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Like every war, the Cold War finally ended. The United States and our NATO allies and the Soviet Union and the other communist nations of the world just gave up, and no long faced off against each other with nuclear weapons. It is hard to imagine that after all of the money spent and the lives lost that the two great super-powers would just give up. Of course it wasn’t really that simple. It is clear that the Cold War needs to be called a “cold war,” as it was not a war fought on the ground like the world had been used to. It just ended without the terrible fight that everybody was preparing for. Why is that? We couldn’t stop Hitler without a war. We couldn’t stop the Cold War from starting. So why did the Cold War end in such a quiet way?


When the communists took control in China in 1949, they created the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and sent those who wanted to be free to the island of Taiwan. The United States said that the new free country, the Republic of China (ROC) on Taiwan, was the only government of all of China. The ROC held the Chinese seat on the UN Security Council. But President Nixon sent clues that he wanted to get along better with the communist PRC government. After several quiet signs back and forth between Nixon and the PRC, Nixon sent his national security advisor Henry Kissinger on a secret trip to Beijing, where he met with PRC Premier Zhou Enlai.

On July 15, 1971, Nixon surprised the world by saying that he would visit the PRC the following year. Most people would have found fault with a president that they thought was soft on communism by visiting mainland China, or who wanted to make the US relationship with China normal again. But Nixon was different. As a past member of the House Un-American Activities Committee, Nixon’s history as a fighter against communism gave him the cover he needed to make a change in America’s policy toward Beijing. His week-long visit in February 1972 allowed the American people to see pictures of China for the first time in over 20 years. Nixon and his advisors had important talks with the PRC leadership, Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai, and a meeting with Chairman Mao Zedong. He and First Lady Pat Nixon visited the Great Wall of China, Hangzhou, and Shanghai. Mrs. Nixon also visited schools, factories, and hospitals.

Nixon did not suddenly believe that communism was okay. The reason that he went to China was for the United States to get the upper hand in our relationship with the Soviet Union. The Soviets in Moscow and the communists in China were suspicious of each other, and had even fought a minor war over their border. By normalizing the relationship with the Chinese, Nixon got the two communist powers to compete against each other. President Richard Nixon’s 1972 visit to communist China was a very smart thing to do and the high point of Nixon’s rapprochement between the United States and China. His official visit to China was the first time an American president had visited the PRC, and it ended a 25-year break in talks and diplomatic ties between the two countries. It was the key step in normalizing the relationship between the United States and communist China.

At the end of his trip, the United States and the PRC governments sent out the Shanghai Communiqué, a report of their ideas on foreign policy. It is still the basis of Sino-American relations. In the communiqué, both countries agreed to work to fully normalize their relationship with each other. Kissinger also said that the United States planned to pull its military out of the island of Taiwan.

By recognizing the government of mainland China, Nixon set off a change in the power of the world. The PRC took over China’s seat at the UN Security Council. The United States moved its embassy from Taipei to Beijing. However, this did not end American support for Taiwan. The government of the Republic of China is still an important American partner in Asia. America holds military training together with Taiwan and sells the ROC advanced weapons systems and aircraft. Of course, the communist PRC does not like this. Officially, the United States has a One China Policy – that is, the US believes that the PRC and the ROC should be united under one government. But because they are doing business with both, Americans are as committed to keeping communists from taking over Taiwan as they were in 1949.

Kissinger and Nixon also wanted to get help in ending the Vietnam War. They hoped that the US relationship with Russia and China would encourage Ho Chi Minh’s government in Hanoi to make a deal with the United States to end the war. Nixon wanted Ho Chi Minh to feel all alone because his two biggest trading partners were dealing directly with the Americans. Because they were willing to have meetings with Nixon, the Russians and Chinese showed that their one-on-one relations with the United States were more important than their support for Vietnam.

