Reagan’s Foreign Policy and the End of the Cold War

The Defense Buildup and the “Evil Empire”

Reagan initiated a large build-up of the American military with the intention of defeating the Soviet Union in an arms race.

Learning Objectives

Demonstrate how the Cold War escalated under Reagan’s administration

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Along with British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, Reagan harshly criticized the Soviet Union on ideological and moral terms.
  • In 1983, Soviet Union fighter planes shot down a Korean Air commercial passenger plane, killing all 269 passengers, including a US congressman. This prompted a harsh diplomatic and economic response by President Reagan.
  • Under the Reagan Doctrine, the United States provided arms, training, and financial aid to anti-communist movements around the world, including Islamist Mujaheddin forces in Afghanistan.
  • The “Reagan Doctrine” offered support to anti-communist opposition in central Europe and worked against socialist and communist governments. During his presidency, Reagan implemented the Strategic Defense Initiative, which attempted to create a missile-defense system. Critics challenged this as technologically unfeasible.

Key Terms

  • Global Positioning System: A space-based satellite navigation system that provides location and time information in all weather, anywhere on or near the earth, where there is an unobstructed line of sight to four or more satellites; it is maintained by the United States government and is freely accessible to anyone with a receiver.
  • Strategic Defense Initiative: A system proposed by U.S. President Ronald Reagan on March 23, 1983, to use ground- and space-based systems to protect the United States from attack by strategic nuclear ballistic missiles.
  • Détente: A relaxing of tension between major powers, especially the particular thawing of relations between the Soviet Union and the United States following the Cold War.

Overview: Reagan’s Foreign Policy

The foreign policy of the Ronald Reagan administration from 1981 to 1989 was characterized by a strategy of “peace through strength.” Critics label Reagan’s policies as aggressive, imperialistic, and “warmongering”; however, these policies were supported by leading American conservatives who argued they were necessary to protect U.S. security interests. While Ronald Reagan worked to restrict the influence of the federal government in people’s lives, he simultaneously pursued interventionist policies abroad as part of a global Cold War strategy. Eager to cure the United States of “Vietnam Syndrome,” he increased the American stockpile of weapons and aided anti-Communist groups in the Caribbean and Central America. As part of the policies that became known as the Reagan Doctrine, the United States also offered financial and logistical support to the anti-communist opposition in central Europe, and took an increasingly hard line against socialist and communist governments in Afghanistan, Angola, and Nicaragua.

The Escalating Cold War

Reagan escalated the Cold War during his presidency, accelerating a reversal from the policy of détente that began in 1979, following the Soviet war in Afghanistan. Reagan ordered a massive buildup of the United States Armed Forces and implemented new policies toward the Soviet Union. He revived the B-1 Lancer program that had been canceled by the Carter administration, and began producing the MX missile. In response to Soviet deployment of the SS-20, Reagan oversaw the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s (NATO’s) deployment of the Pershing missile in West Germany.

Together with the United Kingdom’s prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, Reagan denounced the Soviet Union in ideological terms. In a famous address given on June 8, 1982 to the British Parliament in the Royal Gallery of the Palace of Westminster, Reagan said, “the forward march of freedom and democracy will leave Marxism-Leninism on the ash-heap of history.” On March 3, 1983, he predicted that communism would collapse, stating, “Communism is another sad, bizarre chapter in human history, whose last pages even now are being written.” In a speech to the National Association of Evangelicals on March 8, 1983, Reagan called the Soviet Union “an evil empire.”

On September 1, 1983, Soviet fighters struck down Korean Air Lines Flight 007, carrying 269 people, including Georgia congressman Larry McDonald, near Moneron Island. Reagan labeled the act a “massacre,” and responded to the incident by suspending all Soviet passenger air service to the United States; he also dropped several agreements under negotiation with the Soviets, wounding them financially. As a result of the shoot-down—the cause of KAL 007’s going astray was thought to be inadequacies related to its navigational system—Reagan announced on September 16, 1983 that the Global Positioning System would be made available for civilian use, free of charge, to avert similar navigational errors in future.

