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Who Really Ended the Cold War?

The Cold War was a decades-long conflict between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. From the Berlin Wall to the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Cold War affected almost all parts of the world, mostly in negative ways. Different presidents tried a variety of tactics to manage the Cold War, illustrated through things such as Richard Nixon’s policy of detente and the Truman Doctrine. However, these all failed to get the results the U.S. wanted until President Ronald Reagan came along. Reagan recognized that the Eastern European economy was struggling and seeing that laid the framework for international military expansion. He also wanted to develop new weapons that would help defend America, as shown through the creation of the Strategic Defense Initiative. Though these plans for a space defense system were a little far fetched, they were still able to instill fear in the USSR government, causing the Soviet Union to buckle under the pressure of the US and ultimately cave in, proving that the U.S. played the biggest role in ending the Cold War.

The Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) played an integral role in ending the Cold War. It was started by the U.S. in 1983 at the height of Cold War tensions and was a program to develop an anti-missile defense system in space to enable the United States to prevent missile attacks from other countries (specifically the USSR) during the Cold War. The SDI was most likely not feasible at the time, however, it was one of the key elements in making the USSR realize that it could not beat the US in an arms race due to their economic system at the time. It presented the Soviets with a mechanical challenge that it couldn’t meet and this forced them to slowly attempt to give concessions to the U.S. out of fear, ultimately leading to the end of the Cold War. At the time, the Soviets lacked the technological infrastructure and resources to compete with such a sophisticated missile defense system that the U.S. was claiming to create. Gorbachev even told his government in a secret meeting that the USSR was maxed out on defense spending, as they were spending between 30 and 40 percent of their GDP on defense (while the U.S. was spending about 7 percent). This was all before the Iceland summit, which was the event where the USSR’s actions truly illustrated their fear of the SDI program.

During the summit meeting in Iceland, the USSR offered concessions to the U.S. on their offensive weapons, but when the U.S. refused to limit its SDI program, the plan fell short. The Soviets also asked for a complete ban on space weapons and were even willing to a 50 percent cut in the ICBMs (Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles) that were the core of the Soviet nuclear arsenal and the total elimination of intermediate-range missiles in Europe. The USSR attempted to use their nuclear arsenal as a bargaining chip, however, the U.S. still refused to limit its SDI program. The U.S. was able to build negotiation from strength, while the USSR was at a position of weakness, making them desperate for any limitations on nuclear arsenals. The Soviet’s attempt to trade offensive weaponry for the SDI program (something that hasn’t even been implemented yet) shows how much the Soviets were concerned about this supposed technological superiority of the U.S., and their desperate attempts to limit the program illustrate how the SDI was a policy that highly influenced the end of the Cold War.

Although USSR leader Mikhail Gorbachev did play a role in ending of the Cold War, it was really Reagan who took the aggressive, strong actions needed to end geopolitical tensions between America and the USSR. However, both leaders deserve recognition for their ability to work together towards peace, despite previous animosities between the two nations.

Photo: Tullio Saba

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