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Who Won the Cold War?

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There's an African proverb that says: "When elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers." For more than 45 years , the elephantine superpowers of the former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) and the United States fought the Cold War — and some might argue the grass was, in this case, the rest of the world.

While the Cold War was largely a war of threats, there was plenty of real violence, too. The aggression between the U.S. and USSR spilled over into places like Angola and Nicaragua . The two nations fought proxy wars , conflicts between warring parties of a third nation that were supported by the U.S. and USSR. The soil of European nations served as nuclear missile sites for both sides.

In addition to the 15 member states of the USSR, there were seven Soviet satellite states in Eastern Europe where populations were repressed and subjugated by communist rule. Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet condoned kidnapping and murder of the leftist population under an American-backed regime. And the global psyche was plagued by anxiety over possible nuclear war.

The tense standoff that characterized the Cold War ended when the USSR collapsed completely in 1991 , becoming a number of independent countries and the Russian Federation. This collapse was preceded by revolutions in the satellite states of Poland and Czechoslovakia, as well as the fall of the Berlin Wall in Germany. When the USSR fell, the Soviet states dissolved.

The end of the Cold War came so abruptly that even years later, disbelief gripped the West. A 1998 episode of the American TV show " The Simpsons " depicts a Russian delegate at the United Nations referring to his country as the Soviet Union. "Soviet Union?" asks the American delegate. "I thought you guys broke up." "Nyet! That's what we wanted you to think!" the Soviet delegate replies and laughs ominously [source: IMDB ].

This scene underscores a hallmark of the Cold War's conclusion: uncertainty. What exactly led to the downfall of the Soviet Union? Was the collapse of the USSR inevitable, or did America hasten its disintegration?

Did the U.S. Beat the Soviet Union?

Did the ussr die of natural causes.

Ronald Reagan Brandenburg Gate speech

Historians who believe that the U.S. won the Cold War largely agree that American victory was guaranteed through finances. The United States bled Soviets coffers dry through proxy wars and the nuclear arms race . But this financial drain may not have been possible without the unprecedented stockpiling of nuclear weapons.

The world came as close as it ever has to the brink of nuclear war between Oct. 18 and 29, 1962, during the Cuban missile crisis . The showdown over the presence of Soviet nuclear missiles in Cuba, just 90 miles south of the tip of Florida in the U.S., culminated in the USSR's withdrawal. In a flurry of communications, Russia agreed to remove the missiles in Cuba if the U.S. agreed not to invade the island. The U.S. also agreed to withdraw its missiles from Turkey. The situation was tense enough to inspire the creation of the hotline between Washington and Moscow to head off any future nuclear tensions.

But the USSR still resolved to outpace the U.S. in nuclear capabilities. This intense nuclear research and development didn't come cheap, as the U.S. matched the Soviets' nuclear strides. In 1963, the United States spent 9 percent of the nation's gross domestic product on defense — nearly $53.5 billion (that's around $458 billion in 2022 dollars) [source: UPI ].

Throughout the 1960s, the U.S. continued to bolster its nuclear arsenal. However, during the '70s, the Ford and Carter administrations favored sharp criticism of Soviet policies over stockpiling nuclear arms. When President Ronald Reagan took office in 1981, he reinvigorated defense spending, increasing the defense budget by 35 percent .

Many historians credit Reagan with dealing the death blows that ultimately brought down the Soviet Union. Perhaps the one that signaled the end for the USSR was Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative ( SDI ). This uncompleted project, popularly called Star Wars , would have cost hundreds of billions of dollars. It called for the weaponization of outer space — a shield comprised of a network of nuclear missiles and lasers that would intercept a Soviet nuclear first strike. The SDI initiative was the pinnacle of both the space race and the arms race between the U.S. and the USSR.

Star Wars was criticized as fantasy by defense observers on both sides of the Iron Curtain (the term coined by Winston Churchill that describes the boundary in Europe between communism and the rest of the world). But Reagan was committed to the project, and the Soviet's flagging, state-owned economy simply couldn't match this escalation in defense spending.

Part of the USSR's monetary woes came from pouring funds into Afghanistan. In 1979, the Soviets invaded and occupied the country. The Truman Doctrine had clearly stipulated that American policy was to contain the spread of communism throughout the world, so the U.S. responded by secretly supporting and training the Mujahedeen (Arabic for "strugglers"), insurgent rebels who rallied against Soviets in Afghanistan. The U.S. overwhelmingly showed support for the Mujahedeen, and the Soviet invasion grew protracted and expensive. Ultimately, the Afghanis defeated the USSR, and the Soviets withdrew in 1989.

But not everyone agrees the end of communism was the result of the United States' deep pockets. Some historians assert that the USSR had lived its natural life span and the U.S. was merely a witness to its death.

Soviet citizens

Some schools of thought insist that communism is simply unsupportable on a large scale . Therefore, the decline of the USSR was inevitable. So can anyone be declared a winner in a war if one of the opponents ends itself as a political entity? That depends on how you look at it. The U.S. was left as the last man standing in the Cold War. And any boxing fan can tell you that the last man standing is the one who wins.

Moves were being made inside the USSR that would hasten its end. Former Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev, who served as Reagan's Cold War counterpart, introduced sweeping reforms that fundamentally altered the social, political and economic fabric of the USSR. Gorbachev's perestroika ("restructuring") plan opened up the state-owned economy to some private ownership, creating the transition to a free-market economy. But the economic backlash against this radical and rapid transition was unable to sustain the Soviet Union. Widespread problems like poverty and food shortages plagued the country.

These problems may have had less of an effect on the disintegration of the USSR had it not been for Gorbachev's other major reform. Glasnost ("openness") essentially reversed the USSR's policies of brutal totalitarianism and suppression of government criticism and free speech.

Under glasnost, workers could strike, journalists could publish editorials in opposition to the Kremlin and protestors could assemble. The combination of the political and economic reforms of perestroika and the social freedom given by glasnost helped contribute to a grassroots revolution in the USSR that led to the replacement of a single-party communist system with a multi-party democratic system.

So if the USSR died of natural causes or essentially dissolved itself, who deserves the title of Cold War victor? There was actually more than one winner. Certainly, democracy won as it replaced the one-party communist system in not only the USSR member states, but also in Soviet satellite states. The free market won, too, as did transnational corporations that suddenly had billions more customers after the fall of the USSR. And really, the entire world won, having emerged from the Cold War without suffering complete nuclear annihilation.

Cold War FAQ

What was the cold war, how did the cold war end, which country won the cold war, why was the term “cold” used to describe the cold war, why did the cold war start, lots more information, related articles.

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Businessman in suit stands victorious.

U.S. History

59e. The End of the Cold War

The fall of the Berlin Wall. The shredding of the Iron Curtain. The end of the Cold War.

When Mikhail Gorbachev assumed the reins of power in the Soviet Union in 1985, no one predicted the revolution he would bring. A dedicated reformer, Gorbachev introduced the policies of glasnost and perestroika to the USSR.

Glasnost , or openness, meant a greater willingness on the part of Soviet officials to allow western ideas and goods into the USSR. Perestroika was an initiative that allowed limited market incentives to Soviet citizens.

Gorbachev hoped these changes would be enough to spark the sluggish Soviet economy. Freedom, however, is addictive.

The unraveling of the Soviet Bloc began in Poland in June 1989. Despite previous Soviet military interventions in Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and Poland itself, Polish voters elected a noncommunist opposition government to their legislature. The world watched with anxious eyes, expecting Soviet tanks to roll into Poland preventing the new government from taking power.

The Berlin Wall falls

Gorbachev, however, refused to act.

Like dominoes, Eastern European communist dictatorships fell one by one. By the fall of 1989, East and West Germans were tearing down the Berlin Wall with pickaxes. Communist regimes were ousted in Hungary and Czechoslovakia. On Christmas Day, the brutal Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife were summarily executed on live television. Yugoslavia threw off the yoke of communism only to dissolve quickly into a violent civil war.

Demands for freedom soon spread to the Soviet Union. The Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania declared independence. Talks of similar sentiments were heard in Ukraine , the Caucasus , and the Central Asian states. Here Gorbachev wished to draw the line. Self-determination for Eastern Europe was one thing, but he intended to maintain the territorial integrity of the Soviet Union. In 1991, he proposed a Union Treaty, giving greater autonomy to the Soviet republics, while keeping them under central control.

Mikhail Gorbachev

That summer, a coup by conservative hardliners took place. Gorbachev was placed under house arrest. Meanwhile, Boris Yeltsin , the leader of the Russian Soviet Republic , demanded the arrest of the hardliners. The army and the public sided with Yeltsin, and the coup failed. Though Gorbachev was freed, he was left with little legitimacy.

Nationalist leaders like Yeltsin were far more popular than he could hope to become. In December 1991, Ukraine, Byelorussia , and Russia itself declared independence and the Soviet Union was dissolved. Gorbachev was a president without a country.

