When Mikhail Gorbachev assumed the reins of power in the Soviet Union in 1985, no one predicted the revolution he would bring. A dedicated reformer, Gorbachev introduced the policies of glasnost and perestroika.
The unraveling of the Soviet Bloc began in Poland in June 1989 when Polish voters elected a noncommunist opposition government to their legislature. Gorbachev did not react.
Eastern European communist dictatorships then began to fall one by one. By 1989, East and West Germans were tearing down the Berlin Wall. Communist regimes were ousted in Hungary and Czechoslovakia. The Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu was executed. Yugoslavia rejected communism, but quickly fell into a violent civil war.
Demands for freedom soon spread to the Soviet Union. Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania declared independence. The Ukraine and the Central Asian states also wanted freedom. In 1991, Gorbachev proposed a Union Treaty, giving greater autonomy to the Soviet republics, while keeping them under central control.
That summer, a coup by conservative hardliners took place. Gorbachev was placed under house arrest. Meanwhile, the leader of the Russian Soviet Republic, Boris Yeltsin, demanded the arrest of the hardliners. The army and the public sided with Yeltsin, and the coup failed.
In December 1991, the Soviet Union was dissolved. Gorbachev was a president without a country.
In America, Republicans quickly claimed credit for winning the Cold War. They believed the military spending policies of the Reagan-Bush years had forced the Soviets to the brink of economic collapse. Democrats argued that containment of communism was a bipartisan policy for 45 years begun by the Democrat Harry Truman.
But no one really won the Cold War. The United States spent trillions of dollars arming themselves for a direct confrontation with the Soviet Union that never came. Thousands of American lives were lost waging proxy wars in Korea and Vietnam.
Most Americans found it difficult to get used to the idea of no Cold War. The enemy was beaten, but the world remained unsafe. In many ways, facing one superpower was simpler than challenging global terrorism.
Source: The End of the Cold War
Copyright ©2008-2017 ushistory.org, owned by the Independence Hall Association in Philadelphia, founded 1942.