From opposite ends of the ideological spectrum, Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev carved a joint legacy in bringing the Cold War to a peaceful future. Both leaders pursued their agendas with a focus that some considered heroic, and others deemed reckless. Still, their dialogue led to stepping back from the brink of nuclear disaster. Together they warmed relations between the two most powerful countries the world has ever known, and, at Gorbachev’s insistence, they even entertained the possibility of a world without nuclear weapons.
Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980, followed by the release of the US hostages on the day of his Inauguration, is said to have sparked a renewal of American patriotism. For Reagan, the Cold War was a simple battle between freedom and oppression, a struggle between the United States’ “Shining City on a Hill” and the Soviet’s “Evil Empire.” His famous disdain for big government and promises to bolster the military led to simultaneous tax cuts and exponential growth in military spending and the national debt. He ordered a direct intervention against Communist forces in Grenada and funded anti-communist governments and guerillas in several Central American countries. Reagan also proposed a Strategic Defense Initiative, labeled by its critics “Star Wars.” In direct violation of the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, the Initiative would have placed nuclear weapons in space to protect the United States from nuclear attack.
Meanwhile, the early 1980s in the USSR saw increasing tensions with the West, political dissent in the Soviet-controlled “Eastern Block,” and instability in the office of the General Secretary of the Communist Party. Leonid Ilych Brezhnev’s death in 1982 led to the rise to power of Yuri Andropov. Andropov died in 1984 and was replaced by Konstantin Chernenko. In 1985 Mikhail Gorbachev became the last General Secretary of the Soviet Communist Party. Younger and more reform-minded than his predecessors, Gorbachev advocated “Glasnost” (Openness) first socially and then economically with “Perestroika.” He immediately met political opposition. He also faced the Chornobyl nuclear power accident early in his presidency. Reagan and Gorbachev formed an unlikely partnership that improved relations between East and West. In summits that held the world’s attention for weeks, they negotiated arms reduction and eased hostility between the two Superpowers. At one point in Reykjavík, Iceland, Gorbachev offered to go to zero nuclear weapons if Reagan would agree to limit testing of his SDI program to the “laboratory.” Reagan refused, although he did conclude, “A nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.”
The stock market crash of 1987 and the “Iran-Contra” controversy cast a pall over the final years of Reagan’s administration. Congressional investigations proved that White House operatives sold Arms to Iran in exchange for releasing American hostages. The administration then used the proceeds to fund Contra’s fight against Communism in Nicaragua illegally. Despite Reagan’s involvement in the affair, his vice-president George Bush won the presidency in 1988. Reagan finished his term in 1989 with his legacy of spending the USSR into crisis (and paying the US out of its ability to maintain many social programs) firmly in place.
Meanwhile, Gorbachev continued to force his reforms over the objections of hardline Communists. Throughout 1989 as the Berlin Wall fell and other democratic reforms occurred throughout the Eastern block, Gorbachev voiced his support for the changes. For his efforts, he won the 1990 Nobel Peace Prize.
Weakened by “Glasnost,” the rigid system of controls that kept the USSR intact for over five decades began to fall apart. Gorbachev avoided a coup by hardliners with the assistance of Russian President Boris Yeltsin. He then saw his power fade to a federation of independent states led by Yeltsin. On Dec. 25, 1991, Gorbachev resigned from the presidency of the Soviet Union as the USSR officially dissolved. The Communist Party faded into minority status throughout the former union. New “freedom” and “market ideals” led to unprecedented corruption and poverty.
In 1994 Reagan announced in a handwritten letter that he had Alzheimer’s. He explained that the condition would “lead me into the sunset of my life.” His name is already honored by his political followers with airports, buildings, and perhaps most fittingly, warships.
Gorbachev continues in international affairs today as an outspoken advocate of nuclear abolition.