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Like every war, the Cold War finally ended. The United States and our NATO allies and the Soviet Union and the other communist countries of the world just gave up and stopped their nuclear armed long face off. It is hard to imagine that after all the money spent and the lives lost that the two great superpowers would just give up. Of course, it wasn’t really that simple, but it is clear that the Cold War needs to be called a “cold” war, since the United States and Soviet Union never had the war they had prepared for. Why is that? We couldn’t stop Hitler without a war. We couldn’t stop the Cold War from starting. So why did the Cold War end so quietly?


When the communists took control in China in 1949, they created the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and people who didn’t want to live in communist China moved to the island of Taiwan. The United States said that the new free country, the Republic of China (ROC) on Taiwan, was the only government of all of China. The ROC held the Chinese seat on the UN Security Council. But when he became president, Richard Nixon decided that it was time to have a better relationship with the communist government in the mainland.

In 1971, Nixon surprised the world by saying that he would visit the PRC. Most people would have said that the president was soft on communism by visiting mainland China. But Nixon was different. As a past member of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), Nixon’s history as a fighter against communism gave him the cover he needed to make a change in America’s policy toward China. His week-long visit in February 1972 allowed the American people to see pictures of China for the first time in over 20 years. Nixon and his advisors had important talks with the PRC leaders, including Premier Zhou Enlai, and Chairman Mao Zedong. He and First Lady Pat Nixon visited the Great Wall of China, Hangzhou, and Shanghai. Mrs. Nixon also visited schools, factories, and hospitals.

Nixon didn’t visit communist mainland China because he had decided communism was okay. He went to China to help the United States to get the upper hand in our relationship with the Soviet Union. The Soviets in Moscow and the communists in China often didn’t get along and had even fought a small war over their border. By normalizing the relationship with the Chinese, Nixon got the two communist powers to compete against each other. 

Nixon’s visit to China was the first time an American president had visited the People’s Republic of China, and it ended a 25-year break in the relationship between the two countries. It was the key step in normalizing the relationship between the United States and communist China.  At the end of his trip, American and Chinese leaders wrote the Shanghai Communiqué, a report of the new relationship. In the communiqué, both countries agreed to work to fully normalize their relationship with each other. They would open embassies in each other’s capital cities.  Kissinger also said that American soldiers would leave the island of Taiwan.

By recognizing the government of mainland China, Nixon set off a change in the balance of power in the world. The PRC took over China’s seat at the UN Security Council. The United States moved its embassy from Taipei in Taiwan to Beijing. However, this did not end American support for Taiwan. The government of the Republic of China is still an important friend of the United States in Asia. America holds military training together with Taiwan and sells weapons to the ROC. Of course, the communist PRC does not like this. The United States still says it has a One China Policy, meaning that we believe that the PRC and the ROC should be one country with one government.  But the United States still promises to stop communists from taking over Taiwan, so for now, there are two Chinas.

Kissinger and Nixon also wanted to get help to stop the Vietnam War. They hoped that by working with both the Soviet Union and China, the two communist countries that supported Ho Chi Minh in Vietnam, the United States could get him to make a deal to end the war. Because they were willing to have meetings with Nixon, the Soviets and Chinese showed that their one-on-one relations with the United States were more important than their support for Vietnam.

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President Richard Nixon and First Lady Pat Nixon visiting the Great Wall of China in 1972.

The relationship between China and the United States is now one of the most important two-way relationships in the world. Every president but one since Nixon has visited China. Nixon’s trip is remembered to be one of the most important, if not the most important, visit by a president anywhere. A “Nixon in China” moment has now become a way to say that a trip by a government leader was not expected, or was very unusual, or was especially important.

Primary Source: Document
The cover of Time Magazine in which the new relationship between the United States and communist China was a feature story.

The United States and China wanted to show the world that they were going to have a different, more friendly relationship. One of the best ways to do this was to have friendly competitions.  Ping pong matches between Chinese and Americans showed that the people of the two countries could be both patriotic and competitive in ways that were not dangerous. Also, China gave a gift of two pandas to the National Zoo in Washington, DC. Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing were the first giant pandas to live in the United States and were beloved symbols of friendship.

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Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing at the National Zoo in Washington, DC. They were a gift from the People’s Republic of China to the United States after Nixon’s visit in 1972.