The Reagan Doctrine

Dedicated to upholding even authoritarian governments in foreign countries to keep them “safe” from Soviet influence, Reagan was also desperate to put to rest Vietnam Syndrome (the reluctance to use military force in foreign countries for fear of embarrassing defeat), which had influenced U.S. foreign policy since the mid-1970s. Under a policy that came to be known as the Reagan Doctrine, Reagan and his administration provided overt and covert aid to anti-communist resistance movements, in an effort to manipulate governments in Africa, Asia, and Latin America away from communism and toward capitalism. Reagan deployed the CIA’s Special Activities Division to Afghanistan and Pakistan, which were instrumental in training, equipping, and leading Mujaheddin forces against the Soviet Army. President Reagan’s Covert Action program has been given credit for assisting in ending the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, though the U.S. funded armaments that were introduced then would later pose a threat to U.S. troops during the war in Afghanistan in the 2000s. However, in a break from the Carter policy of arming Taiwan under the Taiwan Relations Act, Reagan agreed with the communist government in China to reduce the sale of arms to Taiwan.

The Strategic Defense Initiative

In March of 1983, Reagan introduced the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), a defense project that would use ground- and space-based systems to protect the United States from attack by strategic nuclear ballistic missiles. Reagan believed that this defense shield would make nuclear war impossible. However, disbelief that the technology could ever work led opponents to dub SDI “Star Wars,” arguing that the technological objective was unattainable. The Soviets became concerned about the possible effects SDI would have; leader Yuri Andropov said it would put “the entire world in jeopardy.”


President Reagan Addressing British Parliament, London, June 8, 1982: Reagan, the first American president ever to address the British Parliament, predicted Marxism-Leninism would be left on the “ash-heap of history.”

The Middle East

Reagan’s involvement in the Middle East is most known for the Beirut barracks bombing, the 1986 bombing of Libya, and the Iran-Contra affair.

Learning Objectives

Describe events in the Middle East under the Reagan administration

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • American peacekeeping forces in Beirut were attacked on October 23, 1983 by Hezbollah forces, in what would be known as the Beirut barracks bombing. The bombing resulted in the deaths of 241 American servicemen, and the wounding of more than 60 others.
  • A truck bomb that killed 80 civilians in Beruit was alleged to be an American-led retaliation for the barracks bombings, although no one in the U.S. has ever confirmed this. Relations between Libya and the U.S. under President Reagan were continually contentious; by 1982, Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi was named by the U.S. (along with USSR leader Leonid Brezhnev, and Cuban leader Fidel Castro ) as part of an “unholy trinity.”
  • Reagan authorized the use of force against Libya on April 15, 1986, in response to a so-called “terrorist bombing.” The attack was condemned by many countries, as well as the United Nations in Resolution 41/38.
  • The Iran- Contra affair of 1986 became the largest political scandal in the United States, in which proceeds from secret weapons sales to Iran were used to fund the Contras in Nicaragua. Though President Reagan professed ignorance of the plot’s existence, his popularity quickly dropped.

Key Terms

  • Hezbollah: A radical political and military Shi’ite Muslim organization that arose after the Israeli invasion of Lebanon.
  • Beirut Barracks Bombing: An attack that occurred during the Lebanese Civil War, when two truck bombs struck separate buildings housing United States and French military forces (members of the Multinational Force in Lebanon), killing 299 American and French servicemen.
  • contra: A label given to the various rebel groups, active from 1979 through to the early 1990s, that opposed the Sandinista Junta of National Reconstruction government in Nicaragua.

Overview: Reagan and the Middle East

Ronald Reagan’s administration was heavily involved in the Middle East. His first term was marked by the Beirut barracks bombing, while his second term is known for the 1986 bombing of Libya, and the revelation of the Iran-Contra affair.

The Beirut Barracks Bombing, 1983

Reagan’s desire to demonstrate U.S. readiness to use military force abroad sometimes had tragic consequences. In 1983, he sent soldiers to Lebanon as part of a multinational force trying to restore order following an Israeli invasion the year before. American forces in Beirut were attacked on October 23, 1983 in the Beirut barracks bombing, resulting in the deaths of 241 American servicemen, and the wounding of more than 60 others by Iranian-trained militants, known as Hezbollah. The suicide attack was motivated by U.S. support for Israel in the 1982 war with Lebanon, a war in which many Lebanese civilians were killed, and the U.S. was perceived as siding with Maronite Catholics in Lebanon’s domestic conflicts.

