What brought a thaw in the Cold War?

As the Second World War's uneasy alliances unravelled, a new world emerged: of east vs west and of global conflicts as the superpowers vied for influence. From dark days to moments of hope, David Reynolds traces the Cold War from 1961 to 1991

West Berlin inhabitants wave at the newly erected Berlin Wall, 1961. (Photo by Imagno/Getty Images)

This article was first published in the July 2017 issue of BBC History Magazine 

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In 1961, the Berlin Wall sealed off the last exit from east to west. It also insulated the most dangerous flashpoint in the European Cold War. Gradually both sides of the Iron Curtain settled into the reality of division. No one born in the 1950s and 1960s could imagine anything different.

On the periphery, however, the Cold War was hot and violent. The 1960s saw an escalating conflict in Vietnam, divided after 1945 between the communist north (the Democratic Republic of Vietnam – DRV) and a corrupt southern regime in Saigon (the Republic of Vietnam). The ROV was dominated by the military and became increasingly dependent on the USA after the French abandoned their empire in Indochina in 1954.

In itself, South Vietnam was of no great importance to the Americans. But by 1965 President Lyndon Johnson saw it as an issue of America’s global credibility. He also feared that if he didn’t act tough abroad against communism, conservatives would block funding for his Great Society programmes at home. “I was determined to be a leader of war and a leader of peace,” he remarked later. “I believed America had the resources to do both.”

It was astonishing hubris. Neither sustained bombing nor escalating US troop commitments broke Vietnam. Instead, Vietnam broke Johnson. Such was the unpopularity of the war by 1968 that Johnson decided not to run for re-election. And it took his Republican successor, Richard Nixon, all of his first term to extract the USA from its south-east Asian quagmire.

Nixon reaches out

The People’s Republic of China (PRC) had become banker and arsenal for the DRV and this forced the USSR – now China’s ideological rival for leadership of the communist world – to provide similar aid or lose face. So Nixon had to disengage the two communist superpowers in order to facilitate peace in Vietnam. He and his aide Henry Kissinger were finally able to achieve this with the Paris peace accords of January 1973.

In 1972 Nixon became the first US president to visit the capitals of the two communist superpowers. While in Moscow, he and the Soviet leader, Leonid Brezhnev, signed a dozen major agreements to slow the arms race, develop economic relations and promote cultural exchange. The following year, Brezhnev visited America and in 1974 Nixon returned to Russia. It seemed that detente – relaxation of tension – was becoming a pattern.

In Europe, too, old tensions eased. Under the Social Democrat leadership of Willy Brandt, West Germany reached out across the Iron Curtain in 1972, extending de facto recognition with the regime in East Berlin and concluding, with the four Allied occupying powers, agreements on easier access across the Berlin Wall. Brandt’s goals were pragmatic: to make life easier for the people of that divided city. He had not abandoned hopes of eventual unification and talked of “change through rapprochement”, but never seriously imagined a united Germany in his lifetime.

Yet detente soon stalled. America had been riven by the Vietnam War and then the Watergate scandal, which obliged Nixon to resign in 1974. Heavy borrowing for the war fuelled inflation, exacerbating America’s trade and payments deficit and finally forcing the country off the gold standard in 1971. The automatic convertibility of dollars into gold had been a cornerstone of the post-1945 monetary system: the end of that era seemed like another intimation of mortality for the Pax Americana.

The west as a whole was also in economic turmoil in the 1970s, as the long postwar boom collapsed in depression. The catalyst was the oil crisis of 1973, when Arab states hiked up the price of oil in retaliation for the United States’ support for Israel during the Yom Kippur War. Ensuing inflation was accompanied by industrial stagnation and rising unemployment, creating a phenomenon called ‘stagflation’ that defied orthodox Keynesian remedies and left western governments acutely vulnerable against aggrieved voters and workers. The USSR by contrast – an economy heavily dependent on oil and gas exports – did very well from rising energy prices.

