The End of the Cold War: A fresh perspective to the Gorbachev/Reagan debate

The end of the cold war was a tumultuous period in the 20th century that came dangerously close to a violent outbreak of nuclear conflict. While there are a multitude of views on who is to be credited for their role in bringing about an end to the cold war, two names prominently stand out, that of Mikhail Gorbachev (eighth and final leader of the Soviet Union) and Ronald Reagan (the 40th US president). Historians are often torn between who played a decisive role in bringing what can be considered lasting peace and a world order founded on democratic principles; this blog explores the controversial view that it was the role of Gorbachev that was responsible to a greater extent for bringing about an end to the cold war. Fundamentally, Gorbachev’s treatment of satellite states, his economic reforms and political reforms like the Glasnost in 1986 are three crucial factors that will be evaluated for their significance. 

Factor 1: Gorbachev’s treatment of satellite states: Gorbachev’s change in the treatment of the infamous satellite states was arguably one of the primary factors that helped bring about the end of the cold war. These “states”, comprising countries such as Poland, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia and East Germany, were those under the administration of the communist governments, held firmly under the iron hand of the Soviet Union during the Cold War until Gorbachev’s time. Unlike his predecessor, Gorbachev was opposed to the Brezhnev Doctrine, and stated his dislike for the idea of using force to maintain satellite states. Historians such as David Reynolds go so far as to say that Gorbachev stood staunchly by the principle that “values of humanity took precedence over class and nation”, and wanted to let satellite states pursue self determination. For this reason, it may be argued that if Gorbachev hadn’t loosened his iron grip on Eastern Europe, a series of protests in countries like Poland and Hungary would not have been initiated, from the year 1989 onwards and the Soviet Union would not have collapsed by 1991. Ever since, self-determination and self-administration of the Eastern European nations has ensured a period of lasting political peace and has hastened economic development in the region. 

Factor 2: Economic reform reduction in military spending: During the cold war, Gorbachev also took the decision to reduce military spending drastically; reports documented by administrative officials in Gorbachev’s inner circle suggest that the extent of the decrease in military spending was close to 14%. To the rest of the world, the impact of this policy change was immense because it allowed Gorbachev to prove to the United States that his intentions were neither violent or hostile. This argument is firmly backed by John Mason too who suggested that Gorbachev decisively proved that that he strongly committed to the idea that there would be “no winners in nuclear war”. Arguably, some also suggest that a reduction in military spending allowed Gorbachev to focus more on reviving his domestic economy, rather than focussing on external threats. Regardless of the cause, in hindsight it is indisputable that reduction in military spending reduced hostility and the possibility of war by preventing an arms race, thereby causing the end of the cold war. 

Factor 3: Gorbachev’s implementation of Glasnost (1986) and Perestroika: These two policies, pioneered by Gorbachev often go hand in hand in explaining the magnitude of work Gorbachev did towards maintaining world peace. Glasnost, as described by the time magazine, was a policy aimed at a “loosening of state censorship of the media” while Perestroika worked towards the implementation of free market features into the Soviet Union. Both these policies, characteristic of a more democratic, citizen friendly regime, enabled lasting peace, albiet the fall of Russia. Fundamentally, these reforms proved to be a double edged sort; his prioritization of transparency allowed people to oppose communism. Despite the fact that Gorbachev knew it could open his regime up to more administrative criticism towards him, he continued with democratization. It was vital to showing his willingness to maintain peace, uphold people’s wishes and more significantly, allowed the United States to see his intentions were peaceful. 

The opposing perspective: Making the case for Reagan and other factors: On the other hand, some argue Reagan’s combination of military strength and open-mindedness to the USSR was responsible for the end of the Cold War. Reagan for example suggested the “zero option” policy to abandon intermediate missiles which arguably showed his peaceful intentions, making Gorbachev more open to collaborating towards achieving peace with the United States. Historian McMahon concurs with this point of view as well, suggesting that Reagan abandoned personal convictions about the “nature of communism” allowing for a rapprochement. It is therefore suggested by some that Reagan’s disarmament propositions were certainly an effective approach towards diplomacy. 
Some also argue that the end of the cold war was brought about less by Gorbachev and more by the realization of an inevitable economic crisis in the Soviet Union. During his time, Leonid Brezhnev had already exhausted several financial resources in the war with 25% of GDP being spent on the military. Arguably this caused an economic crisis in domestic spheres that the Gorbachev administration was left to grapple with. Historians like Garthoff therefore seem to suggest that “victory” came when the USSR was forced to realize the situation at home. This therefore is in favor of the argument that it was in fact the failing economy and domestic situation that caused the end of the war, rather than Gorbachev’s policies. 
While the arguments hold significant merit, this essay still strongly advocates for Gorbachev. His willingness to move away from the basic tenets of communism, prioritizing world peace over Russian interests suggests he was responsible to a great extent for the end of the cold war. Although Reagan collaborated with him extensively and the USSR was already in an unstable economic situation, Gorbachev’s willingness to put his own political reputation at stake to bring down the “iron curtain” is seemingly indisputable. As Zubok says, he truly seemed to redefine the “relationship between ideology and Soviet interests”.