The end of the Cold War

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The role of Ronald Reagan - Triumphalist

  • Argues Reagan's hard line approach imposed economic and military pressure on the USSR - the USSR could no longer compete so had to abandon the arms race and the Cold War
  • Reagan's successful anti-communist policies included
    • 53% increase in the US defence budget (1981) - Announcement of SDI - 1983
    • Uncompromising anti-soviet 'Evil Empire' rhetoric
    • Implementation of Reagan Doctrine
    • Deployment of cruise and Pershing II missiles in Europe


  • Its argued that it oversimplifies a complex historical process and exaggerates the impact of Reagan's hard line approach
    • From 1982-84, Reagan's uncompromising stance failed to extract concessions from Andropov - confrontational strategy merely prolonged the war by hardening Soviet resistance
    • Reagan's offer to share SDI technology with USSR contradicts the argument that USA aimed to undermine the Soviet Union economically- Soviet scientists concluded SDI was impractical = had limited pressure on USSR 
    • Reagan and Bush's policy of constructive engagement with Gorbachev produced more significant results e.g. INF Treaty
    • Triumphalist view underestimates the role of other factors such as Gorbachevs new thinking an the role of people in Eastern Europe        
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The role of Margaret Thatcher

  • Many Triumphalist historians seert that she played an important role
  • Thatcher supported Reagan's anti-soviet strategy of 'militarised counter-revolution' and later claimed that this US policy was the reason the west 'won'
  • She reinforced Reagan's rhetoric - she remarked that the Soviets 'pitiless ideology only survives because it is maintained by force'
  • She allowed USA to deploy cruise missiles in Britain - key feature of Reagan's plans to pressure the USSR
  • She promoted US policy to other Western European Governements 


  • She also pursued less confrontation policies which contradicted her 'Cold War warrior' image 
  • 1984 she established a good working relationship with Gorbachev - invited him for talks in London
  • She later endoresed Perestroika and acted as a link between Gorbachev, Reagan and Bush 
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The role of Pope John Paul II

  • Inspiried Catholics in E. Europe and provided moral support for the Polish trade union Solidarity
    • Visits to Poland were hugely popular - 12 million poles saw him on his 1979 tour - indicating Catholicism rather than communism commanded public loyalty
    • Pope rejected the Polish regime's claim that the Catholic Church had no social role
    • 1981, the Solidarity leader and Cahtolic, was blessed by the Pope in Rome - highly significant
    • Pope's speeches e.g. 'Do not be afraid' encouraged anti communists and made the Polish people more self confident 


  • Popes influence had its limist
  • Catholicism attracted support in Poland and Baltic states, but elsewhere in Eastern Europe it had to compete with other beliefs e.g. Protestantism etc meaning it had less impact 
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The role of Gorbachev

He was unwillinging to perpetuate the Cold War stalemate - worked to create genuing East-West understanding by adopting policies to build trust, reduce tensions and solve USSR's economic problems

  • Pursued arms reductions
    • Negotiated INF treaty
    • conducted the START agreement with the USA (reduced nuclear arsenals by 30%)
  • He removed the ideological basis of the Cold war - promoted glasnot and perestroika
    • UN speech - abandoned the Brezhnev Doctrine - endorsing freedom of choice
    • Introduced perestroika reforms into soviet economy (1986)
    • Informed East European communsit leaders they would have to govern without Soviet support - 1989
    • Glasnost gave the Soviet satellite countries the right to choose their own paths
  • Ended 'old-stlye' Soviet aggression and expansionism
    • 1988 annoucned soviet forces in Eastern Europe would be reduced by 500,000
    • Withdrew Soviet forces from Afghanistan by 1989
    • Ended finacial support to Ethiopia, Vietnam, Cambodia, Nicaragua, Angola
    • Refused to suppress popular protests in eastern Europe or prevent the liberalisation of the Soviet Bloc
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Criticisms of pro-Gorbachev interpretation

  • It oversimplifies a complicated historical process and exaggerates his personal impact
  • Main criticisms
    • Complex and unpredictable developments that ended the war were beyond one leaders ability to control
    • The view underestimates the role played by Reagan from 1984 in seeking a better US-Soviet relationship 
    • Can underplay the broader structural factors that helped to end the War such as Soviet economic problems and gorwing scoial discontent in the satellite states
    • Some soviet commentators have argued that Gorbachev 'caved in' to the WEst due to pressure exerted on the Sovier Union by US campaigns 
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Overall assessment of the role of personalities


