vastly different ideologies, especially regarding economics and private property.
Communism held that the working class should own the means of production, meaning the equipment they would use to produce goods. Practically speaking, this meant ownership by the government.
In contrast, the more free-market approach of the United States advocated for the private ownership of the means of production, whether by individual private citizens or corporations.
Additionally, the governments of the United States and its allies tended to be more democratic and free, whereas those of the Soviet Union and its allies tended to be totalitarian. A totalitarian government assumes control of all aspects of its citizens’ lives (source).
Throughout the Cold War, these two nations would support those that held similar ideologies to their own and tried to prevent the spread of the opposing ideology.
In 1920, Austrian Economist Ludwig von Mises predicted that communism would fail because government officials had no way to plan production without the prices of a free market (source).
Basically, all of the necessary tools and capital to make products and offer services belonged to the Soviet government.
Thus, they removed the factories, labor, and raw materials from the market — the area of economic activity where buyers and sellers in society come together, relying on the forces of supply and demand to determine prices (source).
In a free-market economy, buyers and sellers negotiate what price they are willing to buy or sell for. Without such market interaction, a central government has no way to properly determine the value of one item in relation to another.
Central government attempts to set prices for goods often result in shortages of those goods when they set the prices too low. However, such shortages are less likely to occur when free markets determine the price, as those who do not value the goods so highly will refrain from buying them.
In the Soviet Union, millions of people starved because of food scarcity as the government sought to tighten controls on the buying and selling of agricultural goods. So many variables were ultimately outside the practical control of the USSR’s leadership, and their attempts ultimately strangled the economy.
The Arms Race
An arms race is when rival nations seek to collect more, bigger, and better weapons than the enemy.
For example, the nuclear arms race between the US and USSR began after the US dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan, in 1945 and accelerated when the Soviets detonated their first in 1949. Thereafter, each side tried to outdo the other.
The term “Iron Curtain” doesn’t refer to an actual curtain made out of iron. Instead, it explains the isolation from the West that the Soviet Union imposed on Eastern Europe during the Cold War. The USSR was strict about who and what could go in and out of Eastern Europe.
The Iron Curtain explains the USSR’s international relations policies from late 1946 until the late 1980s. The world considered the countries within the sphere of the Soviet Union as “behind the Iron Curtain” because they were difficult to access, both physically and metaphorically.
Amid ongoing political tensions, Stalin asserted to the Soviet Party Congress in 1946 that there could never be true peace between the USSR and the capitalist world (source). This speech prompted a reaction from the leaders of the United States and the United Kingdom in particular.
Winston Churchill, the former UK Prime Minister, referred to the “Iron Curtain” falling over Eastern Europe in his speech at Fulton in 1946. The Fulton Address warned of Soviet aggression and called for solidarity among the Western nations to resist such aggression (source).
He noted that the Soviets did not want war, but they did want “the fruits of war” and to expand their power and socialist doctrine. Socialism is essentially the same thing as communism since both ultimately place economic control in the hands of the state.
The US officially adopted the Truman Doctrine in 1947, which received its name from the US President Harry S. Truman. He was president from 1945 to 1953, from the final days of World War II and the beginning of the Cold War.
The Truman Doctrine was a reaction to the “Long Telegram” from diplomat George Kennan, explaining the necessity of containing and limiting the influence and power of the USSR (source).
Thus, the Truman Doctrine emphasized the importance of containing the spread and impact of communism. Truman began by asking Congress to approve $400 million in economic aid to help Turkey and Greece resist Soviet aggression (source).
This means that other countries who felt threatened or intimidated by the USSR would find a friend in the USA.
North Atlantic Treaty Organization
In response to Soviet expansionism and the Berlin Blockade (1948), Western European democracies, the United States, and Canada established the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in 1949 (source).
The signers of the North Atlantic Treaty agreed that an attack on one of them would be an attack on them all. Initially, this military alliance included the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, France, Belgium, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Denmark, Iceland, Norway, Italy, and Portugal.
The Soviet Union responded with the mutual-defense Warsaw Pact in 1955, which included the Soviet Union, Poland, Romania, Bulgaria, Albania (until 1968), Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and East Germany.
The establishment of these mutual-defense treaties made each side think carefully about attacking the other directly.
By 1961, 2.5 million East Germans had fled the totalitarian system of Soviet-controlled East Germany for the freedom of West Germany. To prevent further talented tradesmen, workers, and intellectuals from escaping, the Soviets erected the Berlin Wall.
In 1945, the Allies divided occupied Berlin into separate zones. By 1948, the Americans, British, and French united their zones into one, while the Soviet zone remained separate (source).
Unlike the metaphorical Iron Curtain, the Berlin Wall literally and physically separated East Berlin from West Berlin. Armed guards stood watch and prevented people from crossing. This policy separated families and resulted in a huge economic gap between the two as West Berlin prospered.
Note how the Soviet Union had to force citizens to remain in its “utopia.”
Ultimately, when Gorbachev announced on July 7, 1989, that the Soviet Union would not use force against Soviet-bloc countries (source), this would lead to the Revolutions of 1989 and the fall of the Iron Curtain.
