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Ronald Reagan and the End of the Cold War

After failing in his bid to deny President Gerald Ford the Republican nomination in 1976, former California Governor Ronald Reagan again sought the presidency in 1980. In the years leading up to the Reagan inaugurationelection, he used his considerable media skills to deliver frequent commentary on television and radio advancing his conservative positions. Although upset in the New Hampshire primary by George H.W. Bush, Reagan soon recovered in later primaries to win on the first ballot at the Republican National Convention. When negotiations over the vice presidential nomination with former President Ford broke down after Ford evidently sought commitments of considerable autonomy as vice president, Reagan then surprised many of his supporters by turning to Bush as his vice presidential choice for the campaign against President Jimmy Carter and Vice President Walter Mondale.

The campaign included only two presidential debates, and President Carter declined to participate in the first, apparently due to the decision by the sponsor, the League of Women Voters, to allow independent party candidate John Anderson to appear. Reagan's strong performance undermined Anderson's candidacy, and also mitigated fears that Reagan would risk dangerous confrontation with the Soviet Union if elected. In the second debate, limited to only President Carter and Reagan after Anderson's poll ratings had fallen, Carter made what some analysts later identified as a critical strategic error by ending his discussion on nuclear weapons with the remark, "I had a discussion with my daughter, Amy, the other day, before I came here, to ask her what the most important issue was ..." When Carter began to charge that Reagan was planning to cut Medicare, Reagan (who had repeatedly complained that Carter was distorting his views), also scored points when he interrupted the President with the line: "There you go again." Reagan's closing statement also included the rhetorical question to voters, often copied or adapted by many subsequent challengers to incumbents in national, state and local races: "Are you better off now than you were four years ago?"

The campaign also was marked by the pervasive media coverage of the confinement of American hostages in Iran, particularly the ABC-TV nightly report hosted by Ted Koppel, "The Iran Crisis: America Held Hostage," which began November 8, 1979, four days after the hostages were seized at the U.S. Embassy and that later evolved into the Nightline broadcast. President Carter's decision to limit his campaign appearances during the hostage crisis also served to further focus public attention on the frustration of many that the federal government was unable to bring an end to the situation. Reagan also capitalized on sentiment that large government programs were ineffective, using the frequent campaign line: "Government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem."

Voters troubled by the hostage crisis and economic issues, especially inflation led by higher energy prices, produced an overwhelming Reagan-Bush victory, with the Republicans securing 489 electoral votes to 49 for the Democrats.

On January 20, 1981, President Reagan took office, announcing on the day of his Inauguration that the Iranians had released the American hostages. The President then advanced a radical tax-cutting program in an effort to spur the economy, imposed major cutbacks in federal domestic spending and employees and endorsed large hikes in the military budget. Only 69 days later, however, the President was shot by John Hinckley, a mentally disturbed would-be assassin. During the incident and his recovery, Reagan's personal popularity soared by his reported good humor and dignity (e.g. saying to his surgeons prior to being anaesthesized for removal of the bullet: "I hope you're all Republicans"). Although the Reagan economic program generated the largest budget deficits in US history, the economic recovery led to renewed public confidence. The President's strong and prompt action in firing striking air traffic controllers also demonstrated his decisive leadership style.

Reagan's 1984 re-election campaign against former Vice President Walter Mondale and Congresswoman Geraldine Ferraro, the first woman to receive a national party's nomination as vice president, emphasized the restoration of public confidence during the first term, especially through the innovative "Morning in America" theme illustrated in campaign commercials depicting positive images with little political rhetoric or even mention of the Democrats. The President's advanced age and mental fitness briefly re-emerged as an issue when he appeared confused during the first debate with Mr. Mondale, but he recovered for a stronger performance during the final debate, when he deftly put aside the question with the quip: "I want you to know also I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit for political purposes my opponent's youth and inexperience." On election day, the Republican ticket won with the greatest electoral vote margin in history.

In his second term, the President intensified his attacks on Communism, previously highlighted in his first term by his 1982 "Evil Empire" speech to the House of Commons, and also sought more funds for the controversial Strategic Defense Initiative, the so-called "Star Wars" anti-missile defense program. President Reagan's refusal to to terminate the anti-missile defense program as demanded by the Soviets blocked a potential agreement with Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev for sharp reductions in nuclear weapons when the two leaders met in Rejkavik, Iceland in October 1986 (see transcript of discussions).

Reagan and Gobachev

President Reagan and Soviet President Gorbachev in Iceland after failing to reach an arms reduction agreement.

Image Source: Ronald Reagan Presidential Library

Speaking at the Brandenburg Gate in West Berlin on June 12, 1987, his speech included his famous challenge to the Soviet leader, "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall". The President's second term, however, was marred by the Iran Contra scandal, where officials illegally diverted funds to support counter-insurgent forces in Nicaragua.

