Every war ends. Even the wars we are currently engaged in will eventually end. And so, the Cold War ended, some four decades after it began. But why? Without ever fighting out their differences on the battlefield, the United States and our NATO allies and the Soviet Union and the other communist nations of the world gave up their nuclear faceoff.

It’s hard to imagine that after all the money spent, and lives lost, that the two great superpowers would simply hang it up and walk away. Indeed, it is not that simple, but from a distance, it is clear that the Cold War deserves that name. It ended without the Herculean war that everyone spent all that time preparing for.

How is that possible? We couldn’t stop Hitler without a war. We didn’t prevent the Cold War from starting. So how is it that it ended with such a whimper? Why did the Cold War end?


When the communists took control in China in 1949, they created the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and exiled the nationalists to the island of Taiwan. The United States recognized the nationalist Republic of China (ROC) on Taiwan as the sole government of all of China, and that government held China’s seat at the United Nations Security Council. But early in his first term, Nixon began sending subtle hints that he was ready to have warmer relations with the communist government on the mainland. After a series of these overtures by both countries, Nixon’s national security advisor, Dr. Henry Kissinger, flew on secret diplomatic missions to Beijing where he met with Premier Zhou Enlai.

On July 15, 1971, Nixon himself shocked the world by announcing on live television that he would visit the PRC the following year. While most politicians would have been criticized as being soft on communism for visiting mainland China or normalizing the relationship, Nixon was different. As a veteran of HUAC, Nixon’s reputation as a cold warrior gave him the political cover to make a change in America’s policy toward Beijing.

The week-long visit, from February 21 to 28, 1972, allowed the American public to view images of China for the first time in over two decades. Throughout the week, the President and his senior advisers engaged in substantive discussions with the PRC leadership, including a meeting with Chairman Mao Zedong, while First Lady Pat Nixon toured schools, factories and hospitals in the cities of Beijing, Hangzhou and Shanghai with the large American press corps in tow.

American President Richard Nixon’s 1972 visit to communist China was an important strategic and diplomatic overture that marked the culmination of the Nixon administration’s rapprochement between the United States and China. The seven-day official visit to three Chinese cities was the first time an American president had visited the PRC. Nixon’s arrival in Beijing ended a 25-year gap in communication and diplomatic ties between the two countries and was the key step in normalizing relations between the United States and communist China.

Nixon didn’t decide to go to China because he suddenly believed that communism was acceptable. The reason for opening up China was for the United States to gain more leverage over relations with the Soviet Union. The Soviets in Moscow and the communists in China viewed each other with suspicion and had even fought a minor war over their shared border. By normalizing relations with the Chinese, Nixon was able to play the two communist powers off one another.

Kissinger and Nixon also wanted to get help in resolving the Vietnam War. By dealing with both Russia and China, they hoped to put pressure on Ho Chi Minh’s government in Hanoi to negotiate seriously. At a minimum, Nixon wanted Russia and China to encourage Hanoi to make a deal with the United States and give Hanoi a sense of isolation as their two patrons were dealing directly with the Americans. Indeed, by their willingness to engage in summit meetings with Nixon, the Russians and Chinese demonstrated that bilateral relations with the United States was a higher priority than their support for Vietnam.

Unknown to Nixon and the rest of the American diplomats at the time, Mao Zedong was in poor health and he had been hospitalized for several weeks before Nixon’s arrival. Nevertheless, Mao felt well enough to meet with Nixon. Upon being introduced to Nixon for the first time, Mao, speaking through his translator, joked with him: “I believe our old friend Chiang Kai-shek would not approve of this.”

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

In contrast, Nixon held many meetings with Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai during the trip, which included visits to the Great Wall, Hangzhou, and Shanghai. At the conclusion of his trip, the United States and the PRC governments issued the Shanghai Communiqué, a statement of their foreign policy views and a document that has remained the basis of Sino-American bilateral relations. Kissinger stated that the United States also intended to pull all its forces out of the island of Taiwan. In the communiqué, both nations pledged to work toward the full normalization of diplomatic policy.