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

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

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

The United States and China wanted to show their new friendship to the world. One of the best ways to do this was to have a series of ping pong matches between Chinese and Americans. The friendly contests showed that the people of the two countries could be both patriotic and competitive in ways that were not dangerous. In fact, Ping Pong Diplomacy became a way for competing countries to share their way or life with each other and build better relationships. Also, China gave a gift of two pandas to the National Zoo in Washington, DC. Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing were the first giant pandas to live in the United States, and were beloved signs friendship.

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


Ronald Reagan was already well known when he was elected president in 1980. He had been a movie star. He had tried to get rid of communists in Hollywood during the Red Scare of the 1950s. He had been governor of California, and he had run against President Gerald Ford for the 1976 Republican Party nomination for president.

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

The Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan made him angry. So he ordered a huge increase of America’s military, and he started dealing with the Soviet Union in new ways. He started up again the B-1 bomber program that President Carter had stopped. He began making MX Peacekeeper missiles. These MIRV missiles each had many warheads that could be pointed at different enemy positions. The Soviet Union, the US, and NATO each set up short-range nuclear missiles. Raegan also ordered the building of a system that would be able to shoot down Soviet misses coming toward the United States.

Reagan’s problem with the Soviet Union was more than just about military power. Together with Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher of the United Kingdom, Reagan put down the Soviet Union’s ideas about how their government should be run. In a famous speech on June 8, 1982, he told the British Parliament, “The forward march of freedom and democracy will leave Marxism-Leninism on the ash-heap of history.” On March 3, 1983, he said that communism would fall. “Communism is another sad, bizarre chapter in human history, whose last pages even now are being written,” he said. A few days later in a speech to the National Association of Evangelicals, Reagan called the Soviet Union “an evil empire.”

Nixon and Kissinger had wanted to keep the Soviet Union in check and find ways for the super-powers to live together in the same world. But Reagan and his aides tried to face down Soviet power everywhere in the world. Reagan also very much wanted the US to get over of the Vietnam Syndrome (not wanting to use military power in foreign countries for fear of being beaten again), which shaped American foreign policy since the 1970s. Under a policy that came to be known as the Reagan Doctrine, he and the people who worked for him gave direct and hidden help to movements pushing back against communism. They were trying to move countries in Africa, Asia, and Latin America away from communism and toward capitalism. Sometimes this meant giving support to authoritarian leaders who did not support freedom, just to keep them “safe” from Soviet influence. Reagan also sent the CIA’s Special Activities Division to Afghanistan and Pakistan. They gave weapons to the Jujahidin soldiers, trained them, and led them against the Soviet Army. Many writers of history think that this was a very important part of how the Soviets were thrown out of Afghanistan. Unfortunately, some of those American weapons were later used against American soldiers during the war in Afghanistan in the 2000s.


In 1983, to protect the United States from attack, Reagan introduced the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), a program that would use ground and space-based systems to shoot down nuclear missiles coming toward the US. He thought that this kind of security would make nuclear war impossible. Many people did not believe that this could ever work, and they called the project “Star Wars,” after the popular Star Wars movies. The SDI would give the US much more power over the Soviet Union, who had nothing good to say about it. If the Americans could stop Soviet missiles in the air, the Soviet Union would have no power to keep America from starting a nuclear war.

In fact, making these missiles work is very difficult, and this never happened during Reagan’s lifetime. The US Missile Defense Agency is still trying to build missiles that could shoot down missiles that might be fired at us 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.


Americans supported Reagan and his way of fighting the Cold War. In 1984 he won the race for president again. More people voted for him than any other president in US history. But his work to fight off communism almost brought down his administration during his second four years in office.

Americans learned of the Iran-Contra Scandal in November of 1986. High up Reagan officers had helped sell weapons to Iran without telling anyone. At that time, no country was allowed to sell weapons to Iran. The money from the sale was then given to the Contras who were fighting the Sandinistas in Nicaragua.

