In 1983, American President Ronald Reagan declared his belief that the Soviet Union was an “evil empire.” He described the ways that the Soviet government restricted the practice of religion, persecuted political opponents, limited personal freedom, dominated the nations of Eastern Europe and sought to spread communism around the world.

Reagan cast the struggle between the East and West as a moral struggle between the forces of good and evil and predicted that communism would eventually be relegated to the “ash heap of history.”

Reagan’s criticisms of the Soviet Union were all at least partly true. But all nations and governments have implemented policies that turn out to be bad, including the United States. Although the citizens of the Soviet Union may have lived in fear, the Soviet school system produced one of the highest rates of literacy in the world. While Americans enjoy the freedoms guaranteed by the Bill of Rights, we also endure tremendous racism.

Clearly, no nation is perfect, but was there something especially uniquely wrong with communism and the Soviet Union in particular? Had President Reagan touched on some truth about that place and time in history? Was the Soviet Union actually an evil empire?


During the Cold War, Americans and Soviets typically faced off militarily. They had relatively few chances to directly debate the merits of their two ways of life. One exception was the Kitchen Debates.

In 1959, the Soviets and Americans had agreed to hold exhibits in each other’s countries as a cultural exchange to promote understanding. The Soviet exhibit in New York opened in June 1959, and the following month then-Vice President Nixon was on hand to open the American exhibit in Moscow. Nixon took Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev on a tour of the exhibit. There were multiple displays of consumer goods provided by over 450 American companies. A centerpiece of the exhibit was a geodesic dome, which housed scientific and technical experiments.

The Kitchen Debate took place in a number of locations at the exhibition but primarily in the kitchen of a model suburban house, cut in half for easy viewing. This was only one of a series of four meetings that occurred between Nixon and Khrushchev during the 1959 exhibition.

During the first meeting, in the Kremlin, Khrushchev dismissed the new consumer technologies of the United States and declared that the Soviets would have all of the same things in a few years. He satirically asked if there was a machine that “puts food into the mouth and pushes it down.” Nixon responded by saying at least the competition was technological, rather than military.

The second visit occurred in a television studio inside the American exhibit. At the end, Khrushchev stated that everything he had said in their debate should be translated into English and broadcast in the United States. Nixon responded, “Certainly it will, and everything I say is to be translated into Russian and broadcast across the Soviet Union. That’s a fair bargain.” To this proposal, he and Khrushchev shook hands vigorously.

The exchange between Khrushchev and Nixon is interesting because while they were discussing which country was superior, they did not compare nuclear weapons, political influence, or control of territories. They were using the technological innovations set up in the exhibit. Nixon argued that the Americans built to take advantage of new techniques, while Khrushchev argued that the Soviets built for future generations.

It is certainly true that the United States was developing a more consumer-driven economy in which new technologies were being replaced regularly. Just think of the pace at which companies like Apple or Samsung produce phones that make last year’s model obsolete. However, the Soviet model of building for the future often meant dreary, grey concrete buildings and technologies that were considered old-fashioned in the West.

The third visit occurred inside the kitchen of the cutaway model home. The kitchen was furnished with a dishwasher, refrigerator, and cooktop and oven. It was designed to represent a $14,000 home that a typical American worker could afford in 1959.

In front of the cameras and in front of the wealth that the free market system had created for the everyday American housewife, Nixon tried to convince Khrushchev that the free market system was not terrible in the way Soviet propaganda portrayed it. Nixon said that he should “not be afraid of ideas. After all, you don’t know everything.” The Soviet leader replied, “You don’t know anything about communism, except fear of it.”

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Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev and Vice President Richard Nixon engage in the Kitchen Debate.

In the United States, three major television networks broadcast the kitchen debate. American reaction was initially mixed, with The New York Times calling it “an exchange that emphasized the gulf between east and west but had little bearing on the substantive issue” and portrayed it as a political stunt. On the other hand, Time Magazine, also covering the exhibition, praised Nixon, saying he “managed in a unique way to personify a national character proud of peaceful accomplishment, sure of its way of life, confident of its power under threat.”

Because of the informal nature of the exchange, Nixon gained popularity. He also impressed Mr. Khrushchev. The reporter William Safire who was present at the debates recalled “the shrewd Khrushchev came away from his personal duel of words with Nixon persuaded that the advocate of capitalism was not just tough-minded but strong-willed.”

The trip raised Nixon’s profile as a public statesman, greatly improving his chances for receiving the Republican presidential nomination the following year. Khrushchev claimed that following his confrontation with Nixon he did all he could to bring about Nixon’s defeat in his 1960 presidential campaign.