The relationship between China and the United States is now one of the most important bilateral relationships in the world, and every successive president, with the exception of Jimmy Carter, has visited China. The trip is consistently ranked by historians, scholars, and journalists as one of the most important, if not the most important, visits by a president anywhere. A “Nixon to China” moment has since become a metaphor for an unexpected, uncharacteristic or especially impactful action by any politician.

By formally recognizing the government of mainland China, Nixon initiated an enormous shift in global power. The communists took over China’s seat at the Security Council of the United Nations. The United States moved its embassy from Taipei to Beijing. However, formal recognition did not end American support for Taiwan. To this day, the government of the Republic of China remains an important American ally in Asia. The American military conducts joint operations with their Taiwanese counterparts and, much to Beijing’s disapproval, the United States sells advanced weapons systems and aircraft to Taiwan.

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The cover of Time Magazine in which the new relationship between the United States and communist China was a feature

The United States and China wanted to hold public demonstrations of their new friendship. One of the most obvious of these was a series of ping pong matches between Chinese and Americans. The friendly competitions showed that the two nations could be both patriotic and competitive in ways that were not dangerous. In fact, Ping Pong Diplomacy became a synonym for the cultural exchanges between competing nations that were designed to foster better relationships. Additionally, the government of 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.

Officially, the United States holds a One China Policy – that is, the government believes the mainland and Taiwan should be united under one government, but in reality, while doing business with both, Americans are as dedicated to preventing a communist takeover of Taiwan now as they were in 1949.


When he was elected in 1980, Ronald Reagan was the nation’s oldest president. As a former movie star, Reagan was already well known in the United States. He had tried to root out communists in Hollywood during the Red Scare of the 1950s and had served as governor of California. He even ran against President Gerald Ford for the republican nomination in 1976.

Unlike Nixon and Kissinger, Reagan did not believe détente and coexistence with the Soviet Union was possible. He did not trust communists and believed that allowing the Cold War to go on indefinitely was unacceptable.

Angered by the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Reagan ordered a massive buildup of the armed forces and implemented new policies toward the Soviet Union. He revived the B-1 bomber program that had been canceled by the Carter Administration, and began producing the MX Peacekeeper missile. These MIRV missiles each had multiple warheads that could be directed at different targets. In response to Soviet deployment of short-range nuclear missiles, Reagan oversaw NATO’s deployment of Pershing short-range nuclear missiles in West Germany. Reagan also ordered the development of a defensive system that would be able to shoot down incoming Soviet missiles.

Reagan’s struggle against the Soviet Union was more than just about military strength. Together with Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher of the United Kingdom, Reagan denounced the Soviet Union in ideological terms. In a famous address given on June 8, 1982 to the British Parliament at Westminster Palace, Reagan said, “the forward march of freedom and democracy will leave Marxism-Leninism on the ash-heap of history.” On March 3, 1983, he predicted that communism would collapse, stating, “communism is another sad, bizarre chapter in human history, whose last pages even now are being written.” A few days later in a speech to the National Association of Evangelicals Reagan called the Soviet Union “an evil empire.”

Unlike Nixon and Kissinger who wanted to manage the Soviet Union and find ways for the superpowers to coexist, Reagan and his aids sought to confront Soviet power everywhere in the world. Reagan was also desperate to put to rest Vietnam Syndrome (the reluctance to use military force in foreign countries for fear of suffering another embarrassing defeat), which had influenced American foreign policy since the mid-1970s. Under a policy that came to be known as the Reagan Doctrine, Reagan and his administration provided overt and covert aid to anti-communist resistance movements in an effort to manipulate governments in Africa, Asia, and Latin America away from communism and toward capitalism. Sometimes this meant supporting authoritarian regimes who were not supporters of freedom just to keep them “safe” from Soviet influence.

