In 1979 the USSR invaded Afghanistan to keep a communist government in power. This aggression ended détente, with the US cutting off grain sales to the USSR and boycotting the 1980 Olympics in Moscow.
To stop the spread of communism, the US supplied the Afghan Mujahideen with weapons. The rebels defeated the Red Army in a bitter 10-year war that demoralized and weakened the Soviet economy.
Reagan & Gorbachev
In the 1970s the US also suffered from a poor economy, long gas lines, low morale, and an embarrassing hostage crisis with Iran. President Jimmy Carter admitted the US was stuck in a “malaise,” as the Soviet Union pulled ahead in nuclear missile technology.
In 1980 Ronald Reagan was elected president in a landslidevictory and renewed American patriotism. Reagan was firm with the USSR and called it the “Evil Empire,” as well as the “focus of evil in the modern world.”
Believing peace could only be achieved through strength, Reagan increased military spending and proposed the “Star Wars” program (SDI), which further crippled a weak Soviet economy that could not keep up.
Reagan also fought communism in Latin America. When the communist Sandinistas overthrew the repressive Nicaraguan government in 1979, Reagan secretly supplied the contrarevoluticionarios, or Contras, with weapons. The civil war weakened Nicaragua, but by 1990 the Sandinistas handed over power to a freely elected government.
In 1985 Mikhail Gorbachev became the Soviet leader and faced huge problems. There was civil unrestover the Afghan war, and the weak Soviet economy could not match Reagan’s defense spending and also afford consumer goods.
To ease Cold War tensions Gorbachev removed Soviet troops from Afghanistan and signed treaties with President Reagan that reversed the arms race.
Gorbachev also introduced two sweeping reforms aimed at improving the Soviet government and economy. However, both reforms would have unintended consequences that would lead to the collapse of the USSR.
1) Glasnost – policy calling for openness that ended censorship and encouraged people to discuss problems in the USSR (1985).
Political dissidents were freed, and the media began reporting the negative aspects of the USSR such as the gulags, poverty, corruption, and the 1986 Chernobyl disaster. This weakened Soviet power and caused many to lose faith in communism.
2) Perestroika – restructuring of the USSR’s government and economy in order to stimulate economic growth (1987).
Under perestroika capitalist reforms were introduced into the USSR’s command economy, with local level professionals given the power to make production decisions, instead of incompetent party officials. While this was designed to boost efficiency and output, the rapid change brought economic turmoil.
With censorship gone the people of the USSR voiced their desire for self-determination and held huge freedom rallies. During a speech in West Berlin Reagan aroused the German people by saying “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”
Due to an extremely weak economy, by 1989 the USSR could no longer support its communist satellite governments. With a reduction in Soviet influences, Eastern Europeans protested and called for freedom.
Poland, a Soviet satellite, was experiencing economic problems that caused unrest. In 1980 an electrician named Lech Walesa formed Solidarity, an independent trade union that called for political change.
The communist Polish government outlawed the union and arrested Walesa, but when the USSR weakened Poland held free elections and Walesa became president in 1989.
Germany was finally reunited when mobs of Germans tore down the Berlin Wall. By 1991 Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania regained their independence, and the remaining satellites soon followed.
Seeking to revive the USSR communist hardliners staged a coup d’etat against Gorbachev. The coup failed when democratic resistance rallied behind Russian President Boris Yeltsin, who convinced the Red Army not to fire on Russian civilians. Gorbachev soon resigned, and the USSR ceased to exist.