President Reagan agreed with the Contra’s fight, but it is not known if he gave the okay for the money to be given to the Contras. The Tower Commission studied this and did find anything that showed that he did. But they did find that he had done a poor job of keeping an eye on the people who worked for him. They said that 14 of those people had broken the law, and eleven of them were found guilty. But, because he was their boss, President Reagan told the American people that he was at fault for the Iran-Contra Scandal. Those who thought that he was doing a good job fell from 67% to 46%, the largest single drop for any president in history. But that number climbed back up to 64%, the highest that any president ever had at the end of his time in office. Because of the scandal, the American people had a better idea of what their leaders were doing to fight communism in the Third World. They began to wonder if the US should even be involved in proxy wars.


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

The Soviet Union’s large military, their state-owned farms, and their way of making things, which wasted a lot of money, really hurt the Soviet economy. It was barely growing at all. At the same time, Saudi Arabia started producing more oil. The cost of oil fell to one-third of what it had been. Selling oil to other countries earned 60% of what the Soviet Union made by selling things to others, so this really hurt them. The economy of the Soviet Union was close to falling apart.

To quickly change the way the Soviet economy worked, Gorbachev put out a plan based on what he called perestroika (restructuring) and glasnost (liberalization, openness). He needed money to make these changes. The Cold War was costing too much, especially for the large military that was needed. Gorbachev wanted to use some of that money to fix the economy. So he offered to cut back his military and nuclear weapons in Eastern Europe, and to change the way that the Soviet Union looked at the US.

Many of the people that Reagan called on for advice were not sure that Gorbachev was serious about cutting back on nuclear missiles. But Reagan saw the real change that Gorbachev was making. He wanted to give Gorbachev an opportunity to continue making those changes. Reagan thought that if he could get the Soviets to look at how well the American economy was working, they too would want to have a free market, capitalist economy. Reagan and Gorbachev met together five times in New York and Moscow. Their most famous meeting was in Reykjavik, Iceland in 1985 to discuss a nuclear missile deal. They agreed that they wanted to see a world without nuclear weapons, and they promised that they would get rid of all of their nuclear bombs. But their aides quickly said that such a move would not get the okay from other leaders in their governments. So they settled for a much smaller agreement. There were big differences between the Soviet Union and the US, but Reagan and Gorbachev got along well. Their working relationship is still seen as a model of how respect for each other and talking together can advance peace in the world.

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

However, Reagan’s way of dealing with the Soviet Union was not always friendly. Reagan was set on the idea that the United States would stay the leader of the free world. As such, he believed that it was part of his job to continue to speak out against the evils of the communist system. Against the advice of his aides, Reagan decided to visit Berlin and to speak in front of the Berlin Wall. Like President Kennedy years before, Reagan was very clear that America would keep West Berlin free, and he called on Gorbachev to let the people of Eastern Europe travel to the West. In what has become one of the most well remembered lines from the Cold War, he said at the end of his speech, “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 giving his “Tear Down this Wall Speech” in front of the Berlin Wall.


The first clear sign that the people of the communist world were tired of living with their failed system was the Solidarity movement in Poland. Started in 1980 by builders of ships, Solidarity was a labor union. Solidarity was a challenge to communist countries that thought of all workers as part of one great union run by the government. For workers, this kind of union was not worth anything. Led by Lech Walesa, the shipbuilders went on strike. They just stopped working. Poland’s government viscously fought back against Solidarity, but in the end it agreed to allow the workers to start their own union. By 1982, one-third of all of the workers in Poland had joined Solidarity, and Poland was forced to accept the first labor union not run by the government in the communist world. Walesa was seen as a hero by the people of Poland and by the West. In 1983 he was given the Nobel Peace Prize for what he had done.