Americans were pleasantly shocked, but shocked nonetheless at the turn of events in the Soviet bloc. No serious discourse on any diplomatic levels in the USSR addressed the likelihood of a Soviet collapse. Republicans were quick to claim credit for winning the Cold War. They believed the military spending policies of the Reagan-Bush years forced the Soviets to the brink of economic collapse. Democrats argued that containment of communism was a bipartisan policy for 45 years begun by the Democrat Harry Truman.

Others pointed out that no one really won the Cold War. The United States spent trillions of dollars arming themselves for a direct confrontation with the Soviet Union that fortunately never came. Regardless, thousands of American lives were lost waging proxy wars in Korea and Vietnam.

Most Americans found it difficult to get used to the idea of no Cold War. Since 1945, Americans were born into a Cold War culture that featured McCarthyist witchhunts, backyard bomb shelters, a space race, a missile crisis, détente, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and the Star Wars defense proposal. Now the enemy was beaten, but the world remained unsafe. In many ways, facing one superpower was simpler than challenging dozens of rogue states and renegade groups sponsoring global terrorism.

Americans hoped against hope that the new world order of the 1990s would be marked with the security and prosperity to which they had become accustomed.

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Red Century

The Cold War and America’s Delusion of Victory

By Odd Arne Westad

  • Aug. 28, 2017

who won the cold war essay

The Cold War as a system of states ended on a cold and gray December day in Moscow in 1991, when Mikhail Gorbachev signed the Soviet Union out of existence. Communism itself, in its Marxist-Leninist form, had ceased to exist as a practical ideal for how to organize society.

“If I had to do it over again, I would not even be a Communist,” Bulgaria’s deposed Communist leader, Todor Zhivkov, had said the year before. “And if Lenin were alive today, he would say the same thing. I must now admit that we started from the wrong basis, from the wrong premise. The foundation of socialism was wrong. I believe that at its very conception the idea of socialism was stillborn.”

But the Cold War as an ideological struggle disappeared only in part, despite Communism’s implosion. On the American side, not so much changed on that day. The Cold War was over, and the United States had won it. But most Americans still believed that they could only be safe if the world looked more like their own country and if the world’s governments abided by the will of the United States.

Ideas and assumptions that had built up over generations persisted, despite the disappearance of the Soviet threat. Instead of a more limited and achievable American foreign policy, most policy makers from both parties believed that the United States could then, at minimal cost or risk, act on its own imperatives.

America’s post-Cold War triumphalism came in two versions. First was the Clinton version, which promoted a prosperity agenda of market values on a global scale. Its lack of purpose in international affairs was striking, but its domestic political instincts were probably right: Americans were tired of foreign entanglements and wanted to enjoy “the peace dividend.”

As a result, the 1990s was a lost opportunity for international cooperation, particularly to combat disease, poverty and inequality. The most glaring examples of these omissions were former Cold War battlefields like Afghanistan, Congo and Nicaragua, where the United States could not have cared less about what happened — once the Cold War was over.

The second was the Bush version. Where President Bill Clinton emphasized prosperity, President George W. Bush emphasized predominance. In between, of course, stood Sept. 11. It is possible that the Bush version would never have come into being had it not been for the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington carried out by Islamist fanatics (a renegade faction, in fact, of an American Cold War alliance).

The Cold War experience clearly conditioned the United States response to these atrocities. Instead of targeted military strikes and global police cooperation, which would have been the most sensible reaction, the Bush administration chose this moment of unchallenged global hegemony to lash out and occupy Afghanistan and Iraq. These actions had no meaning in a strategic sense, creating 21st-century colonies under the rule of a Great Power with no appetite for colonial rule.

But the United States did not act out of strategic purpose. It acted because its people were understandably angry and fearful. And it acted because it could. The Bush version was directed by foreign policy advisers who thought of the world predominantly in Cold War terms; they stressed power projection, territorial control and regime change.

The post-Cold War era was therefore not an aberration but a continuity and confirmation of an absolute historical purpose for the United States. Gradually, however, over the course of the generation that has passed since the Cold War, the United States has become less and less able to afford global predominance.

As America entered a new century, its main aim should have been to bring other nations into the fold of international norms and the rule of law, especially as its own power diminishes. Instead, the United States did what declining superpowers often do: engage in futile, needless wars far from its borders, in which short-term security is mistaken for long-term strategic goals. The consequence is an America less prepared than it could have been to deal with the big challenges of the future: the rise of China and India, the transfer of economic power from West to East, and systemic challenges like climate change and disease epidemics.

If the United States won the Cold War but failed to capitalize on it, then the Soviet Union, or rather Russia, lost it, and lost it big. The collapse left Russians feeling déclassé and usurped. One day they had been the elite nation in a superpower union of republics. The next, they had neither purpose nor position. Materially, things were bad, too. Old people did not get their pensions. Some starved to death. Malnutrition and alcoholism shortened the average life span for a Russian man from nearly 65 in 1987 to less than 58 in 1994.

If many Russians felt robbed of a future, they were not wrong. Russia’s future was indeed stolen — by the privatization of Russian industry and of its natural resources. As the socialist state with its moribund economy was dismantled, a new oligarchy emerged from party institutions, planning bureaus and centers of science and technology and assumed ownership of Russia’s riches. Often, the new owners stripped these assets and closed down production. In a state in which unemployment had, officially at least, been nonexistent, the rate of joblessness rose through the 1990s to peak at 13 percent. All this happened while the West applauded Boris Yeltsin’s economic reforms.

In retrospect, the economic transition to capitalism was a catastrophe for most Russians. It is also clear that the West should have dealt with post-Cold War Russia better than it did. Both the West and Russia would have been considerably more secure today if the chance for Russia to join the European Union, and possibly even NATO, had at least been kept open in the 1990s.

Instead, their exclusion has given Russians the sense of being outcasts and victims — which, in turn, has given credence to embittered jingoists like President Vladimir Putin, who see all the disasters that have befallen the country over the past generation as an American plot to reduce and isolate it. Mr. Putin’s authoritarianism and bellicosity have been sustained by genuine popular support.

The shocks of the 1990s have given way to an uninhibited cynicism among Russians, which not only encompasses a deep distrust of their fellow citizens but also sees conspiracies against themselves everywhere, often contrary to fact and reason. Over half of all Russians now believe Leonid Brezhnev was their best leader in the 20th century, followed by Lenin and Stalin. Gorbachev is at the bottom of the list.

For others around the world, the end of the Cold War undoubtedly came as a relief. China is often seen as a major beneficiary of the Cold War. This is not entirely true, of course. For decades, the country was under a Marxist-Leninist dictatorship that was out of tune with its needs. A result, during the Maoist era, was some of the most terrible crimes of the Cold War, in which millions died. But during the 1970s and ’80s, Deng Xiaoping’s China benefited hugely from its de facto alliance with the United States, both in security and development.

In the multipolar world now establishing itself, the United States and China have emerged as the strongest powers. Their competition for influence in Asia will define the outlook for the world. China, like Russia, is well integrated into the capitalist world system, and many of the interests of these two countries’ leaders are linked to further integration.

Russia and China, unlike the Soviet Union, are not likely to seek isolation or global confrontation. They will attempt to nibble away at American interests and dominate their regions. But neither China nor Russia is willing or able to mount a global ideological challenge backed by military power. Rivalries may lead to conflicts, or even local wars, but not of the systemic Cold War kind.

The ease with which many former Marxists have adapted themselves to post-Cold War market economics raises the question of whether this had been an avoidable conflict in the first place. With hindsight, the outcome was not worth the sacrifice — not in Angola, not in Vietnam, Nicaragua or Russia, for that matter. But was it avoidable back in the 1940s, when the Cold War went from an ideological conflict to a permanent military confrontation?

While post-World War II clashes and rivalries were certainly unavoidable — Stalin’s policies alone were enough to produce those — it is hard to argue that a global Cold War that was to last for almost 50 years and threaten the obliteration of the world could not have been avoided. There were points along the way when leaders could have held back, especially on military rivalry and the arms race. But the ideological conflict at the root of the tension made such sensible thinking very difficult to achieve.

People of good will on both sides believed that they were representing an idea whose very existence was threatened. It led them to take otherwise avoidable risks with their own lives and the lives of others.

The Cold War affected everyone in the world because of the threat of nuclear destruction it implied. In this sense, nobody was safe from the Cold War. The greatest victory of Gorbachev’s generation was that nuclear war was avoided. Historically, most Great Power rivalries end in a cataclysm. The Cold War did not, but on a couple of occasions, we were much closer to nuclear devastation than any but a few realized.

Why were leaders willing to take such unconscionable risks with the fate of the earth? Why did so many people believe in ideologies that they, at other times, would have realized could not possibly hold all the solutions they were looking for? My answer is that the Cold War world, like the world today, had a lot of obvious ills. As injustice and oppression became more visible in the 20th century through mass communications, people — especially young people — felt the need to remedy these ills. Cold War ideologies offered immediate solutions to complex problems.

