Why the Cold War Ended

Why the Cold War Ended

The end of the Cold War was surprising and profound in equal measure.

In late 1988, everything was, relatively speaking, the same as it had always been: students of International Relations were avidly dissecting the latest texts by Kenneth Waltz and John Lewis Gaddis, both of whom maintained that bi-polarity was a stable, durable, and mutually beneficial system; Soviet troops in Afghanistan were embroiled in an increasingly desperate struggle with American backed Mujahedeen guerrillas; and Erich Honecker, General Secretary of the East German Socialist Unity Party, was confidently informing his comrades in the Central Committee that “the [Berlin] Wall will be standing in fifty and even in one hundred years”.

By December of 1991, the whole edifice had irrevocably disintegrated: gaudy consumer outlets were already a common sight on most Eastern European high streets; international communism was all but an anachronism; Germany had reunified on Western terms; and, most significantly, the Soviet Union had ceased to be.

As would be expected, the causality of these events has generated an endless series of historiographical controversies. Some scholars have argued that the assertiveness of the Reagan administration left an ailing Soviet state with no choice but to adopt a policy of imperial withdrawal, whilst others have stressed the importance of Mikhail Gorbachev’s ‘new thinking’. In addition, a vocal minority have drawn attention to the crucial role played by social movements in the Eastern Bloc and the importance of the West German government.

In this article, I will suggest that the end of the Cold War was primarily a result of the shift in Soviet domestic and foreign policy which occurred during the latter half of the 1980s. I will also highlight the role played by European nations and the United States in the collapse of the post-war order.


As Jimmy Carter vacated the Oval Office for the last time in January 1981, Soviet-American relations seemed to have settled into a predictable cadence. This may have given comfort to those pragmatists in the Beltway who valued hard-nosed stability over principled confrontation, but it certainly did not rest well with the combative new president, Ronald Reagan. Throughout his eight years in office, Reagan laboured tirelessly to dismantle the framework of superpower ‘management’ which had evolved under his predecessors—a fact reflected in the bold planning document NSDD-75. From the ashes of rapprochement there arose a renewed clash of ideology, and in the place of strategic parity emerged the idea of full-spectrum pre-eminence.

Considering how things turned out, it is perhaps not surprising that so many historians and theorists have credited the Reagan administration with bringing down the curtain on the Cold War. According to William C. Wohlforth, arguably the most prominent proponent of the ‘Reagan thesis’, the inability of the creaking Soviet economy to keep pace with the extensive US military build-up which took place during the 1980s was the critical factor which dragged the globe in the direction of an unexpected saltation. Faced with a series of intractable economic realities, the Kremlin was forced to negotiate from a position of infirmity, and thus had no choice but to reorient its “grand strategy toward retrenchment and… acquiesce to Western terms for the post-war settlement”. In his book, Strategies of Containment, Gaddis contends that this was not simply a convenient twist of fate. Rather, it was the direct result of a far-sighted and judiciously planned national security policy:

“What one can say now is that Reagan saw Soviet weaknesses sooner than most of his contemporaries did; that he understood the extent to which détente was perpetuating the Cold War rather than hastening its end; that his hard line strained the Soviet system at the moment of its maximum weakness; that his shift toward conciliation preceded Gorbachev’s;…and that he maintained the support of the American people and of American allies”.

There are numerous reasons to question this narrative. To begin with, there is little agreement amongst former members of the Reagan administration as to whether the US had any kind of master-plan. James Matlock Jr—who served as the National Security Council’s foremost Sovietologist from 1983-1986 before becoming the US ambassador to Moscow in 1987—is adamant that whilst Reagan was “in favour of bringing pressure to bear on the Soviet Union”, his goal was to “induce the Soviet leaders to negotiate reasonable agreements, not to break up the country”. What is more, he claims that statements to the contrary by the likes of ex-Secretary of Defence Casper Weinberger are “rationalisations after the fact”. Although significant, Matlock’s argument does not really get to the crux of the matter, for even if US decision-makers did not manifestly intend to bury the Bolshevik revolution for good, their actions may still have produced such an outcome. In order for US policy to be deemed decisive, two assumptions must be proved to be correct. It must be shown that a) the Soviets felt obliged to equal American defence expenditure and that b) this had an overwhelmingly negative effect on the state coffers.

There is no doubt that the significant increase in US military spending between 1980 and 1988 complicated existing Soviet strategy. There is no doubt that the sheer scale of the numbers involved was enough to keep Red Army generals awake at night. Having been told by the White House that they could essentially spend what they saw fit, the Pentagon embarked on an unparalleled peacetime shopping spree. The resulting receipt included fifteen Trident submarines, one hundred and thirty-three new naval vessels, dozens of B-1 bombers, and twenty state-of-the-art B-2 Stealth bombers. In 1985, the Department of Defence was swallowing twice as much of the federal budget as it had done five years earlier ($297.4 billion), which meant that it was frittering away approximately $28 million an hour.