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

Walesa could not have done all that he did if people did not see that he was right, and were not willing to give money to get Solidarity started. One very important person who supported Walesa was Pope John Paul II. John Paul II was from Poland. He thought that religious leaders were supposed to stand up for suffering people. As head of the Catholic Church, John Paul II tried to change things to make the world a better place. He was especially concerned about the people of the communist world, and he regularly spoke out in favor of freedom and democracy. His voice against communism was heard around the world, and he inspired many people, especially American Catholics, to give money to support Solidarity. Because he was a religious leader and not the president of a country, the pope could show himself to be a voice of reason, not tied to one side or another.

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

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


The Sinatra Doctrine was a major break with the earlier Brezhnev Doctrine, under which the affairs of the countries that were run by Moscow were told what to do. The Brezhnev Doctrine had been used to put down the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, the take over of Afghanistan in 1979 and the take over of Czechoslovakia in 1968. But by the late 1980s, the way that Soviet communism was set up, growing economic problems, feelings against communism, and the results of the Soviet-Afghan War made it more difficult for the Soviet Union to tell the countries under its control what to do.

Huge political changes were taking place in Moscow, and in the way the Soviet Union tried to deal with Eastern Europe. In 1989, Gorbachev’s Foreign Minister, Eduard Shevardnadze, said that it was okay with the Soviet Union for all of the countries in Eastern Europe, including the Warsaw Pact countries, to decide how they wanted to be run. Gennadi Gerasimov, who spoke for Shevardnadze, said that, “We now have the Frank Sinatra doctrine. (Frank Sinatra was a famous American singer.) 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 allow communist countries run by the Soviet Union to really do this, he answered, “That’s for sure… political structures must be decided by the people who live there.” This was an amazing change. Since 1945, the Soviet Union had kept total control over Eastern Europe. Now Gorbachev was ready to let them just walk away from communism.

In fact, the people of Eastern Europe already had more freedom. A month before Gerasimov’s statement, Poland had chosen its first government that was not communist. The government of Hungary had opened its border with Austria. Hungary was one of the few countries that the people of East Germany could visit, and thousands of them travelled there to escape across the border into the West. Even though this upset the East German government very much, Hungary refused to stop the East Germans from doing this. These events upset those who really thought that communism was the right way to go, people like East German leader Erich Honecker. He pleaded with Moscow to the stop Hungary from doing this. Honecker had a growing problem at home, where huge protests against East Germany’s government were happening in Leipzig and other East German cities.

At first, people who spoke out against their government were usually those wanting to escape to the West. When they were together in a protest, they shouted, “Wir wollen raus!” (We want out!). Then the protestors began to chant “Wir bleiben hier!” (We are staying here!). The protests grew much larger, and on November 4, 1989, half a million people met at the Alexanderplatz, East Berlin’s large public square, to demand a change of government.


In the fall of 1989, Honecker gave up and left his job as the head of East Germany. He had said that the Berlin Wall would stand for 50 or 100 more years, but the situation was quickly changing.

To lower the social problems, the new East German government decided to allow people to leave East Germany through crossing points between East Germany and West Germany, including between East and West Berlin.

On November 9, Günter Schabowski, the communist party leader in East Berlin, was handed a note about this change, but was not told what to do with the information. These new rules had only been completed a few hours earlier, and were to start the following day, to give enough time to tell the border guards. But this starting time was not told to Schabowski. At the end of a press conference that day, Schabowski read out loud the note he had been given. One of the reporters asked when the new rules would take effect. Schabowski thought that it would be the same day, based on what the note said, and he answered, “As far as I know, it takes effect immediately, without delay.”

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

East Germans gathered at the six checkpoints between East and West Berlin, demanding that border guards immediately open the gates. The small number of soldiers had no way to hold back the huge number of East Germans. Finally, at 10:45 at night, Harald Jäger, the commander of the Bornholmer Straße border crossing, gave the order to the guards to open the gate and allow people through to West Berlin. As the East Germans quickly moved through the gate, they were met by a crowd of very happy West Berlin people, who were waiting with flowers and champagne. Pretty soon a group of people from West Berlin jumped on top of the Wall, and were joined by East Germans. They danced together to celebrate their new freedom.