Reagan deployed the CIA’s Special Activities Division to Afghanistan and Pakistan where they trained, equipped, and lead Mujahidin forces against the Soviet Army. Many historians believe the support from the United States was critical to ending the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, although the American weapons that were provided in the 1980s were later used against American troops during the war in Afghanistan in the 2000s.

The end of détente and the confrontational tone set by President Reagan did not last forever. In 1985, Mikael Gorbachev, a young, charismatic leader took over in the Soviet Union and sensing opportunity, Reagan began to change his rhetoric and thinking.


In March of 1983, Reagan introduced the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), a project that would use ground and space-based systems to protect the United States from attack by strategic nuclear ballistic missiles. In short, Reagan wanted to be able to shoot down incoming nuclear missiles. He believed that this defensive shield would make nuclear war impossible. However, disbelief that the technology could ever work led opponents to nickname the project “Star Wars,” in a reference to the popular science fiction trilogy in theaters at the time. The Soviets were highly critical of the SDI program since it would seriously unbalance the power relationship. If the Americans could intercept Soviet missiles, the Soviet Union would lose its deterrent power.

The technological challenges proved to be daunting and Reagan’s dream of a missile shield never became a reality during his presidency or even his lifetime. However, in the years since 1983, the SDI program has continued. Today, the Missile Defense Agency continues to work to perfect missiles that could be used to shoot down incoming ballistic missiles from North Korea.

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.


The American public was supportive of Reagan and his approach to fighting the Cold War. In 1984 they returned him to the White House for a second term with one of the largest landslide victories in presidential history. In his second term, however, his efforts to confront communism nearly brought down his administration.

The Iran-Contra Scandal came to light in November of 1986. During the Reagan Administration, senior officials had secretly facilitated the sale of weapons to Iran, which at the time was the subject of an arms embargo. The administration then used the funds from the sales to finance the anti-Sandinista Contras in Nicaragua.

While President Reagan was a supporter of the Contra cause, the evidence is unclear as to whether he authorized the diversion of the money raised by the Iranian arms sales to the Contras. Investigating Reagan’s role in the affair, the Tower Commission found no evidence of the president’s involvement. However, they deemed Reagan negligent for not monitoring and managing his staff, and indicted 14 administration officials, 11 of whom were convicted.

President Reagan addressed the public, accepting full responsibility for the crisis and maintaining his ignorance of the affair. The Iran-Contra Scandal cut Reagan’s approval ratings from 67% to 46% in November 1986, the largest single drop for any president in history, though this rating had climbed back to 64% by the end of his term, the highest rating ever recorded for a departing President.

Although Reagan survived the scandal and finished his second term, the public had a new awareness of the extent of their government’s efforts to fight communism in the Third World and began to question much more carefully America’s involvement in proxy wars.


The Soviet Union’s large military expenses, in combination with collectivized agriculture and inefficient planned manufacturing, were a heavy burden for the Soviet economy. By the time Mikhail Gorbachev had ascended to power in 1985, the Soviets suffered from an economic growth rate close to zero percent. At the same time, Saudi Arabia increased oil production, which resulted in a drop of oil prices in 1985 to one-third of the previous level. Petroleum exports made up approximately 60% of the Soviet Union’s total export earnings. The Soviet Union was on the verge of economic collapse.

To restructure the Soviet economy before catastrophe, Gorbachev announced an agenda of rapid reform based on what he called perestroika (restructuring) and glasnost (liberalization, openness). Gorbachev needed money to implement these changes. In order to redirect the country’s resources from costly Cold War military commitments, he offered major concessions to the United States on the levels of conventional forces, nuclear weapons, and policy in Eastern Europe.

Many of Reagan’s advisors doubted that Gorbachev was serious about winding down the arms race. Reagan, however, recognized the real change in the direction of the Soviet leadership and shifted to diplomacy in order to give Gorbachev an opportunity to further his reforms. Reagan sincerely believed that if he could persuade the Soviets to examine the prosperous American economy, they too would embrace free market capitalism.