What did not change with the end of the Cold War were the conflicts between the haves and the have-nots in international affairs. In some parts of the world today, such conflicts have become more intense because of the upsurge of religious and ethnic movements, which threaten to destroy whole communities. Unrestrained by Cold War universalisms, which at least pretended that all people could enter their promised paradise, these groups are manifestly exclusionist or racist, their supporters convinced that great injustices have been done to them in the past, which somehow justify their present outrages.

Often people, especially young people, need to be part of something bigger than themselves or even their families, some immense idea to devote one’s life to. The Cold War shows what can happen when such notions get perverted for the sake of power, influence and control.

That does not mean that these very human urges are in themselves worthless. But it is a warning that we should consider carefully the risks we are willing to take to achieve our ideals, in order not to replicate the terrible toll that the 20th century took in its quest for perfection.

Odd Arne Westad, a professor of United States-Asia relations at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, is the author, most recently, of “The Cold War: A World History,” from which this essay is adapted.

This is an essay in the series Red Century, about the history and legacy of Communism 100 years after the Russian Revolution.

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who won the cold war essay

“Tear Down This Wall”: Ronald Reagan and the End of the Cold War

who won the cold war essay

Written by: Bill of Rights Institute

By the end of this section, you will:.

  • Explain the causes and effects of the end of the Cold War and its legacy

Suggested Sequencing:

Use this decision point after students have read the introductory essay to introduce foreign policy milestones during Reagan’s presidency. This decision point can be used with  The Iran-Contra Affair  Narrative; the  Ronald Reagan, “Tear Down this Wall” Speech, June 12, 1987  Primary Source; and the  Cold War DBQ (1947–1989)  Lesson.

In the wake of World War II, a Cold War erupted between the world’s two superpowers—the United States and the Soviet Union. During the postwar era, the contest between their respective capitalist and communist systems manifested itself in a nuclear arms race, a space race, and several proxy wars. In the 1960s and 1970s, as the United States fought the Vietnam War and struggled internally with its aftermath and a faltering economy, the Russians seemed ascendant. Increasing oil prices globally led to a revenue windfall for oil-rich Russia, which paid for a massive arms buildup and supported communist insurrections that Russia backed in Asia, Africa, and Latin America.

Eventually, the policy of détente decreased tensions between the two countries and led to their signing the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT) in 1972. SALT I, the first of two SALT agreements, limited the number of nuclear missiles either country could possess and banned the building of antiballistic missile (ABM) systems used to defend against nuclear strikes. The use of ABMs would have upset the stalemate represented by the possibility of mutual assured destruction (MAD)—the obliteration of both parties in a nuclear war—because it would allow one side to strike first and then defend itself against retaliation.

The December 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan to prop up a puppet communist regime led President Jimmy Carter to seek increased military budgets and to withdraw from Senate consideration the recently signed SALT II treaty, which would have reduced both countries’ nuclear missiles, bombers, and other delivery vehicles. When Ronald Reagan was elected president in 1980, he rejected détente and instituted a tough stance with Soviets designed to reverse their advances, topple communism in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, and win the Cold War. His administration supported freedom in Eastern Europe and the Polish resistance movement known as Solidarity; armed fighters resisting communism around the world, including the  mujahideen  in Afghanistan; and increased military spending to support peace through strength and to bankrupt the Soviet economy if it tried to match the increases. Reagan also launched an ideological crusade against the Soviet regime for violating inalienable rights and liberties.

President Jimmy Carter and Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev sit at a table and sign documents. Officials stand behind them.

For decades before coming into office, Reagan had criticized the spread of Soviet communism and the danger it posed. He compared communism to Nazism and totalitarianism, characterized by a powerful state that limited individual freedoms. In a 1964 televised speech, Reagan told the American people he believed there could be no accommodation with the Soviets.

We cannot buy our security, our freedom from the threat of the bomb by committing an immorality so great as saying to a billion human beings now in slavery behind the Iron Curtain, “Give up your dreams of freedom because to save our own skins, we are willing to make a deal with your slave-masters.”

Shortly before he became president, Reagan told an aide: “My idea of American policy toward the Soviet Union is simple, and some would say simplistic. It is this: We win and they lose.”

Reagan also specifically targeted the Berlin Wall, erected by communist East Germany in 1961 to separate East and West Berlin. In a 1967 televised town hall debate with Robert Kennedy, Reagan argued, “I think it would be very admirable if the Berlin Wall should . . . disappear.” He continued, “We just think that a wall that is put up to confine people, and keep them within their own country . . . has to be somehow wrong.” In 1978, he visited the wall and was disgusted to learn the story of Peter Fechter, one of the first among hundreds who were gunned down by East German police while trying to escape to freedom.

Men work on top of a wide, tall wall. Cranes are on the left side of the wall. Two fences surround the wall on the right side.

Americans knew Ronald Reagan was an uncompromising Cold War warrior when they elected him president in 1980. Over the heads of many in the State Department and the National Security Council, he instituted controversial policies that reversed détente because he thought it had strengthened and emboldened the Soviets during the 1970s. He joked that détente was “what a farmer has with his turkey—until Thanksgiving Day.”

Reagan also pressed an unrelenting ideological attack on communism in stark moral terms that pitted it against a free society. In 1981, he asserted at the University of Notre Dame that “The West won’t contain communism, it will transcend communism . . . it will dismiss it as some bizarre chapter in human history whose last pages are even now being written.” In a 1982 speech to the British Parliament, he said communism ran “against the tides of history by denying human freedom and human dignity” and predicted that the Soviet regime would end up “on the ash heap of history.” The Berlin Wall was “the signature of the regime that built it.” During that trip, Reagan visited the wall and said, “It’s as ugly as the idea behind it.” In a 1983 speech that made the supporters of a softer line toward the Soviets cringe, he called the Soviet Union an “evil empire.”

In June 1987, Reagan was in West Berlin to speak during a ceremony commemorating the 750th anniversary of the city and faced an important choice. The Berlin Wall was one of the most important symbols of the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union, and a symbol of communist oppression. He could confront the Soviets about the injustice of the wall, or he could deliver bland remarks that would satisfy the members of the American foreign policy establishment who wanted to avoid conflict. He decided to deliver a provocative speech demanding an end to the oppression of the wall and of communism.

Many officials in Reagan’s administration and in the allied West German government were strongly opposed to his delivering any provocative words or actions during the speech. The West Germans did not want the speech to be given anywhere near the wall and sought to avoid what might be perceived as an aggressive signal. The German Foreign Ministry appealed to the White House, but to no avail. Some members of the administration were even more concerned. At the time, the United States was in the midst of Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) negotiations with the U.S.S.R., and officials did not want to jeopardize the progress they had made by undermining the Soviet leader so close to home. As a result, Secretary of State George Shultz, Chief of Staff Howard Baker, and the U.S. Embassy in Bonn (the West German capital) read the drafts of Reagan’s speech and repeatedly implored the president and his speechwriters to tone down the language. Deputy National Security Advisor Colin Powell and other members of the National Security Council were particularly adamant and offered several revisions of the speech. Reagan listened to all the objections and unalterably decided, “I think we’ll leave it in.” He would not be deterred from challenging the Soviets and communism.

The stark moral difference between the systems on either side of the Berlin Wall was evident on June 12. Reagan and his team arrived in West Berlin and encountered some protesters who freely voiced their dissent at his appearance. He also spoke to reporters and nervous German officials who feared the fallout over an antagonistic speech. As he told them, “This is the only wall that has ever been built to keep people in, not keep people out.” In East Berlin, in contrast, the German secret police and Russian KGB agents cordoned off an area a thousand yards wide on the other side of the wall from where Reagan was to speak. They wanted to ensure that no one could hear his message of freedom.

Reagan stepped up to the podium to speak, with the Brandenburg Gate and the imposing wall in the background. He told the audience, “As long as this gate is closed, as long as this scar of a wall is permitted to stand, it is not the German question alone that remains open, but the question of freedom for all mankind.” In the middle of the speech, Reagan directly challenged Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev, who wanted to reform communism in an attempt to save it. He delivered the line that had caused so much consternation among American and German officials: “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!” Reagan finished the speech by predicting the wall would not endure. “This wall will fall. For it cannot withstand faith; it cannot withstand truth. The wall cannot withstand freedom.” Reagan took responsibility for causing a diplomatic furor because he believed in universal ideals of freedom and self-government. And he understood the power of using a dramatic moment to promote American ideals.

Ronald Reagan delivers a speech in front of the Brandenburg Gate and Berlin Wall.

A year later, Reagan addressed the students at Moscow State University. “The key is freedom,” he told them. It was an ideal that had been at the core of his political philosophy and public statements for 50 years, since the dawn of the Cold War. In a statement that reflected his own sense of responsibility for defeating communism and defending freedom, he told them: “It is the right to put forth an idea, scoffed at by the experts, and watch it catch fire among the people. It is the right to dream—to follow your dream or stick to your conscience, even if you’re the only one in a sea of doubters.”