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People of Berlin on top of the Berlin Wall

Television showed people of Berlin tearing down parts of the Wall that night. Very quickly the East German government announced the opening of ten new border crossings, including Potsdamer Platz, Glienicker Brücke, and Bernauer Straße. Large groups of people gathered on both sides, waiting for hours to cheer the bulldozers that tore down those parts of the Wall. The fall of the Iron Curtain had come without anybody being hurt. It was an exciting moment for people all over the world who loved freedom.

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

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

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

The fall of the Wall was the first step towards East and West Germany joining together as before. It happened just 339 days later on October 3, 1990, when the country of East Germany came to an end, and b.


The changes in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe prompted people in communist China to stand up for civil rights in their own country. In 1989, students across the country got together and began calling for freedom of speech, assembly and the press. Chinese leaders could not agree on what to do. Some wanted to meet with the students to agree on changes. Others saw the protests as a dangerous first step toward civil war and thought that they should be put down with force.

By May, a hunger strike led by students inspired others around the country, and the protests spread to 400 cities. But things did not turn out the way they had in Eastern Europe. Finally, China’s top leader, Deng Xiaoping, decided to use force. Martial law was declared on May 20, and as many as 300,000 soldiers were sent to Beijing. The protests ended in Tiananmen Square in the heart of Beijing in June, 1989. There, around a million young students and those who supported them had gathered, where they had put up a 33-foot tall statue named, “Goddess of Democracy.” It was built in only four days out of foam, papier-mâché, and metal. It looked a lot like the Statue of Liberty. It was made as large as possible to discourage the government from taking it down.

On June 3, the leadership had had enough, and the army marched through the streets toward the square. Known in China as the June Fourth Incident, the army was met by students who had blocked the roads with burning busses. In what became known in the West as the Tiananmen Square Massacre, the soldiers opened fire with guns and tanks, killing hundreds of people. By June 5, the massacre was over. Tiananmen Square was empty, and the “Goddess of Democracy” had been knocked over and ground to dust by tanks.

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

The communist government arrested a lot of protesters and their supporters, put down other protests around China, sent foreign news reporters home, took over tight control of what could be reported of the events, built up the police and security forces, and got rid of officials that they thought agreed with the protests.

The communist government also set limits on what people can say about their political thoughts. These rules have lasted into the 21st Century. Talk about the Tiananmen Square Massacre is not allowed, and school books have almost no information about the event. After the protests, the government threw out films and books and cassettes and anything having to do with the massacre. They closely watch everything on the Internet having to do with “June 4” or “Tiananmen Square.” Many sites have been blocked, unblocked, and blocked again over the years, including YouTube, Wikipedia, and Flickr. This happens more often with Chinese-language sites than with foreign-language ones. While the Chinese government allows some freedom of speech online, freedom of assembly is very limited. Since 1989, there have been no major public protests.

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

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


Unlike in China, Gorbachev’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 wanted to increase political freedom in order to save the communist economic system, but instead his reforms started the events that would break up the nation itself.

People who strongly wanted reform were sure that Gorbachev should give up on communism and move to a market economy, even if that meant the break up of the Soviet Union into several independent states. Boris Yeltsin, the new leader of Russia, the largest and most powerful republic in the Soviet Union, also let everybody know that he thought that Gorbachev was moving too slowly in making changes.

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

Russian President Boris Yeltsin condemned the coup. Thousands of people from Moscow came out to guard the White House, the Russian parliament building and Yeltsin’s office. The organizers of the coup tried, but were not able to arrest Yeltsin. While standing on top of a tank, he called for people to fight against the coup. The special army soldiers sent by the coup leaders to take over the White House would not do so. Because the coup leaders did not jam foreign news broadcasts, many Russians watched everything take place live on CNN. Even Gorbachev was able to hear what was happening by listening to the BBC World Service on the radio.

