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Historians have disagreed about the reason for the end of the Cold War. What is your view about the reasons for the end of the Cold War?
1989 saw the collapse of the Berlin Wall, torn apart by crowds on both sides. With it, lay the debris of an ideological war spanning 44 years that had brought the world to the brink of destruction. Ever since, historians have endeavoured to unlock the reason for its end. So recent are the events of the war that new intelligence is being released all the time, with much remaining still to be made public. As such it is hard to provide one clear answer for why the Cold War ended; analysis by historians is constantly adapting and shifting as to whether it was internal or external factors that brought about the end of the Cold War. In this essay I intend to explore the views of historians from both the triumphalist and revisionist schools of thought, as well as their strengths and limitations in order to reach my own conclusion.
On a simple level, the Cold War was a battle of ideology, requiring nothing less than a shift in ideology for it to end. This ideological shift includes the evolution of the superpower relationship, Reagan and Gorbachev providing the crucial impetus that ultimately ended the war. Vital are the events within the USSR at the time also, where a combination of economic problems, and an emerging generation growing up without the context of WW2 led to a great swell in anti-Soviet feeling in the 1980s. Public resentment, however, was not something new. Uprisings had taken place before but were quickly quashed. By abandoning the Brezhnev Doctrine, and introducing his policy of Democratisation, Gorbachev allowed anti-Communist resentment to manifest for the first time. Emboldened minorities thus began to strive for independence, ultimately leading to the fracture and dissolution of the Soviet Union. Whilst outlining the importance of ideology in ending the Cold War, I also aim to challenge triumphalist assertions that Reagan had ‘won’ the Cold War through his economic policy. Indeed, Reagan had merely exacerbated the problems embedded in the ideology of the Soviet Union.
Though certainly a figure that inspired momentous change, it can be easy to get caught up in the romanticised version of Gorbachev as innovator and liberator. One of the biggest effects Gorbachev had was in his obstinance, his reluctance to realise or act on the resentment of the public. Similarly, when Gorbachev did act, his policies frequently backfired, allowing resentment to manifest and for the Union to eventually fragment. As such, I will endeavour to outline ideology as the main reason for the end of the Cold War, whilst emphasising how this ideology was peddled by the actions of Gorbachev.
I will explore three different positions on why the Cold War ended, Beth Fischer representing the conventional American view that Reagan provoked a compromise with the Soviets, Jack Matlock the importance of diplomatic breakthroughs and Robert Service the crucial role of Gorbachev in transforming ideology. I will analyse each according to their background, the context in which their work was published and the extent to which they explore a variation of factors. Crucially, I will also explore the reasons why they disagree.
In her book ‘The Reagan Reversal,’ Beth Fischer takes the triumphalist view that it was Reagan’s reversal in policy not the reforms of Gorbachev that brought about the end of the Cold War. Whilst Fischer underlines the importance of Gorbachev and the economy in ending the Cold War, she emphasises how Reagan had elicited these internal factors. It was Reagan she claims, who sought a compromise with Gorbachev in the first place, and Reagan who headed the arms race that ultimately crippled the economy of the USSR- forcing them to seek rapprochement with the United States.