In the end the Kitchen Debate did not change the opinions of leaders on either side of the Iron Curtain. It did, however, demonstrate the enormous gulf between free market and communist ideology. Although leaders in the Soviet Union were not about to embrace a market economy or democracy, the same could not be said for the people of Eastern Europe. Their discontent was strikingly manifested in open rebellions in both Hungary and Czechoslovakia.


Soviet premier Josef Stalin had said “Everyone imposes his own system as far as his army can reach.” When the Soviet Army marched across Eastern Europe at the end of World War II, Stalin’s dream of expanding communism became reality. When the war ended, the Soviets set up communist governments in the puppet states of the Eastern Bloc. Like the American military, which remained stationed in West Germany, Great Britain, and Italy, Soviet troops stayed on in East Germany and the Warsaw Pact states of the East. The presence of the Soviets did not, however, mean that the people of the Eastern Bloc were content.

The Hungarian Uprising of 1956 was a nationwide revolt against the government of the Hungarian People’s Republic and its Soviet-imposed policies, lasting from October 23 until November 10, 1956. Though leaderless when it first began, it was the first major threat to Soviet control since the Red Army drove Nazi Germany from its territory at the end of World War II.

The revolt began as a student demonstration, which attracted thousands who marched through central Budapest to the Parliament building. When a delegation of the students entered the radio building to try to broadcast the students’ demands, the State Security Police (ÁVH) attacked from within the building. One student was killed and as the news of the shooting swept through the streets, disorder and violence erupted throughout the capital.

The revolt spread quickly across Hungary and the government collapsed. Thousands organized into militias, battling the ÁVH and Soviet troops. Pro-Soviet communists and ÁVH members captured by the militias were imprisoned or executed. A new government formally disbanded the ÁVH, declared its intention to withdraw from the Warsaw Pact, and pledged to re-establish free elections. By the end of October, fighting had almost ceased as the remnants of the communist dictatorship were swept away. A sense of normality began to return.

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A Soviet T-54 tank on the streets of Budapest during the crackdown against the Hungarian Uprising.

Initially the Soviet leadership announced a willingness to negotiate a withdrawal of its troops, but the Soviet politburo changed its mind and moved to crush the revolution. On November 4, a large Soviet force invaded Budapest and other regions of the country. The Hungarians resisted for a week before being crushed by the overwhelming Soviet force. Over 2,500 Hungarians and 700 Soviet troops were killed in the conflict, and 200,000 Hungarians fled as refugees. Mass arrests and denunciations continued for months afterward as the newly reinstalled, Soviet-backed, communist government suppressed all public opposition. Public discussion of the revolution was banned in Hungary for more than 30 years.


Roughly ten years after the failed Hungarian Revolution, the government of another member of the Eastern Bloc briefly resisted Soviet domination. The Czechoslovakian government began a series of reforms to open up the economy and political system. This brief period was called the Prague Spring, named for the nation’s capital city.

The reforms, especially the decentralization of administrative authority, were not received well by the Soviets, who, after failed negotiations, sent half a million Warsaw Pact troops and tanks to occupy the country. A spirited non-violent resistance was mounted throughout the country, including painting over and turning street signs to confuse the invaders. On one occasion an entire invasion force from Poland was routed back out of the country after a day’s wandering. The Czechoslovakians defied curfews and one protestor, Jan Palach set himself on fire in Prague’s Wenceslas Square to protest renewed restrictions on freedom of speech. While the Soviet military had predicted that it would take four days to subdue the country, the resistance held out for eight months.

In the end, however, the hope for significant reform was crushed by the force of the Soviet and Warsaw Pact troops. By the end of 1968 central control of the economy and restrictions on civil liberties had been restored. It would be another 20 years before the people of Czechoslovakia enjoyed basic civil rights.


In the case of the uprisings in Hungary and Czechoslovakia, the Soviet Union had to use its army on a massive scale to put down widespread rebellion. Normally, however, in the Soviet Union and the world’s other communist nations, order was maintained by establishing a continuous level of fear and extensive surveillance of citizens.

In most dictatorships, both communist and otherwise, the normal police forces are supplemented by a secret police. In the Soviet Union, the KGB served this role. In East Germany, they were known as the Stasi, in China as the Juntong, and in North Korea as the State Security Department. Regardless of their name, they all used the same tactics. The people of the Soviet Union, Eastern Europe, China, Vietnam, Cuba and North Korea knew they were being watched, that the secret police were listening to their phone calls, reading their mail, and monitoring where they travelled, where they shopped, and who they associated with. In an effort to protect themselves from suspicion, people promised the secret police that they would serve as spies to keep an eye on their neighbors. After the Cold War ended, historians read the Stasi’s files and found that nearly every East German had been so afraid of persecution that they had promised to be informants for the secret police.