Ronald Reagan was already well known when he was elected president in 1980. He had been a movie star. He had tried to get rid of communists in Hollywood during the Red Scare of the 1950s. He had been governor of California.

Unlike Nixon and Kissinger, Reagan did not believe that getting along with the Soviet Union was possible. He did not trust communists and he did not believe that letting the Cold War go on and on was a good idea.

The Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan made him angry. So, he ordered a huge increase of America’s military, and he started dealing with the Soviet Union in new ways. In the 1970s, the government had been working on a new nuclear bomber called the B-1 but had stopped because it cost so much.  Reagan restarted the B-1 program.  He also began building MIRV missiles which each had many nuclear bombs that could be aimed at different places. Finally, Raegan wanted to build a system that could shoot down Soviet missiles coming toward the United States.

Reagan’s problem with the Soviet Union was more than just about military power. Together with Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher of the United Kingdom, Reagan disagreed with communism and the way communist countries were run. In a famous speech in 1982, he said “The forward march of freedom and democracy will leave Marxism-Leninism on the ash-heap of history.” And in 1983, he called the Soviet Union “an evil empire.”

Nixon and Kissinger had wanted to keep the Soviet Union in check and find ways for the super-powers to share the world. But Reagan didn’t like this idea. Under a policy that came to be known as the Reagan Doctrine, he pushed back against communists everywhere in the world. In Africa, Asia, and Latin America, Reagan gave money and support to people fighting against communists. Sometimes this meant helping terrible leaders who did not support freedom, just to keep them “safe” from the Soviets. Reagan also sent the CIA to Afghanistan and Pakistan. They gave weapons to the Mujahideen soldiers, trained them, and led them against the Soviet Army. Many people think that American help for the Mujahideen was one reason the Soviets lost in Afghanistan. Unfortunately, some of those American weapons were later used against American soldiers during the war in Afghanistan in the 2000s.


In 1983, to protect the United States from attack, Reagan introduced the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), a program that would use ground and space-based systems to shoot down nuclear missiles coming toward the US. He thought that this kind of security would make nuclear war impossible. Many people did not believe that this could ever work, and they called the project “Star Wars,” after the Star Wars movies that had just come out in theaters around that time. The Soviet Union did not like SDI. If the Americans could stop Soviet missiles, the Soviet Union would not be able to threaten the United States.  In other words, the balance between the two countries that made mutually assured destruction work would be broken and the United States would have the upper hand.

In fact, making SDI work is very hard, and it didn’t happen during the Cold War.  In fact, the Missile Defense Agency is still trying to build a small missile that can shoot down nuclear missiles coming toward the United States.

Primary Source: Editorial Cartoon
Many critics of Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative used the Star Wars movies to emphasize the technological challenges of making the system work.


Americans supported Reagan and his way of fighting the Cold War. In 1984 he won reelection as president for four more years. More people voted for him than any other president in American history. But his work to fight communism almost brought down his administration during his second four years in office.  It was called the Iran-Contra Scandal.

President Reagan liked a group of anti-communists in Central America called the Contras. Congress had passed a law saying that he could not give money to this group because of the bad things they were doing to the poor.  So, some of the top people working for Reagan sold weapons to Iran in the Middle East and used the money to give to the Contras without Congress finding out.  Reagan didn’t know about the sale.

When the newspapers learned about the deal, many Americans were angry.  Iran was not a good friend of the United States, and making this secret deal was illegal.  In all, 14 people went to jail for breaking the law.  Because he had been their boss, President Reagan told the American people that the Iran-Contra Scandal was his fault. Even if people didn’t blame Reagan, it looked bad that he didn’t know what was going on in his own office.  Because of the scandal, the American people had a better idea of what their leaders were doing to fight communism in the Third World, and they started to wonder if being involved in the proxy wars was really a good idea or not.


Reagan’s new, more aggressive way of dealing with communism did not last forever. In 1985, Mikael Gorbachev, a young, popular leader took over in the Soviet Union. Reagan saw an opportunity to do things differently, and he began to change his way of thinking and talking about the Soviet Union.

The Soviet Union’s large military, their state-owned farms, and their way of making things really hurt the Soviet economy. At the same time, Saudi Arabia started producing more oil. The cost of oil fell to one-third of what it had been. Selling oil was how the Soviet Union made 60% of its money, so this really hurt them. The economy of the Soviet Union was close to falling apart.