Fischer describes the extent of American skepticism toward the USSR, stating that the Reagan administration ‘had been the most vehemently anti-Communist administration in US history.’ This is evidenced when she explains how the US were targeting 50,000 sites in the Soviet Union, including areas with high concentrations of civilians. Fischer also cites Reagan’s deputy secretary Dam’s declaration in 1983 that ‘Washington would continue to take a hard line approach as long as the Soviets continued their “quest of absolute security”… we should be wary of illusions about the possibility of quick automatic breakthroughs.’ This quote exemplifies the attitudes of the US towards the USSR at the time and indicates a future of brutal hard-line policy. Significantly, however, Fischer highlights the disparity between the views of Reagan and his advisors. She contradicts the caricature of Reagan perpetuated in the media, exploring his diaries. One entry describes how Reagan watched a tape called ‘The Day After’ in which Lawrence, Kansas is wiped out in a nuclear war. Reagan recounts how ‘[It] left [him] greatly depressed’ and that he had to do all he could ‘to see that there is never a nuclear war.’ Reagan’s ‘reversal’ is highlighted by Fischer when she cites a speech he made just ten weeks after Dam’s, Reagan emphasising the ‘common interests’ of the USA and the USSR. Fischer describes this speech as a ‘turning point’ in the US administration’s approach to the USSR, the dramatic shift demonstrating the colossal impact Reagan’s opinions had. Crucially, Fischer underlines how Reagan appealed to the USSR over a year before Gorbachev became leader and two before the introduction of Glasnost and Perestroika. At the time, Andropov was General Secretary of the USSR and there was ‘no indication that Moscow intended to introduce radical changes to its foreign policy.’ Moreover, Fischer not only demonstrates the huge impact Reagan had on US policy, but how he kickstarted the negotiations with the USSR that ultimately led to the end of Cold War hostility.
Fischer also highlights the huge impact of the Reagan Doctrine which worked to destabilise the Soviet economy even further. Reagan invested $222.8 billion in the military in 1983, with military spending consuming over 30 percent of the federal budget over just 4 years. Not only did the continuation of the arms race exacerbate the instability of the Soviet economy, but the Reagan Administration’s focus on ‘basic standards of national conduct’ made Gorbachev increasingly hesitant to use military force in order to maintain power, thus allowing for even more public dissent and ultimately the fragmentation of the USSR. Moreover, Fischer argues that the policies of the Reagan Administration marked the beginning of the end of the Cold War. Once more, by emphasising that it was Reagan who first sought rapprochement, Fischer credits Reagan with not only the initial Geneva Summit in 1985, but the subsequent summits that ultimately ended the Cold War. Overall therefore, the book is useful in exploring Reagan’s foreign policy and the ‘reversal’ of his administration’s tactics.
Jack F. Matlock’s work ‘Reagan and Gorbachev’ is another that explores the roles particular individuals had in ending the Cold War. He investigates the events within conferences, particularly the Reykjavik Summit. Matlock highlights the willingness of Gorbachev to compromise with Reagan during summits. He cites Alexander Bessmertnykh (deputy foreign minister of the Soviet Union) as stating ‘your guys …they are haggling over every point. Gorbachev has gone out on a limb to get an agreement.’ This quote exemplifies the eagerness of Gorbachev and the reluctance of Reagan to compromise- in stark contrast to triumphalist claims that Reagan instigated reform with the USSR and was the real progressive. Whilst he does credit Reagan with his attempts to compromise, Matlock crucially discards the image of Reagan as moral reformer. In fact, he writes how Gorbachev’s announcement of troop cuts had ‘pulled the rug out from under’ Western critics, who actually feared that Soviet ‘New thinking’ would bring an end to the arms race. This sentiment is echoed by Noam Chomsky, who explains how the Cold War was a ‘tacit arrangement’ between the US and USSR in order to justify their use of repression and violence in their respective territories. Indeed, it would have suited the Reagan Administration to continue the arms race indefinitely – it was Gorbachev who really desired and provoked its end. Overall, therefore, Matlock emphasises the delicate diplomatic relationships that brought about the end of the Cold War. Whilst he does grant the US Administration some credit, he highlights the huge diplomatic impact Gorbachev had in kickstarting landmark treaties that ultimately brought hostilities between the US and USSR to an end.
Robert Service’s 2015 book ‘The End of The Cold War’ offers a comprehensive revisionist analysis of the events that led to the end of the Cold War. Service stresses the colossal impact of ideological shifts but crucially emphasises Gorbachev’s role in peddling these changes and thus eliciting the collapse of the Soviet Union. Service does, however, refrain from perpetuating the image of Gorbachev as an infallible leader, explaining the collapse of the Soviet Union as both a result of Gorbachev’s progressive policy and his obstinance. Service disputes the conventional view that it was the Reagan Doctrine that led to Soviet financial ruin and ultimately the end of the Cold War. Instead, Service outlines the economic problems faced by the USSR as being a direct result of the embedded Communist ideology which advocated a policy of global expansion. Service describes the costly Soviet campaigns in Afghanistan, Cuba, Vietnam, Ethiopia and South Africa that drained resources and made the Politburo unable to bail out the USSR’s Eastern European allies who were mired in debt. This policy of expansion teamed with the more general economic ‘catastrophe’ of the 1980s not only heightened dissent across the Union but forced Gorbachev to compromise at the INF Treaty, effectively ending Cold War hostility. Whilst it is then true that Reagan heightened the USSR’s economic problems, Service emphasises they were rooted in the very foundations of the USSR.