If the secret police suspected that someone was planning a protest, spreading information that would harm the government or trying to flee the country, that person would be arrested, tortured, exiled or killed. People in the communist world feared the infamous “midnight knock of the secret police” and family members, friends, and acquaintances simply disappeared. Most secret police forces operated a system of clandestine camps to house these political prisoners. In China, this system was called Laogai, the abbreviation for Láodòng Gǎizào, which means “reform through labor.” In reality, reform meant punishment. Prisoners who were released served as a warning to their friends and family of the power of the government. The most infamous of all labor camps in the communist world, however, were the Gulags of the Soviet Union.


The Gulag was the government agency created under Vladimir Lenin immediately after the founding of the Soviet Union that operated a system of forced labor camps. The camps housed a wide range of convicts, from petty criminals to political opponents. Large numbers were convicted by simplified procedures, such as troikas, three man panels who proclaimed their judgement without a trial. The entire system reached its peak during Josef Stalin’s rule from the 1930s through the 1950s when more than 100,000 people were imprisoned in the Gulag system. The camps remained in operation until the 1980s.

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Prisoners in the gulag system work to build a canal.

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, winner of the 1970 Nobel Prize in Literature, survived eight years of Gulag incarceration and gave the term its international repute with the publication of his book “The Gulag Archipelago” in 1973. The author likened the scattered camps to an archipelago, a chain of islands, and as an eyewitness, he described the Gulag as a system where people were worked to death. Some scholars support this view, though this claim is controversial, given that the vast majority of people who entered the Gulag came out alive. Being alive, however, did not mean a return to normal life. Former prisoners who had been sent away to the Gulag prisons for criticizing the communist regime were usually prohibited from moving into large cities where their ideas might infect others. Being convicted of opposing communism in the Soviet Union meant at best a life of banishment from society, and at worst, death.


After the Cuban Missile Crisis, the United States and the Soviet Union took a step back from the brink of war and leaders on both sides decided that the ever escalation arms race, space race, and brinksmanship was unwise. By the early 1970s, the two nations had initiated a series of steps to reduce the risk of war and demonstrate cooperation in science and culture. This era was known by the French word détente.

The leaders most associated with détente were President Richard Nixon and his National Security Advisor Dr. Henry Kissinger. Both of them viewed the world and the conflict between the United States and Soviet Union in terms of realpolitik, not as a moral struggle between competing ideologies. That is, they saw conflict in practical, rather than ideological terms. Both superpowers had needs – security, access to ports and raw materials, allies, prestige – and the East and West could coexist so long as leaders found ways for both sides to get what they needed.

The most obvious manifestation of détente was the series of summits held between the leaders of the two superpowers and the treaties that resulted from these meetings. On August 5, 1963, even before the era that has come to be known as détente, the Partial Test Ban Treaty was signed ending all nuclear tests in the atmosphere, underwater or in outer space. Only tests conducted underground were permitted. Later in the decade, the Outer Space Treaty, signed in January 1967, and the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty signed in July 1968, were two of the first building blocks of détente. These early treaties were signed all over the globe and are important steps in limiting the distribution of nuclear weapons. They effectively turned back the dangerous spread of weapons of mass destruction, containing their deployment and testing.

While Kennedy and Johnson in the 1960s did their part to deescalate the Cold War, most of the treaties associated with détente were not developed until the Nixon Administration came into office in 1969. After a series of negotiations, the United States and Soviet Union signed the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT I) in 1972. This treaty limited each power’s nuclear arsenal, effectively bringing an end to the arms race. In the same year that SALT I was signed, the Biological Weapons Convention and the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty were also concluded. To follow up on their work, the two nations began working on a second arms limitation treaty, known as SALT II.

In 1975, the leaders of the major nations in both the East and West met and produced the Helsinki Accords, a wide-ranging series of agreements on economic, political, and human rights issues. The agreements were initiated by the Soviet Union, and were signed by 35 nations throughout Europe and North America. The accords were a major political victory of Leonid Brezhnev, the Soviet premier, because they affirmed respect for the boundaries of Europe, effectively cementing the communist satellite states the Soviets had fought so hard to create at the end of the Second World War. However, the accords also guaranteed human rights, something the communists were not known for, and the West often used the agreement as grounds to criticize the activities of the secret police in the Soviet Union and its allies.

Détente extended beyond politics and arms control. In July of 1975, the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project became the first international space mission when three American astronauts and two Soviet cosmonauts docked their spacecraft in outer space and conducted joint experiments. This mission had been preceded by five years of political negotiation and technical co-operation, including exchanges of American and Soviet engineers between NASA and the Soviet space agency.