To fix things, Gorbachev put out a plan he called perestroika (restructuring) and glasnost (openness). He needed money to make these changes but trying to build enough missiles, ships, and airplanes to keep up with Reagan cost a lot of money. Gorbachev wanted to use that money to fix his economy instead, so he offered to make deals with the United States to get rid of nuclear weapons.

Many of the people told Reagan that Gorbachev was probably not serious. But Reagan wanted to give Gorbachev a chance to make changes in the Soviet Union. Reagan thought that if he could get the Soviets to look at how well the American economy was working, they too would want to have a free market, capitalist economy. Reagan and Gorbachev met together five times. Their most famous meeting was in Reykjavik, Iceland in 1985 to discuss a nuclear missile deal. They agreed that they wanted to see a world without any nuclear weapons, and they promised that they would get rid of all their nuclear bombs. But their aides quickly said that such a move would not get the okay from other leaders in their governments. So, they settled for a much smaller agreement. There were big differences between the Soviet Union and the United States, but Reagan and Gorbachev got along well, and world leaders still look at Reagan and Gorbachev as examples of how to work together.

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President Reagan and Gorbachev in Geneva, Switzerland. The two leaders had a good personal relationship.

Even though he stopped spending so much on the military, Reagan still wanted the United States would stay the leader of the free world. He believed that it was part of his job to speak out against the evils of communism. Against the advice of his aides, Reagan decided to visit Berlin and to speak in front of the Berlin Wall. Like President Kennedy years before, Reagan was very clear that America would keep West Berlin free, and he called on Gorbachev to let the people of Eastern Europe travel to the West. In what has become one of the most well remembered lines from the Cold War, he said at the end of his speech, “General Secretary Gorbachev, if you seek peace, if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, if you seek liberalization, come here to this gate. Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate. Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!

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President Reagan giving his “Tear Down this Wall Speech” in front of the Berlin Wall.


The first clear sign that the people of the communist world were tired of living with their failed system was the Solidarity movement in Poland. Started in 1980 by workers in the shipyards, Solidarity was a labor union. Solidarity was a challenge to communist governments that thought of all workers as part of one great union run by the government. For workers, this kind of union did nothing to protect them from the government leaders. Led by Lech Walesa, the shipbuilders went on strike. Poland’s government fought back against Solidarity, but the workers held together and in the end the government agreed to let the workers have their own union. By 1982, one-third of all the workers in Poland had joined Solidarity. Walesa was seen as a hero by the people of Poland and in the West. In 1983 he was given the Nobel Peace Prize for what he had done.

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Lech Walesa, leader of the Solidarity movement, and the first president of Poland after the fall of communism.

Walesa could not have done all that he did if people did not see that he was right and were not willing to help get Solidarity started. One very important person who supported Walesa was Pope John Paul II. John Paul II was from Poland. He thought that religious leaders were supposed to protect suffering people. As leader of the Catholic Church, John Paul II wanted to help make changes in the world to make it a better place to live, and he cared a lot about the people who had to live in communist countries. He spoke out in favor of freedom and democracy. Because of his position as the leader of all Catholics, his voice against communism was heard around the world, and he inspired many people, especially American Catholics, to give money to support Solidarity. Because he was a religious leader and not the president of a country, the pope could show himself to be a voice of reason, not tied to one side or another.

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First Lady Nancy Reagan and President Reagan meet with Pope John Paul II.

In Poland, Solidarity had done very well because of good leaders and international support. But what was most important was that Gorbachev had decided to keep the Soviet Union out of Poland’s fight with Solidarity.


For many years, the Soviet government had believed in an idea called the Brezhnev Doctrine.  This was the policy, or idea that the Soviet army should be used to support communist governments whenever they were in trouble. This is why Soviet soldiers stopped the revolution in Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968. But by the late 1980s, the Soviet Union was not doing well.  The economy and the invasion of Afghanistan were not doing well.  This made it harder for the Soviet leaders to tell the Eastern European countries what to do.  So, Gorbachev got rid of the Brezhnev Doctrine.