  • Focuses on the key individuals who made major decisions or were significant in the years leading up to the end 
  • Approach is valuable in examining Soviet behaviour, bearing in mind Gorbachev's radical new approach in cold war tensions
  • Reveals the constraints and pressures under which the national leaders had to operate during the last stages of the war


  • May exaggerate importance of an individual
  • May underestimate the importance of structural factors such as economic problems and social discontent especially in the USSR
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Impact of economic factors

East-West conflict imposed massive economic burdens on the superpowers especially the USSR

Stagnant Soviet economy 

  • Soviet propaganda always claimed they were on the verge of overtaking USA's economy - K bragged the Soviet Union would bury the USA economically
  • 8 years later they predicted industrail production would increase by 50%
  • Reality was very different
  • Soviet economy was stagnating due to: 
    • enormous costs of the arms race
    • unrealistic production targets
    • inefficient central planning methods
    • inadequate infrastructure and technology
    • corruption within the Soviet elite 
  • Growing reliance on the export of oil and gas was hit by a downturn in the world enegry prices
  • Oil accounted for 15.6% of Soviet exports in 1970 - by 1984 this had risen by over 54%
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Impact of economic factors part II

Technological backwardness

  • West imposed a co-ordinated technology embargo on the Soviet Bloc in 1950
  • 1974 USA banned the sale of advanced computers to the USSR and its allies 
  • Soviet system discouraged technological progress - police limited use of computers and photocopiers because of the threat they posed to the states absolute control
  • Economic factors interpretation maintains that:
    • Cold War placed huge economic  strains on both superpowers
    • USSR faced mounting economic problems due to 
      • inefficiency of centralised state economic planning
      • the financial burden of maintaining a soviet empire
      • the escalating costs of the nuclear arms race 
    • these economic difficulties prompted Gorbachev's new thinking and compelled USSR to opt out of an unsustainable Cold War
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Impact of economic factors part III

A costly empire 

  • Soviet empire acted as an economic drain
  • USSR's favourable trading arrangements with socialist allies ensure they say relativeily little of their potential wealth
  • Energy and raw materials were sold to these states and low prices in return for low-grade industrial or consumer goods
  • Between 1981 and 1986 - USSR provided CUba and Vietnam with $4billion and $6billion in aid and oil subsidies 
  • Warsaw Pact countries recieved a yearly subsid of $3 billion due to cheap oil sent by the Soviet Union

The Arms Race

  • Soviet Union in a weaker economic position to cope with high military spending 
  • USSR's defence expenditure increased by between 4 and 7% each year 
  • Mid 1980's military budget accounted for 25% of Soviet GDP and 40% of the state budget 
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Overall assessment of economic interpretation


  • focuses on a key structural factor which had an important beaering on the superpowers ability to sustain their policies
  • approach is particulary valubale in examining soviet behaviour 
  • widens the debate about the end of the war beyond the influence of individual people by focusing on long term economic trends


  • Prior to Gorbachev, Soviet leaders continued with Cold War policies regardless of the mounting economic problems
  • Reagans' operspend strategy appeared to have little effect on soviet behaviour between 1981 and 1985
  • Approach may underestimate the relative importance of Gorbachev and Reagan 
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People Power

  • widespread protests and demonstrations broke communist regimes - led to a public rejection of Marxist - Leninism 
  • interpretation focuses on the impact of events from 'below'
  • people power offers a central explanation for the transformation of Eastern Europe on 1989 - change was rapid and peaceful
  • there was growing popular discontent due to the failure of the central economic planning, continured repression and the moral bankruptcy of communism 

Did people power end the cold war?


  • nature of political change in E Europe in 1989 also endoresed the argument because - speedy and largely peaceful - popular pressure pussehd the process much further than Gorbachev wanted
  • without Gorbachev's crucial intervention, events would've turned out differently - he abandoned the Brezhnev Doctrine and at times he urged the Polish and East German communist regimes not to use force against protestors
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People Power part II

Did people power end the cold war?


  • limited as an explanation
  • it underestimates:
    • the impact of Gorbachevs radical new approach to cold war diplomacy
    • the consequences of Reagan's 'militarist counter-revolution' and subsequent accomodation with the USSR for Cold war relations 
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