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The famous handshake between American astronaut Gibson and Soviet cosmonaut Dezhurov after their two capsules successfully docked in orbit.

Trade relations between the two blocs increased substantially during the era of détente. Most significant were the vast shipments of grain sent from the West to the Soviet Union each year, which helped make up for the failure of kolkhoz, Soviet collectivized agriculture. Even as the United States stood ready with nuclear weapons to defend against Soviet attack, American farmers were feeding the people of their most bitter rival.

President Nixon and Dr. Kissinger were eager to find ways to manage the Cold War, but in the Soviet Union, détente was often seen differently. Leonid Brezhnev, the leader of the Soviet Union from 1964 to 1982 was intent on using the period of relaxed tensions to prepare for Soviet expansion. In 1979, he ordered an invasion of Afghanistan, one of the Soviet Union’s southern neighbors. Like all other foreign incursions into this vast, mountainous nation, the Soviet effort failed, but the invasion was a major reason President Ronald Reagan, elected in 1980, chose to end détente and resume a more confrontational relationship.

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Soviet Primer Leonid Brezhnev and President Richard Nixon


As the British and French Empires slowly yielded to independence movements after World War II, a new Third World emerged. This became a major battleground of the Cold War as the United States and the Soviet Union struggled to bring new nations into their respective orbits. Across the Third World, the two superpowers squared off in a series of proxy wars.

The United States had a long and often contentious relationship with its southern neighbors going back to its founding. The Monroe Doctrine demanded that European nations not interfere in Latin America while the Roosevelt Corollary specifically stated that the United States would. America had taken half of the territory of Mexico at the conclusion of the Mexican-American War of the 1840s, taken control of Puerto Rico after the Spanish-American War, and interfered in the affairs of Cuba, Panama, and the various banana republics of Central America even before the Cold War began.

The driving factor in each of these earlier relationships was economic. Americans wanted land, or access to land in the cases of the Panama Canal or the coffee, sugar and fruit plantations of Central America and the Caribbean. The Cold War changed the rules of the game. The United States no longer needed to support governments that would be amenable to American business interests. Now, the most important characteristic of Latin American leaders was their willingness to stand up to communism.

The United States lent its support to a variety of despotic strongmen who oppressed their people, violated human rights and enriched themselves – Fulgencio Bautista of Cuba and Rafael Trujillo of the Dominican Republic stand out as particularly egregious examples. While there was opposition at home to these unsavory alliances, experts in Washington who were adherents to the policy in containment and the Domino Theory believed they were necessary.


For generations Chile had been a model in South America of stable, democratic government. A succession of elected presidents had held office and turned over power peacefully when their terms ended. The army stayed out of politics.

That changed in 1973. The new president, Salvador Allende promoted reforms that were strikingly similar to changes advocated by other communist leaders. Cuba’s Fidel Castro visited Chile and commended Allende. But Allende was different in that he did not want a revolution. He believed in working slowly through the democratic process. This may have been enough reassurance in normal times, but in the pressure cooker of the Cold War, the CIA saw Allende as a dangerous example. If Chile took a peaceful path away from capitalism, other nations might be inspired to do the same.

Augosto Pinochet, the commander-in-chief of the Chilean army organized a coup and overthrew Allende. Although the United States was not directly involved, CIA agents knew what Pinochet was planning. Pinochet correctly assumed that if the CIA did not try to stop him, they were in favor of removing Allende.

Allende shot himself just before being taken prisoner by Pinochet’s forces. Pinochet went on to rule Chile as a dictator for the next 17 years. He was staunchly anti-communist, but his secret police forces murdered over 2,000 people.

In Panama, support for anti-Communist regimes was more covert. Manuel Noriega, the future dictator of Panama, was on the payroll of the CIA beginning in 1967. By 1971, his involvement in the drug trade was well known to the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). However, he was an important asset of the CIA and was well protected. The Carter Administration dropped Noriega from its payroll, but he was reinstated by the Reagan Administration. His salary peaked in 1985 at $200,000 per year. In return, Noriega allowed the CIA to set up listening stations in his country and provide funding for anti-communists in Nicaragua.


The violent civil wars in Central America that took place in the 1970s and 1980s were rooted in unjust distribution of land and power created during the Spanish colonial era. It is possible that these wars would have happened regardless of outside influences. However, the United States and Soviet Union viewed each of these small wars as microcosms of their herculean struggle. Like pouring fuel on a fire, weapons, money, advisors, and pressure provided by the superpowers made the wars much longer and more deadly. The wars were especially hard on the poor who, like pawns on a chessboard, were used by the combatants as both shields and scapegoats. The local problems that gave rise to social unrest had nothing to do with communism, but the Cold War intensified and gave undue significance to the civil wars in Guatemala, El Salvador and Nicaragua.