In applying military, economic, moral, and ideological pressure against the system to facilitate its collapse, Reagan was joined by British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, Pope John Paul II, Soviet dissident Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Solidarity leader Lech Walesa, and others who fought for democracy and freedom. No one imagined the Berlin Wall would fall only two years later on November 9, 1989, as communism collapsed across Eastern Europe, or that the Soviet Union would formerly dissolve by the end of 1991.

Review Questions

1. The Cold War manifested itself through all the following except

  • a nuclear arms race
  • the space race
  • direct military conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union

2. The massive Soviet arms buildup during the 1960s and 1970s was financed by

  • increased oil prices globally
  • mineral wealth gained from Afghanistan
  • increased Soviet industrial productivity
  • surplus tariffs from the trade war with the United States

3. Tensions between the United States and the U.S.S.R. increased in the 1970s with the

  • signing of the SALT Treaty in 1972
  • banning of the antiballistic missile system
  • Soviet invasion of Afghanistan
  • policy of détente

4. The president most often credited with advocating policies leading to the collapse of the Soviet Union was

  • Richard Nixon
  • Jimmy Carter
  • Ronald Reagan
  • George H. W. Bush

5. The Reagan administration challenged Soviet influence by

  • supporting the Solidarity movement in Poland
  • refusing to get involved in the Afghanistan conflict
  • embracing unilateral nuclear disarmament
  • continuing the policy of détente

6. For President Ronald Reagan, the “evil empire” confronting the world was

  • Afghanistan
  • Communist China
  • the Soviet Union

7. Events marking the end of the Cold War included all the following except

  • Eastern European uprisings against communism
  • the tearing down of the Berlin War
  • the disintegration of the U.S.S.R.
  • the end of communist rule in China

Free Response Questions

  • Explain how détente led to a lessening of nuclear tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union in the 1970s.
  • Compare President Reagan’s attitudes and policies toward the Soviet Union with those of his predecessors.

AP Practice Questions

“But in the West today, we see a free world that has achieved a level of prosperity and well-being unprecedented in all human history. In the Communist world, we see failure, technological backwardness, declining standards of health, even want of the most basic kind —too little food. Even today, the Soviet Union still cannot feed itself. After these four decades, then, there stands before the entire world one great and inescapable conclusion: Freedom leads to prosperity. Freedom replaces the ancient hatreds among nations with comity and peace. Freedom is the victor. And now—now the Soviets themselves may, in a limited way, be coming to understand the importance of freedom. We hear much from Moscow about a new policy of reform and openness. . . . 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—Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” Ronald Reagan, Remarks at the Brandenburg Gate, June 12, 1987

Refer to the excerpt provided.

1. The sentiments expressed in the excerpt contributed to which of the following?

  • An end to the war on terrorism
  • Conflicts in the Middle East
  • The fall of the Soviet Union
  • The attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon on September 11, 2001

2. The Soviet conditions referred to in this excerpt most directly resulted from

  • the end of World War II
  • collective security agreements
  • the creation of the United Nations

3. This excerpt was written in response to

  • Cold War competition extending into Latin America
  • postwar decolonization
  • efforts to seek allies among nonaligned nations
  • political changes and economic problems in Eastern Europe

Primary Sources

Reagan, Ronald. “Remarks on East-West Relations at the Brandenburg Gate in West Berlin.” June 12, 1987.  https://teachingamericanhistory.org/library/document/speech-at-brandenburg-gate/

Reagan, Ronald. “Remarks on East-West Relations at the Brandenburg Gate in West Berlin.” June 12, 1987. Reagan Foundation Video.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5MDFX-dNtsM

Suggested Resources

Brands, H. W.  Reagan: The Life . New York: Doubleday, 2015.

Busch, Andrew E.  Ronald Reagan and the Politics of Freedom . Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2001.

Gaddis, John Lewis.  The Cold War: A New History . New York: Penguin, 2005.

Hayward, Steven F.  The Age of Reagan: The Conservative Counterrevolution, 1980–1989 . New York: Three Rivers Press, 2009.

Lettow, Paul.  Ronald Reagan and His Quest to Abolish Nuclear Weapons . New York: Random House, 2005.

Ratnesar, Romesh.  Tear Down This Wall: A City, A President, and the Speech that Ended the Cold War . New York: Simon and Schuster, 2009.

Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum website.  https://www.reaganfoundation.org/library-museum/

Schweizer, Peter.  Reagan’s War: The Epic Story of His Forty-Year Struggle and Final Triumph Over Communism . New York: Doubleday, 2002.

Related Content

who won the cold war essay

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who won the cold war essay

The Cold War (1945-1989) essay

The Cold War is considered to be a significant event in Modern World History. The Cold War dominated a rather long time period: between 1945, or the end of the World War II, and 1990, the collapse of the USSR. This period involved the relationships between two superpowers: the United States and the USSR. The Cold War began in Eastern Europe and Germany, according to the researchers of the Institute of Contemporary British History (Warner 15).  Researchers state that “the USSR and the United States of America held the trump cards, nuclear bombs and missiles” (Daniel 489). In other words, during the Cold War, two nations took the fate of the world under their control. The progression of the Cold War influenced the development of society, which became aware of the threat of nuclear war. After the World War II, the world experienced technological progress, which provided “the Space Race, computer development, superhighway construction, jet airliner development, the creation of international phone system, the advent of television, enormous progress in medicine, and the creation of mass consumerism, and many other achievements” (Daniel 489). Although the larger part of the world lived in poverty and lacked technological progress, the United States and other countries of Western world succeeded in economic development. The Cold War, which began in 1945, reflected the increased role of technological progress in the establishment of economic relationships between two superpowers.   The Cold War involved internal and external conflicts between two superpowers, the United States and the USSR, leading to eventual breakdown of the USSR.

  • The Cold War: background information

The Cold War consisted of several confrontations between the United States and the USSR, supported by their allies. According to researchers, the Cold War was marked by a number of events, including “the escalating arms race, a competition to conquer space, a dangerously belligerent for of diplomacy known as brinkmanship, and a series of small wars, sometimes called “police actions” by the United States and sometimes excused as defense measures by the Soviets” (Gottfried 9). The Cold War had different influences on the United States and the USSR. For the USSR, the Cold War provided massive opportunities for the spread of communism across the world, Moscow’s control over the development of other nations and the increased role of the Soviet Communist party.

In fact, the Cold War could split the wartime alliance formed to oppose the plans of Nazi Germany, leaving the USSR and the United States as two superpowers with considerable economic and political differences. The USSR was based on a single-party Marxist–Leninist system, while the United States was a capitalist state with democratic governance based on free elections.

The key figure in the Cold War was the Soviet leader Gorbachev, who was elected in 1985. He managed to change the direction of the USSR, making the economies of communist ruled states independent. The major reasons for changing in the course were poor technological development of the USSR (Gottfried 115). Gorbachev believed that radical changes in political power could improve the Communist system. At the same time, he wanted to stop the Cold War and tensions with the United States. The cost of nuclear arms race had negative impact on the economy of the USSR. The leaders of the United States accepted the proposed relationships, based on cooperation and mutual trust. The end of the Cold War was marked by signing the INF treaty in 1987 (Gottfried 115).

  • The origins of the Cold War

Many American historians state that the Cold War began in 1945. However, according to Russian researchers, historians and analysts “the Cold War began with the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, for this was when the capitalist world began its systematic opposition to and effort to undermine the world’s first socialist state and society” (Warner13). For Russians, the Cold War was hot in 1918-1922, when the Allied Intervention policy implemented in Russia during the Russian Civil War. According to John W. Long, “the U.S. intervention in North Russia was a policy formulated by President Wilson during the first half of 1918 at the urgent insistence of Britain, France and Italy, the chief World War I allies” (380).

Nevertheless, there are some other opinions regarding the origins of the Cold War. For example, Geoffrey Barraclough, an outstanding English historian, states that the events in the Far East at the end of the century contributed to the origins of the Cold War. He argues that “during the previous hundred years, Russia and the United States has tended to support each other against England; but now, as England’s power passed its zenith, they came face to face across the Pacific” (Warner 13). According to Barraclough, the Cold War is associated with the conflict of interests, which involved European countries, the Middle East and South East Asia. Finally, this conflict divided the world into two camps. Thus, the Cold War origins are connected with the spread of ideological conflict caused by the emergence of the new power in the early 20-th century (Warner 14). The Cold War outbreak was associated with the spread of propaganda on the United States by the USSR. The propagandistic attacks involved the criticism of the U.S. leaders and their policies. These attacked were harmful to the interests of American nation (Whitton 151).