In 1989, Gorbachev’s Foreign Minister, Eduard Shevardnadze, said that it was okay with the Soviet Union if all the countries in Eastern Europe, including the Warsaw Pact countries, wanted to change their governments. One Soviet leader said, “We now have the Frank Sinatra doctrine.” Frank Sinatra was a famous American singer who had a song, “I Did It My Way.” What the Soviet leaders meant was that every country could do things their own way and no Soviet tanks or soldiers would be sent to stop them. Since 1945, the Soviet Union had kept total control over Eastern Europe. Now Gorbachev was ready to let them just walk away from communism.

In fact, the people of Eastern Europe were already getting more freedom. A month before they came up with the name Sinatra Doctrine, Poland had chosen its first government that was not communist. The government of Hungary had opened its border with Austria to let people cross the Iron Curtain and visit the West. Hungary was one of the few countries that the people of East Germany could visit, and thousands of them went there to escape across the border. Even though this upset the East German government, Hungary refused to stop the East Germans from using their country as a way to escape. The Sinatra Doctrine and changes in Eastern Europe really upset people like Erich Honecker who really thought that communism was right.  Honecker was the leader of East Germany. He begged Gorbachev to force Hungary to close off its border, but Honecker had a growing problem of his own.  Huge protests against East Germany’s government were starting up in Leipzig and other East German cities.


At first, the people in East Germany who met to protest were those who wanted to leave and move to the West.  They shouted, “Wir wollen raus!” (We want out!). Then more people came who wanted to change the East German government and the protesters began to chant “Wir bleiben hier!” (We are staying here!). The protests grew much larger, and by the Fall of 1989, half a million people met at the Alexanderplatz, East Berlin’s large public square, to demand a change of government.

With so many people against him, and no help from the Soviet Union, Honecker gave up and quit his job. He had once said that the Berlin Wall would stand for 50 or 100 more years, but things were changing fast.

To try to calm the protesters, the new East German government decided to let people leave the country, including opening the Berlin Wall that had separated East and West Berlin.  But things started to happen faster than the government expected.  When a reporter asked one of the government leaders when the new rules would take effect, he said, “As far as I know, it takes effect immediately, without delay.”

This was the top story on West German television that night. Of course, this meant that the news was heard all over East Germany as well. News broadcaster Hanns Joachim Friedrichs happily reported, “This 9 November is a historic day. The GDR (East Germany) has announced that, starting immediately, its borders are open to everyone. The gates in the Wall stand open wide.”

East Germans started to go to the six checkpoints between East and West Berlin, demanding that border guards open the gates. The small number of soldiers had no way to hold back the huge number of East Germans. Finally, at 10:45 at night, the leader of the border guards at one checkpoint gave the order to the guards to open the gate and allow people through to West Berlin. As the East Germans rushed through the gate, they were met by a crowd of excited West Berliners, who were waiting with flowers and champagne. Pretty soon a group of people from West Berlin jumped on top of the Wall and were joined by East Germans. They danced together to celebrate their new freedom.

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People of Berlin on top of the Berlin Wall

That night, television showed the people of Berlin tearing down parts of the Wall. The East German government announced the opening of ten new border crossings, and large groups of people gathered on both sides of the Berlin Wall, waiting for hours to cheer the bulldozers that started to knock it down. It was an exciting moment for freedom-loving people all over the world as the Berlin Wall and the Iron Curtain it represented fell.  The division of Europe into East and West had not ended in war, as so many people had feared.  Instead, it ended as regular Berliners, who had suffered so much, danced, and sang and tore down the Wall that had divided them.

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People of Berlin brought hammers to break down parts the Wall.

On Christmas Day, 1989, American conductor Leonard Bernstein led a symphony of East and West German, British, French, American and Soviet musicians in a concert in Berlin. He ended the performance with the 9th Symphony, written by the great German composer Ludwig van Beethoven. In the final movement, Ode to Joy, he had the chorus sing Freihairt (freedom) instead of Freude (joy).

In June 1990, East Germany began taking down what was left of the Wall. By the end of the summer, almost every road that was cut by the Berlin Wall was connected and opened again. Today, little is left of the Wall, except a bad memory.

The fall of the Wall was the first step in fixing the Cold War division of Germany.  Just 339 days after the Berlin Wall fell, on October 3, 1990, East and West Germany reunited as a non-communist nation with elected leaders.