In an effort to help prevent communist infiltration in Latin America, the CIA and the military’s School of the Americas trained Latin American army officers in torture and assassination techniques. The School of the Americas has widely been criticized for the human rights violations performed by its graduates. On September 20, 1996, the Pentagon was forced to release training manuals that were used at the U.S. Army School of the Americas, and distributed to thousands of military officers from 11 South and Central American countries, including Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, and Panama, where the United States military was heavily involved in counterinsurgency. These manuals advocated targeting civilians, extrajudicial executions, torture, false imprisonment, and extortion. War crimes and human rights violations such as these horrified the American public, but in the effort to prevent the spread of communism, some felt that the ends justified the means.

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Photos, crosses, and protesters laying outside the entrance to Fort Benning, the home of the School of the Americas, to remember the victims of violence in Central America perpetrated by graduates of the school.

In 1999, a report on the Guatemalan Civil War from the Commission for Historical Clarification, sponsored by the United Nations, stated that, “the United States demonstrated that it was willing to provide support for strong military regimes in its strategic backyard. In the case of Guatemala, military assistance was directed towards reinforcing the national intelligence apparatus, and for training the officer corps in counterinsurgency techniques, key factors which had significant bearing on… acts of genocide.” According to the Commission, between 1981 and 1983, the Guatemalan security apparatus – financed, armed, trained, and advised by the United States – destroyed 400 indigenous Mayan villages and butchered 200,000 people. The majority of the victims were political activists, students, trade unionists, priests, human rights advocates, and poor peasants.

America’s involvement in neighboring Nicaragua was just as deadly. Beginning in 1936, three generations of the Somoza Family had ruled Nicaragua. The United States had directly paid the Samozas in return for favorable business relations, but in 1979, the FSLN, a group of revolutionaries overthrew his regime.

The Frente Nacionalista de Liberacion Nacional (FSLN), or Sandinistas, were committed to Marxist ideology, and many of their leaders had long-standing relationships with the Soviet Union and Cuba. President Carter initially hoped that continued American aid to the new government would keep the Sandinistas from aligning with the Soviet Bloc, but the Carter Administration allotted the Sandinistas minimal funding and the Sandinistas resolutely turned away from the United States. Instead, Cuban and East European assistance was turned into a new army of 75,000. The buildup included Soviet T-55 heavy tanks, heavy artillery and Soviet HIND attack helicopters, an unprecedented military expansion that made the Sandinista Army more powerful than all of its neighbors combined.

The first challenge to the powerful new army came from the Contras, groups of Somoza’s old National Guard who had fled to Honduras. There they had been organized, trained and funded by CIA operatives using money they made by cocaine trafficking. They engaged in a systematic campaign of terror amongst the rural Nicaraguan population in order to disrupt the social reform projects of the Sandinistas.

The Reagan Administration insisted that the Sandinistas posed a “communist threat,” particularly because of the support provided to the Sandinistas by Cuban president Fidel Castro. The Reagan Administration suspended aid to Nicaragua and expanded the supply of arms and training to the Contras in neighboring Honduras, as well as allied groups based to the south in Costa Rica. President Reagan called the Contras “the moral equivalent of our Founding Fathers.”

Congress disagreed. The Contras engaged in the same human rights violations as their counterparts in other Central American nations. Since the largest base of support for the Sandinistas was with the poor peasants of the countryside, the Contras destroyed the health centers, schools and cooperatives these people relied on. Large-scale murder, rape and torture also occurred in Contra-dominated areas. In 1982, Congress responded to public outrage about the situation by prohibiting Reagan from sending further aid to the Contras.

President Reagan also provided controversial support to the right-wing government of El Salvador and all branches of the security apparatus. Reagan and the CIA feared a takeover by the communist-leaning Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) during the Salvadorian Civil War, which had begun in 1979. The war left 75,000 people dead, 8,000 missing, and one million homeless. A million Salvadorans, fleeing the war and American-backed right-wing armed forces, tried to immigrate to the United States but were denied asylum. As was the case in Guatemala, the vast majority of the victims were peasants, trade unionists, teachers, students, human rights advocates, journalists, priests, nuns, and anyone working in the interests of the poor majority.


Of all the voices in opposition to the violence perpetrated against innocent civilians, Oscar Romero, the Archbishop of San Salvador spoke with the most conviction, clarity, and moral authority.

