Who Won the Cold War?

By: Josh Clark & Kristen Hall-Geisler  | 

Cold War image
The answer to "who won the Cold War" isn't as cut-and-dry and you might think. Shutterstock

There's an African proverb that says: "When elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers." For more than 45 years, the elephantine superpowers of the former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) and the United States fought the Cold War — and some might argue the grass was, in this case, the rest of the world.

While the Cold War was largely a war of threats, there was plenty of real violence, too. The aggression between the U.S. and USSR spilled over into places like Angola and Nicaragua. The two nations fought proxy wars, conflicts between warring parties of a third nation that were supported by the U.S. and USSR. The soil of European nations served as nuclear missile sites for both sides.

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In addition to the 15 member states of the USSR, there were seven Soviet satellite states in Eastern Europe where populations were repressed and subjugated by communist rule. Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet condoned kidnapping and murder of the leftist population under an American-backed regime. And the global psyche was plagued by anxiety over possible nuclear war.

The tense standoff that characterized the Cold War ended when the USSR collapsed completely in 1991, becoming a number of independent countries and the Russian Federation. This collapse was preceded by revolutions in the satellite states of Poland and Czechoslovakia, as well as the fall of the Berlin Wall in Germany. When the USSR fell, the Soviet states dissolved.

The end of the Cold War came so abruptly that even years later, disbelief gripped the West. A 1998 episode of the American TV show "The Simpsons" depicts a Russian delegate at the United Nations referring to his country as the Soviet Union. "Soviet Union?" asks the American delegate. "I thought you guys broke up." "Nyet! That's what we wanted you to think!" the Soviet delegate replies and laughs ominously [source: IMDB].

This scene underscores a hallmark of the Cold War's conclusion: uncertainty. What exactly led to the downfall of the Soviet Union? Was the collapse of the USSR inevitable, or did America hasten its disintegration?

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Did the U.S. Beat the Soviet Union?

Ronald Reagan Brandenburg Gate speech
President Ronald Reagan made his famous Berlin Wall speech at the Brandenburg Gate in West Berlin June 12, 1987. National Archives

Historians who believe that the U.S. won the Cold War largely agree that American victory was guaranteed through finances. The United States bled Soviets coffers dry through proxy wars and the nuclear arms race. But this financial drain may not have been possible without the unprecedented stockpiling of nuclear weapons.

The world came as close as it ever has to the brink of nuclear war between Oct. 18 and 29, 1962, during the Cuban missile crisis. The showdown over the presence of Soviet nuclear missiles in Cuba, just 90 miles south of the tip of Florida in the U.S., culminated in the USSR's withdrawal. In a flurry of communications, Russia agreed to remove the missiles in Cuba if the U.S. agreed not to invade the island. The U.S. also agreed to withdraw its missiles from Turkey. The situation was tense enough to inspire the creation of the hotline between Washington and Moscow to head off any future nuclear tensions.

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But the USSR still resolved to outpace the U.S. in nuclear capabilities. This intense nuclear research and development didn't come cheap, as the U.S. matched the Soviets' nuclear strides. In 1963, the United States spent 9 percent of the nation's gross domestic product on defense — nearly $53.5 billion (that's around $458 billion in 2022 dollars) [source: UPI].

Throughout the 1960s, the U.S. continued to bolster its nuclear arsenal. However, during the '70s, the Ford and Carter administrations favored sharp criticism of Soviet policies over stockpiling nuclear arms. When President Ronald Reagan took office in 1981, he reinvigorated defense spending, increasing the defense budget by 35 percent.

Many historians credit Reagan with dealing the death blows that ultimately brought down the Soviet Union. Perhaps the one that signaled the end for the USSR was Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI). This uncompleted project, popularly called Star Wars, would have cost hundreds of billions of dollars. It called for the weaponization of outer space — a shield comprised of a network of nuclear missiles and lasers that would intercept a Soviet nuclear first strike. The SDI initiative was the pinnacle of both the space race and the arms race between the U.S. and the USSR.