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

In all, Reagan and Gorbachev met face-to-face five times. Gorbachev visited New York and Reagan toured Moscow. Most famously, they met in Reykjavik, Iceland in 1985 to discuss a nuclear missile treaty. During the summit, they had a chance to sit down together and, finding that they both wished to see a world free from nuclear weapons, promised that they would eliminate their entire nuclear arsenals. Quickly, however, aids to both leaders pointed out that such a move would be politically impossible, and they settled for a much less extensive agreement. Despite the tremendous differences between their two nations, Reagan and Gorbachev got along well personally and their working relationship is still seen as a model of how diplomacy and mutual respect can advance peace in the world.

Reagan’s approach to the Soviet Union was not entirely friendly during his second term however. Reagan was determined that the United States would remain the leader of the free world, and as such, he believed that it was his responsibility to continue to speak out against the evils of the communist system. Against the advice of his aids, Reagan decided to visit Berlin and to speak in front of the Berlin Wall. Much like Kennedy years before, Reagan forcefully reaffirmed America’s commitment to maintaining West Berlin’s freedom and personally challenged Gorbachev to allow Easterners to travel to the West. In what has become one of the most well remembered lines from the Cold War, at the conclusion of his speech he said, “There is one sign the Soviets can make that would be unmistakable, that would advance dramatically the cause of freedom and peace. 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 delivering his Tear Down this Wall Speech in front of the Berlin Wall. A bullet proof glass wall was erected behind the podium so that the Brandenburg Gate would be clearly visible behind him.


Despite all the posturing, the tremendous arms race, and all the lives lost in the proxy wars of the Third World, communism and the Cold War ultimately came to an end peacefully. In fact, communism ended because the people of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union rose up against it.

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. Begun by shipbuilders in 1980, Solidarity was a labor union. Typically in communist nations the government thought of all workers as part of one great union which, of course, the government controlled. For workers this meant that being part of the people’s union was worthless. Solidarity was a challenge to the status quo.

Led by Lech Walesa, the shipbuilders went on strike. Although Poland’s government fought back against Solidarity with violence on numerous occasions, in the end it agreed to allow the workers to form their own union. By 1982, one third of all the workers in Poland had joined Solidarity and the government was forced to recognize the first non-government labor union in the communist world.

Walesa was hailed as a hero by the suffering people of Poland and by the West. In 1983 he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his non-violent movement.

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

Walesa could not have achieved all he did without moral and financial support. One particularly influential voice of support was Pope John Paul II. John Paul II was the first non-Italian pope in hundreds of years. In fact, he was from Poland. Like Archbishop Oscar Romero, the pope believed that religious leaders had an obligation to stand up for suffering people. As leader of the Catholic Church, John Paul II was a reformer. He gave churches permission to hold services in the languages of the people instead of Latin, which even few priests understood.

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

John Paul II also took a special interest in the people of the communist world and spoke out regularly in favor of freedom and democracy. His voice in the struggle against communism was heard around the world and he inspired many people, especially American Catholics, to donate money to support Solidarity. Because he was a religious leader and not the president of a country, the pope was able to present himself as an impartial voice of reason.


The changing climate in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe inspired people in communist, mainland China to stand up for civil rights in their own country. In 1989, students across the nation began public demonstrations calling for freedom of speech, assembly and the press. The protests culminated in Tiananmen Square in the heart of Beijing in June, 1989. Known in China as the June Fourth Incident, the protests were forcibly suppressed after the government declared martial law. In what became known in the West as the Tiananmen Square Massacre, troops with automatic rifles and tanks killed at least several hundred, and perhaps several thousand demonstrators trying to block the military’s advance towards Tiananmen Square.

As the protests developed in April, communist government leaders veered back and forth between conciliatory and hardline tactics, exposing deep divisions within the party leadership. Some advocated for more change and wanted to negotiate with the student leaders. Others saw the protests as a dangerous first step toward civil war and believed the protests should be ended with force.