In 1977, the same year that Romero became archbishop, his friend Rutilio Grande was assassinated by government soldiers. Grande was a Jesuit priest who had been working in the countryside and his death had a profound impact on Romero, who later said, “When I looked at Rutilio lying there dead I thought, ‘If they have killed him for doing what he did, then I too have to walk the same path.’” Romero urged the government to investigate, but they ignored his request. Romero began speaking out against poverty, social injustice, assassinations and torture.

Romero also criticized the United States for helping fuel the violence in El Salvador and wrote to President Jimmy Carter in February 1980, warning that increased American military aid would “undoubtedly sharpen the injustice and the political repression inflicted on the organized people, whose struggle has often been for their most basic human rights.” Carter ignored Romero’s pleas and military aid to the Salvadoran government continued.

On March 23, 1980, Romero delivered a sermon in which he called on Salvadoran soldiers, as Christians, to obey God’s higher order and to stop carrying out the government’s repression and violations of basic human rights. The next evening, Romero celebrated mass at a small chapel at Hospital de la Divina Providencia. As he finished his sermon, a car came to a stop on the street in front of the chapel. A gunman emerged from the vehicle, stepped to the door of the chapel, and fired. Romero was struck in the heart, and the vehicle sped off. The archbishop died instantly.

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Monsignor Oscar Romero

Romero was buried in the Metropolitan Cathedral of San Salvador. The funeral mass was attended by more than 250,000 mourners from all over the world. At the funeral, Cardinal Ernesto Corripio y Ahumada, speaking as the personal delegate of Pope John Paul II, eulogized Romero as a “beloved, peacemaking man of God,” and stated that “his blood will give fruit to brotherhood, love and peace.”

During the ceremony, smoke bombs exploded on the streets near the cathedral and there were rifle shots from surrounding buildings, including the National Palace. Some 30 to 50 of the mourners were killed by gunfire and in the ensuing stampede of fleeing people. Some witnesses claimed government forces had fired the shots, but there are contradictory accounts as to the course of events. The truth will probably never be known.

As the gunfire continued, Romero’s body was buried in a crypt beneath the sanctuary. Even after the burial, people continued to line up to pay homage to their martyred prelate.

The wars of Central America were long, brutal struggles made worse by the circumstances of the Cold War. Today, most people look back with sadness and regret the involvement that the great powers played in prolonging the bloodshed. In El Salvador, Oscar Romero stood up to powerful forces to demand peace and basic human rights in the same way that Gandhi had done three decades before. He remains a beloved hero for common people across Latin America and an international symbol of the harm the Cold War did in the Third World.

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Young soldiers in El Salvador in 1990.


The Middle East posed numerous challenges for the United States during the Cold War, just as it continues to do today. At the center of America’s concerns in this part of the world are the security of the nation of Israel and access to the oil in and around the Persian Gulf.

Israel was carved out of Palestine at the eastern end of the Mediterranean Sea after World War II as a homeland for the Jewish people. The United States’ recognition of Israel in 1948 created a strong new ally, but also created many enemies. The United Nations had tried to negotiate borders for the new nation, but the non-Jewish Palestinians who had lived there for generations rejected the plan. The Jewish settlers went to war and millions of Arabs were forced into exile. Enraged that the Americans supported the new Jewish state, Israel’s Arab neighbors found supportive ears in the Soviet Union.

When Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser sought to strengthen ties with the Soviet Bloc, the United States withdrew its pledge to help Nasser construct the all-important Aswan Dam on the Nile River. Nasser responded by nationalizing the Suez Canal in 1956. The canal is an important trade link between Europe and Asia for everyone, but it was essential for Britain and France, who joined with Israel to invade Egypt.

In the first real Cold War test of the alliance between Western Europe and the United States, President Dwight Eisenhower called upon Britain and France to show restraint. When it seemed like they might refuse, he threatened to stop selling them American treasury bonds, a move which would have devastated their economies. They backed down. In the end, The Suez Crisis led to the creation of a United Nations peacekeeping operation to police the border between Egypt and Israel. The rift between the allies may also have emboldened Stalin in his crackdowns on dissent in Hungary.

The Soviets might have believed the Suez Crisis was a sign that Americans did not want to get involved in the Middle East, but they were mistaken. With Soviet influence growing in the oil-rich region, the president issued the Eisenhower Doctrine, which pledged American support to any government fighting communist insurgencies in the Middle East. Making good on that promise, he sent over 5,000 marines to Lebanon to forestall an anti-Western takeover.