The explosion of the Marine Corps building in Beirut, Lebanon on October 23, 1983 created a large cloud of smoke that was visible from miles away.

1983 Beirut Barracks Bombing: The Beirut barracks bombing resulted in the deaths of 241 American servicemen, and the wounding of more than 60 others by a suicide truck bomber.

Reagan sent a White House team to the site four days later, led by Vice President George H.W. Bush. There was no significant American military response to the Beirut barracks bombing; a joint American-French air assault on Islamic Revolutionary Guard positions was discussed but rejected. Reagan pledged to keep a military force in Lebanon, and planned to target the Sheik Abdullah barracks in Baalbek, Lebanon, a training ground for Hezbollah fighters; however, the mission was later aborted. On February 7, 1984, President Reagan ordered the U.S. Marines to begin withdrawal from Lebanon. The suicide attacks boosted the prestige of the Shi’ite organization, Hezbollah; this is thought to have contributed to their growth, despite their denial of any involvement in the attacks.

On February 9th, 1984, the USS New Jersey fired almost 300 shells at Druze and Syrian positions in the Bekaa Valley, east of Beirut, contributing to the perception among Islamic Lebanese that America had sided with Christians in Lebanon’s internal conflicts. A truck bomb that killed 80 civilians in Beirut was alleged to be an American-led retaliation for the barracks bombings, although no one in the U.S. has confirmed this.

Libya Bombing, 1986

Relations between Libya and the U.S. under President Reagan were continually contentious, beginning with the Gulf of Sidra incident in 1981. By 1982, Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi was considered by the CIA to be a threat to the United States. In a reflection of the moral judgments inherent in the conflicts, Gaddafi, Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev, and Cuban leader Fidel Castro were named the “unholy trinity.”

These tensions were later revived in early April 1986, when a bomb exploded in a Berlin discothèque, resulting in the injury of 63 American military personnel and the death of one serviceman. Stating that there was “irrefutable proof” that Libya had directed the “terrorist bombing,” Reagan authorized the use of force against the country. In the late evening of April 15, 1986, the U.S. launched a series of air strikes on ground targets in Libya. The attack was designed to halt Gaddafi’s “ability to export terrorism,” offering him “incentives and reasons to alter his criminal behavior.” The president addressed the nation from the Oval Office after the attacks had commenced, stating, “When our citizens are attacked or abused anywhere in the world on the direct orders of hostile regimes, we will respond so long as I’m in this office.”

The attack was condemned by many countries. By a vote of 79 in favor, to 28 against, with 33 abstentions, the United Nations General Assembly adopted Resolution 41/38, which “condemns the military attack perpetrated against the Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya on 15 April 1986, which constitutes a violation of the Charter of the United Nations and of international law. ”

Iran-Contra Affair, 1986

In 1986, a scandal shook the Reagan administration stemming from the use of proceeds from covert arms sales to Iran to fund the Contras in Nicaragua—activity which had been specifically outlawed by an act of Congress. The Iran-Contra affair became the largest political scandal in the United States during the 1980s. The International Court of Justice, whose jurisdiction to decide the case was disputed by the U.S., ruled that the U.S. had violated international law and breached treaties in Nicaragua in various ways.


In the early 1980s, Nicaragua was governed by a largely Marxist-inspired group, the Sandinistas. This organization, led by Daniel Ortega, had overthrown the brutal, right-wing dictatorship of Anastasio Somoza in 1979. Reagan, however, overlooked the legitimate complaints of the Sandinistas and believed that their rule opened the region to Cuban and Soviet influence. A year into his presidency, convinced it was folly to allow the expansion of Soviet and Communist influence in Latin America, he authorized the CIA to equip and train a group of anti-Sandinista Nicaraguans, known as the Contras (contrarevolucionários or “counter-revolutionaries”) to oust Ortega from power.