The changes in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe got people in communist China to start thinking about changes in their own country. In 1989, students across China got together and began calling for freedom of speech, assembly and the press. Chinese leaders could not agree on what to do. Some wanted to meet with the students to talk about making change. Others saw the protests as a dangerous first step toward civil war and thought that the protests should be stopped.

Soon, the protests spread to 400 cities, and it looked like communist control of China might end just like communist control in Eastern Europe. But things didn’t turn out that way. China’s top leader, Deng Xiaoping, decided to use the army to stop the protests and protect the power of the communist leaders. He sent 300,000 soldiers to Beijing where a million student protesters had gathered at Tiananmen Square in the heart of the capital city.  The students had put up a 33-foot tall statue named the Goddess of Democracy” It was built in only four days out of foam, paper, and metal and looked a lot like the Statue of Liberty. The students had made it as large as possible to make it harder for the government to take it down.

On June 3, the communist leaders had had enough, and they sent in the army. Known in China as the June Fourth Incident, the army was met by students who had blocked the roads with burning buses. In what most of the world calls the Tiananmen Square Massacre, the soldiers opened fire with guns and tanks, killing hundreds of students. By June 5, the massacre was over. Tiananmen Square was empty, and the “Goddess of Democracy” had been knocked over and ground to dust by tanks.

The whole thing had been shown live by Western television crews. Photographer Jeff Widener took a picture that everyone remembers of a man, all alone, standing up to a column of tanks coming at him in the middle of Chang’an Avenue. All over the world, people condemned the Chinese government for using force against the protestors. Western countries put economic sanctions on China and stopped selling weapons to them.

The communist government arrested hundreds of protesters and people who had helped them.  They stopped other protests around China, sent foreign news reporters home, took over control of what could be reported in the news inside of China, built up the police and secret police, and got rid of government leaders that they thought agreed with the protests.

The communist government also set limits on what people can say about politics. These new rules are still in effect in China. Talk about the Tiananmen Square Massacre is not allowed, and schoolbooks have almost no information about it. After the protests, the government got rid of  anything having to do with the massacre. They closely watch everything on the Internet having to do with “June 4” or “Tiananmen Square” and block most websites that say anything about what happened. While the Chinese government allows some freedom of speech online, freedom of assembly is very limited. Since 1989, there have been no major public protests.

The massacre has not been forgotten outside of China. Since it was destroyed, many models of the “Goddess of Democracy” have been put up around the world, including in Hong Kong and Washington, DC.

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The “Tank Man” on Chang’an Avenue, Beijing on June 4, 1989


Unlike in China, Gorbachev wanted people to have more freedom to say and write what they thought.  He wanted people to get to vote for their leaders.  This is what his new ideas of glasnost and perestroika were all about. Gorbachev thought that giving people more freedom would save the communist economic system, but instead his plans led to the downfall of the Soviet Union itself.

The Soviet Union was different from the United States in many ways.  One was that the Soviet Union was mostly one large republic, Russia, and all the other republics that made up the USSR were much smaller.  For all of its history, Russia had dominated the other republics inside the Soviet Union.  As things were changing at the end of the 1980s, that would happen again. Boris Yeltsin, the new leader of Russia, decided that Gorbachev was moving too slowly in making changes.  Yeltsin and many other people thought that Gorbachev should give up on communism and move to a free market economy, even if that meant the breakup of the Soviet Union. 

But not everyone wanted change. On August 19, 1991, Gorbachev’s vice-president, prime minister, defense minister, and the head of the KGB put Gorbachev under house arrest and formed a “General Committee on the State Emergency.” The organizers of this coup thought that many people didn’t like the changes Gorbachev had been making and would support them. Instead they found that most of the people in the Soviet Union were against them.

Russian President Boris Yeltsin went on television and said he was against the coup. Thousands of people from Moscow came out to guard the government buildings where Yeltsin worked. The organizers of the coup tried, but were not able to arrest Yeltsin. Even the soldiers sent by the coup leaders to find and arrest Yeltsin decided to support him instead. Also, the coup leaders could not block news broadcasts from around the world, so many Russians watched everything take place live on CNN. Even Gorbachev was able to hear what was happening by listening to British radio news.

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Boris Yeltsin (left side holding papers) talks to a crowd from on top of a tank outside of the Russian parliament building during the coup.

After three days the coup fell apart. No one supported them, not even the army.  The coup leaders were arrested, and Gorbachev returned as president.  But the coup marked the end of his power.  Three days later, he quit as leader of the communist party.