  • The major causes of the Cold War

The United States and the USSR were regarded as two superpowers during the Cold War, each having its own sphere of influence, its power and forces. The Cold War had been the continuing conflict, caused by tensions, misunderstandings and competitions that existed between the United States and the USSR, as well as their allies from 1945 to the early 1990s (Gottfried 10). Throughout this long period, there was the so-called rivalry between the United States and the USSR, which was expressed through various transformations, including military buildup, the spread of propaganda, the growth of espionage, weapons development, considerable industrial advances, and competitive technological developments in different spheres of human activity, such as medicine, education, space exploration, etc.

There four major causes of the Cold War, which include:

  • Ideological differences (communism v. capitalism);
  • Mutual distrust and misperception;
  • The fear of the United State regarding the spread of communism;
  • The nuclear arms race (Gottfried 10).

The major causes of the Cold War point out to the fact that the USSR was focused on the spread of communist ideas worldwide. The United States followed democratic ideas and opposed the spread of communism. At the same time, the acquisition of atomic weapons by the United States caused fear in the USSR. The use of atomic weapons could become the major reason of fear of both the United States and the USSR. In other words, both countries were anxious about possible attacks from each other; therefore, they were following the production of mass destruction weapons. In addition, the USSR was focused on taking control over Eastern Europe and Central Asia. According to researchers, the USSR used various strategies to gain control over Eastern Europe and Central Asia in the years 1945-1980. Some of these strategies included “encouraging the communist takeover of governments in Eastern Europe, the setting up of Comecon, the Warsaw Pact, the presence of the Red Army in Eastern Europe, and the Brezhnev Doctrine” (Phillips 118). These actions were the major factors for the suspicions and concerns of the United States. In addition, the U.S. President had a personal dislike of the Soviet leader Joseph Stalin and his policies. In general, the United States was concerned by the Soviet Union’s actions regarding the occupied territory of Germany, while the USSR feared that the United States would use Western Europe as the major tool for attack.

  • The consequences of the Cold War

The consequences of the Cold War include both positive and negative effects for both the United States and the USSR.

  • Both the United States and the USSR managed to build up huge arsenals of atomic weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missiles.
  • The Cold War provided opportunities for the establishment of the military blocs, NATO and the Warsaw Pact.
  • The Cold War led to the emergence of the destructive military conflicts, like the Vietnam War and the Korean War, which took the lives of millions of people (Gottfried13).
  • The USSR collapsed because of considerable economic, political and social challenges.
  • The Cold War led to the destruction of the Berlin Wall and the unification of the two German nations.
  • The Cold War led to the disintegration of the Warsaw Pact (Gottfried 136).
  • The Cold war provided the opportunities for achieving independence of the Baltic States and some former Soviet Republics.
  • The Cold War made the United States the sole superpower of the world because of the collapse of the USSR in 1990.
  • The Cold War led to the collapse of Communism and the rise of globalization worldwide (Phillips 119).

The impact of the Cold War on the development of many countries was enormous. The consequences of the Cold War were derived from numerous internal problems of the countries, which were connected with the USSR, especially developing countries (India, Africa, etc.). This fact means that foreign policies of many states were transformed (Gottfried 115).

The Cold War (1945-1989) essay part 2

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Reagan and Gorbachev: Shutting the Cold War Down

Subscribe to this week in foreign policy, strobe talbott strobe talbott distinguished fellow - foreign policy @strobetalbott.

August 1, 2004

Review of Jack F. Matlock Jr.’s book, Reagan and Gorbachev: How the Cold War Ended.

Ronald Reagan was widely eulogized for having won the cold war, liberated Eastern Europe and pulled the plug on the Soviet Union. Margaret Thatcher, Joe Lieberman, John McCain, Charles Krauthammer and other notables offered variations of The Economist ‘s cover headline: “The Man Who Beat Communism.”

Actually, Jack F. Matlock Jr. writes in Reagan and Gorbachev , it was “not so simple.” He should know. A veteran foreign service officer and respected expert on the Soviet Union, he reached the pinnacle of his career under Reagan, serving first as the White House’s senior coordinator of policy toward the Soviet Union, then as ambassador to Moscow. In both the title of his memoir and the story it tells, he gives co-star billing to Mikhail Gorbachev.

Reagan himself went even farther. Asked at a press conference in Moscow in 1988, his last year in office, about the role he played in the great drama of the late 20th century, he described himself essentially as a supporting actor. “Mr. Gorbachev,” he said, “deserves most of the credit, as the leader of this country.”

This quotation was much cited at the time as an example of Reagan’s graciousness, tact and self-deprecation. But Matlock’s book bears out his former boss’s judgment. The 40th president of the United States emerges here not as a geopolitical visionary who jettisoned the supposedly accommodationist policies of containment and detente, but as an archpragmatist and operational optimist who adjusted his own attitudes and conduct in order to encourage a new kind of Kremlin leader.

During his first term, Reagan denounced the pre-Gorbachev Soviet Union as an “evil empire.” The name-calling riled many Soviets (and more than a few Sovietologists) but did little diplomatic harm, since relations between Washington and Moscow were already in a rut. The Kremlin had become a geriatric ward, with Red Square doubling as the world’s largest funeral parlor.

Then, in 1985, soon after Reagan’s second inauguration, the vigorous, 54-year-old Gorbachev ascended to the leadership. He wanted to demilitarize Soviet foreign policy so that he could divert resources to the Augean task of fixing a broken economy. Initially, he expected no help from Reagan, whom he regarded as “not simply a conservative, but a political ‘dinosaur.’”

For his part, Reagan assumed the new general secretary of the Communist Party would be “totally dedicated to traditional Soviet goals.” Nonetheless, he was prepared to test Prime Minister Thatcher’s first impression: ” like Mr. Gorbachev; we can do business together.”

Getting back into the business of diplomacy with the principal adversary of the United States appealed to Reagan, just as it had to six previous occupants of the Oval Office. Dwight D. Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy had tried to make the most of Nikita S. Khrushchev’s slogan of “peaceful coexistence”; Lyndon B. Johnson jump-started arms control talks with Aleksei N. Kosygin; Richard Nixon, Gerald R. Ford and Jimmy Carter signed strategic-arms limitation agreements with Leonid I. Brezhnev. But those Soviet leaders were committed, above all, to preserving the status quo. Sooner or later, each caused a setback or a showdown with the United States through some act of barbarity or recklessness: the crushing of the Hungarian uprising in 1956, the Cuban missile crisis in 1962, the invasions of Czechoslovakia in 1968 and Afghanistan in 1979, the destruction of a South Korean airliner that had wandered off course in 1983. Breakthroughs in United States-Soviet relations were inherently subject to breakdowns.

Gorbachev altered that dynamic. He was determined to take the Soviet Union in a radically different direction—away from the Big Lie (through his policy of glasnost), away from a command economy (through perestroika) and away from zero-sum competition with the West.

Reagan came quickly to recognize that Gorbachev’s goals, far from being traditional, were downright revolutionary. He also saw that the transformation Gorbachev had in mind for his country would, if it came about, serve American interests.

As a result, without much fuss and without many of his supporters noticing, Reagan underwent a transformation of his own. The fire-breathing cold warrior set about trying, through intense, sustained personal engagement, to convince Gorbachev that the United States would not make him sorry for the course he had chosen.

Matlock describes in telling detail how Reagan rehearsed for his first meeting with Gorbachev, which took place in Geneva in November 1985. Reagan assigned the role of the Soviet leader to Matlock who, for maximum authenticity, played his part in Russian, mimicking Gorbachev’s confident, loquacious style. Matlock also sent Reagan a series of “spoof memos” that were “interlaced with jokes and anecdotes,” based on an educated guess at what Gorbachev’s own advisers were telling him in preparation for the encounter.

Shortly before setting off for Geneva, Reagan dictated a long memo of his own, laying out his assessment of the man he was about to meet. The Reagan game plan was to look for areas of common interest, be candid about points of contention and support Gorbachev’s reforms while (in Matlock’s paraphrase) “avoiding any demand for ‘regime change.’” He cautioned the members of his administration not to rub Gorbachev’s nose in any concessions he might make. Above all, Reagan wanted to establish a relationship with his Soviet counterpart that would make it easier to manage conflicts lest they escalate to thermonuclear war—an imperative for every American president since Eisenhower.

Matlock puts the best light he can on Reagan’s dream of a Star Wars anti-missile system, but he stops short of perpetuating the claim, now an article of faith among many conservatives, that the prospect of an impregnable shield over the United States and an arms race in space caused the Soviets to throw in the towel. Instead, Matlock focuses on Reagan’s attempt to convince Gorbachev that American defense policy posed no threat to legitimate Soviet interests and should therefore not prevent the two leaders from establishing a high degree of mutual trust.