Reagan’s desire to aid the Contras, even after Congress ended its support, led him, surprisingly, to Iran. In September 1980, Iraq had invaded neighboring Iran and, by 1982, had begun to gain the upper hand. The Iraqis needed weapons, and the Reagan administration, wishing to assist the enemy of its enemy, had agreed to provide Iraqi President Saddam Hussein with money, arms, and military intelligence. In 1983, however, the capture of Americans by Hezbollah forces in Lebanon changed the president’s plans. In 1985, he authorized the sale of anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles to Iran in exchange for help retrieving three of the American hostages.

Secret Weapons Sales

A year later, Reagan’s National Security Council aide, Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North, found a way to sell weapons to Iran and secretly use the proceeds to support the Nicaraguan Contras, in direct violation of a congressional ban on military aid to the anti-Communist guerrillas in that Central American nation. Eventually the Senate became aware, and North and others were indicted on various charges. All of the charges, however, were dismissed, overturned on appeal, or granted presidential pardon.

Reagan, known for delegating much authority to subordinates and being unable to “remember” crucial facts and meetings, escaped the scandal with nothing more than criticism for his lax oversight. He professed ignorance of the plot’s existence and appointed two Republicans and one Democrat (John Tower, Brent Scowcroft, and Edmund Muskie, collectively known as the “Tower Commission”) to investigate the scandal. The commission could not find direct evidence that Reagan had prior knowledge of the program, but criticized him heavily for his disengagement from managing his staff, making the diversion of funds possible. The nation was divided over the extent to which the president could go to “protect national interests,” and the limits of Congress’s constitutional authority to oversee the activities of the executive branch have yet to be resolved. Reagan’s popularity declined from 67% to 46% in less than a week, the greatest and quickest decline for a president in history.

Central America

Declassified documents show that the Reagan administration supported para-military groups in Central America in multiple genocidal campaigns.

Learning Objectives

Analyze Reagan’s initiatives in Central America

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The School of the Americas, run by the C.I.A. and U.S. military advisors, provided training to Latin American armed forces in torture and assassination techniques, as evidenced by their training manuals, which were declassified in 1996.
  • The Reagan administration also aided the right-wing El Salvador government in the El Salvadorean Civil War, despite that government’s human rights abuses, as well as right-wing military and paramilitary groups in Guatemala during their genocidal campaign.
  • In 1983, the U.S. invaded Granada, a move that was criticized as imperialistic and was denounced by Great Britain, Canada, and the UN General Assembly.
  • In the Iran- Contra Affair, the United States sponsored the Contras, an anti-communist band of militants in Nicaragua, in their war with the Sandinista government.
  • The Sandinista government had been democratically elected, allowed free political opposition, and instituted a mixed economy.
  • The Reagan administration considered the Sandinista government to be a threat, as it was allied with Cuba and the Soviet Union; however, subsequent analysis revealed that these claims were quite overstated.

Key Terms

  • School of the Americas: A U.S. Army training facility, subsequently officially known as the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation.
  • contra: A label given to the various rebel groups, active from 1979 through to the early 1990s, opposing the Sandinista Junta of National Reconstruction government in Nicaragua.
  • Sandinista: A socialist political party in Nicaragua that was communist in the 1980s.

Reagan’s Initiatives in Central America

President Reagan increased military and financial aid to many Central and South American states throughout his two terms. Financial aid to Colombia’s military and right-wing paramilitary groups skyrocketed in the 1980s, even as Colombia compiled one of the worst human rights records in the hemisphere. A similar situation existed for El Salvador; even as tens of thousands of civilians were slaughtered by government and government-allied forces in the early 1980s, Reagan stated that El Salvador was making “progress.”

School of the Americas

The C.I.A., U.S. military advisers, and the U.S.-based School of the Americas trained the Latin American Armed Forces in torture and assassination techniques, in an effort to combat “radical populism”—or, in effect, to interrupt the spread of Communism. The School of the Americas has since been criticized for the human rights violations performed by a number of its graduates. On September 20, 1996, the Pentagon was forced to release training manuals that were used at the U.S. Army School of the Americas, and distributed to thousands of military officers from 11 South and Central American countries, including Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, and Panama, where the U.S. military was heavily involved in counterinsurgency. These manuals advocated targeting civilians, extrajudicial executions, torture, false imprisonment, and extortion.