Without communism holding the country together, the Soviet Union fell apart very quickly. Between August and December, ten republics declared their independence from the Soviet Union.

In a speech on television early in the morning of December 25, 1991, Gorbachev stepped down as president of the Soviet Union. He said that the office of president no longer existed, and all of its power, including control of the Soviet nuclear weapons, was given to Russian President Boris Yeltsin. That night Gorbachev left the Kremlin. The Soviet flag was taken down for the last time, and the Russian tricolor flag was raised in its place. This was the end of the Soviet Union. That same day, the President of the United States, George H. W. Bush spoke briefly on television saying that the United States recognized that the eleven former Soviet republics were now free countries. The next day Yeltsin moved into Gorbachev’s old office.

After the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia went through a huge change. It moved from an economy planned by the government to a free market economy connected to the rest of the world. But the transition did not go well.  Under communism, all the factories, farms and other companies had been owned by the government.  After the fall of communism, these were given to people who were friends with the top people in the new government. This left control of Russia’s wealth in the hands of a few very, very rich men. The economy fell more than 40% by 1999. The banking system fell apart and people lost all their money.  It was hard for the government to collect taxes, and Russia had to borrow money to pay its bills. Many Russians started wishing for the old, communist days when things were bad, but at least they were predictable.

Today, Russia has a free market economy, but control of the country’s wealth is still in the hands of a few of the world’s richest men. The Russian government, like many of the governments of the former Soviet republics, looks much more like the dictatorships of the Cold War than the democratic countries of the West.

So, after an experiment of about 70 years, communism failed.  It really did end up on the “ash heap of history,” as President Reagan said it would.  And after all the money spent on the arms race, and all of the lives lost in the proxy wars of the Third World, and all of the showing off the two sides did, the Cold War came to a peaceful end. 


There were a few other communist countries in the world we should mention before we finish.

Vietnam’s leaders followed the example of China. They opened up the country’s economy, creating a strong free-market system, while keeping control of the government. There are no elections in Vietnam, but the United States and Vietnam have a good relationship today.

Cuba’s leaders have tried to hold on to communism. During the Cold War, the Soviet Union gave Cuba money to help keep its communist economy going. When the Soviet Union fell, Cuba lost its only friend and the Cuban economy fell apart. With poverty growing all of the time, the Cuban government is beginning to let some private businesses start up. Castro is gone, but the new leaders don’t seem to want to give up political power anytime soon.

Only North Korea is left as a Cold War-like enemy of the United States. Now run by the third generation of the Kim family, North Korea has developed nuclear weapons, so it is unlikely that anyone will ever attack them. The economy, still based on communism, has totally failed. Without getting rice from other countries, millions of people would die of starvation.  Today, North Korea is one of the poorest countries in the world, while on the other side of the DMZ, South Korea is one of the most successful countries. Without a doubt, the two Koreas show that Reagan was right: democracy and a free market system are the way to financial success.


The Cold War ended more than 20 years ago, but its legacy continues to be very important still today.

The Cold War made the United States the leader of the Free World. As the protector of freedom, America sent large numbers of soldiers around the world to protect our allies. In most places, the United States still has bases and soldiers.

Both the United States and the Soviet Union spent lots of money to pay for the Cold War, and millions of people died in proxy wars around the world. Even though most of the proxy wars ended along with the Cold War, the fall of the Iron Curtain and the Soviet Union did not bring peace to the world.

The fall of communism in Yugoslavia led to war in the 1990s as different groups of people started fighting for control of land and power.  In the 2000s, Russia, Georgia and Ukraine, three former members of the Soviet Union, have gone to war over land.

In Eastern Europe, the end of the Cold War led to new economic growth and many more democratic countries. But in Afghanistan the government was taken over by religious leaders after the Soviets left.  They supported the terrorist group that attacked America on 9/11.

Despite the end of the Cold War, military build-up and spending has continued, especially for nuclear missiles. Because there was no peace agreement ending the Cold War, the United States and Russia have kept and improved their nuclear missiles. And other countries that did not have nuclear weapons, including India, Pakistan, and North Korea, have now built and tested their own nuclear bombs.