By May, a student-led hunger strike galvanized support for the demonstrators around the country and the protests spread to some 400 cities. Ultimately, China’s paramount leader Deng Xiaoping resolved to use force. Communist Party authorities declared martial law on May 20, and mobilized as many as 300,000 troops to Beijing.

There, millions of young students and their supporters had concentrated in Tiananmen Square where they had erected a 33 foot tall statue entitled Goddess of Democracy. The statue was constructed in only four days out of foam, papier-mâché and metal and was strikingly similar to the Statue of Liberty. The constructors decided to make the statue as large as possible to try to dissuade the government from destroying it.

On June 3, the leadership had enough and the army marched through the streets toward the square. Met by students who had barricaded the roads with burning busses, the troops opened fire, killing hundreds of protesters. By June 5, the massacre was over. Tiananmen Square was empty. The Goddess of Democracy had been toppled and ground to dust by tanks.

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The infamous “Tank Man” photograph from the Tiananmen Square Massacre.

The Chinese government was condemned internationally for the use of force against the protestors. The entire affair had been broadcast live on television and immortalized by photographer Jeff Widener who snapped an unforgettable picture of a lone man standing in the middle of Chang’an Avenue facing down an oncoming column of tanks. Western countries imposed economic sanctions and arms embargoes.

For its part, the communist government made widespread arrests of protesters and their supporters, suppressed other protests around China, expelled foreign journalists, strictly controlled coverage of the events in the domestic press, strengthened the police and internal security forces, and demoted or purged officials it deemed sympathetic to the protests.

The protests also led the government to set limits on political expression in China that have endured well into the 21st Century. Discussion of the Tiananmen Square protests is forbidden and textbooks have little, if any, information about the events. After the protests, officials banned controversial films and books, and shut down many newspapers. The government also announced it had seized 32 million contraband books and 2.4 million video and audio cassettes. Internet searches of “June 4” or “Tiananmen Square” made within China return censored results. Specific web pages with select keywords are censored, while other websites such as those of overseas Chinese democracy movements are blocked entirely. The censorship, however, has been inconsistent. Many sites have been blocked, unblocked, and re-blocked over the years, including YouTube, Wikipedia, and Flickr. The policy is much more stringent with Chinese-language sites than foreign-language ones. Social media censorship is more stringent during anniversaries. Even oblique references to the protests are usually deleted by government censors within hours. While the Chinese government allows a certain measure of freedom of speech and criticism of the government online, freedom of assembly is strictly controlled. Since 1989, there have been no major public demonstrations.

The massacre has not been forgotten outside of China. Since its destruction, numerous replicas and memorials of the Goddess of Democracy have been erected around the world, including in Hong Kong and Washington, D.C.


Although political change did not come to China, massive political change was underway in Moscow, and especially in the Soviet Union’s policy toward Eastern Europe.

The Sinatra Doctrine was a major break with the earlier Brezhnev Doctrine, under which the internal affairs of satellite states were tightly controlled by Moscow. The Brezhnev Doctrine had been used to justify the crushing of the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 and the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, as well as the invasion of the non-Warsaw Pact nation of Afghanistan in 1979. By the late 1980s, structural flaws within the Soviet system, growing economic problems, the rise of anti-communist sentiment and the effects of the Soviet-Afghan War made it increasingly impractical for the Soviet Union to impose its will on its neighbors.

In Poland, Solidarity had flourished because of good leadership, international support, and most importantly, because the government of the Soviet Union had decided not to intervene in Poland’s internal affairs.

In 1989, Gorbachev’s Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze announced that the Soviet Union recognized the freedom of choice of all countries, specifically including the Warsaw Pact nations of Eastern Europe. When pressed about his boss’s surprising declaration, Shevardnadze’s spokesman Gennadi Gerasimov told an interviewer that, “We now have the Frank Sinatra doctrine. He has a song, ‘I Did It My Way’. So every country decides on its own which road to take.” When asked if this meant that Moscow would accept the rejection of communist parties in the Soviet Bloc, he replied, “That’s for sure… political structures must be decided by the people who live there.”