Service does also highlight how Gorbachev made the economic problems he inherited even worse. Indeed, Service writes that Gorbachev’s attempts to reform the economy ‘turned into a nightmare as his own policies made a bad situation worse in industrial output and food supplies.’ This is supported by Plokhy, who describes how Perestroika failed to reform the economy, instead increasing the shortage of goods . Similarly, Service describes the desperate attempts by Gorbachev and Ryzhkov to transform the industrial sector, Ryzhkov’s attempts to reallocate 250 billion rubles only making the economy go from bad to worse. This failure by Gorbachev intensified public resentment and made it impossible for the arms race to be sustained: the USSR had to capitulate. Not only did Gorbachev’s actions make the economic crisis worse, but the abolition of the command economy meant that economic consequences and consumer protests could no longer be ignored.
Whilst the economic situation grew steadily worse, Service describes how Gorbachev’s progressive policy allowed the various nationalities across the USSR to demand their autonomy. Reynolds corroborates this, writing that ‘Gorbachev’s new openness allowed the simmering ethnic rivalries to boil over…[in] a country with 140 different national groups.’This is also outlined by Plokhy, who explains that the main threat to the Union came from the Baltic Provinces who were granted the opportunity to assert themselves by the democratisation of the Soviet system. Democratisation, Plokhy states, was ‘incompatible’ with the existence of the Union, evidenced by the fact the USSR dissolved just three years after semi-free elections were introduced. Whilst previous rebellions (The Prague Spring for example) had been ruthlessly crushed, Gorbachev was disinclined to the use of military force, believing that ‘people should have freedom of choice.’
Gorbachev put his own progressive ideology into practise when he and other Warsaw Pact leaders condemned the 1968 invasion that ended the Prague Spring, stating that the USSR had ‘to observe strictly the [principle] of … non-interference in internal affairs.’ This statement effectively ended the Brezhnev Doctrine, allowing the colossal resentment towards the Communist regime to manifest for the first time. Service is consequently able to explore how Gorbachev’s ignorance accelerated the collapse of the Soviet Union, military withdrawal allowing for Solidarity to win in the Polish elections of 4th June, where they had won all but one of the hundred seats in the Senate. The victory of Solidarity triggered a landslide: ‘Multiparty elections were being scheduled in Hungary… the Bulgarian Politburo removed Zhivkov from power… [and] the Communist leadership in Prague promised to dismantle the one party state structure.’ All over Europe, nationalities were working to extricate themselves from the Communist empire. Service describes the helplessness of the leaders at this point to act, stating how they were ‘like everyone else in the USSR, simply watching events in Warsaw, East Berlin and Prague on television.’  In desperation, Gorbachev told Krenz that the Berlin Wall had to be opened ‘to provide an escape valve’ for the unrest that threatened the Union. This act led to the largest exodus of East Germans since the building of the wall in 1961, the Soviet Union as well as the Cold War lying in pieces. Overall, therefore it was Gorbachev’s reluctance to recognise reality that allowed for the tide of revolutions in Eastern Europe which eventually led to the collapse of the Soviet Union. Service himself describes this ‘spell’ of ideology that Gorbachev was under, highlighting the reality of jumping from feudalism to socialism in one big leap. Moreover, Service emphasises how ideology had created much of the USSR’s problems, whilst the ideological shift peddled by Gorbachev allowed for negotiations between superpowers and the fragmentation of the Union.