The logo includes the image of shield displaying a map of North and South America, a cross pattée, and a lit torch crossed with a sword. A ribbon with the words "Libertad Paz y Fraterndad," appears below the the shield. The shield and ribbons are surrounded by the name of the agency, "Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation" and "Department of Defense."

Official seal of the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, also known as the School of the Americas: The C.I.A., U.S. military advisers, and the U.S.-based School of the Americas trained the Latin American Armed Forces in torture and assassination techniques in order to combat “radical populism.”


In 1999, a report on the Guatemalan Civil War from the Commission for Historical Clarification, sponsored by the United Nations, stated that “The United States demonstrated that it was willing to provide support for strong military regimes in its strategic backyard. In the case of Guatemala, military assistance was directed towards reinforcing the national intelligence apparatus, and for training the officer corps in counterinsurgency techniques, key factors which had significant bearing on…[the] acts of genocide.” According to the Commission, between 1981 and 1983, the Guatemalan security apparatus—financed, armed, trained, and advised by the United States—destroyed 400 Mayan villages and butchered 200,000 people. The majority of the victims were political activists, students, trade unionists, priests, human rights advocates, and poor peasants.


In Panama, support for anti-Communist regimes was more covert. Manuel Noriega, the dictator of Panama, was on the payroll of the CIA as of 1967. By 1971, his involvement in the drug trade was well known by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA); however, he was an important asset of the CIA and so was well-protected. CIA Director George H. W. Bush arranged to give Noriega a raise in 1976 to a six-figure salary. The Carter administration dropped the future dictator from its payroll, but he was reinstated by the Reagan administration; his salary peaked in 1985 at $200,000. Noriega allowed CIA listening stations in his country, provided funding for the Contras in Nicaragua, and protected covert U.S. and U.S.-funded air shipments of supplies to the Contras.

El Salvador

Reagan provided controversial support to the right-wing El Salvador government and all branches of the security apparatus throughout his term; he feared a takeover by the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) during the El Salvador Civil War, which had begun in 1979. The war left 75,000 people dead, 8,000 missing, and one million homeless; some one million Salvadorans, fleeing the war and U.S.-backed right-wing armed forces, immigrated to the United States but were denied asylum. Similar to Guatemala, the vast majority of the victims were peasants, trade unionists, teachers, students, human rights advocates, journalist, priests, nuns, and anyone working in the interest of the poor majority.


The Invasion of Grenada was a 1983 United States-led military strike against the Caribbean island nation. Five years after Grenada obtained independence from Great Britain, the communist New Jewel Movement seized power in a coup in 1979, executing the elected Prime Minister and instituting a military government led by Hudson Austin. The U.S. stated a number of justifications for the invasion: the request for intervention by Organization of East Caribbean States, the murder of Prime Minister Bishop, the threat of political instability near U.S. borders, and the larger threat of the Soviet-Cuban Militarization of the Caribbean. The invasion, which occurred on October 25, resulted in a U.S. victory within a matter of weeks.

America’s invasion of Grenada was criticized as imperialistic and denounced by Great Britain, Canada, and the United Nations (UN) General Assembly. In the U.S., public support for the invasion was high, although critics point out that no Americans were ever at risk.


On May 1, 1985, President Reagan announced that his administration perceived Nicaragua to be “an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States” and declared a “national emergency” and a trade embargo against Nicaragua. One of the primary goals of the United States was to undermine Nicaragua’s successful independent development and democratic reforms as a key strategy in containing the spread of Soviet influence.

The Iran-Contra Scandal

The Iran–Contra affair was a political scandal in the United States that came to light in November of 1986. During the Reagan administration, senior Reagan administration officials secretly facilitated the sale of weapons to Iran, which at the time was the subject of an arms embargo. The U.S. then used the funds from the sales to finance the anti-Sandinista and anti-communist rebels, or Contras, in Nicaragua.

Contra militants based in Honduras waged a guerrilla war to topple the then-Marxist government of Nicaragua. Direct funding by the United States of the Contras insurgency had been made illegal through the Boland Amendment. The Iran-Contra scandal began as an operation to free seven American hostages being held by a group with Iranian ties and connected to the Islamic Revolution; however, the plan deteriorated into an arms-for-hostages scheme. Large modifications to the plan were devised by Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North of the National Security Council in late 1985, in which a portion of the proceeds from the weapon sales was diverted to fund Contras in Nicaragua.