That word figured in Reagan’s mantra, “trust but verify.” It set Gorbachev’s teeth on edge. However, Reagan intended the motto not just as a caveat about dealing with the Soviets but also as a subtle admonition to his relentlessly hard-line and mistrustful secretary of defense, Caspar W. Weinberger. According to Matlock, Weinberger was “utterly convinced that there was no potential benefit in negotiating anything with the Soviet leaders and that most negotiations were dangerous traps.” The rivalry that Matlock describes between Weinberger and Secretary of State George P. Shultz bears an eerie similarity to what we know of the one between Colin L. Powell and Donald H. Rumsfeld. Shultz grew so exasperated with Weinberger’s militancy and obstructionism that he contemplated resigning. Reagan wrote in his diary, “I can’t let this happen. Actually, George is carrying out my policy.”

That policy, as Matlock summarizes it, “was consistent throughout.” Reagan “wanted to reduce the threat of war, to convince the Soviet leaders that cooperation could serve the Soviet peoples better than confrontation and to encourage openness and democracy in the Soviet Union.”

Presidential attachment to those precepts neither began nor ended with Ronald Reagan. It was Jimmy Carter who first put human rights prominently on the agenda of American-Soviet relations. George H. W. Bush skillfully served as a kind of air traffic controller in 1991, when the increasingly beleaguered Gorbachev brought the Soviet Union in for a relatively soft landing on the ash heap of history—a major contribution to the end of the cold war that Matlock dismisses in a footnote as “cleanup” diplomacy.

While Matlock could have been more charitable to Reagan’s predecessors and to his immediate successor, his account of Reagan’s achievement as the nation’s diplomat in chief is a public service as well as a contribution to the historical record. It is simultaneously admiring, authoritative and conscientious. It is also corrective, since it debunks much of the hype and spin with which we were blitzed earlier this summer. The truth is a better tribute to Reagan than the myth.

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World History Project - Origins to the Present

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The Cold War Who wON The Cold War? Introduction/Thesis “The Cold War began with the fall of Europe. It can only end when Europe is whole.” (Bush, 2009). The year was 1947. World War II had brought upon the fall of Europe through its economic loss and massive casualties. However, another war had just begun. The Cold War was a state of geopolitical tension between the Soviet Union and the United States. Although there were never any armed conflicts between the two superpowers, their hostility towards each other manifested itself in other countries. In the end, history never made it clear who the true winner of this 44 year standoff was. Nonetheless, it can be argued that the United States was the true victor of the conflict because of the USSR’s financial decline, the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the dwindling influence of communism in Eastern Europe. Background World War II, a global war that was fought from 1939 to 1945 impacted the United States greatly. The United States was still recovering from the effects of the Great Depression, which started in 1929. The unemployment rate during 1941 hovered around 25% (Iowa Pathways, 2016). However, America’s involvement in the war completely diminished that rate. American factories were repurposed in order to produce goods to support war efforts. This strategy was known as total war. Men were sent away to fight so more jobs opened up, allowing women to rise into the workforce. The war allowed women more independence and allowed them to break traditional gender stereotypes by doing work that was traditionally considered a “man’s job”. Almost overnight, the unemployment rate had dropped down to 10% (Iowa Pathways, 2016). American employment was on the rise during World War II. In regards to international relations however, there were tensions between many countries. The US had created an unreliable wartime alliance with Great Britain, which always seemed on the verge of breaking. Also during this time, the Soviet Union and the spread of communism were steadily rising. By 1948, the USSR had taken over and claimed several countries of Eastern Europe to continue the spread of communism (The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2018). The United States and Britain felt extremely uncomfortable with the amount of Soviet domination that was occurring in the Eastern European states due to the fact that Soviet influenced communist parties, if left to become strong enough, could potentially influence western democratic ideas. Thus, the Marshall plan had come into existence. A US sponsored program to help Western and Southern European economies rehabilitate so they wouldn’t be exposed to the threat of communism was one of the true beginnings of the long stand-off between the US and the USSR. Throughout the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union always managed to avoid direct military confrontation in Europe. Instead, they relied on combat operations to stop the spread of the other’s influence. For example, the Soviet Union sent out troops to preserve communist influence in several Eastern European states, including East Germany and Hungary. The US, instead of focusing on protecting democracies, attempted to help less protected communist states become democratic. In 1954, the US helped overthrow a left-wing government in Guatemala, and also undertook a long effort to protect South Vietnam against North Vietnam’s communist rule, only to eventually fail (Deudney, 1992). Both sides did their best to truly protect their beliefs, but in 1990, the USSR’s influential communist power had come to an end at the close of the Cold War. Arguments The United States had bled the Soviet economy dry through proxy wars and the nuclear arms race. In the Korean War, Korea was divided along a line known as the 38th parallel, which divided the North and South of Korea. The communist north, which had fallen under the influence of the USSR, fought against the democratic south, backed by the US. Using what was known as trench warfare, they pushed back and forth along this line for about two years with little to no progress. Eventually, in 1953, an armistice was signed claiming Korea would remain a divided country (McDonough, 2018). Because the Soviets had provided material and medical services to North Korea, as well as Soviet pilots and aircrafts, this was one of the first of many events that left a dent in Soviet economy. One of the major events of the nuclear arms race was known as the Cuban Missile Crisis. This was a 13 day standoff between the Soviets and the US where the US administered a blockade around Cuba after discovering that Russia had stationed missiles in the territory right below the United States (Palmer, 2014). This brought them to the brink of nuclear war. At the end of 1956, the United States had 2,123 strategic warheads and the Soviet Union had 84. Those numbers increased rapidly over the subsequent 30 years. The U.S. arsenal peaked in 1987 at 13,002 warheads, the Soviet Union two years later at 11,320 (Freeman, 2018). The high number of nuclear arms shows how much the Soviet resources had been depleted. The reason the US was not affected as much as Russia with their economy was due to capitalism. With communism, it was hard for incentives to work to be introduced because everyone would be treated equal regardless of how hard they worked. This led to little innovation, creativity, and motivation in an era of stagnation. Internally, stagnation of the Soviet economy had thrived under Brezhnev, the Russian leader from 1964-1982. With high military spending due to the nuclear arms race, proxy wars, and stagnation, the economy of the Soviet Union suffered. The Soviet Union collapsed because of the loss of their economy, national sentiment against foreign policy, and the failed reforms of Mikhail Gorbachev. As mentioned earlier, in a country with deep rooted communism, a negative effect of having everybody equal is an idea known as stagnation. Having little incentive to work led to a stagnation in economic growth. However, as military spending went up and the economic output remained the same, it lead to an overall growth decline of 3.7% in the years of 1971-1975 (Palmer, 2014). By the 1970s, low morale of the Soviet Union’s workforce was hurting its economy. Workers were given goals that seemed abstract or remote from tangible benefits. Common people were criticizing people in power for not responding to their needs. Common people were still living in cramped housing and were seeing little material progress for themselves. Among Soviet workers alcoholism was prevalent, and people were taking little pride in their work. Skilled workers were also demoralized. The massive effort in the Soviet Union in education to create a skilled workforce could not compensate for an economy that functioned poorly. Instead, education was producing talent that was being poorly employed. Mikhail Gorbachev tried to alleviate this suffering with his reforms of Perestroika and Glasnost (Payne, 2009). Perestroika was introduced to restructure the centrally planned economy, and introduce capitalism but production could never meet demand. Foreign businesses could establish themselves in the USSR with Perestroika. Small businesses that were established could regulate their own prices and collect their own profits. But, the reforms did not go that far, as price control remained in many businesses and control over production was still maintained (Directorate of Intelligence, 1989). Perestroika would overhaul the top members of the Communist party and would replace the centralized government and the accompanying policy of Glasnost would reduce the strict controls the government had placed on all aspects of life as well as allowing greater and wider discussion for the mistakes of the past, for example, the crimes of Stalin. The Communist party was full of self-serving and corrupt politicians, so Glasnost, a policy of openness, was introduced (Palmer, 2014). This encouraged open discussion and democratization by addressing the many wrongdoings of the Soviet Union. This resulted in a wave of criticism toward the party and streamlining of the party occurred along with a crackdown on corruption. Glasnost also gave people the right to protest through free speech and allowed them to criticize the rule of the Soviet Union. Criticisms allowed people to rally against the government and further implemented the collapse of the USSR. These western ideals were introduced to the USSR through the influence of democracy in the United States. Because the USSR collapsed due to its economic loss and America did not, it is clear to see that the US was the true victor of this war. By the close of the Cold War, the Soviet Union no longer wielded the same power it once did over Eastern Europe. Not only was the country itself collapsing, but the influence of communism that the USSR held diminished along with it. In the revolutions of 1989, many countries under the influence of communism revolted and gained their independence from the superpower. In Poland, a movement known as Solidarity was created. Solidarity was a national symbol of protest and called for free elections and a position in government. The socialist regime in Poland was thus threatened and the outcome resulted in free market lines and a reconstructing of the economy. In Hungary, a new leader was wanted in order to kick the socialist leader out of power. In 1988, the new leadership that had taken form allowed multi-party elections and dissolved the communist party. In many other countries, similar revolutions occurred and resulted in freedom due to Gorbachev’s leniency (Directorate of Intelligence, 1989). Gorbachev did not offer military backing or support to Communist leaders that were trying to assert their rule. Without the backing of the Soviet government, communist leaders of countries were not powerful enough to suppress the revolutions in their countries. As a result, they fell to revolutionary demands and their governments were overthrown. At the 19th All-Union Conference in 1988, Gorbachev introduced the principle of multi-candidate elections and Article 6 was later removed, ending the Communist party’s monopoly of power (Palmer, 2014). Communist candidates lost elections. Independence movements grew with Lithuania being the first to declare independence from the Soviet Union. Free elections were held and Communism collapsed and no military intervention was done to stop it. The U.S. had entered the Cold War with the intent to stop the spread of communism through their Marshall plan. Because the Soviet Union lost all of their power in Eastern Europe and their control of communism, it was clear to see that the United States completed their original purpose of entering the war. Therefore, the fall of communism supports the claim that the United States won the Cold War. Opposing Arguments It can be argued that the US did not win the Cold War because some historians believe the Soviet Union did not collapse due to external pressures. One claim that has been made is that communist rule ended because Mikhaïl Gorbachev alone took communism out of power as he believed it would be in the Soviets best interest. The Soviet Union collapsed because of Gorbachev’s policies internally, not because the US willed them to collapse (Kingsbury, 2010). While the claim that Mikhaïl Gorbachev ended the Communist monopoly of power is true, the reason communism collapsed was due to the introduction of western ideals that were influenced by democracy. One of the main reasons communism collapsed was because of economic stagnation, which prevented growth of the economy. In that sense, the US drove that economic decline as it forced the USSR to use up its resources. As a result, Mikhaïl Gorbachev was forced to introduce Perestroika as mentioned earlier in this essay, an economic ideal that resembled capitalism. Therefore, the USSR did not only collapse due to internal pressures of Mikhaïl Gorbachev, but also external pressures driven by the US’s nuclear force and economic strength. Conclusion It has been made clear that the United States was the true victor of the Cold War against the Soviet Union because they forced an economic decline upon the Soviets, the USSR collapsed as a nation, and because they helped diminish the influence of communism through the Marshall Plan. The USSR faced a huge economic decline due to the nuclear arms race and the proxy wars they fought with the US. The US’s Marshall Plan helped impose democracy and the influence of free speech allowed the collapse of communism in many Eastern European countries. Lastly, the Soviet Union itself collapsed because of the introduction of western ideals that overwhelmed the communist government, rendering it unable to function. Therefore, the US was able to help the spread of democracy and weakened the power communism held over Eurasia. It is vital to involve the Cold War in a topic of study in United States history because it was a war that involved a clash of ideals over the fight for democracy or communism. In communism, the ideals involved the government consuming every aspect of a person’s life. In democracy, a person’s free speech and their control over government reigned. Because of this clash of ideals, the threat of nuclear war seemed to loom over the world’s shoulders. Without discussion and the understanding of this part of history, the hazard of nuclear war could once again be foreshadowed in the future.

