How Gorbachev Ended the Cold War

YouIs there a common belief among the Soviet elite, Western politicians and leaders in Eastern Europe in 1985? It was the fact that the Warsaw Pact states had to maintain Soviet-style Communist systems. Washington politicians spoke a lot about the rollback of Communism in the 1950s. But Communist systems continued on regardless. While Western leaders condemned Soviet invading Hungary in 1956, and Czechoslovakia 1968 in the 1960s, none of America’s presidents considered any military responses. Ronald Reagan, Mikhail Gorbachev and Mikhail Gorbachev (who died at 91 on August 30, 2008) later agreed that nukes could not win and must never again be fought.

What happened? The decommunization of Eastern Europe and the end of the Cold War was not a consequence of Reagan’s military build-up and his starry-eyed Strategic Defense Initiative. Even Robert Gates joked that “there appeared to be only two people on the planet who actually thought SDI would work—Reagan and Gorbachev”. Gorbachev’s concern was not because he believed this would work in the manner Reagan hoped, but because to nullify a missile defense system meant overwhelming it with the sheer number of incoming missiles, some with nuclear warheads and some without. The result was an acceleration in the arms race. Gorbachev wasn’t so happy with this prospect.

Reagan’s presidency coincided with the last two years of Leonid Brezhnev’s Soviet leadership, the whole of the short Kremlin tenures of Yuri Andropov and Konstantin Chernenko, and the first four years of Gorbachev as general secretary of the Soviet Communist Party. There was no fundamental change in Eastern Europe until these four leaders took power.

In the 1950s, 1960s, and late 1940s the U.S. possessed military supremacy over the Soviet Union. Communism did not spread to other parts of the world, but it was also sustained in Eastern Europe. It is therefore odd to say, like some, that during the middle of the 1980s, when the U.S.S.R. was in a military parity, the Soviet leadership could not resist the temptation to try to end the Cold War.

The Soviet party-state chiefs enjoyed huge advantages as long it was not too hot and cold. It was easier to keep the status quo and avoid ideological contamination by being isolated politically. Constant threats from the imperialist menace justified strict party control and vigilante KGB action against foes at home and abroad.

Although maintaining the military capabilities for Mutually Assured Destruction took up a greater share of Soviet economic activity than any comparable American policy, it was still a significant cost that Soviet leaders had to bear, encouraged by their most powerful institutions. Gorbachev needed boldness and political finesse to manage the military-industrial system. An example of this was the way that he flew unscheduled, unchallenged to the Red Square edge in May 1987 with Matthias Rust (a young West German) as a demonstration of his political finesse. Gorbachev took advantage of the situation to fire not only the conservative Minister for Defense, but also about 100 military officers who opposed the large-scale arm reductions that he would make.

Gorbachev’s contributions to ending the Cold War were three. First, to eliminate its ideologic foundations. In a break with Soviet Marxism-Leninism, Gorbachev called in 1988 for a “deideologization of interstate relations” and argued for priority to be given to values and interests that united the whole of humanity rather than those of any one class, nation or group. These included “the worldwide ecological threats” which, ahead of most Western leaders, he declared in his 1988 speech at the United Nations to be “simply frightening.”

His acceptance of radical change in the Soviet social and political systems was the second key contribution to the end of the Cold War. The new tolerance within the Soviet Union itself—from an end to persecution of religion to a burgeoning freedom of speech and, before long, of publication reduced the sense of Soviet threat. In 1988, Gorbachev declared that there would be new elections to elect a legislature. This was an important step in making the political system unique.

Gorbachev’s third fundamental contribution to ending the Cold War was his recognition that means in politics are as important as ends, and that included his commitment to change by peaceful means. The former head of Soviet Space Research, Roald Sagdeev, who emigrated to the U.S. in 1989, remarked on Gorbachev’s faith in persuasion, and how this, too, differentiated him from previous Soviet political bosses who would just issue an order and expect to have it obeyed.

At the international level, nothing was more important than Gorbachev’s eschewal of the use of force. What had appeared in 1985 too remote for serious consideration—the end of Communist rule in Eastern Europe—was calmly accepted by Gorbachev. He did not consider using force to stop this. He was actually working to dismantle the Communist system within his country. Responding to later Russian criticism that he had given up the countries of the Soviet bloc without a fight, his response was, “To whom did we surrender them? To their own people.”

Anybody who believes that Soviet leaders could not accept their rule in East-Central Europe was wrong, and then disintegration of the Soviet Union is inevitable must look at Ukraine in 2022. This war is an example of how the Soviet Union, which was more militarily powerful than the United States, had the choice to maintain their independence by using force. It is confirmation that the values of political leaders—a Gorbachev or a Putin—still matter.

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