Under the direction of the CIA, the largest Contra army, the Fuerza Democrática Nicaragüense (FDN), attacked farms, cooperatives, schools, health clinics, and other civilian targets. The army murdered, tortured, mutilated, and raped civilians and committed other war crimes, as documented by human rights organizations, such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. In its annual report in 1985, Amnesty International cited accounts that U.S. support encouraged the Contras to carry out “torture and assassinations.”

United Nations Involvement

The United Nations (UN) Judges reviewed the CIA manual issued to the Contras and determined: “The United States of America, by producing in 1983 a manual entitled ‘Operaciones sicológicas en guerra de guerrillas’, and disseminating it to contra forces, has encouraged the commission by them of acts contrary to general principles of humanitarian law.”

In an unprecedented decision on June 27, 1986, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) ruled in Nicaragua’s favor and found the United States guilty of violating international law by training, arming, and financing paramilitary activities in and against Nicaragua. These activities included the mining of Nicaragua’s harbors as well as attacking a naval base and patrol boats. The UN court held, by 12 votes to 3, that Washington was “in breach of its obligations under customary international law not to use force against another State, not to intervene in its affairs, not to violate its sovereignty and not to interrupt peaceful maritime commerce.” The ICJ also ruled the U.S. was under an obligation “to make reparation to the Republic of Nicaragua for all injury caused” by the breaches.

Reagan’s Response

The Reagan White House announced that it would ignore the court’s verdict, effectively declaring that international law did not apply to the United States. Congress then moved to approve an additional $100 million to escalate the war in Nicaragua, while expressing deep misgivings about the worthiness of the Contras and their ability to accomplish their goal. Nicaragua then took its case to the UN Security Council, which passed a resolution affirming the Court ruling and calling on both states to observe international law; however, the U.S. used its veto to block the resolution.

While President Reagan was a supporter of the Contra cause, the evidence is disputed as to whether he authorized the diversion of the money raised by the Iranian arms sales to the Contras. Investigating Reagan’s role in the affair, the Reagan-appointed Tower Commission found no evidence of the president’s involvement. However, they deemed Reagan negligent for not monitoring and managing his staff, and indicted 14 administration officials, 11 of whom were convicted and later pardoned.

President Reagan addressed the public, accepting full responsibility for the crisis and maintaining his ignorance of the affair. The Iran-Contra Affair cut Reagan’s approval ratings from 67% to 46% in November 1986, “the largest single drop for any U.S. president in history,” though this rating had climbed back to 64% by the end of his term, the highest rating ever recorded for a departing President.

The End of the Cold War

During 1987 summit meetings, Reagan and Gorbachev agreed to nuclear arms reductions, ushering in the end of the decades-long Cold War.

Learning Objectives

Describe the events that led to the end of the Cold War

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • By the time Mikhail Gorbachev came to power in 1985, the Soviet Union had suffered from a decrease in earnings and a decade of economic stagnation, with a growth rate close to zero percent.
  • Gorbachev launched a program of rapid reform, including economic and political liberalization. These reforms required the redirection of Soviet resources from military to civilian and industrial production, and thus resulted in a slowing of the Cold War arms race with the U.S.
  • In 1985, Gorbachev and Reagan met in Geneva to reduce armaments and shrink their respective military budgets. The following year, meeting in Reykjavík, Iceland, they surprised the world by announcing that they would try to eliminate nuclear weapons by 1996.
  • In 1987, they agreed to eliminate a whole category of nuclear weapons when they signed the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty at the White House. This laid the foundation for future agreements limiting nuclear weapons.
  • In November 1989, the Berlin Wall was torn down, and the Soviet Union collapsed two years later.

Key Terms

  • Détente: A relaxing of tension between major powers, especially the particular thawing of relations between the Soviet Union and the United States following the Cold War.
  • Malta Summit: A meeting between U.S. President George H. W. Bush and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, taking place between December 2-3 1989, just a few weeks after the fall of the Berlin Wall.
  • Mikhail Gorbachev: A former Soviet statesman, having served as General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union from 1985 until 1991.