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who won the cold war essay

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By: History.com Editors

Updated: March 16, 2023 | Original: October 14, 2009

Military trucks pull trailers of short-range, two-stage missiles with twin tail assembly past the Kremlin. The Soviet Union unveiled a wealth of secret rocket weapons as the highlight of a massive armed display in the Red Square, commemorating the 40th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution.

An arms race occurs when two or more countries increase the size and quality of military resources to gain military and political superiority over one another. The Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union is perhaps the largest and most expensive arms race in history; however, others have occurred, often with dire consequences. Whether an arms race increases or decreases the risk of war remains debatable: some analysts agree with Sir Edward Grey , Britain's foreign secretary at the start of World War I , who stated "The moral is obvious; it is that great armaments lead inevitably to war."

Dreadnought Arms Race

With the Industrial Revolution came new weaponry, including vastly improved warships. In the late nineteenth century, France and Russia built powerful armies and challenged the spread of British colonialism. In response, Great Britain shored up its Royal Navy to control the seas.

Britain managed to work out its arms race with France and Russia with two separate treaties. But Germany had also drastically increased its military budget and might, building a large navy to contest Britain’s naval dominance in hopes of becoming a world power.

In turn, Britain further expanded the Royal Navy and built more advanced and powerful battlecruisers, including the 1906 HMS Dreadnought , a technically advanced type of warship that set the standard for naval architecture.

Not to be outdone, Germany produced its own fleet of dreadnought-class warships, and the standoff continued with both sides fearing a naval attack from the other and building bigger and better ships.

Germany couldn’t keep up, however, and Britain won the so-called Anglo-German Arms Race . The conflict didn’t cause World War I, but it did help to increase distrust and tensions between Germany, Britain and other European powers.

Arms Control Efforts Fail

After World War I, many countries showed an interest in arms control. President Woodrow Wilson led the way by making it a key point in his famous 1918 Fourteen Points speech, wherein he laid out his vision for postwar peace.

At the Washington Naval Conference (1921-1922), the United States, Britain and Japan signed a treaty to restrict arms, but in the mid-1930s Japan chose not to renew the agreement. Moreover, Germany violated the Treaty of Versailles and began to rearm.

This started a new arms race in Europe between Germany, France and Britain—and in the Pacific between Japan and the United States—which continued into World War II .

Nuclear Arms Race

Though the United States and the Soviet Union were tentative allies during World War II, their alliance soured after Nazi Germany surrendered in May 1945.

The United States cast a wary eye over the Soviet Union’s quest for world dominance as they expanded their power and influence over Eastern Europe, and the Soviet Union resented the United States’ geopolitical interference and America’s own arms buildup.

Further fueling the flame of distrust, the United States didn’t tell the Soviet Union they planned to drop an atomic bomb on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, although the United States informed them they had created such a bomb.

To help discourage Soviet communist expansion, the United States built more atomic weaponry. But in 1949, the Soviets tested their own atomic bomb, and the Cold War nuclear arms race was on.

The United States responded in 1952 by testing the highly destructive hydrogen “superbomb,” and the Soviet Union followed suit in 1953. Four years later, both countries tested their first intercontinental ballistic missiles and the arms race rose to a terrifying new level.

Cold War Arms Race Heads to Space

The Soviet’s launch of the first Sputnik satellite on October 4, 1957, stunned and concerned the United States and the rest of the world, as it took the Cold War arms race soon became the Space Race .

President Dwight D. Eisenhower tried to tone down the rhetoric over the success of the launch, while he streamed federal funds into the U.S. space program to prevent being left behind.

After a series of mishaps and failures, the United States successfully launched its first satellite into space on January 31, 1958, and the Space Race continued as both countries researched new technology to create more powerful weapons and surveillance technologies.

Missile Gap

Throughout the 1950s, the United States became convinced that the Soviet Union had better missile capability that, if launched, could not be defended against. This theory, known as the Missile Gap, was eventually disproved by the CIA but not before causing grave concern to U.S. officials.

Many politicians used the Missile Gap as a talking point in the 1960 presidential election. Yet, in fact, U.S. missile power was superior to that of the Soviet Union at the time. Over the next three decades, however, both countries grew their arsenals to well over 10,000 warheads.

Cuban Missile Crisis

The Cold War arms race came to a tipping point in 1962 after the John F. Kennedy administration’s failed attempt to overthrow Cuba’s premier Fidel Castro , and Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev implemented a secret agreement to place Soviet warheads in Cuba to deter future coup attempts.

After U.S. intelligence observed missile bases under construction in Cuba, they enforced a blockade on the country and demanded the Soviet Union demolish the bases and remove any nuclear weapons. The tense Cuban Missile Crisis standoff ensued and came to a head as Kennedy and Khrushchev exchanged letters and made demands.

The crisis ended peacefully; however, both sides and the American public had fearfully braced for nuclear war and began to question the need for weapons that guaranteed “mutually assured destruction.”

who won the cold war essay

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Arms Races Continue

The Cold War ended in 1991 following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Berlin Wall . But years earlier, in 1987, the United States and the Soviet Union had signed the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) to limit the scope and reach of all types of missiles.

Other treaties such as the START 1 treaty in 1991 and the New START treaty in 2011 aimed to further reduce both nations’ ballistic weapons capabilities.

The United States withdrew from the INF treaty in 2019, however, believing that Russia was non-compliant. Though the Cold War between the United States and Russia is over, many argue the arms race is not.

Other countries have beefed up their military might and are in a modern-day arms race or poised to enter one, including India and Pakistan, North Korea and South Korea , and Iran and China .

Herman, Steve. US Leaves INF Treaty, Says Russia ‘Solely Responsible.’ VOA. Hundley, Tom. Pakistan and India: The Real Nuclear Challenge. Pulitzer Center. Sputnik, 1957. U.S. Department of State: Office of the Historian. The Reader’s Companion to American History. Eric Foner and John A. Garraty, Editors. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.