This was an incredible change in global politics. Since 1945, the Soviet Union had maintained total domination over its satellite states. Now, Gorbachev was ready to let them walk away from communism altogether.

In fact, the Eastern Europeans had already acquired greater freedom. A month before Gerasimov’s statement, Poland had elected its first non-communist government. The government of Hungary had opened its border with Austria, dismantling the Iron Curtain on its own border. As Hungary was one of the few countries that East Germans could visit, thousands travelled there to flee across the newly opened border into the West. To the great annoyance of the East German government, the Hungarians refused to stop the exodus.

These developments greatly disturbed hardline communists such as the East German leader Erich Honecker, who condemned the end of the traditional unity of the Soviet Bloc and appealed to Moscow to rein in the Hungarians. Honecker faced a growing crisis at home, with massive anti-government demonstrations in Leipzig and other East German cities.

Initially, protesters were mostly people wanting to escapte to the West, chanting “Wir wollen raus!” (We want out!). Then protestors began to chant “Wir bleiben hier!” (We are staying here!) demanding a change of government. The protest demonstrations grew considerably and neared its height on November 4, 1989, when half a million people gathered to demand political change at the Alexanderplatz, East Berlin’s large public square and transportation hub.


In the middle of the chaos of the fall of 1989, Honecker, resigned. He had predicted that the Berlin Wall would stand for 50 or 100 more years if the conditions that had caused its construction did not change, but conditions were rapidly changing.

To reduce the social unrest, the new East German government decided to allow refugees to exit directly through crossing points between East Germany and West Germany, including between East and West Berlin.

Günter Schabowski, the communist party leader in East Berlin and the spokesperson for government, had the task of announcing the new regulations. However, he had not been involved in the discussions about the new regulations and had not been fully updated. Shortly before a press conference on November 9, he was handed a note announcing the changes, but given no further instructions on how to handle the information. These regulations had only been completed a few hours earlier and were to take effect the following day, so as to allow time to inform the border guards. But this starting time was not communicated to Schabowski.

At the end of the press conference, Schabowski read out loud the note he had been given. One of the reporters, asked when the regulations would take effect. After a few seconds’ hesitation, Schabowski assumed it would be the same day based on the wording of the note and replied, “As far as I know, it takes effect immediately, without delay.”

Excerpts from Schabowski’s press conference were the lead story on West Germany’s two main news programs that night. This, of course, meant that the news was broadcast to nearly all of East Germany as well. News anchorman Hanns Joachim Friedrichs proclaimed, “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 began gathering at the six checkpoints between East and West Berlin, demanding that border guards immediately open the gates. The surprised and overwhelmed guards began making hectic telephone calls to their superiors to find out what to do.

It soon became clear that no one among the East German government would take personal responsibility for issuing orders to use force against the protesters. The vastly outnumbered soldiers had no way to hold back the huge crowd of East German citizens. Finally, at 10:45 at night, Harald Jäger, the commander of the Bornholmer Straße border crossing yielded, ordering the guards to open the checkpoints and allow people through to West Berlin. As the Easterners swarmed through, they were greeted by Westerners waiting with flowers and champagne amid wild rejoicing. Soon afterward, a crowd of West Berliners jumped on top of the Wall, and were soon joined by East Germans. They danced together to celebrate their new freedom.

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Berliners climbed onto the Berlin Wall

Television coverage of citizens demolishing sections of the Wall that night was soon followed by the East German regime announcing ten new border crossings, including the historically significant locations of Potsdamer Platz, Glienicker Brücke, and Bernauer Straße. Crowds gathered on both sides of the historic crossings, waiting for hours to cheer the bulldozers that tore down portions of the Wall to reconnect roads that had been divided for years, and images of everyday Berliners destroying the wall were broadcast around the world. The end of the Iron Curtain had come without bloodshed. It was an emotional moment for freedom-loving people everywhere.