The End of the Cold War

By the later years of the Cold War, Moscow had built a military that consumed as much as 25% of the Soviet Union’s gross national product, at the expense of consumer goods and investment in civilian sectors. However, the size of the Soviet armed forces was not necessarily the result of a simple action-reaction arms race with the United States. Instead, Soviet spending on the arms race and other Cold War commitments can be understood as both a cause and effect of the deep-seated structural problems in the Soviet system, which accumulated at least a decade of economic stagnation during the Brezhnev years. Soviet investment in the defense sector was not necessarily driven by military necessity but in large part by the interests of massive party and state bureaucracies dependent on the sector for their own power and privileges.

Restructuring the Soviet Union

The Soviet Union’s large military expenses, in combination with collectivized agriculture and inefficient planned manufacturing, were a heavy burden for the Soviet economy. At the same time, Saudi Arabia increased oil production, which resulted in a drop of oil prices in 1985 to one-third of the previous level. (Petroleum exports made up around 60% of the Soviet Union’s total export earnings.) By the time Mikhail Gorbachev had ascended to power in 1985, the Soviets suffered from an economic growth rate close to zero percent, combined with a sharp fall in hard currency earnings as a result of the downward slide in world oil prices.

To restructure the Soviet economy before it collapsed, Gorbachev announced an agenda of rapid reform based on what he called perestroika (restructuring) and glasnost (liberalization, openness). Reform required Gorbachev to redirect the country’s resources from costly Cold War military commitments to more profitable areas in the civilian sector. As a result, Gorbachev offered major concessions to the United States on the levels of conventional forces, nuclear weapons, and policy in Eastern Europe.

Many U.S. administration officials doubted that Gorbachev was serious about winding down the arms race; however, President Reagan recognized the real change in the direction of the Soviet leadership and shifted to diplomacy in order to personally push Gorbachev further with his reforms. Reagan sincerely believed that if he could persuade the Soviets to simply look at the prosperous American economy, they too would embrace free market capitalism.

Reduction in the Arms Race

The East-West tensions that had reached intense new heights earlier in the decade rapidly subsided through the mid-to-late 1980s. Gorbachev and Reagan held four summit conferences between 1985 and 1988: the first in Geneva, Switzerland; the second in Reykjavík, Iceland; the third in Washington, D.C.; and the fourth in Moscow. On the third meeting, Gorbachev and Reagan signed the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty at the White House, which eliminated an entire class of nuclear weapons. The two leaders laid the framework for the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, or START I; Reagan insisted that the name of the treaty be changed from Strategic Arms Limitation Talks to Strategic Arms Reduction Talks.

In 1988, the Soviets officially declared that they would no longer intervene in the affairs of allied states in Eastern Europe. In 1989, Soviet forces withdrew from Afghanistan. In November 1989, the Berlin Wall was torn down, the end of the Cold War was officially declared at the Malta Summit on December 3, 1989; two years later, the Soviet Union collapsed.

U.S. President Ronald Reagan and Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachov talking in front of a fireplace at the first Summit in Geneva, Switzerland.

Reagan and Gorbachev Hold Discussions: Reagan and Gorbachev built a close relationship and contributed greatly to the peaceful end of the Cold War.

The Cold War’s Costs and Consequences

The costs of the Cold War (as well as its numerous proxy wars) between the Soviet Union and the United States were extensive.

Learning Objectives

Evaluate the lasting consequences of the Cold War

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The Cold War cost both the Soviet Union and the United States a high percentage of their respective gross national products (GNPs) in military expenditures, despite the fact that neither superpower engaged in direct military conflict with each other.
  • Proxy wars were used as theaters of conflict for the superpowers, resulting in large numbers of casualties. The tensions and instability caused by these conflicts persisted long after the Cold War ended.
  • The nuclear legacy of the Cold War remains at the forefront of security issues for nuclear-capable states; the non-proliferation regime inherited from the Cold War era is one of the most important means of regulating and demilitarizing nuclear arsenals.
  • Nuclear-weapons states have inherited substantial responsibilities in protecting and stabilizing their nuclear forces. The risk that non-state actors could gain access to remaining nuclear arsenals is a substantial concern.

