The Swahili have a proverb: When the elephants fight, it's the grass that gets trampled. 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, and the two nations fought proxy wars -- conflicts between warring parties of a third nation, but supported by the U.S. and USSR. The soil of European nations served as nuclear missile sites for both sides. In Soviet satellite states, 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 in 1991, becoming the Russian Federation. This collapse was preceded by revolutions in Poland and Czechoslovakia, as well as the fall of the Berlin Wall. When the USSR fell, the Soviet states dissolved. The end of the Cold War came so abruptly (and with such finality) 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? Or, as former CIA director and Soviet expert Robert Gates puts it, "Did we win or did the Soviets just lose?" [source: Powers].
On the next page, we'll examine the theory that the United States brought down the USSR.
Did the U.S. beat the Soviet Union?
Historians who believe that the U.S. won the Cold War largely agree that American victory was guaranteed through finances. The United States bled the Soviets dry through proxy wars and the nuclear arms race. But this financial draining may not have been possible without the unprecedented stockpiling of nuclear weapons.
The world came about 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 U.S., culminated in the USSR's humiliating withdrawal. As the world watched, American President John F. Kennedy called the Soviets' hand. While the USSR reluctantly met Kennedy's demand to remove the missiles from Cuba, it was a blow to Soviet national pride.
In response, the USSR 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 $362 billion in 2008 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, matching the dollar amounts of the 1960s.
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 in space that would intercept a Soviet first strike [source: Time]. This 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 (memorialized as freedom fighters in the 1988 film "Rambo III"), 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. Find out about why some people think the disbanding of the Soviet Union was a foregone conclusion on the next page.
Did the USSR die of natural causes?
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 "kills" itself? 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 -- the "ultima hombre" -- is the one who wins.
Not everyone shares this point of view, however. Some historians believe the U.S. actually prolonged the Cold War through decades of hard-line rhetoric against the USSR [source: Huntley]. The George H. W. Bush administration provides some evidence to support this theory. As the USSR appeared to be falling apart, many in Washington wanted to see Bush excoriate the Soviets. But rather than toe the line of Cold War posturing that had become customary between the USSR and United States, Bush was reserved. While a few critics wonder why he didn't take the opportunity to fatally squelch the USSR, others credit his reserve with allowing the Soviet Union to die naturally. Without further U.S. intervention, Bush avoided driving the crumbling USSR to any desperate acts [source: Powers]. Under his administration, the USSR finally disintegrated.
Could it be that America was simply a bystander to the fall of the Soviet Union? Even those who believe the U.S. did, in fact, bring about the death of the USSR (and that it was Reagan who was largely responsible for this feat) must face the idea that without Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev, the dissolution of the USSR may have taken much longer.
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, like the United States' [source: Ibiblio]. 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.
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, 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 reform 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 killed 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 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.
For more information on the Cold War and other related topics, visit the next page.
Who won the Cold War?: Author's Note
This article asked one of those seemingly easy questions: Who won the Cold War? Under "last man standing" rules, it was the United States that emerged the victor. But in another context, the question remains unanswered: Did the U.S. win the Cold War by beating the U.S.S.R. or did the Soviet Union lead to its own demise, with the U.S. merely as belligerent bystander? This view raises a far different question -- with a far different answer.
It turns out that a closer look at Perestroika, the Soviet restructuring plan that served as the transition from communism to a more capitalist society, convinced me that the U.S.S.R. died of natural causes. Perestroika was simply instituted too rapidly. A shock to the system like the one the Soviet economy took when it turned to a free market after 80 years of government intervention was too much to bear. And a stricken economy can topple a nation faster than any army.
In the end, though, this question is too complex for any simple answer and it will likely never be conclusively established, which makes me admire the question all the more.
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- Spring, Baker. "President Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative proposal 25 years later: A better path chosen." The Heritage Foundation. March 10, 2008. http://www.heritage.org/Research/BallisticMIssileDefense/ upload/wm_1841.pdf
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Cold War: Cheat Sheet
Stuff You Need to Know
- The U.S. and the U.S.S.R. fought the Cold War for 45 years. It consisted of covert action, proxy wars and a nearly-complete polarization between the two sides among the rest of the world.
- In 1991, the U.S.S.R collapsed suddenly and completely, becoming a number of independent countries and the Russian Federation.
- Those who credit the U.S. with the Soviet demise cite massive defense spending, the Star Wars program and the proxy war in Afghanistan for bleeding the U.S.S.R. financially.
- Others believe the U.S. prolonged the Cold War and that the U.S.S.R's demise was based on a sudden transition to a free market system that led to its economic collapse.
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