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Berliners brought hammers to chip away at 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 concert in Berlin. He concluded the performance with the great German composer Beethoven’s 9th Symphony and in the final movement, Ode to Joy, he asked the chorus to sing Freihairt (freedom) instead of Freude (joy).

In June 1990, the East German military officially began dismantling the Wall. Virtually every road that was severed by the Berlin Wall was reconstructed and reopened by the end of the summer. Today, little is left of the Wall, a scar that has been erased by the Berliners who hated it.

The fall of the Wall marked the first critical step towards German reunification, which formally concluded a mere 339 days later on October 3, 1990 with the dissolution of East Germany and the official reunification of Germany.


Unlike in China, Gorbachev’s policies of glasnost and perestroika in the Soviet Union were specifically designed to permit more freedom by allowing a free press and the election of members of the government. Gorbachev had wanted to extend political freedom in order to preserve the communist economic system, but in the end his reforms set in motion events that would break up the nation itself.

Radical reformists were increasingly convinced that Gorbachev should abandon communism and transition to a market economy even if the eventual outcome meant the disintegration of the Soviet Union into several independent states. Boris Yeltsin, the newly elected leader of Russia, the largest and most powerful of the Soviet Union’s republics, was also openly critical of the slow pace of Gorbachev’s reforms.

But not everyone welcomed 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 coup organizers expected some popular support but found that public sympathy in large cities and in the republics was largely against them, manifested by public demonstrations, especially in Moscow.

Russian President Boris Yeltsin condemned the coup. Thousands of Muscovites came out to defend the White House, the Russian parliament building and Yeltsin’s office, the symbolic seat of Russian sovereignty at the time. The organizers tried but ultimately failed to arrest Yeltsin, who rallied opposition to the coup with a speech atop a tank. The special forces dispatched by the coup leaders refused to storm the barricaded building. The coup leaders also neglected to jam foreign news broadcasts, so many Russians watched everything unfold live on CNN. Even Gorbachev was able to stay abreast of developments by tuning into the BBC World Service on a small transistor radio.

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

After three days, on August 21, 1991, the coup collapsed. The organizers were detained and Gorbachev returned as president, albeit with his influence much depleted. Three days later, Gorbachev dissolved the Central Committee of the Communist Party, resigned as the party’s general secretary, and dissolved all party units in the government, effectively ending communist rule in the Soviet Union and dissolving the only remaining unifying force in the country.

The Soviet Union collapsed with dramatic speed in the last quarter of 1991. By the end of September, Gorbachev no longer had the authority to influence events outside of Moscow. He was challenged even there by Yeltsin, who had begun taking over what remained of the Soviet government, including the Kremlin. Between August and December, ten republics declared their independence.

In a nationally televised speech early in the morning of December 25, 1991, Gorbachev resigned as president of the Soviet Union. He declared the office extinct, and all of its powers, including control of the nuclear arsenal, were ceded to Russian President Boris Yeltsin.

That night, after his resignation address, Gorbachev left the Kremlin, the Soviet flag was lowered for the last time and the Russian tricolor was raised in its place, symbolically marking the end of the Soviet Union. On that same day, the President of the United States George H.W. Bush held a brief televised speech officially recognizing the independence of the 11 former Soviet republics. The following day Yeltsin moved into Gorbachev’s former office.

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia radically transformed from a centrally planned economy to a globally integrated market economy. Corrupt and haphazard privatization processes turned major state-owned firms over to politically connected oligarchs, which left control of Russia’s wealth concentrated among a few enormously rich individuals. The result was disastrous, the economy fell more than 40% by 1999, hyperinflation ensued which wiped out personal savings, and crime spread rapidly. Difficulties in collecting taxes amid the collapsing economy and a dependence on short-term borrowing to finance budget deficits led to the 1998 Russian financial crisis. Many Russians began longing for the order and predictability of the old days.

