History Theme 8: The End of the Cold War 1985 - 1991

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Soviet Economy 1980s


  • There were long term structual problems with the Soviet economy; the USSR had a centralised, command based economy, where production was decided by the state and workers had to meet targets - there was no initiative or incentive to work harder, which is why this led to an inefficient economy
  • The Cold War had become more scientific and technological, with America's economy becoming computerised, but the Soviets lagged too far behind in the technological industry                                                                                  


  • Growth in Soviet GNP had become stagnant- the extent of Soviet economic decline had been covered up by the discovery of vast oil reserves in the Soviet Union, but these profits soon dried up
  • The USSR produced more tin and steel than any other country in the world but it was forced to import $2 billion worth of rolled steel, tin plate and steel piping from the USA because it did not have the technology to develop their own tin and steel                                                                                                                    

Therefore, the USSR was unable to maintain the Arms Race and its control over Eastern Europe was weakened as it could not support the communist satellite states through Comecon - the USSR had to pull out of the Cold War

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Gorbachev's Reforms 1985 - 1987

  • These reforms came in the form of Perestroika (Reconstruction) and Glasnost (Openness) 
  • Acts which were a part of Perstroika include:                                                                                                          

1. The Anti-Alcohol Campaign 1985
2. The Industrial Efficiency Law 1985 - 87
3. The Law on Joint Ventures 1987
4. The Enterprise Law 1987                                                                                                                                                     

  • However, these reforms backfired and actually accelerated the end of the Cold War - some historians argue that Gorbachev accidentally brought about the collapse of communism and the end of the Cold War with his reforms 
  • They failed because they were a half-way house - trying to introduce elements of capitalism and trying to keep elements of communism, therefore experiencing the disadvantages of both and not the benefits (an example of this would be the Law on Joint Venturs, whereby foreign companies could invest in businesses in the USSR, but those businesses were still set targets by the Soviet state)
  • Glasnost undermined the political control of communism and people could now voice their dissatisfaction with the system due to the relaxation of censorship (e.g. the Solidarity Movement in Poland) 
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Summit Diplomacy 1980s

  • The end of the 1980s saw the return of Summit Diplomacy whereby the superpowers continually met to discuss the issues of the Cold War - Reagan agreed to do this now as the USA had built up its military strength                                                                                                                                                                     

1. Geneva Summit 1985
2. Reykjavik Summit 1986

3. Washington Summit 1987
4. Moscow Summit 1988
5. Malta Summit 1989
6. Washington Summit 1990
7. Helsinki Summit 1990

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Gorbachev's New Thinking


  • Some historians argue that Gorbachev deliberately ended the Cold War with his 'New Thinking'
  • When he came to office, Gorbachev took the view that the Cold War was no longer beneficial for the USSR - the threat no longer came from Europe or from the USA, but from the economic effects from continuing the War
  • The committment to changing the relationship between the USA and the USSR was seen through the USSR's committment to Summit Diplomacy and the abandoning of the Brezhnev Doctrine in 1988 - Gorbachev announced that countries would have to follow 'separate paths to socialism', which led to the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe in the 1990s                 
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Reagan's Militarism

  • Another argument for the end of the Cold War is that Reagan deliberately escalated the Arms Race and US military spending because it meant that the Soviet economy would have to try and keep up, which they couldn't do and therefore the USSR would have to pull out of the Cold War
  • However, it is not certain that the aim of bringing about the end of the Cold War was Reagan's aim for US militarism; he had always been open about the aim of restoring 'lost' US power and prestige following the 'failure' of detente
  • Arguably, SDI was not part of a bigger plan to defeat the Soviet Union, it was about Reagan being morally opposed to nuclear weapons and the idea of mutually assured destruction (the idea that both sides could annihilate the other in a nuclear attack)                                                                                                                                                                                   
  • Some historians would argue that Reagan actually delayed the end of the Cold War; by becoming more aggressive with the USSR, Reagan strengthened the position of the military in the USSR which made it harder for Gorbachev to introduce his reforms 
  • Also, at the Reykjavik Summit in 1986, Gorbachev actually offered for the Soviet Union to get rid of all of its nuclear arsenal by 2000 if Reagan abandoned the Strategic Defence Initiative (an initiative that was never going to work, something that Reagan was told explicitly by experts) and yet Reagan refused to do so, therefore no agreements were made
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A Natural End

  • A final argument is to suggest that neither side was responsible for the end of the Cold War and that it ended because the essential dynamics of it changed
  • Fundamental issues such as the division of Europe were no longer important, the economic decline of the Soviet Union meant that economic competition had declined and the issue of ideology was no longer relevant as communism seemed to be less of an international threat
  • The superpowers therefore simply responded to this change through the process of summit diplomacy to bring about the end of the Cold War
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