Primary Source: Photograph

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

After three days the coup fell apart. The organizers were arrested and Gorbachev returned as president, but with much less power than before. Three days later, he did away with the Central Committee of the Communist Party and all communist party units in the government. He quit as the party’s General Secretary. This ended communist rule in the Soviet Union, the only remaining force that was holding the country together.

Without communism holding the country together, the Soviet Union itself fell apart very quickly. By the end of September 1991, Gorbachev no longer had the power to control any events outside of Moscow. Yeltsin started taking over what was left of the Soviet government, including the Kremlin. Between August and December, ten republics declared their independence from the Soviet Union.

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

After the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia went through a major change. It moved from an economy planned by the government to an economy connected to the rest of the world based on how much people were willing to pay for things. But there was a lot of cheating going on as this was happening. Many companies that had been owned by the government were turned over to people who knew important people in the new government. This left control of Russia’s wealth in the hands of a few very, very rich men. It was a disaster. The economy fell more than 40% by 1999. People’s savings were wiped out. It was hard for the government to collect taxes, which had to borrow money to pay its bills. All of this led to the 1998 Russian financial crisis. Many Russians started wishing for the old, communist days.

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

Despite all of the pushing back and forth that the East and West did against other, the huge arms race, and all of the lives lost in the proxy wars of the Third World, communism and the Cold War came to a peaceful end. Communism ended because the people of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union rose up against it. Communism really did up on the “ash heap of history,” as President Reagan said it would. As an economic system, communism failed.


Vietnam’s leaders followed the example of China. They opened up the country’s economy, creating a strong free-market system, while keeping tight political control. The United States and Vietnam have a good relationship today.

Cuba, now run by Fidel Castro’s brother Raul, tried to hold on to communism. During the Cold War, the Soviet Union paid Cuba to keep its communist economy going. When the Soviet Union fell, Cuba’s economy fell along with it. With poverty growing all of the time, the Cuban government is beginning to let some private businesses start up. But Castro does not seem to want to give up political power anytime soon.

Only North Korea is left as a Cold War-like opponent of the United States. Now ruled by the third generation of the Kim family, North Korea has developed nuclear weapons to keep other countries from attacking it. China, the only country that still backs North Korea, is becoming more and more fed up with the problems that it creates. The economy, still based on communism, is in trouble big time. Without getting rice from other countries, millions of people would die. Today, North Korea is one of the poorest countries in the world, while on the other side of the DMZ, South Korea is one of the most successful countries. Without a doubt, the two Koreas show that Reagan was right: democracy and a free market system are the way to financial success.


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

After the Soviet Union fell apart, the United States became the only world super-power. The Cold War made the United States the leader of the Free World. It was expected that America would always send large numbers of soldiers and goods around the world to keep the peace. Without the Cold War and another super-power to compete against, the United States had to find a new role to play in the world.

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

The fall of many of the communist countries led to new civil and ethnic conflicts, especially in the former country of Yugoslavia. In Eastern Europe, the end of the Cold War brought new economic growth and many more democratic countries. But in other countries, such as Afghanistan, freedom came with the failure of government.

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

Bad feelings learned during the Cold War have been hard to let go of. Russia and America still don’t trust each other. The spread of NATO into the countries of Eastern Europe is seen by Russia as a danger to their safety. While violent conflict between the two Cold War rivals may be less likely to happen now than in the past, spying on each other, and now cyberwar, are still very much alive today.


The Cold War ended in a series of steps over a few years. In the 1970s America’s better relationship with China opened up the opportunity for China to slowly move away from a communist economic system. In the 1980s, Ronald Reagan thought that making deals with Mikael Gorbachev to cut down on the number of weapons would give the Soviet Union leader the money he needed to change his government. He hoped that someday this would lead to the fall of the Berlin Wall and freedom in Eastern Europe. Two years later the Soviet Union broke apart.

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



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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