Bad feelings from the Cold War have been hard to let go of. Russia and America still don’t trust each other. Russian leaders still think of NATO as Russia’s enemy.  As the former communist countries of Eastern Europe joined NATO, Russian leaders have felt more and more in danger.  One reason Russia invaded Ukraine in 2022 was to try to stop it from joining NATO. While war between the United States and Russia is less likely now than during the Cold War, spying and cyberwar are still very much alive today.


The Cold War ended in a series of steps over a few years. In the 1970s America’s better relationship with China opened up the opportunity for China to slowly move away from communism. In the 1980s, Ronald Reagan made deals with Mikael Gorbachev so that he could start to change the Soviet Union’s government. In 1989, the Berlin Wall fell and freedom came to Eastern Europe. Two years later the Soviet Union broke apart.

But what made all of this happen? Was it the work of world leaders or the people of the countries who were fed up with poverty and persecution? Why did the Cold War end? Did it really end, or is it still going on, but in a different way?  What do you think?



BIG IDEA: The Cold War ended without the massive military conflict between East and West that the two sides had prepared for. Instead, the leaders in communist countries allowed greater economic freedom, and responding to social pressure in the case of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, greater political freedom.

As part of his effort to reduce Cold War tensions, Richard Nixon decided to formally recognize the communist government of China and visited Beijing in 1972. This led to an opening up of China, as well as the sharing of goodwill gestures such as ping-pong matches and a gift of panda bears.

When Ronald Reagan became president in 1980, he decided to challenge communist leaders. He called the Soviet Union an “evil empire” and built up the American military. He disagreed with the idea of détente.

Reagan proposed a new strategy that would upend the system of mutually assured destruction. He wanted to build a system that could shoot down incoming Soviet missiles. The plan was not technologically possible, but it threatened to undo the delicate balance of power that had prevented war for decades.

Reagan was weakened as president by the Iran-Contra Scandal, which showed Americans how much he did not know about what his aides were doing. He survived, however, and started working with Soviet leaders.

Reagan met multiple times with Mikhail Gorbachev to try to reduce nuclear weapons. In fact, his second term was almost the opposite of his first. Instead of building up the military, Reagan started to reduce nuclear weapons. He wanted to give Gorbachev a chance to start reforms inside the Soviet Union.

Communism started to fall in Europe beginning in Poland. Workers there formed a union that conducted a non-violent resistance against the communist leadership. Pope John Paul II, originally from Poland, was an important voice around the world against communism.

In 1989, students organized a mass protest in Tiananmen Square in Beijing, China. They wanted democracy and an end to communist rule. However, the communist government of China sent in the army to end the protest.

Growing protests in Eastern Europe were different, however. The Soviet government under Gorbachev refused to intervene the way that had in Hungary and Czechoslovakia in the 1950s and 1960s. Instead, they allowed pro-democracy demonstrations and permitted their Eastern European allies to open up the borders with the West.

In 1989, people in Berlin tore down the Berlin Wall. This most potent symbol of the division between East and West fell peacefully when the Soviets decided to let communism in East Germany end.

Gorbachev had hoped that by allowing people the freedom to vote, he might save communism, but that plan failed and in 1991, army officers staged a coup and tried to overthrow his government. However, the army itself did not follow the coup’s leaders. Eventually, the destruction of Gorbachev’s authority led to the splitting up of the Soviet Union and the end of communist governments in all the newly independent nations and in the former communist nations of Eastern Europe.

Communist governments continue in Cuba and North Korea. In China and Vietnam, the communist leaders gave up communism as an economic system, but continue to rule without elections.



Ronald Reagan: American president from 1981-1989. He abandoned détente and supported a more confrontational stance toward the Soviet Union based on an ideological view of the conflict. In his second term he began negotiating with Gorbachev and is credited with helping end the Cold War.

Margaret Thatcher: British Prime Minister in the 1980s. Nicknamed the “Iron Lady”, she was a strong ally of President Reagan.

Mikhail Gorbachev: Last leader of the Soviet Union from 1985-1991. He promoted government reform and negotiated with the United States.

Solidarity: Labor movement in Poland in the 1980s led by Lech Walesa that successfully challenged the communist government.

Lech Walesa: Leader of the Solidarity movement in Poland. He became the first president of Poland after the fall of communism.

Pope John Paul II: Pope from 1978 to 2005. He was an outspoken critic of communism.