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who won the cold war essay

George Orwell and the origin of the term ‘cold war’

who won the cold war essay

Oxford Dictionaries

  • By Katherine Connor Martin
  • October 24 th 2015

On 19 October 1945, George Orwell used the term cold war in his essay “ You and the Atom Bomb ,” speculating on the repercussions of the atomic age which had begun two months before when the United States bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan. In this article, Orwell considered the social and political implications of “a state which was at once unconquerable and in a permanent state of ‘cold war’ with its neighbors.”

This wasn’t the first time the phrase cold war was used in English (it had been used to describe certain policies of Hitler in 1938), but it seems to have been the first time it was applied to the conditions that arose in the aftermath of World War II. Orwell’s essay speculates on the geopolitical impact of the advent of a powerful weapon so expensive and difficult to produce that it was attainable by only a handful of nations, anticipating “the prospect of two or three monstrous super-states, each possessed of a weapon by which millions of people can be wiped out in a few seconds, dividing the world between them,” and concluding that such a situation is likely “to put an end to large-scale wars at the cost of prolonging indefinitely a ‘ peace that is no peac e’.”

Within years, some of the developments anticipated by Orwell had emerged. The Cold War (often with capital initials) came to refer specifically to the prolonged state of hostility, short of direct armed conflict, which existed between the Soviet bloc and Western powers after the Second World War. The term was popularized by the American journalist Walter Lippman, who made it the title of a series of essays he published in 1947 in response to U.S. diplomat George Kennan’s ‘Mr. X’ article, which had advocated the policy of “ containment .” To judge by debate in the House of Commons the following year (as cited by the Oxford English Dictionary ), this use of the term Cold War was initially regarded as an Americanism: ‘The British Government … should recognize that the ‘cold war’, as the Americans call it, is on in earnest, that the third world war has, in fact, begun.” Soon, though, the term was in general use.

The end of the Cold War was prematurely declared from time to time in the following decades—after the death of Stalin, and then again during the détente of the 1970s—but by the time the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991, the Cold War era was clearly over. American political scientist Francis Fukuyama famously posited that “what we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of postwar history, but the end of history as such,” with the global ascendancy of Western liberal democracy become an inevitability.

A quarter of a century later, tensions between Russia and NATO have now ratcheted up again, particularly in the wake of the Ukrainian crisis of 2014; commentators have begun to speak of a “ New Cold War .” The ideological context has changed, but once again a few great powers with overwhelming military might jockey for global influence while avoiding direct confrontation. Seventy years after the publication of his essay, the dynamics George Orwell discussed in it are still recognizable in international relations today.

A version of this article first appeared on the OxfordWords blog. 

Image Credit: “General Douglas MacArthur, UN Command CiC (seated), observes the naval shelling of Incheon from the USS Mt. McKinley, September 15, 1950.” Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons .

Katherine Connor Martin is Head of US Dictionaries at Oxford University Press.

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Orwell always surprises us. He was and still is a genius.

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  1. Cold War

    The Cold War was an ongoing political rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union and their respective allies that developed after World War II.This hostility between the two superpowers was first given its name by George Orwell in an article published in 1945. Orwell understood it as a nuclear stalemate between "super-states": each possessed weapons of mass destruction and was ...

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  5. The end of the Cold War

    1. Three significant events heralded the end of the Cold War: the fall of the Berlin Wall, the reunification of Germany and the dissolution of the Soviet Union. 2. The fall of the Berlin Wall prompted the removal of borders between East and West Germany, while West German chancellor Helmut Kohl began pushing for the reunification of the two ...

  6. READ: Cold War

    The Soviet Union sent money and weapons to the communist forces. By 1975, with the help of the Soviets and China, a small, poor nation defeated the strongest military superpower in the world. Over 58,000 Americans died in the conflict. The war divided Americans who were for or against the war.

  7. Cold War

    The Cold War was a period of geopolitical tension between the United States and the Soviet Union and their respective allies, ... English writer George Orwell used cold war, as a general term, in his essay "You and the Atomic Bomb", ... the communists won the Civil War because they made fewer military mistakes than Chiang Kai-Shek made, ...

  8. The End of the Cold War [ushistory.org]

    The End of the Cold War. This map charts the change from the single communist nation of the USSR into the confederation of smaller independent nations once dominated by Russia. The fall of the Berlin Wall. The shredding of the Iron Curtain. The end of the Cold War. When Mikhail Gorbachev assumed the reins of power in the Soviet Union in 1985 ...

  9. The Cold War and America's Delusion of Victory

    If the United States won the Cold War but failed to capitalize on it, then the Soviet Union, or rather Russia, lost it, and lost it big. ... This is an essay in the series Red Century, about the ...

  10. "Tear Down This Wall": Ronald Reagan and the End of the Cold War

    This decision point can be used with The Iran-Contra Affair Narrative; the Ronald Reagan, "Tear Down this Wall" Speech, June 12, 1987 Primary Source; and the Cold War DBQ (1947-1989) Lesson. In the wake of World War II, a Cold War erupted between the world's two superpowers—the United States and the Soviet Union.

  11. Cold War historiography

    Cold War historiography. As an event spanning almost 50 years and touching all corners of the globe, the Cold War has been closely studied by hundreds of historians. Histories of the period have reached different conclusions and formed different interpretations about the Cold War, why it occurred and how it developed and evolved.

  12. The Cold War (1945-1989) essay

    The Cold War dominated a rather long time period: between 1945, or the end of the World War II, and 1990, the collapse of the USSR. This period involved the relationships between two superpowers: the United States and the USSR. The Cold War began in Eastern Europe and Germany, according to the researchers of the Institute of Contemporary ...

  13. [PDF] Who Won the Cold War

    Who Won the Cold War. Daniel Deudney, G. Ikenberry. Published 1992. Political Science, History. Foreign Policy. The end of the Cold War marks the most important historical divide in half a century. The magnitude of those developments has ushered in a wide-ranging debate over the reasons for its end-a debate that is likely to be as protracted ...

  14. Who Won The Cold War Essay

    The Cold War lasted from 1945 to 1991, the Cold War is defined as a bitter, typically non-military conflict between the two superpowers, the Soviet Union and America. The Soviet Union and the United States had contrasting views about most things, including political systems, economic systems and societal values.

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    Ronald Reagan was widely eulogized for having won the cold war, liberated Eastern Europe and pulled the plug on the Soviet Union. Margaret Thatcher, Joe Lieberman, John McCain, Charles Krauthammer ...

  16. Who Won the Cold War: Indicators of the US Victory

    The Cold War is regarded as the period from 1945 to 1991, although some people would argue that it ended in 1990. The Cold War pitted the US against the Soviet Union due to differing attitudes in politics and military between the superpowers. There has been a debate on who won the Cold War.

  17. READ: Cold War

    The Soviet Union sent money and weapons to the communist forces. By 1975, with the help of the Soviets and China, a small, poor nation defeated the strongest military superpower in the world. Over 58,000 Americans died in the conflict. The war divided Americans who were for or against the war.

  18. Who won the Cold War?

    This page of the essay has 2,182 words. Download the full version above. The Cold War. Who wON The Cold War? Introduction/Thesis. "The Cold War began with the fall of Europe. It can only end when Europe is whole." (Bush, 2009). The year was 1947. World War II had brought upon the fall of Europe through its economic loss and massive casualties.

  19. Cuban missile crisis

    Cuban missile crisis, major confrontation at the height of the Cold War that brought the United States and the Soviet Union to the brink of a shooting war in October 1962 over the presence of Soviet nuclear-armed missiles in Cuba. The crisis was a defining moment in the presidency of John F. Kennedy.

  20. Who Won the Cold War? Essay

    From 1917 - 1922, Western Powers like the USA, Britain and France sent money, troops and weapons to opponents of Communists in Russia. Save your time! This became a civil war between the 'whites' (non-Communists) and 'reds' (Communists; the traditional Socialist colour). At the very end, the Reds won.

  21. Arms Race: Definition, Cold War & Nuclear Arms

    Germany couldn't keep up, however, and Britain won the so-called Anglo-German Arms Race. The conflict didn't cause World War I, but it did help to increase distrust and tensions between ...

  22. George Orwell and the origin of the term 'cold war'

    October 24th 2015. On 19 October 1945, George Orwell used the term cold war in his essay " You and the Atom Bomb ," speculating on the repercussions of the atomic age which had begun two months before when the United States bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan. In this article, Orwell considered the social and political implications of ...

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  24. The First Cold War

    But Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany grasped the true meaning of the Anglo-Russian pact: "When taken all around, it is aimed at us.". The First Cold War: Anglo-Russian Relations in the 19th ...

  25. How to Use and Misuse History in Cold War II With China

    The economic payoffs of "Chimerica" were too asymmetrically in China's favor as manufacturing jobs were sucked from the US heartland to Shenzhen and Chongqing. Predictably, the percentage of ...