As the 1970s progressed, it became clear that ‘detente’ meant different things on either side of the east-west divide. Washington assumed that the Soviets would now behave themselves and not seek to destabilise a world shaped by American hegemony. Moscow believed that the nuclear parity it had now achieved with the USA provided a chance to expand communism with impunity.

Communist upsurge

In 1975, the whole of Indochina – Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia – fell to the communists in a few months. In Angola in 1975–76, the USSR used troops from Fidel Castro’s communist enclave of Cuba to fight against guerrillas backed by the USA and neighbouring South Africa and mobilised Cuban proxies again in 1977–78 to strengthen its position in Ethiopia and Somalia, failed states on the Horn of Africa. One Cuban soldier gloated: “We have done twice what the Yankees could not do once in Vietnam.”

Here was arrogant bluster from the other side. The Soviets would find the ‘Third World’, with failed states and ethnic conflicts, as difficult to manage as the Americans.

This became clear in Afghanistan, where the Kremlin intervened at Christmas 1979 to prop up its crumbling influence. Although a new government was quickly installed, the USSR was sucked into a chaotic struggle that dragged on until February 1989 and cost the lives of 15,000 Soviet troops. Afghanistan became Moscow’s Vietnam.

But at the end of 1979 this was far in the future. The immediate effect of Soviet intervention was to kill detente. America’s beleaguered president Jimmy Carter hyped up the Afghan crisis as “the greatest threat to world peace since the Second World War” and struck back by withdrawing the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty he had recently agreed with Brezhnev in Vienna (SALT II) from Senate ratification. None of this saved him from electoral defeat in November 1980. Carter’s successor was Ronald Reagan, a former movie actor and militant anti-communist, who announced in his first presidential press conference that “so far detente’s been a one-way street that the Soviet Union has used to pursue its own aims”. And so the superpowers slid into what was dubbed the ‘New Cold War’.

In December 1981, Poland’s communist government, locked in a struggle with the Solidarity movement of independent trade unions, imposed martial law to avoid likely intervention by the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact.

Meanwhile, Nato responded to the Soviet build-up of new SS-20 intermediate-range missiles, aimed at western Europe, with its so-called ‘dual track’ policy of deploying American Cruise and Pershing II missiles while seeking to negotiate arms reduction from a position of renewed strength. The deployments were pushed through in 1983 by rightist governments in Britain and West Germany, led by Margaret Thatcher and Helmut Kohl. In response, the Soviets withdrew from all arms control talks – the first time for 15 years that the superpowers had not been engaged in any negotiations.

In March 1983, Reagan raised the stakes further with two dramatic speeches. First he told an audience of evangelical Christians that the Soviet leaders were “the focus of evil in the modern world” and insisted that no one should ignore “the aggressive impulses of an evil empire”. Two weeks later, he claimed in a TV address that it was now technologically possible to create a strategic defence against nuclear missiles, and called for a massive spending programme to render nuclear weapons “impotent and obsolete”.

From Star Wars to arms talks

Reagan, as usual, was expressing simplistic ideas without informed understanding, but he had a gift for appealing to the American public. His Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) – dubbed ‘Star Wars’ by the many sceptics – was turned into a slick propaganda campaign by hawks in the Pentagon, who wanted to exploit US advantages over the USSR in laser and computer technologies. Yet the president himself seems to have genuinely believed in the idea. He loathed the strategic doctrine of Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD), considering it literally mad. This crusading Cold Warrior was, paradoxically, also an ardent peacenik.

His chance came in March 1985 with an abrupt changing of the guard in the Kremlin. After Brezhnev and two equally geriatric successors had expired within 28 months, the Politburo reluctantly skipped a generation and appointed Mikhail Gorbachev as the new General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. Born in 1931, Gorbachev was a bright young reformer, part of a new university-educated generation, whose eyes had been opened by visits to the west in the 1970s. The night he was appointed, while walking around the garden (to avoid KGB bugs), he told his wife: “We can’t go on living like this.”