Whilst describing the enormous impact of the USSR’s internal problems, Service still emphasises the importance of external factors which rendered Gorbachev helpless. Gorbachev had for example hoped to achieve a five-year agreement for an annual loan of $15 billion from the US, stating that ‘Cooperation with the West is in the country’s interests.’ Whilst the US administration exploited Gorbachev’s weak position and made him give ground on multiple deals, they failed to bail him out. Therefore, whilst the problems of the USSR were indeed internal, the role of the US Administration can be seen to have acted as a catalyst to the Union’s dissolution. Overall therefore, Service concludes that ideology not only began the Cold War, but provoked its end. It was indeed the ‘spell’ of Communist ideology that had created a large amount of the USSR’s problems, while it was Gorbachev’s progressive ideology that allowed for the expression and manifestation of ideology in opposition to Communism, ultimately fragmenting the Union and ending Cold War hostility.
Explaining differing interpretations:
One key problem with Fischer’s argument is her lack of substantial evidence that demonstrates unequivocally how Reagan influenced events in the Cold War. She for example emphasises Reagan’s moral will for a safer world and his beginning the dialogue between the US and USSR, yet fails to explain the achievements of this will alone. Indeed, it was not until Gorbachev became general secretary in 1984 that any real progress was made (such as in the Geneva Summit in 1985.) In an interview with Correspondent Oberdorfer in 1990, even Reagan conceded that his ambition to reduce nuclear weaponry was only realised because of both superpowers changing their approach to their relationship. As such, it can be seen that Fischer overlooks Gorbachev’s vital role in the ending of the Cold War; Reagan’s goodwill alone was not hugely momentous.
Though Reagan’s actions are certainly significant, Fischer can also be criticised for her ‘tunnel vision’. She fails to explore the colossal impact Gorbachev’s policies had, and fails to interrogate the importance of Soviet internal problems -outside of the economy. Reagan for example cannot be credited for the swell in anti-Soviet feeling in the USSR that peddled the collapse of the Union, or the Warsaw Pact’s abandoning of the Brezhnev Doctrine that allowed for the fragmentation of the Union. Fischer’s argument can thus be criticised for its ethnocentrism, considering the Cold War through an American lens as a victory of the US- an achievement of Reagan’s administration. Fischer’s entire argument therefore is limited by its reductionism. By focussing so heavily on the external factors of the Cold War, Fischer fails to really offer a complete view as to the reasons for its end. Similarly, as Fischer’s work was written in 1997, only several years after the end of the Cold War, she did not have access to many Cold War documents, meaning she once more could not provide a holistic explanation for the reasons for the end of the Cold War.
Additionally, the fact that Fischer’s book was written so recently after the end of the Cold War means she was undoubtedly influenced by the conflict. Unlike analyses by revisionist historians, Fischer’s work is embroiled in the context of the time and naturally reaffirms the Reagan narrative. She therefore does not consider Reagan and Gorbachev in equal light, but selects information that supports the view of Reagan as a soft and humanitarian leader.
A strength of Matlock’s work, however, is that it is a personal recount of events. This not only increases the reliability of his claims but also offers a better insight into the inner political workings and relationships of crucial individuals, thus better investigating the effect of each person. Matlock especially is a useful source because of his rich experience. Not only was he present at the Reykjavik Summit but had been engaged in many of the most heated affairs of the Cold War including the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. As such, Matlock’s recount carries a deep understanding of the political and social context of the events, adding validity to his depictions of various politicians and diplomats. This therefore strengthens the opinion he holds of Gorbachev, highlighting the colossal role Gorbachev played in the ending of the Cold War.