In light of mounting American belligerence in Europe and Latin America this gave Soviet leaders cause for concern. But it did not provoke the kind of panic that certain scholars have suggested. As Archie Brown points out, Leonid Brezhnev, Yuri Andropov, Konstantin Chernenko, and Gorbachev were all confident that the sizeable thermonuclear arsenal at their disposal would deter any attempts by the United States to undermine core Soviet interests. The provision of US-manufactured stinger missiles to Afghan insurgents, which seriously undermined the effectiveness of Soviet air assets, appears to have been the only concrete success of NSDD-75—a taxing, though not catastrophic setback.

The announcement of the Strategic Defence Initiative (SDI) in March 1983—a space-based missile defence system which US defence planners alleged could make Mutual Assured Destruction obsolete—admittedly vexed Soviet policymakers, particularly as it was shortly followed by the deployment of intermediate range Pershing II missiles in West Germany, Great Britain, and Italy. Not only was this dual move perceived to be unnecessarily provocative; it was also viewed as a potential game-changer. The fear of a not-too-distant future in which the United States had the ability to launch a decapitating first-strike was palpable, and it contributed to the breakdown of talks at the Reykjavik Summit in 1986[1].

And yet, once again, there is a preponderance of evidence to suggest that the organs of the Soviet state were reluctant to engage the Americans in a fresh arms race. The truth of the matter is, even though there was a possibility that SDI could pose a threat at some point, the Soviets were in no rush to spend billions of roubles in an effort to pre-empt a technology which was at least two decades away from fruition. It is telling that neither Chernenko nor Gorbachev made any notable adjustments to Soviet defence policy between 1983 and 1989. Indeed, the traditional US-focussed trope seems to be plagued by a rather curious shortcoming: for all its talk of unmatched defence outlays, it fails to account for the fact that the Soviets never actually sought to match American investment. As Richard N. Lebow and Janice Stein note, Moscow’s defence expenditure “remained relatively constant as a proportion of Soviet gross national product during the first four years of Gorbachev’s tenure”. They go on to conclude that the Reagan build-up and SDI had a negligible impact on the USSR’s aggregate spending levels.

But it is not just the impact of US policy which has been embellished. Time and time again, historians have exaggerated the burden of Soviet commitments. Far from being “modern history’s worst case of imperial overstretch”, Soviet puppet regimes in Eastern Europe were relatively cheap to maintain, especially when their role as a strategic buffer zone is considered. That is not to say that the Soviet economy was not beset by severe structural flaws. On the contrary, by the mid-1970s economic growth had virtually ground to a halt in most developed socialist nations. Even so, it is a stretch to imagine that this underlying weakness left the men in the Kremlin with no option but to radically reformulate the Soviet Union’s international posture. If that were true, the process of ideological upheaval should have begun much earlier.

The Reagan administration’s grand strategy was therefore not the decisive factor which brought the Cold War to a close.


So, if the Soviet Union was not fated to dissolve into thin air, then what intervened? A number of scholars have argued that the answer to that question is ‘Mikhail Gorbachev’. According to Dmitry Volkogonov, the “intellect, feelings, and will of Gorbachev” were integral to the unfolding of events in the twilight years of the 1980s. This sentiment is echoed by Vladislav M. Zubok and Brown, the latter of whom asserts that Gorbachev “did more than anyone to end the Cold War between East and West”.

Unlike his geriatric forerunners, Gorbachev was genuinely committed to a root and branch reorganisation of the Soviet state. Upon ascending to the apex of the Communist Party bureaucracy in 1985, he immediately set about challenging the glib and ostensibly immovable orthodoxies of Marxism-Leninism. On the domestic front, this iconoclastic quest manifested itself most conspicuously in the interpenetrating policies of perestroika (economic restructuring) and glasnost (societal openness), both of which were aimed at encouraging a hitherto unparalleled degree of individual autonomy amongst the citizenry. In international affairs, Gorbachev vigorously promoted an approach known as novoe myshlenie (new thinking). It is worth quoting Brown at length on the substance of this out-and-out overhaul of Soviet statecraft:

“In place of the Soviet Union’s previous goal of spreading Communism around the world, Gorbachev saw a world which was interdependent, in which interests and values common to the whole of humanity had acquired priority over all others. This—given the problems of the age, with the nuclear threat well to the forefront of his mind—called for cooperation across the old ideological divide”.

The origins of ‘new thinking’ were diverse, with both external and internal dynamics at play. The important thing to note is that it was not an expedient response to outside pressures, nor was it a disposition shared by the majority of the Politburo. From 1987 onwards, Soviet foreign policy was decided almost entirely on an ad-hoc basis by Gorbachev and his select inner circle. In essence, whilst Gorbachev rejected the realpolitik of Stalin, he utilised Stalin’s bureaucratic legacy to “monopolise vital policy decisions”. This unique confluence of idealistic ends and dictatorial means was the overriding determinate of superpower relations during the late 1980s, and it quickly gathered a momentum which its architects had not foreseen.

