The Cold War, which dominated world history from the end of the Second World War until the early 1990s, refers to the tension existing between the USA and the Soviet Union during that time. While there was no direct armed conflict between them, the rivalry between East and West impacted lives across the globe.
The key events that best symbolize the end of the Cold War are the 1989 removal of the Berlin Wall and the break up of the Soviet Union in 1991. The Berlin Wall, which literally separated East and West Berlin and prohibited people from moving between the two, symbolized the Cold War, and its destruction, therefore, ushered in a new era upon ints destruction.
This article will explore these key events and the role played by the then presidents of both nations — Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev. We’ll also examine the collapse of communist governments across Europe, which coincided with the end of the Cold War.
A Brief Summary of the Cold War
Following World War II, the Western Allies divided Germany into four occupation zones under the control of the USA, Britain, France, and the Soviet Union. The Allies similarly divided its capital, Berlin, even though it was in the Soviet zone (source).
By 1945, relations between the US and the Soviet Union were strained, and both wanted to prove their dominance to the world.
Germany became a focus of this power struggle, and, in 1949, Germany split into two nations: the Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany allied to Western democracies) and the German Democratic Republic (East Germany allied to the Soviet Union).
After the war, Soviet leader Joseph Stalin determined to ensure continued control over Eastern Europe to minimize any threat of invasion and to spread socialism. He, therefore, provided that communist governments loyal to the USSR led the Eastern European states.
The US implemented the Marshall Plan, named after the US Secretary of State at the time, in 1948 to provide foreign aid to Western European nations that had suffered the ravages of war. Total US investment amounted to more than $13 billion in the four years that the plan operated (source).
The plan aimed to support Europe’s democracies and stimulate an economic revival in the area. It was extremely successful, and the Soviet Union viewed this with great suspicion (source).
NATO and the Warsaw Pact
Recognizing the growing security threat posed by the USSR, the US and its allies formed the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in 1949 to secure peace in Europe. It is a military alliance that initially consisted of the USA, Canada, and 10 Western European nations. Today, there are 30 members of NATO.
In response, the Soviet Union formed its own alliance. The Warsaw Treaty Organization (aka, the Warsaw Pact) was a political and military alliance the Soviet Union established in 1955 with seven Eastern European countries (source).
These two organizations were ideologically opposed, and they served to entrench the concept of opposing Eastern and Western blocs. This led to each side building up their defenses to gain military and political superiority and resulted in the arms race, which characterized much of the Cold War.
Cuban Missile Crisis
The arms race peaked with the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, the closest the two sides ever came to real war. This was a 13-day standoff between the US and the USSR over the communists building nuclear missiles in Cuba, close to American shores.
The US announced its intention to use military force against the perceived threat. However, the standoff eventually neutralized when the Soviet Union agreed to remove the missiles in exchange for a promise from the US not to invade Cuba.
The Berlin Wall
Erected under Khrushchev in 1961, the Berlin wall was a physical image of the barrier that developed between East and West. When it fell, it was again a physical representation of the thawing of relations between opposing sides.
History of the Berlin Wall
Berlin was always a source of contention because it initially lay within Soviet-controlled East Germany. In 1948, the Soviet Union attempted to limit the Western Allies’ access to their sectors of Berlin by blockading rail, road, and water links. Known as the Berlin Blockade, it lasted for 11 months, during which time the allies airlifted supplies to West Berlin.
By 1952, the Soviets closed the border between East and West Germany, and it was only in Berlin that citizens could cross from one to the other.
This too changed in 1961 when the Soviets erected a fence that divided the city, followed soon after by a concrete wall. The wall was 96 miles long and heavily guarded. In the 28 years that it stood, guards shot more than 100 people trying to cross it, and this figure may be significantly higher.
Checkpoint Charlie is the most famous border crossing between East and West Berlin. It was a military checkpoint, named after the letter C in the NATO phonetic alphabet because it was the third checkpoint along the wall. Movies and novels have immortalized it because it was the most visible checkpoint.
Fall of the Berlin Wall
By 1989, there was severe pressure on the East German government to allow travel to West Germany. Protests were brewing in East Germany, and, on 4 November 1989, a crowd of half a million gathered in the city to pressure the government.
The East German government intended to respond by loosening travel restrictions. Instead, however, someone hurriedly handed notes to spokesman Günter Schabowski who implied in a press conference on 9 November that citizens could apply for private travel without prerequisites, effective immediately.
The plan had been for applications to begin the next day, but the announcement resulted in East Germans crowding the border, and the international press picked up on it.
Est German citizens overwhelmed the Border guards and forced them to open the border. As a result, thousands flocked through the various border crossings, and photographers captured images of people climbing the wall and chipping away at it with pickaxes.
Although the government hadn’t planned to open the border completely, the wave of civil unrest was unstoppable, and the fall of the Berlin Wall ushered in a new era for Germany and, in fact, the world. Eleven months later, on 3 October 1990, Germany reunited as a single nation.
The Breakup of the Soviet Union
In 1917, the Russian Revolution resulted in the overthrow of the Russian czar and the establishment of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). Vladimir Lenin led it until 1924 when dictator Joseph Stalin assumed power.
The state ruled all aspects of political, economic, and social life, and this continued even after Stalin died in 1953. Soviet leaders were extremely focused on the Cold War and the arms race and did everything in their power to suppress any resistance to communism.