As a member of the US administration, Matlock is naturally a biassed source. Though ostensibly a criticism, the fact Matlock still considers Gorbachev so highly emphasises the colossal role Gorbachev played: his impact transcending the political allegiances of historians and diplomats alike. The fact too that the book was published in 2005 and recounts events means that Matlock not only provides a first hand account but one that is fleshed out with more recently released information. Despite this, Matlock’s work like Fischer’s) can still be criticised for its tunnel vision. As an ambassador to the US, Matlock focusses on the political discourse between the leaders of the USA and USSR, the events within summits and the subtle tension between personalities. Consequently, Matlock’s writing fails to provide a complete view of the reasons as to the Cold War’s end. While the political turmoil of the time is evidently significant, Matlock glazes over the importance of affairs within the USSR such as the increasingly volatile minority groups pressing for a freer Union. Similarly, he understates the impact of the USSR’s economic problems, problems that themselves prompted reform of the Soviet Union by Gorbachev. Moreover, though Matlock provides an insightful look into the political conversation that ultimately ended the Cold War, like Fischer he fails to provide a holistic explanation of the various forces that led to the end of the Cold War.
Service’s work meanwhile is very useful in its conclusions. The book itself was published in 2015 and uses a broad range of sources, including newly released minutes from the Hoover Institute as well as the Kremlin. Consequently, his piece offers a meticulous and complete picture of the reasons as to why the Cold War ended. Arguably, the book focusses far more on the Soviet side, though unlike other works Service refrains from dismissing the external causes of the end of the Cold War entirely. The fact the book was recently written too means that Service is less motivated to make Western powers the ‘victor,’ as it is not embroiled in the context of the Cold War in the same way Fischer’s book is. Indeed, as a British-Canadian educated both at Cambridge and Leningrad University, Service’s work offers an integrated perspective on the reasons to the end of the Cold War. Crucially, Service’s work is also corroborated by many others, including historians from various backgrounds with various biases (Plokhy and Oberdorfer for example.) Moreover, Service’s book offers an in-depth and fair analysis of why the Cold War ended.
There is much disagreement among historians about when the Cold War actually ended. Matlock for example, asserts that ‘the Cold War was over before Reagan moved out of the White house,’ whilst others emphasise the dissolution of the USSR as the symbol that signified the end of the Cold War. Crucially, Matlock worked as a diplomat at the time. Whilst this in many ways increases the validity of his ideas and testimony, it would inevitably be in Matlock’s interests to profess that his work had helped pioneer the end of the Cold War. Interestingly, the rhetoric that the Cold War ended precisely as the Berlin Wall fell suits the interests of the US administration. This is explored by both Chomsky and Plokhy, Plokhy writing that whilst the US promoted human rights in the USSR, they ‘wanted the Soviet Union to go on existing indefinitely.’ Chomsky also details how George Bush’s celebration of the symbolic end to the Cold War allowed for the invasion of Panama by the US immediately after. Thus, the perpetuation by American writers that the Cold War ended with the collapse of the Berlin Wall is a facet of a much larger political partisanship wherein the US proclaimed the war as having finished in order to proceed in their foreign policy campaign without ‘Soviet deterrence.’ Moreover, American historians can be seen to be unwittingly biassed, with Russian historians such as Plokhy conversely contextualising the events of the late 80s, highlighting the annexation of Ukraine by Russia in 2014 as evidence of the ongoing Cold War. Whilst I do then think the Berlin Wall’s collapse acted as a symbolic end to the Cold War, I agree with historians such as Service that the end of the Cold War can be more accurately pinpointed to when the Soviet Union collapsed. Importantly, I do also agree with historians such as Plokhy that the Cold War does continue today, though hostility is not as overt.
Overall, I think that Robert Service’s account offers the most comprehensive analysis of the reasons why the Cold War ended. Not only does Service balance the arguments of both triumphalist and revisionist schools of thought, but considers a wide range of factors, from the foundations of the USSR to the policies of Gorbachev. Service is also supported by a wide range of historians from multiple backgrounds, his own conclusions informed by both Russian and American schools of thought. Crucially, Service parallels the events of the Cold War in order to demonstrate the effect Gorbachev had. He for example explains why the Soviet Union had managed to survive before, outlining the vital importance of the Brezhnev Doctrine. As such, he explains that the Soviet Union was only able to fragment because of the role Gorbachev played; his policy of Democratisation allowed public dissent to manifest and for nationalists to assert their independence. The American stance meanwhile had always been to try to bankrupt the Union. Whilst the Reagan Doctrine’s increase in spending outlined by Fischer does explain the acceleration of events in the USSR, Reagan remains just that: a catalyst for Soviet reform but vitally not a cause. Significantly, the Soviet Union collapsed just three years after the introduction of semi-free elections. Overall therefore, ideology can be seen to be the most significant reason for why the Cold War ended. Gorbachev captured the imagination of his American counterparts and took bold economic and social steps to transform the relationship of the US and USSR and bring the people of the Union freedom of expression for the first time. As both a figure of progress and of obstinance, Gorbachev was the central figure that transformed the ideology of the USSR and ultimately elicited the end of the Cold War.