Over time, the United States became more and more deeply involved in the Middle East. When the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, the Americans provided weapons to the Afghan resistance movement. When Iran and Iraq went to war, the Americans gave support to Iran while the Soviets supported Iraq. In 1983, the radical group Hezbollah set off a bomb at the marine barracks in Beirut, Lebanon, killing 241 American marines. Presumably the attack was in retaliation for America’s presence in the region.

However, over time it has also become clear that America’s fundamental interests in the Middle East were Israel and oil, not the containment of communism. After the Cold War ended, the Middle East was the first place the United States went to war and more Americans have died fighting in the Middle East in the past thirty years than every other corner of the globe combined.


There remains little doubt today that communism as an economic system and dictatorship as a form of government are both evil, insofar as they restrict individual liberty. The Soviet Union, as the world’s foremost exporter of communist ideology may well have deserved Reagan’s disparaging nickname the “Evil Empire.” That Soviet leaders, their armies and secret police murdered thousands of people in their quest to free the masses from the rule of capitalists is undeniable.

Like the fabled City Upon a Hill, the United States stood firmly throughout the Cold War as a beacon of freedom and hope in the face of communism. However, to maintain the freedom of the world, especially of the Third World, Americans perpetrated and supported enormous injustice and violence of their own.

The republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater said once that “moderation in the protection of liberty is no virtue; extremism in the defense of freedom is no vice.” What do you think? If defeating communism was a noble cause, did it excuse the means? Was the Soviet Union “evil” in a way that the United States was not?

Perhaps it is also worth looking at the question from the perspective of the people of the Third World who were the pawns in the global game. Was the Soviet Union any more evil or more of an empire than the United States?

Of course, the story of the people who suffered in the great struggles of the Cold War is tragic. How senseless it seems now that the Cold War is over that so many perished over ideology. However, knowing both the noble ideals that drove the struggle as well as the people who paid the price for freedom’s eventual victory helps us understand that good and evil is rarely black and white. As Archbishop Oscar Romero said, “there are many things that can only be seen through eyes that have cried.”

What do you think? Was President Reagan right? Was the Soviet Union an evil empire?



BIG IDEA: While communist nations used fear to manipulate and control their people, the desire to prevent the spread of communism led the United States to side with dictators in the Third World who violated human rights. Beginning in the 1970s, American and Soviet leaders tried to relax tensions.

There were few chances for the United States and Soviet Union to actually meet face to face and debate their ideas.  Once chance was the Kitchen Debates between then-Vice President Richard Nixon and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev in 1959.  Nixon showed off a model American kitchen and all the good things that capitalism allowed people to buy.  Khrushchev was impressed, but did not change his mind about the benefits of communism.

Twice, people in Eastern Europe tried to fight to get rid of their communist governments. In 1959, people in Hungary rebelled and in 1968, people in Czechoslovakia rebelled. In both cases, the Soviet Union sent its own troops to put down the rebellions and restore communists to power.

One way communist governments maintained control was through fear. People who disagreed or tried to organize opposition to the government were arrested, thrown in jail, or sometimes they simply disappeared. People knew that the secret police might appear at any moment and had power to kidnap political opponents, so most people tried to avoid criticizing their leaders or doing anything that might put themselves in danger. The result was an obedient and unhappy people.

In the 1970s, American leaders decided that there was little chance of getting rid of communism.  The initial worries about communism spreading had ended.  Therefore, they decided, they should try to find ways to get along and coexist peacefully.  The United States and Soviet Union signed a series of treaties to ban the testing of nuclear weapons, and to start to reduce their total number of warheads.  The two nations even worked together to have their spacecraft dock in orbit and their astronauts shake hands in space.  This period of cooling tensions was called Détente, but ended when the Soviets invaded their neighbor Afghanistan.

Both the United States and Soviet Union tried to convince other nations to join their side. This meant that Americans supported anti-communists governments around the world. Sometimes, we supported people who were dictators and terrible leaders, such as in Chile and Panama, simply because they were anti-communist. These conflicts were proxy wars, because they stood in for actual fights between the superpowers.

In Central America, when the poor started a revolution against the wealthy landowners, the Soviet Union supported the poor and the United States ended up supporting the rich people who controlled the government. Because both superpowers were giving money and weapons to their side, the civil wars lasted a long time and thousands of people died who might have lived if the Cold War had not been raging. Similar problems happened in the Middle East. In Afghanistan, the United States gave weapons to the same people who we eventually had to fight after 9/11.



Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn: Russian political dissident and author of “The Gulag Archipelago”

Dr. Henry Kissinger: National Security Advisor to President Nixon. He believed in realpolitik and was instrumental in the negotiations with the Soviet Union and China that were part of the détente policy.