The proactive role played by the Soviet Union in the realm of arms control is particularly revealing on this point. Whereas advocates of the ‘Reagan thesis’ point to Gorbachev’s willingness to negotiate cuts in nuclear warheads as evidence of the validity of their argument, the archives tell a very different story. Gorbachev’s eagerness to sign the 1987 Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty, which prohibited the deployment of medium-range ballistic missiles, was a product of moral considerations, not budgetary concerns. If the Soviets had been solely worried about the shifting balance of power and skyrocketing defence costs, then they would surely have retained their intermediate missile infrastructure, since mutual disarmament was “widely perceived to be advantageous to the West”. To be sure, the 1986 Chernobyl disaster considerably affected Gorbachev’s thinking on the nuclear question. “The roots of new thinking”, he later recalled, “lay in the understanding that there would be no winners in a nuclear war and that in any such event both camps we be blown to kingdom come”.

Nevertheless, whilst this laid the foundations for the grand rapprochement of 1987-1991, it was Gorbachev’s unique attitude towards Eastern Europe which brought nearly five decades of East-West confrontation to an end. The Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 had been a formative experience for ‘new thinkers’ such as Gorbachev and Foreign Minister Georgiy Shakhnazarov, leaving them averse to the use of Soviet troops in other communist states. As early as 1985, Gorbachev had made it clear to the leaders of Warsaw Pact countries that the Red Army would not intervene to prop up their regimes. In doing so, he was vocalising a deep-rooted belief that Moscow’s relationship with its socialist neighbours should be based upon consent, equality, and common values. All the same, the idealism of the ‘new thinkers’ was a double-edged sword. As Brown observes, after his speech to the Nineteenth Party Conference in 1988, in which he announced that all “socialist countries” had the right to political and economic self-determination, Gorbachev “had not expected to see such a sudden rejection by the peoples of Eastern Europe both of their own regimes and cooperative ties with Moscow”.

In recent years, it has become fashionable to suggest that it was people power which forced the Soviets to give up the ghost in Eastern Europe. On closer inspection, however, this thesis appears to be flawed. As numerous scholars have noted, the mass movements which overthrew European Stalinism only emerged after Soviet policy had changed. Prior to the adoption of the so-called ‘Sinatra doctrine’, the threat of force had been more than enough to keep the red flag flying over Budapest, Berlin, and Prague. Even in Poland, the famed opposition group Solidarity had posed no real threat to the authority of the Jaruzelski government until late 1988. In renouncing the basic tenants of the post-war settlement and initiating wide-ranging domestic reforms, Gorbachev left the regimes of Eastern Europe in an untenable position. This was by no means an inevitable outcome.

The revolution in expectations which Soviet policy begot also altered the attitude of Western policymakers towards German integration. Before the summer of 1989, Chancellor Helmut Kohl was in no mood to force the issue, lest it antagonise the East German leadership and the Soviets. As East Berlin became witness to increasingly vociferous protests, and as communist governments lost their grip on power in Poland and Hungary, Kohl, with the backing of US President George H.W. Bush, French President Francois Mitterrand, and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, reversed his position and pushed for a new accommodation. It is somewhat ironic that, although Soviet policy essentially led to reunification, nobody in the Kremlin actually desired it. By November 1989, however, there was little, if anything, that the Soviets could do to prevent a unified Germany joining the NATO alliance. Having exhausted all their cachet in good faith, Gorbachev’s ‘new thinkers’ were reduced to asking the new German government to cover the costs of the relocation of Red Army soldiers and assets from bases in the GDR.


On balance, then, the Soviet Union was the principle author of the Cold War’s peaceful termination, and, indeed, of its own demise. Although the spirited national security policy of the United States contributed to the events of 1989-1991, it was by no means decisive. This is reinforced by recently released statistics which show that increases in the U.S. defence budget were not mirrored by Moscow. Likewise, European nations only played a supporting role in the creation of the new world order.

It was Gorbachev’s idealistic, and arguably naïve approach to the conduct of statecraft which, above all, defined the ebb and flow of international politics during the late-1980s. In short, the Soviet Union was an active agent, creating the context for new realities to emerge, whereas the United States, Western Europe, and the Eastern Bloc, were reactive, responding to, and taking advantage of, Soviet initiatives.


[1] SDI also entailed U.S. withdrawal from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty.

Authored by James Chisem

James Chisem

James Chisem is an editor at British Online Archives. He has previously written for the BBC, The Times, and Reuters. He has also appeared on the Sunday Politics, Sky Sports, and BBC Radio 5 Live.

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The British Online Archives blog is a platform for scholars to present their research to students and the general public. The posts cover a range of historical themes and debates from around the world. The opinions expressed represent those of the authors, not British Online Archives or Microform.

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