By now, oil prices were falling and the Soviet command economy was literally no longer delivering the goods. The west, by contrast, had overcome the 1970s’ stagflation and was moving into a new era of service industries and the IT revolution. Gorbachev needed to ease the arms burden on the struggling Soviet economy, so he responded eagerly to Reagan’s readiness to talk.

In a series of four summits from 1985 to 1988, the two leaders engaged in many fiery arguments but also discovered a shared abhorrence of the nuclear age. Indeed, in December 1987, they signed away a whole category of weapons – the intermediate-range nuclear forces, including the SS-20s, Cruise and Pershing II missiles that had bedevilled east-west relations for the past decade. US pressure, including the threat of SDI, had doubtless played a part. But the unprecedented entente also reflected a fundamental change in Soviet security policy based on new concepts such as “reasonable defensive sufficiency” and “common human values”. As Gorbachev remarked: “Whatever divides us, we have the same planet to live on.”

Advisers gradually persuaded him that the modernisation of Soviet society would require not just economic reforms but also a more open political system. In fact, Gorbachev wanted reform across the whole Soviet bloc, declaring in 1987 that “unity does not mean uniformity” and that there was “no model of socialism to be imitated by all”. Eastern Europeans had not forgotten 1956 and 1968, when Gorbachev’s predecessors had sent in the tanks to crush reform in Hungary and Czechoslovakia. But now they saw, if not exactly a green light from Moscow, at least one that had changed from red to amber.

Walls come tumbling down

In the summer of 1989, the long Polish logjam finally broke when round-table talks and more open elections resulted in victory for a Solidarity-led coalition. By contrast, Hungary’s revolution started from the top not the bottom, through splits over reform within the ruling party, but the country also soon moved towards multi-party elections. Beamed around the bloc via radio and television, these dramatic developments galvanised protests in East Germany, whose people – uniquely within the Soviet bloc – had a right of citizenship on the other side of the Iron Curtain if they could reach West Germany.

After Hungary opened its border to Austria in May 1989, the flow became a flood and on 9 November, after shambolic policy decisions, the Berlin Wall itself was opened – fracturing the most notorious symbol of the east-west divide. By Christmas 1989, the communist bloc was a thing of Europe’s past. Apart from Romania, the revolution had been remarkably peaceful.

In 1990, the biggest challenge was to resolve the German question. The struggle for mastery of Germany lay at the root of the initial Cold War rift between the wartime allies. The Berlin Wall had temporarily stabilised the issue in 1961, but now, after its fall, the East German state was no longer viable. With Chancellor Helmut Kohl forcing the pace on German unification, another international face-off seemed possible. This was the fear of Margaret Thatcher, whose visceral suspicions of German power dated back to the Second World War.

But President George HW Bush had none of Thatcher’s hang-ups. Kohl also worked closely with François Mitterrand in Paris, who was reassured by the chancellor’s readiness to anchor the united Germany in an ever closer European Union – including a shared currency, the euro. Chequebook diplomacy from Kohl bought Gorbachev’s assent and also the rapid withdrawal of Soviet troops from German soil. On 3 October 1990 the two Germanies became one.

The collapse of the Soviet bloc and the unification of Germany effectively drew a line under Europe’s Cold War. The disintegration of the Soviet Union itself in 1991 was, for American triumphalists, simply the icing on the cake.

Yet it is worth reflecting that many of the problems with which we wrestle today have their roots in the rapid and chaotic events of 1989–91: a problematic eurozone riddled with economic contradictions; a European Union that has embraced most of the continent while becoming increasingly flabby; and a humiliated Russia that recovered its nerve under the aggressive leadership of Vladimir Putin. The way the Cold War ended contained many seeds of our present discontents.

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Professor David Reynolds is the author of One World Divisible: A Global History Since 1945 (Penguin, 2001) and co-editor with Kristina Spohr of Transcending the Cold War (Oxford, 2016). He is an advisor for the Cold War BBC radio series.