Erich Honecker: Communist leader of East Germany from 1971-1989. He opposed reforms and the Sinatra Doctrine. He was forced to resign as protests mounted across East Germany in 1989.

Boris Yeltsin: Russian leader who demanded greater reform during the 1980s. He opposed the 1991 coup and became the first president of independent Russia after the fall of the Soviet Union.


Vietnam Syndrome: Reluctance on the part of American politicians and military leaders to use the armed forces due to the loss in Vietnam. Ronald Reagan helped end this.


Shanghai Communiqué: Joint statement by China and the United States in 1972 as part of Nixon’s visit to China. The two nations agreed to normalize relations.


Evil Empire Speech: 1982 speech by President Ronald Reagan in which he condemned communism and the Soviet Union calling it an “Evil Empire.”

Tear Down This Wall: 1987 speech by Ronald Reagan in West Berlin in which he challenged Gorbachev to open the Iron Curtain.


Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI): Military program championed by President Reagan to develop a system to intercept incoming nuclear missiles. It was nicknamed “Star Wars” by its critics.

Missile Defense Agency: Military organization that develops and operates a system to intercept incoming nuclear missiles. It is the contemporary version of the original SDI.


People’s Republic of China (PRC): Mainland, communist China. The PRC currently holds China’s seat at the United Nations.

Republic of China (ROC): Non-communist Taiwan.

Alexanderplatz: Major public square in East Berlin and site of protests in 1989 that culminated in the fall of the Berlin Wall.


Nixon’s Visit to China: 1972 visit by President Nixon to the People’s Republic of China. This visit officially reopened the diplomatic relationship between the PRC and the US and the US recognized the PRC government as the representatives of China at the United Nations.

Iran-Contra Scandal: Political scandal in 1986 in which officials in the Reagan Administration illegally sold weapons to Iran and used the money to support the Contras in Nicaragua. The scandal called into question Reagan’s ability to manage the day-to-day operations of government.

Reykjavik Summit: 1985 summit between President Reagan and Gorbachev held in Reykjavik, Iceland. It was one of five meetings between the two leaders. At their meeting they agreed to eliminate all nuclear weapons but their advisors made them reverse this pledge.

Tiananmen Square Massacre: 1989 confrontation between pro-democracy activists and the communist government in Beijing, China. After protesters occupied Tiananmen Square in the center of the city the government ordered the military to break up the protest resulting in hundreds, possibly thousands of deaths.

Fall of the Berlin Wall: The demonstrations and reverse of East German policy in November, 1989 that led to the opening of crossing points between East and West Berlin, and the subsequent destruction of the Berlin Wall by the people of Berlin.

Reunification of Germany: 1990 joining of East and West Germany. The East German government ceased to exist and the capital of Germany was moved from Bonn to Berlin.

1991 Coup: Attempt to overthrow the Soviet government of Gorbachev by hard line leaders and generals in August 1991. It failed when the military refused to follow orders from the coup leaders. Gorbachev was returned to power but was weakened, leading to the breakup of the Soviet Union.

Fall of the Soviet Union: December 25, 1991. The various republics of the Soviet Union became independent nations and the Soviet government and communism in the former Soviet Union ceased to exist. This was the final end of the Cold War


Rapprochement: The policy of improving relations with communist China under the Nixon Administration. Similar to détente with the Soviet Union.

Ping Pong Diplomacy: The use of non-governmental exchanges (such as ping pong tournaments) to foster better relationships between competing nations.

One China Policy: American policy to officially recognize only one government of both China and Taiwan. The US maintains an embassy in Beijing and supports China’s membership in the UN. However, the US still supports Taiwan.

Reagan Doctrine: President Reagan’s policy of supporting anti-communist leaders and organizations everywhere in the world.

Perestroika & Glasnost: Reform programs in the Soviet Union promoted by Gorbachev designed to allow for more electoral freedom in order to save communism. They produced a higher demand for reform which eventually led to the breakup of the Soviet Union.

Sinatra Doctrine: The name that the Soviet government of Mikhail Gorbachev used to describe its policy of allowing neighboring Warsaw Pact states to determine their own internal affairs. The name alluded to the song “My Way” popularized by Frank Sinatra.

Brezhnev Doctrine: Soviet policy under Brezhnev in the 1970s in which the Soviet government used military force to control the governments of the Soviet Bloc.

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