Fall of the Berlin Wall
The Revolutions of 1989 marked the beginning of the end of the Cold War, and the fall of the Berlin Wall on November 9, 1989, was its defining event. Poland led the way by overthrowing its communist leadership and electing new leaders in September (source).
Hungary followed in October, and East Germans began flooding their border with Austria. When the East German government forbade travel to Hungary, East Germans went through Czechoslovakia instead.
When the government closed off that route as well, East Germans demanded a change in government. However, the new leader proved to be another hard-line communist, and East Germans still managed to flee to West Germany through Czechoslovakia.
By November 9, the East German authorities had decided to give in to public pressure and permit travel to the West with visas.
However, officials and leaders chose to pass these updates on to the people through a spokesperson, Gunter Schabowski. That evening, Schabowski gave a long press conference, where reporters asked when the new policy would take effect.
Not fully aware of the new laws, he mistakenly gave the impression that people could begin crossing the inner border “immediately,” and crowds flooded the Berlin Wall in less than an hour.
The guards couldn’t contain the crowds, and as more people arrived, they began to physically tear down the wall. While it took a few weeks to bring the whole wall down, the effectiveness of the Berlin Wall disappeared within just a couple of hours after Schabowski’s misinformed announcement.
What Factors Led to the End of the Cold War?
The failing economy of the USSR, further weakened by a disastrous war in Afghanistan (1979-1989) and pressure from the US, led to its overthrow in 1991. Mikhail Gorbachev’s economic and political restructuring and his decision not to intervene in Eastern Europe after 1989 quickly led to the breakup of the Soviet Union.
Declining Soviet Economy
By 1982, US President Ronald Reagan was convinced that the Soviet economy was on the brink of ruin because of the rigid centralized control of their economy. He saw that the government of the USSR couldn’t properly manage all of the nation’s resources (source).
Ironically, the arms race was an important factor in ending the Cold War. US Secretary of Defence Casper Weinberger (1981–1987) essentially sought to outspend the Soviet Union, reasoning that their controlled economy could not keep up with the free market economy of the United States.
The Cold War had a momentous impact on international relations for the entire world as nations chose sides between the two major superpowers (source). International relations also played a key role in bringing about the end of the Cold War.
When Mikhail Gorbachev became the leader of the Soviet Union in 1985, he sought to decrease military spending and relieve political tensions abroad so he could reform the Soviet economy (source).
US Secretary of State George Shultz encouraged President Ronald Reagan to develop a personal relationship with Gorbachev. In December 1987, their relationship produced the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, which many regard as an essential milestone in ending the Cold War.
The US maintained good relations with Gorbachev, who opened up the Soviet Union to the world.
At a summit on the island of Malta on December 3, 1989, US President George W. Bush and Soviet leader US Mikhail Gorbachev declared the Cold War over (source). However, the collapse of the Soviet Union was not far away.
Political and Economic Reform (Perestroika)
Gorbachev tried to revive the Soviet Union through economic and political restructuring under the policy of perestroika (restructuring). However, he did not recognize the extent of the changes necessary, and he still relied heavily on centralized planning in an attempt to save socialism (source).
Economically, perestroika did not lead to any significant shift to private ownership of the means of production, and it only relaxed price controls. Still, politically, perestroika relieved some of the totalitarian elements of the Soviet government and allowed for democratic elections (source).
The political reforms ultimately led Soviet bloc countries to vote out their communist governments, including that of Russia. In addition, Gorbachev’s economic reforms failed miserably, and the economy collapsed.
Fall of the Soviet Union
An attempted coup by communist hard-liners in August 1989 further discredited Gorbachev, and in September, US Secretary of State James Baker predicted that the Soviet Union would collapse within “three or four months” (source).
The attempted coup also brought Gorbachev’s political rival Boris Yeltsin to prominence after he led popular opposition to the coup. Yeltsin also led the movement for liberalizing the economy and the formation of a Russian state.
On December 8, 1991, Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus agreed to dissolve the Soviet Union and create a Commonwealth of Independent States. Finally, on December 25, 1991, Gorbachev formally resigned, and the Soviet Union ceased to exist (source).
The Collapse of Communism
The Cold War’s end saw the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe and Russia. These nations held their first free elections and brought in leaders who were pro-democracy and more aligned with the free market ideals of the US and Western Europe.
The United States was the only remaining superpower, and the US continued to deal with regional conflicts after the fall of the Soviet Union. Despite the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe and Russia, communism remains in nations like China, North Korea, and Cuba.
This article was written for strategiesforparents.com.
For more on the defining moments of the Cold War, check out our article “What Best Symbolizes the Cold War’s End?”
The Cold War came to a peaceful end on December 25, 1991, with the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Ultimately, the USSR collapsed from within because tyrannies can only sustain themselves for so long.
The failures of the USSR’s totalitarian political and economic system forced them to consider reform and seek reduced pressure from the arms race. The resulting discourse and the relaxation of political and economic control ultimately contributed to its peaceful end.