America, Russia, and the Cold War
The origins of the Cold War came about when United States President Harry Truman issued his Truman Doctrine. This doctrine stated that the United States would support “free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures.” This would end up being the foundation of the U. S. involvement in the Cold War. The main idea of the doctrine was to support nations in the resistance of communism. Truman felt that if one nation fell to communism then this would lead to a “domino effect” resulting in many other nations in the region falling to communism. The greatest fear was that the Soviet Union would spread communism throughout the world thus the reason for the policy of containment. Truman felt it necessary to also provide economic aid to nations that surrounded the Soviet Union. The idea being that they would create a ring of Allies that would contain the threat of the Soviet influence of communism. Economic support would be given and if necessary military support as well. The basis for this economic aid was presented in the Marshall Plan. This plan called for $16 billion in economic aid to be used in the reconstruction of Europe.
In April of 1949 nations from North America and Western Europe signed a treaty that stated if the Soviet Union attacked any of the Allies it would be considered an attack against the U. S. itself. In what was perceived as an escalating threat from the NATO alliance, the Soviets created a military alliance, known as the Warsaw Pact, with Eastern European Soviet bloc countries in May of 1955.
Throughout the Cold War there were numerous incidents on both sides which exacerbated the threat of an all out war. However, there were also several attempts at bringing about an end to the Cold War. One of the greater attempts came from Georgi Malenkov following the death of Stalin in 1953. Stalin had previously appointed several young fanatical Stalinists in a new politburo called the Party Presidium. This move limited the power that Malenkov and Nikita Krushchev had while at the same time giving more power to Stalin. Immediately following Stalin’s death Malenkov cut membership in the new politburo and threw out the young recently appointed Stalinists. Malenkov also announced that any new policies would come from a “collective” rather than just one man. He also released several political prisoners jailed by Stalin and gave a speech before the Soviet Supreme indicating a change in Soviet foreign policy. “At the present time there is no disputed or unresolved question that cannot be settled peacefully by mutual agreement of the interested countries. This applies to our relations with all states, including the United States of America.” Shortly thereafter Russian leaders began to allow Soviet citizens who were married to foreigners to leave the country. They also reestablished diplomatic ties with Israel, Greece and eventually Yugoslavia, agreed to the end of the Korean War, and relinquished claims to territories in Turkey. These policies were an effort to ease tensions but were responded to from Eisenhower with further demands. The President responded that if the Soviets really wanted detente that they must allow “free elections in a United Korea”; end the communist uprisings in Malaya and Indochina; allow a united and free Germany; sign a treaty giving independence back to Austria and give governments in Eastern Europe a “free choice”. Two years later Secretary of State Dulles would state that if the Soviets were serious about negotiations then they must show their sincerity by signing a peace treaty with Austria. After the Soviets complied Dulles still warned that a “wolf has put on a new set of sheep’s clothing”. He would also later issue demands at a summit meeting with the Soviets that would be very difficult to meet.
Near the end of the Cold War President Reagan took a course of action of building up arms and fighting smaller and shorter wars. The idea was to avoid being drawn into another type of Vietnam War. To accomplish this, a policy was set forth to support resistance fighters to combat communist influence. Much support was given to the Contras in Nicaragua, the Mujahadeen in Afghanistan, and resistance fighters against a Marxist Angolan government. In the meantime, leaders from both sides fueled the arms race by building up their militaries.
In March of 1985 Mikhail Gorbachev was elected as leader of the Communist Party. He realized that the Soviet system could not keep up with Western influence and that radical changes were necessary. In order to achieve this Gorbachev proposed a perestroika and a glasnost. These were essentially a restructuring of the Soviet economy and openness in government which was a step in the direction of a real democracy. Under this new initiative many private cooperatives and businesses sprang up which were previously not possible. He also opened up the Soviet economy to Western corporations.
However, by 1988 these economic reforms were not working. Food was more abundant before the reforms and production struggled which eventually led to the loss of tax revenue.
Other changes by Gorbachev brought about reform in government as well. The high point of his political reform was when nationwide elections were held for a new 2250 member People’s Congress. This also led to a new 572 member Supreme Soviet which was elected by the People’s Congress. More and more Gorbachev moved toward a model more representative of a Western style government.
When it came to ending the Cold War Gorbachev had the biggest hand in bringing about the end. Peace groups had an active role, more so than the arms buildup of the U. S., in convincing Gorbachev that a reduction in arms was necessary for peace. In 1985 Gorbachev pushed Reagan to attend a summit meeting and the two leaders agreed to a 50% reduction in strategic forces. Nearly one year later they agreed to eliminate all intermediate missiles in Europe. They almost moved to eliminate all nuclear missiles but this failed when Reagan refused to end the “Star Wars” program. A year later in 1987 the two leaders signed a treaty eliminating all short and medium range nuclear missiles. In 1998 Gorbachev announced that he would be reducing his armed forces by 500,000 men and 10,000 tanks within two years. In addition to this he also made it known that Soviet laws were being rewritten to prevent anyone from being persecuted for political or religious beliefs. While the U. S. was still funding research for the “Star Wars” program, Gorbachev concluded that the program would never materialize.
The end of the Cold War came about not by military action or a display of military strength but by peaceful negotiation and fundamental change within the Soviet government. The United States sought from the beginning to contain what they perceived as a spreading threat of communism and consequently was drawn into many wars and conflicts that accomplished little to nothing. Not only were we worried about the spread of communism but we also were looking for ways to spread our own economic influence to other nations. The Soviets were originally looking to create a buffer of nations to bolster their national security but these nations strove for independence from the Soviet Union and at the end of the Cold War became independent nations. The Soviet Union would frequently engage in wars by proxy such as the Vietnam and Korean wars. They also invaded many border nations such as Afghanistan and Czechoslovakia.
Ultimately, I believe that Mikhail Gorbachev had the greatest impact in bringing about the end of the Cold War with his sweeping changes to foreign policy, the economy, and the Soviet political system. He took the lead when it came to negotiating arms reductions with Reagan and when inviting new partnerships with Western corporations. Before Gorbachev was in power Reagan was committed to restarting the arms race. Later Reagan followed suit when Gorbachev led the way in the reduction of arms. The policy of the Reagan Doctrine was to fund and support resistance groups while Gorbachev worked instead to pull Soviet troops out of Afghanistan and worked to stop the U. S. supported revolt in Angola.
Unfortunately, the damage that was done by the Cold War was severe and we will be working for decades to overcome the problems it created and will likely continue to create in both national security and foreign policy.