Strategic Defense Initiative Letter to Majority Leader Robert Dole dated October 1, 1985

Meanwhile, strains within the Soviet bloc became more evident. In Poland, the movement that arose in the shipyards of Gdansk emerged as Solidarity, a protest uniting labor and political forces challenging the legitimacy of the Marxist government. In August 1980, Walesa led the Gdansk shipyard strike, which provoked other labor protests. over much Under mounting pressure, the Communist authorities were forced to to negotiate with Walesa the Gdansk Agreement of August 31, 1980, which gave the workers the right to strike and to organise their own independent union. By the end of 1981, however, the Communist government declared martial law, under which the army and special riot police arrested or detained Solidarity leaders and many intellectuals. The United States and other Western countries responded to martial law by imposing economic sanctions against the Polish regime and against the Soviet Union. Unrest in Poland continued for several years thereafter, but in November 1990, Lech Walesa was elected President for a five­year term.

In January 1989, President Reagan left office at the conclusion of his second term, succeeded by his vice president, George H.W. Bush. In his farewell address, President Reagan reflected on the progress that had been made in easing tensions with the Soviet Union:

...We must keep up our guard, but we must also continue to work together to lessen and eliminate tension and mistrust. My view is that President Gorbachev is different from previous Soviet leaders. I think he knows some of the things wrong with his society and is trying to fix them. We wish him well. And we'll continue to work to make sure that the Soviet Union that eventually emerges from this process is a less threatening one. What it all boils down to is this: I want the new closeness to continue. And it will, as long as we make it clear that we will continue to act in a certain way as long as they continue to act in a helpful manner. If and when they don't, at first pull your punches. If they persist, pull the plug. It's still trust by verify. It's still play, but cut the cards. It's still watch closely. And don't be afraid to see what you see....

Ronald Reagan, Farewell Address to the Nation, January 11, 1989

Source: Ronald Reagan Foundation

As President Reagan left office, events rapidly escalated in the remainder of 1989 underming the Soviet system both within the country and in its control of its former East European allies. Within the USSR, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia moved toward independence. In Russia, Boris Yeltsin -- a former Communist who had been dismissed from the Party's Politburo by Gorbachev and others in 1987-- had been elected President of the Russian Republic's parliament. Yeltsin denounced the Communist Party and the policies of Gorbachev.

In early July, Gorbachev pledged that the Poles and Hungarians were free to determine their own future. Gorbachev believed that Communist leaders in the Warsaw Pact countries should try hanging onto power by being good Communists, that is, by winning the support of the masses. It may be also that Gorbachev believed that the Warsaw Pact countries were not worth hanging onto, that they were costing the Soviet Union more money than value being received in return. Advances in freedom in Poland and Hungary was encouraging people in neighboring Czechoslovakia. On August 21, the twenty-first anniversary of Soviet tanks rolling into that city, people in Prague demonstrated.

In mid-October, mounting dissent in East Germany was followed by the Politburo there replacing Eric Honneker, hoping this would quiet dissent. But Honneker was replaced with another hardliner, and the dissent continued. To reduce the "contradiction" between the Party line and public perceptions, and the Party admitted publicly that its regime was not popular.

On November 9, the Communist regime in East Germany went further in appeasing public opinion by announcing liberalized travel regulations. Inept in its communications, the regime led people in East Berlin to believe that this meant they could journey freely into West Berlin. A hoard of people massed at border crossing points, overwhelming the guards, who let the joyous crowd pass. The happy East Germans flocked to West German stores to make purchases and they rejoiced with West Berliners.

By the end of 1989 each of the Soviet republics had acquired its own parliament, with its own president In July 1990, he convened the Russian Republic's Supreme Soviet and demanded economic sovereignty for the republic free of Soviet central control. Other republics also sought measures of autonomy, with leaders of The Ukraine calling for the return of all Ukrainian soldiers from the Soviet military and the creation of an independent Ukrainian military.

Berlin wall
Germans scaling Berlin Wall Image Source:

In Prague, the strategy of Communist leaders remained that of repression. In mid-November, on the fourth consecutive day of demonstrations, the police in Prague attacked demonstrators. Thirteen were admitted to hospitals and dozens were arrested. The following day the number of demonstrators increased, to approximately 10,000 persons. This inspired a greater demonstration the following day: an estimated 200,000 demonstrators. The leader of the Czech Communist Party resigned. Encouraged, an estimated 500,000 people marched for the end of Communist Party rule. And millions of Czechs went out on a two-hour general strike to express solidarity with the demand for political freedom. It was a demonstration too massive for the Communist regime, and the regime responded with a pledge of free elections within a year.

In early December, the Politburo of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia declared the Soviet invasion to have been a mistake. The promised elections also were expedited, and by the end of December, Czechoslovakia had a new parliament, with its president the dissident leader Vaclav Havel and the chairman of parliament the former premier jailed by the Communists, Alexander Dubcek.