When Mikhail Gorbachev came to power in 1985, he inherited a stagnant economy that needed reform. As a result, he introduced two new policies that he hoped would make the Soviet Union more prosperous.
Glasnost and Perestroika
The first policy was glasnost, characterized by political openness, and it introduced new freedoms for Soviet citizens. It allowed for open political discussion and greater dissemination of news while curtailing the powers of the secret police.
Political and economic restructuring characterized the second policy, perestroika. Under this policy, Gorbachev attempted to democratize the Soviet political system, including contests between candidates and the secret ballot in certain government and party elections.
Gorbachev recognized that the only way to revive the economy was to allow some private ownership and foreign investment. These reforms allowed workers to strike and some individuals to own businesses, but they met with resistance from hard-line party members who didn’t enjoy the loss of control (source).
However, these policies were limited, especially the economic policies. Meanwhile, other factors intervened that caused the collapse of the Soviet Union.
The Collapse of European Communist Governments
As Gorbachev promised to back out of the arms race and reduce the Soviet military presence, his actions encouraged opposition movements in Eastern European nations to rise up against Soviet control.
The need for economic liberty and political reform and the inability of the Soviet Union to enforce its communist regime fuelled the desire for member nations to self-govern. This led to free elections and the demise of communist governments.
One by one, communist governments in Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, Romania, and Bulgaria fell as free elections ousted them. The Warsaw Pact ended in 1991.
At the end of 1991, Gorbachev resigned after an attempted coup in August that brought Boris Yeltsin to prominence. Elected President of Russia in 1990, Yeltsin famously stood upon a tank in front of the Russian parliament, leading a group of demonstrators against the coup attempt (source).
On December 25, 1991, the Soviet Union ceased to exist when Gorbachev resigned.
Cold War Leadership
The two leaders who presided over the end of the Cold War are an important part of the story. As we have discussed above, Mikhail Gorbachev was the leader of the Soviet Union from 1985 to 1991. Ronald Reagan was the President of the US from 1981 to 1989. President George Bush presided over the final days of the Soviet Union.
Reagan came to power in 1981 when the Cold War was at its height. The Soviet Union had recently invaded Afghanistan, and communism was a growing force worldwide.
Reagan questioned the legitimacy of the Soviet Union and called on Gorbachev to bring down the Berlin Wall, famously telling his Soviet counterpart to “tear down this wall.” In addition, he introduced policies that weakened the Soviet Union economically, and he was relentless in pursuing them (source).
The economic pressure exerted by Reagan and his Secretary of Defense Casper Weinberger through defense spending helped bring Gorbachev to the bargaining table. Gorbachev wished to reduce his own defense spending so he could focus on economic and political reform, and the two sides agreed to arms reduction.
Reagan’s former vice president and subsequent US President George H.W. Bush continued to work with Gorbachev for a peaceful end to the Cold War.
Mikhail Gorbachev inherited a stagnant economy, and he focused his efforts on reviving it. He called for modernization to increase productivity, and he introduced reforms to try and kickstart the economy.
These reforms — glasnost and perestroika — were the first signs of Soviet control loosening. Gorbachev also tried to cultivate relationships with other countries and was open to conversations with his US counterpart, Reagan.
Gorbachev even received the Nobel Peace prize for these foreign policy initiatives in 1990, the citation recognizing him “for his leading role in the peace process which today characterizes important parts of the international community. The greater openness he has brought about in Soviet society has also helped promote international trust” (source).
However, Gorbachev miscalculated how quickly control would unravel once he introduced his reforms, and it was this, ultimately, that led to the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Additionally, sources like the Mises Institute view Gorbachev’s reforms more as a matter of self-preservation than altruism (source).
The Collapse of Communism
With the removal of the Berlin Wall in 1989, there was a new era of hope for those formerly dominated and controlled by communist rule. The wall served as a physical representation of the Iron Curtain, marking the ideological separation of West from East.
When it fell, there was massive popular opposition to communist regimes in Eastern Europe.
Communist governments steadily lost power from 1989 through 1991. Gorbachev had already initiated his new open policies and was unwilling to send the Soviet army as support.
Historically, the Soviets used the Red Army (or Soviet Army as they renamed it in 1946) to enforce communist control. Still, Gorbachev told leaders in those satellite states that he would not order the military to intervene to secure power.
Consequently, free elections began to spring up across the area. The first was in Poland in 1989, where the workers’ movement Solidarity won power, swiftly followed by Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and Romania. Bulgaria won independence in 1990, and, in 1991, Albania forced the communist cabinet to resign.
All these revolutions were largely peaceful, except for Romania, where the military capitulated to the people’s will, and the president was executed following mass riots.
The final attempt to hang on to power was a communist-led coup against Gorbachev in the Soviet Union in August 1991. This attempt failed and ultimately ended the communist party’s control of the military and government in the Soviet Union. This article was written for strategiesforparents.com.
Read more about the Cold War in our article “How the Cold War Ended.”
The Cold War was a period of incredible tension that created further instability after the upheaval of World War II. On the one side, the Soviet Union was determined to spread its socialist doctrine. On the other side, the Western allies were determined to resist communism and uphold democracy.
When relations finally thawed, it was a huge relief across the globe because it lessened the ever-present nuclear war threat.
Although many factors contributed to the end of the Cold War, the most significant events were the fall of the Berlin Wall and the simultaneous collapse of communism in the Soviet states, coupled with Gorbachev’s policies and his willingness to engage with the West.