Today, Russia has a free market economy but control of the nation’s wealth continues to be in the hands of a few of the world’s most wealthy men. The Russian government, like many of the governments of the former soviet republics, looks far more like the dictatorships of the Cold War era than the democracies of the West.


After the Cold War ended, communism did indeed end up on the “ash heap of history.” As an economic system it had failed.

Vietnam’s leaders followed the example of China. They opened up the economy, creating a vibrant free-market system, while maintaining strict political control. The United States and Vietnam maintain a positive relationship today.

Cuba’s leadership, under the aging Fidel Castro and now his brother Raul, tried to hold on to communism. However, during the Cold War their economy had been supported financially by the Soviet Union. After 1991, they were set adrift and the Cuban economy collapsed. Faced with ever deepening poverty, the Cuban government has begun to allow limited private enterprise. The Castros, however, do not seem to be interested in relinquishing political power any time soon.

Only North Korea remains a Cold War-like opponent of the United States. Now ruled by the third generation of the Kim Family, the North has developed nuclear weapons as a deterrent to attack. Its only patron, China, is increasingly fed up with the problems its small neighbor creates. The economy, still based on communism, is in disarray. Without imports of rice, there would be mass starvation. Today, North Korea is one of the world’s poorest nations, while on the other side of the DMZ, South Korea is one of the most vibrant. Truly, the two Koreas are proof that Reagan was right: democracy and a free market system are the paths to prosperity.


Although the Cold War ended more than 20 years ago, its legacy continues to be tremendously important.

After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the post-Cold War world became unipolar instead of bipolar, with the United States the sole remaining superpower. The Cold War defined the political role of the United States as the leader of the Free World and institutionalized a global commitment to large-scale deployment of American servicemen, as well as a permanent, peacetime military industrial complex. Without the bipolar dynamic, the United States had to find a new role for itself in the world.

During the Cold War, both the United States and the Soviet Union used large portions of their nations’ wealth to fund military buildups and wars. In addition to the loss of life by uniformed soldiers, millions died in the superpowers’ proxy wars around the globe. Although 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 breakdown of the governments in a number former communist nations resulted in new civil and ethnic conflicts, particularly in the former Yugoslavia. In Eastern Europe, the end of the Cold War has ushered in an era of economic growth and a large increase in the number of liberal democracies, while in other parts of the world, such as Afghanistan, independence was accompanied by state failure.

Despite the end of the Cold War, military development and spending has continued, particularly in the deployment of nuclear-armed ballistic missiles and defensive systems. Because there was no formalized treaty ending the Cold War, the former superpowers have continued to maintain and even improve or modify existing nuclear weapons and delivery systems. Moreover, other nations not previously acknowledged as nuclear-weapons states have developed and tested nuclear-explosive devices including India, Pakistan, and North Korea.

Attitudes learned during the Cold War have proven hard to unlearn. Mistrust and rivalry between Americans and Russians is still potent. NATO’s expansion into the nations of Eastern Europe is seen by many Russians as a threat to their security. While violent conflict between the two Cold War foes may be less likely now than in the past, cyberwar and espionage are still very much alive. In 2016, Russian government agents launched a concerted effort to use social media and the news media to manipulate the American presidential election.


The Cold War ended in a series of steps over a few years. In the 1970s America’s warming relationship with China opened up the opportunity for China to transition away from a communist economic system. In the 1980s Ronald Reagan correctly deduced that making arms-reduction treaties with Mikael Gorbachev would give the Soviet leader the money he needed to reform his government, leading eventually to political freedom in Eastern Europe and the fall of the Berlin Wall. Two years later the Soviet Union itself disintegrated.

But what made all this happen? Was it the work of political leaders or the people of the nations themselves who were fed up with poverty and political persecution? Why did the Cold War end?



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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