In the summer of 1991, key Soviet leaders aligned with some military commanders attempted to depose Soviet Premier Gorbachev while he was away from Moscow at his seashore retreat on the Black Sea. The forces against Gorbachev had become increasingly upset over the planned new constitution that would grant autonomy or independence to former republics previously absorbed into the Soviet Union. They also held Gorbachev responsible for a series of actions that they viewed as impairing Soviet prestige and world standing, including the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan, the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the failure of Gorbachev's reform program to renew economic growth and the surging crime rates and other signs of social disorder as the central authority of the state was weakened. Despite warnings, including a phone call from President Bush, Gorbachev dismissed the concerns:

Bush phoned me and I said: 'George, you can sleep soundly. Nothing's going to happen.' That's what I said."

On August 18, however, Gorbachev's chief of staff and a small group of senior government officials arrived at the presidential dacha to demand that Gorbachev sign a decree declaring a state of emergency or resign. After Gorbachev refused, the officials confiscated the codes required to launch the Soviet Union's nuclear weapons, and Gorbachev and his family were in effect placed under house arrest. News of the coup became public the next morning, with the plotters issuing a statement that Gorbachev had been relieved of his duties for health reasons with his powers assumed by Vice President Gennady Yanayev. A State Committee on the State of Emergency (GKChP) was established, led by eight officials who shortly became known as the "gang of eight," including Soviet Prime Minister Valentin Pavlov, KGB head Vladimir Kryuchkov, and Defense Minister Dmitry Yazov.

Opposition to the coup quickly surfaced, including from some of the most prominent critics of Gorbachev's policies. Later on the morning of August 19, Russian President Boris Yeltsin, who had become the first elected president of the Russian Federation on June 12, nd other key Russian politicians denounced the coup as unconstitutional. A joint statement -- by Yeltsin, Russian Prime Minister Ivan Silayev, and Ruslan Khasbulatov, who was to become chairman of the Supreme Soviet -- was issued condemning the motives of the coup-plotters:

On the night of 18-19 August 1991, outside of the ruling power and the law, the president of the country was removed. No reasons can be given to justify this removal. This is a case of a right-wing, reactionary, anti-constitutional coup. We believe, and believed, that these methods of force are unacceptable. They discredit the Soviet Union before the entire world, damage our prestige in international society, and return us to the Cold War-era and the isolation of the Soviet Union from the rest of the world.

Joint statement of Boris Yeltsin and others August 19, 1991

Source: Jeremy Bransten, RadioFree Europe/Radio Free Liberty

In Moscow, Yeltsin called for the public to resist the coup, denouncing the plotters after climbing a tank outside parliament, known as the White House, to address the crowd that had gathered to defend the building against an anticipated military assault by the anti-Gorbachev forces to seize control of the parliament. Tanks controlled by Yeltsin and Moscow military commander Nikolai Smirnov took up defensive positions on all the bridges leading to central Moscow. Yeltsin also issued a decree declaring all USSR government bodies located on Russian territory, including the KGB, subject to his authority. Leningrad Mayor Anatoly Sobchak also called for a city-wide strike to begin the next day to protest the coup and demand restoration of Gorbachev to power.

On August 20, the crowd outside the White House had swelled to over 100,000, who erected a series of barricades to slow the progress of any military action to re-take the building. Tanks loyal to the plotters also appeared, and three peole died in skirmishes with the soldiers. President Bush also advised Yeltsin in a phone conversation that the U.S. would not recognize the anti-Gorbachev government. In the evening, as tanks were reported to be moving toward the White House, Yeltsin offered amnesty to all military personnel and police who switched their allegiances and ignored the orders from the coup leaders.

Shortly after midnight on the morning of August 21, tanks dispatched by the plotters approached the barricades erected to defend the White House. Clashes broke out, with two protestors shot as the attempted to block the tanks, and a third was crushed to death under a tank. Crowds surrounded the vehicles, with an armored personnel carrier set on fire. In face of the opposition, the tank commander soon retreated, marking the effective collapse of the plot to depose Gorbachev. On the next day, the "gang of eight" was arrested, and Gorbachev was freed from his confinement.

Yeltsin on a tank    Yeltsin waving
Boris Yeltsin standing on tank outside Parliament building in Moscow (left) and Yeltisin waving to cheering crowd (right). Image Sources: (left) and ITAR-TASS/ (right)

Despite Gorbachev's tacit restoration as Soviet leader, his practical political authority had eroded in the face of Yeltsin's surging popularity. As 1991 progressed, each of the 15 Soviet states declared independence. On December 31, 1991. The Soviet Union was no more.


The Cold War >>

Mikhail Gorbachev

Ronald Reagan Presidential Library

Ronald Reagan, "Evil Empire" speech delivered to the House of Commons June 8, 1982 >> The American Conservative Union

Ronald Reagan Informal Exchange With Reporters on the Presidential Campaign October 22, 1984

A New Russia >> Newshour,

Educational Resources

Presidential Debates Teacher Guide

Rejkavik Iceland Summit Game >>

Reform, Coup and Collapse: The End of Soviet Communism and of the Soviet State, by Professor Archie Brown>>