How Cold War Came to a Peaceful End

Story Stream
recent articles

Twenty five years ago on Dec. 3, U.S. President George H.W. Bush and Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev issued statements at a joint press conference signaling the end of the Cold War. The two made the announcements at a summit in Malta, the same place Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill met in 1945 to discuss postwar Europe. Since Malta is located in the middle of the Mediterranean, it was historically a strategic location for military powers, and it sat symbolically halfway between “East and West.”

Although little substantive progress was made, Secretary Gorbachev told the press:

I assured the President of the United States that the Soviet Union would never start a hot war against the United States of America. And we would like our relations to develop in such a way that they would open greater possibilities for cooperation. … We stated, both of us, that the world leaves one epoch of cold war, and enters another epoch. This is just the beginning. We are just at the very beginning of our road, long road to a long-lasting, peaceful period.

President Bush, also sounding largely optimistic, added, "With reform underway in the Soviet Union, we stand at the threshold of a brand-new era of U.S.-Soviet relations. It is within our grasp to contribute each in our own way to overcoming the division of Europe and ending the military confrontation there."

How the USSR lost the Cold War is a question of intense debate among historians, but after the opening up of the Iron Curtain, it became clear that the Soviets’ centrally planned economy had been crumbling for decades.

The Austrian economists, Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek, had argued since the 1920s that socialism was infeasible because the knowledge needed to produce supplies to adequately fit people’s demands is disbursed across society. Since this requisite knowledge cannot be known by a central planner, only a market-based economy can prosper. After the fall of the Soviet Union and Red China’s turn toward market reforms, the formerly socialist (though still left-wing) economist Robert Heilbroner acknowledged, “It turns out, of course, that Mises was right.”

While economic theory can explain the Evil Empire’s long-term inability to keep up with the West and its eventual demise, there were shorter-term causes that hastened these events. A comprehensive explanation of such factors would take volumes of books, but here’s a short list of important highlights:

The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan

Although President Richard Nixon and General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev established détente in 1972, this thaw ended when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan to prop up a Soviet puppet state and became mired in a nine-year guerrilla war that became known as “the Soviet Union’s Vietnam” and the “Bear Trap.”

The war cost the USSR tens of thousands in casualties and worsened its image abroad. The guerrillas were funded by the western powers as well as the Chinese who had ended their alliance with the Soviets and opened up to the United States when Nixon visited Chairman Mao in 1972.

Nicknamed the “Graveyard of Empires,” Afghanistan proved a terrible strain on resources for the Soviet Union just as it had for Alexander the Great and the British Empire and has currently been a major strain for the United States.

Reagan and Thatcher

President Ronald Reagan and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher bluntly denounced the Soviet Union. Reagan introduced a doctrine of providing support to anticommunist guerrillas and resistance movements across the world to “roll back” communism. While communism was rolled back, factions of our Mujahidin allies in Afghanistan metastasized into what would become the Taliban. Violent, inhumane right-wing factions also benefited from American aid. Furthermore, the legality of some of the actions taken during this time (notably, the Iran-Contra Affair) has been heatedly contested.

Reagan also launched the ambitious Strategic Defense Initiative, a space-based system that would destroy ballistic missiles. Despite being derided as a “Star Wars” that was incredibly unrealistic, Soviet leader Yuri Andropov feared the project.

Gorbachev’s reforms

Brezhnev’s reign as Soviet head of state ended with his death in 1982. His two immediate successors, Andropov and Konstantin Chernenko, both lived only a little over a year. Reagan supposedly quipped that he could not negotiate with the Soviets if they kept dying so quickly.

Chernenko’s successor, Gorbachev, realized that his country faced a dire situation. To strengthen communism domestically, he introduced glasnost (“openness”), a policy aimed at increased transparency in government, and perestroika, (“restructuring”), which entailed market-based and democratic reforms. While Gorbachev intended to preserve the existing system, these efforts led to increasing calls for freedom, change, and the eventual dissolution of the USSR.

On foreign policy, Gorbachev was hailed in the West for his new approach of attempting to reduce tensions and improve relations and trade. He made a good partner for Reagan, who, despite his beefing up of military spending, became dedicated to eliminating the possibility of nuclear war.

The fall of the Eastern Bloc

To maintain its grip over its satellite states in Eastern Europe, the Soviet Union had invaded Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968, but by the 1980s, a revolutionary spirit had spread across the Eastern Bloc, starting with Poland. Pope John Paul II, the Roman Catholic Church’s first Polish pontiff, and the Solidarity trade union movement led by Lech Walesa energized religious and nationalist sentiment across Poland and put pressure on the Soviet Union and its puppet government in Warsaw.

Worsening economic conditions and demands for greater freedom culminated in 1989 – the Year of Miracles. That year marked the fall of the Berlin Wall and the communist governments in Poland, East Germany, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, and Romania. The revolutions in each of these countries occurred peacefully, except for Romania, which saw a series of bloody riots and protests, leading to the overthrow of the regime and the execution of its dictator, Nicolae  Ceausescu.


The Cold War had started in the late 1940s with the Berlin airlift and the Truman doctrine to contain communism’s spread, but by the late 1980s, it was clear that Soviet-styled socialism was collapsing. Malta was not the last meeting between Gorbachev and Bush, but it was a clear sign that both leaders were committed to a new era of openness and friendship.

Pat Horan is a research associate at RealClearPolitics and a contributor at RealClearHistory. He is a recent graduate of the College of the Holy Cross.

Show commentsHide Comments

Related Articles