- Chomsky N, 1992, A View From Below, from The End of The Cold War by Michael J. Hogan, Cambridge University Press In-text: 137
- Chomsky N, 2006, The Cold War 1940-1989 http://libcom.org/history/1940-1989-the-cold-war
- Dockrill M. L, and Hopkins M. F, 2006, The Cold War 1945-1989, Palgrave Macmillan
- Fischer B. A, 1997, The Reagan Reversal, Colombia: University of Missouri Press In-text: 1, 3, 4, 22, 26, 120, 141, 145
- Gaddis J. L, 1992, The Cold War, the Long Peace, and the Future, from The End of The Cold War by Michael J. Hogan, Cambridge University Press
- Matlock J. F, 2004, Reagan and Gorbachev, New York: Random House In-text: 223, 309, 312
- Oberdorfer D, 1992, The Turn: From the Cold War to a New Era The United States and the Soviet Union 1983-1991, New York: Simon and Schuster In-text: 363, 386
- Plokhy S, 2015, The Last Empire: The Final Days of the Soviet Union, New York: Oneworld Publications In-Text: 30, 33, 34, 392, 394
- Reynolds D, 1992, Beyond polarity in space and time, from The End of The Cold War by Michael J. Hogan, Cambridge University Press In-text: 249
- Service R, 2015, The End of The Cold War 1985-1991, Macmillan In-text: Intro 6, 332, 401, 414, 419, 485, 497
 Service R, 2015, The End of The Cold War, intro 7
 Fischer B. A, 1997, The Reagan Reversal, 1
 Ibid, 4
 Ibid, 120
 Ibid, 3
 Fischer B. A, 1997, The Reagan Reversal, 3
 Ibid, 4
 Ibid, 26
 Ibid, 145
 Matlock J. F, 2004, Reagan and Gorbachev, 223
 Chomsky N, 2006, The Cold War 1940-1989
 Service R, 2015, The End of The Cold War, intro 6
 Chomsky N, 1992, A View From Below, from The End of The Cold War by Michael J. Hogan, 137
 Service R, 2015, The End of The Cold War, 497
 Plokhy S, 2015, The Last Empire: The Final Days of the Soviet Union, 30
 Service R, 2015, The End of The Cold War, 419
 Reynolds D, 1992, Beyond polarity in space and time, from The End of The Cold War by Michael J. Hogan, 249
 Reynolds D, 1992, Beyond polarity in space and time, from The End of The Cold War by Michael J. Hogan,249
 Plokhy S, 2015, The Last Empire: The Final Days of the Soviet Union, 34
 Ibid, 33
 Ibid, 394
 Ibid, 394
 Service R, 2015, The End of The Cold War,414
 Oberdorfer D, 1992, The Turn: From the Cold War to a New Era The United States and the Soviet Union 1983-1991, 386
 Service R, 2015, The End of The Cold War,401
 Ibid, 414
Service R, 2015, The End of The Cold War, 414
 Oberdorfer D, 1992, The Turn: From the Cold War to a New Era The United States and the Soviet Union 1983-1991, 363
 Service R, 2015, The End of The Cold War, 332
 Fischer B. A, 1997, The Reagan Reversal, 141
 Matlock J. F, 2004, Reagan and Gorbachev 312
 Plokhy S, 2015, The Last Empire: The Final Days of the Soviet Union, 392
 Chomsky N, 2006, The Cold War 1940-1989
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