Star Wars was criticized as fantasy by defense observers on both sides of the Iron Curtain (the term coined by Winston Churchill that describes the boundary in Europe between communism and the rest of the world). But Reagan was committed to the project, and the Soviet's flagging, state-owned economy simply couldn't match this escalation in defense spending.

Part of the USSR's monetary woes came from pouring funds into Afghanistan. In 1979, the Soviets invaded and occupied the country. The Truman Doctrine had clearly stipulated that American policy was to contain the spread of communism throughout the world, so the U.S. responded by secretly supporting and training the Mujahedeen (Arabic for "strugglers"), insurgent rebels who rallied against Soviets in Afghanistan. The U.S. overwhelmingly showed support for the Mujahedeen, and the Soviet invasion grew protracted and expensive. Ultimately, the Afghanis defeated the USSR, and the Soviets withdrew in 1989.

But not everyone agrees the end of communism was the result of the United States' deep pockets. Some historians assert that the USSR had lived its natural life span and the U.S. was merely a witness to its death.

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Did the USSR Die of Natural Causes?

Soviet citizens
Soviet citizens wait in a food line for the chance to buy the first fish sold at the market in two weeks after Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev introduced sweeping reforms that radically altered the economic fabric of the USSR. Shepard Sherbell/Corbis via Getty Images

Some schools of thought insist that communism is simply unsupportable on a large scale. Therefore, the decline of the USSR was inevitable. So can anyone be declared a winner in a war if one of the opponents ends itself as a political entity? That depends on how you look at it. The U.S. was left as the last man standing in the Cold War. And any boxing fan can tell you that the last man standing is the one who wins.

Moves were being made inside the USSR that would hasten its end. Former Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev, who served as Reagan's Cold War counterpart, introduced sweeping reforms that fundamentally altered the social, political and economic fabric of the USSR. Gorbachev's perestroika ("restructuring") plan opened up the state-owned economy to some private ownership, creating the transition to a free-market economy. But the economic backlash against this radical and rapid transition was unable to sustain the Soviet Union. Widespread problems like poverty and food shortages plagued the country.

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These problems may have had less of an effect on the disintegration of the USSR had it not been for Gorbachev's other major reform. Glasnost ("openness") essentially reversed the USSR's policies of brutal totalitarianism and suppression of government criticism and free speech.

Under glasnost, workers could strike, journalists could publish editorials in opposition to the Kremlin and protestors could assemble. The combination of the political and economic reforms of perestroika and the social freedom given by glasnost helped contribute to a grassroots revolution in the USSR that led to the replacement of a single-party communist system with a multi-party democratic system.

So if the USSR died of natural causes or essentially dissolved itself, who deserves the title of Cold War victor? There was actually more than one winner. Certainly, democracy won as it replaced the one-party communist system in not only the USSR member states, but also in Soviet satellite states. The free market won, too, as did transnational corporations that suddenly had billions more customers after the fall of the USSR. And really, the entire world won, having emerged from the Cold War without suffering complete nuclear annihilation.

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Originally Published: Apr 28, 2008

Cold War FAQ

What was the Cold War?
The Cold War was a period of ongoing political rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union. Both countries fought the Cold War for more than 45 years. It involved covert action, proxy wars and almost complete polarization between the two sides among the rest of the world.
How did the Cold War end?
There are two opinions about how the Cold War ended. Those who credit the U.S. believe that it was the massive defence spending, the Star Wars program and the proxy war in Afghanistan that led to the fall of the U.S.S.R. On the other hand, those who think that the U.S.S.R. fell due to natural causes believe it was the sudden transition to a free market system that led to its economic collapse.
Which country won the Cold War?
The U.S. was the ”last man standing" in the Cold War, though historians disagree on whether they “won” or the Soviet Union “killed” itself through large-scale communism.
Why was the term “cold” used to describe the Cold War?
The term “cold” is used to describe a war with little to no military confrontation. Instead, it involves threats, propaganda, competition and proxy wars.
Why did the Cold War start?
Historians believe that there are several causes of the Cold War. A few of the main causes include political tensions between the two nations after World War II, the ideological differences between the United States and Soviet Union, the pressure of dominance through nuclear weapons and the fear of communism in the U.S.

Lots More Information

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