Key Terms

  • proxy war: A war where two powers use third parties as a supplement to, or a substitute for, fighting each other directly.
  • superpower: A sovereign state with dominant status on the globe and a very advanced military, especially the Soviet Union or United States.
  • bipolar: A distribution of power in which two states have the majority of economic, military, and cultural influence, internationally or regionally.

A Bipolar World to a Unipolar World

The legacy of the Cold War continues to influence world affairs today. After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the post-Cold War world became widely considered unipolar instead of bipolar, with the United States the sole remaining superpower. The Cold War defined the political role of the United States in the post-World War II world; by 1989, the U.S. held military alliances with 50 countries and had 1.5 million troops posted abroad in 117 countries. The Cold War also institutionalized a global commitment to large-scale, and permanent, peacetime military-industrial complexes, as well as the large-scale military funding of science.

Costs: Financial and Human Life

Because the two superpowers carried much of the confrontational burden, both Russia and the United States ended up with substantial economic liabilities. Military expenditures by the U.S. during the Cold War years were estimated to have been $8 trillion, while nearly 100,000 Americans lost their lives in the Korean and Vietnam Wars. Although the loss of life among Soviet soldiers is difficult to estimate, as a share of their gross national product, the financial cost for the Soviet Union was far higher than that of the U.S.

In addition to the loss of life by uniformed soldiers, millions died in the superpowers’ proxy wars around the globe, most notably in Southeast Asia. Many of the proxy wars and subsidies for local conflicts ended along with the Cold War, and the incidence of interstate, ethnic, and revolutionary wars, as well as refugee and displaced persons crises, has declined somewhat in the post-Cold War years. However, many of the political issues begun during the Cold War years continue today.

Political Legacies

The legacy of Cold War conflict continues today, as many of the economic and social tensions that were exploited to fuel Cold War competition in countries throughout the Third World remain acute. The breakdown of state control in a number of areas formerly ruled by Communist governments has produced new civil and ethnic conflicts, particularly in the former Yugoslavia. In Eastern Europe, the end of the Cold War has ushered in an era of economic growth and a large increase in the number of liberal democracies, while in other parts of the world, such as Afghanistan, independence was accompanied by state failure.

In the wake of the Cold War, nations freed from colonial forces and newly founded nations inherited expenses, commitments, and resources for which they were not prepared. The successor states also found themselves with contemporary national-security burdens, all of which had to be financed, and new or revised civilian economies had to be instituted.

Nuclear Legacies


Many specific nuclear legacies can be identified from the Cold War. Some are benign, such as the availability of new technologies for nuclear power and energy, and the use of radiation for improving medical treatment and health. Environmental remediation, industrial production, research science, and technological development have all benefited from the carefully managed application of radiation and other nuclear processes.

The international non-proliferation regime inherited from the Cold War still provides disincentives and safeguards against national or sub-national access to nuclear materials and facilities. Formal and informal measures and processes have effectively slowed national incentive, as well as the tempo of international nuclear-weapons proliferation.


On the other hand, despite the end of the Cold War, military development and spending has continued, particularly in the deployment of nuclear-armed ballistic missiles and defensive systems. Because there was no formalized treaty ending the Cold War, the former superpowers have continued to various degrees—depending on their respective economies—to maintain and even improve or modify existing nuclear weapons and delivery systems. Moreover, other nations not previously acknowledged as nuclear-weapons states have developed and tested nuclear-explosive devices. Because of potential risk to national and international security, nuclear-weapons states have inherited substantial responsibilities in protecting and stabilizing their nuclear forces. Risks of deliberate, accidental, or unauthorized nuclear devastation remain.

Public Insecurity

Public impressions and insecurities gained during the Cold War also carry over today. Strong impressions were made and continue to affect national psyche as a result of perilously close brushes with all-out nuclear warfare. In some cases, this resulted in aversion to warfare, while in other cases, the result was callousness regarding nuclear threats. Peaceful applications of nuclear energy received a stigma that is still difficult to exorcise. Heightened fear of nuclear risk can also result in the public’s resistance to military drawdown.