Strongman: A leader, often from the military, that rules a country as a dictator. The United States often supported these leaders in Third World nations because they opposed communism.

Salvador Allende: Democratically elected president of Chile who proposed communist-like policies and was deposed in 1973. The CIA is seen as complicit in his overthrow.

Augosto Pinochet: Military general in Chile who led a coup against democratically elected Salvador Allende. He ruled Chile for 17 years and murdered more than 2,000 people. The US supported him because he opposed communism.

Manuel Noriega: Panamanian strongman who was supported by the CIA. He was involved in the drug trade and was eventually removed in a US military invasion and put on trial for drug trafficking.

Sandinistas: Communist revolutionaries in Nicaragua who took control in the 1970s and were opposed by the American-backed Contras.

Contras: Anti-communist guerrilla group who were supported by the CIA and fought against the communist Sandinistas in Nicaragua. They were known for human rights violations and using drug trafficking as a means of financial support.

FMLN: Communist revolutionary group in El Salvador in the 1970s and 1980s. They were opposed by the United States.

Oscar Romero: Catholic archbishop in El Salvador who spoke out against violence during his country’s civil war. He was assassinated by right-wing militants.

Gamal Abdel Nasser: Nationalist leader of Egypt who was supported by the Soviet Union and led his country during the Suez Crisis.


Realpolitik: Policies based on practical rather than moral or ideological goals.

Proxy Wars: Wars that were not fought between the United States and Soviet Union. However, the superpowers supported either side and the wars were viewed as a stand-in for real face-to-face conflict.


The Gulag Archipelago: Book by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn recounting his experiences as a political prisoner in the Soviet Union’s gulags.


KGB: The spy organization and secret police of the Soviet Union

Stasi: The secret police of East Germany

Juntong: The secret police of communist China

State Security Department: The secret police of North Korea

Gulag: The prison system in the Soviet Union based on labor camps which housed thousands of political prisoners

Troika: A group of three judges. The troikas in the Soviet Union provided a quick way to convict political prisoners without allowing for fair trials.

Apollo-Soyuz Test Project: A Soviet and American project to launch satellites that would link up in orbit. The project culminated in 1975 and represented progress in scientific cooperation.

School of the Americas: School run by the US Army to train Latin American military leaders. Some of the school’s graduates have gone on to commit human rights violations in their home countries or lead drug trafficking organizations.


Israel: Nation in the Middle East created in 1948 largely by Jews who escaped the Holocaust. It is a strong ally of the United States but has a violent history with its Arab neighbors.


Kitchen Debate: A series of debates between Vice-President Richard Nixon and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev in Moscow about the relative merits of communism and capitalism.

Hungarian Uprising: Revolution by Hungarians in 1956 against Soviet domination. The uprising was crushed when forces from the Soviet Union invaded Hungary.

Prague Spring: An uprising in Czechoslovakia in 1968 in which the government and citizens attempted to reform the economy and political system. The uprising was ended when the Soviet Union sent in its military to restore communists to power.

Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan: Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. The Soviets failed, partially due to support the United States gave to Afghan freedom fighters.

Assassination of Oscar Romero: 1980 assassination of Oscar Romero while he was celebrating mass. He had recently urged militants to stop committing human rights violations.

Suez Crisis: 1956 conflict between Egypt and the combined forces of Israel, France and the United Kingdom after Egypt nationalized the Suez Canal. President Eisenhower refused to support France and the UK.


Partial Test Ban Treaty: 1963 treaty banning nuclear tests in the atmosphere, under water and in space.

Outer Space Treaty: 1967 treaty stating that space would only be used for peaceful purposes.

Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty: A treaty signed in 1968 by all but four countries in the world. Nations promise not to acquire nuclear weapons (if they don’t already possess them) and in exchange they may use nuclear technology for civilian purposes.

SALT I & SALT II: Treaties signed between the United States and Soviet Union in 1972 and 1979 agreeing to reduce the number of nuclear warheads in their arsenals.

Biological Weapons Convention: Treaty signed by almost every nation in the world agreeing to eliminate all biological weapons.

Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty: 1972 treaty between the United States and Soviet Union agreeing to limit the development of missiles that could intercept incoming ICBMs.

Helsinki Accords: 1975 agreement between the major nations of the Free and Communist Worlds. It guaranteed respect for boundaries, thus cementing the communist takeover of Eastern Europe, but also committed nations to respect human rights.

Détente: A policy of engaging the Soviet Union in negotiations used by Presidents Nixon, Ford and Carter in the 1970s. It assumed that the end of the Cold War was not imminent so negotiation rather than confrontation was the best policy.

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