Reagan and George H.W. Bush Years: 1980–1992

U.S.-Soviet Union Relations and End of Cold War

Glasnost and Perestroika

Tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union thawed during the Reagan administration, as the Soviet government embraced political restructuring and a new policy of openness.

By the end of his second term, Reagan had succeeded in controlling inflation and jump-starting an economic boom. He then turned his focus to international politics. He was determined to negotiate an arms treaty with the Soviet Union and bring democracy to Soviet-controlled Eastern Europe. In 1987 Reagan traveled to Berlin, Germany. Standing beside the Berlin Wall, he delivered a speech that became known as the "Tear Down This Wall" speech. The wall was the ultimate symbol of the barriers between the communist East and the democratic West. He directed his words at his counterpart in the Soviet Union: "General Secretary Gorbachev, if you seek peace, if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, if you seek liberalization: Come here to this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!"

Mikhail Gorbachev, the leader of the Communist Party, was a "new thinker." He had no illusions about the hardships 70 years of communist rule and 40 years of a cold war had imposed on the people of the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union's centralized economy and rigidly bureaucratic political system left its people poor and demoralized. Decades of spending billions on defense had impoverished the country. Gorbachev believed the only hope for the Soviet Union was political and economic reform.

Gorbachev initiated two reforms: glasnost and perestroika. Glasnost, the Russian word for "openness," was a policy that encouraged free and critical discussion of political and social problems in the Soviet Union. This was no small matter because the Communist Party had strict control over people's lives and livelihoods. Under glasnost, Gorbachev reduced the ability of the Communist Party to censor its citizens. For the first time in decades, criticism of the government was tolerated. Journalists and scholars were free to share and publish information. By 1989 over 300 new independent journals began publication, most of them deeply critical of the Communist Party.

Perestroika, the Russian word for "restructuring," was Gorbachev's policy to create economic and political reform. Its purpose was to help a struggling Soviet Union catch up economically and technologically with capitalist countries in the West. In a reversal of decades of communist policy, Gorbachev curtailed the Communist Party's centralized control over the economy. Perestroika involved liberalizing and restructuring the political process as well. Gorbachev reduced the Communist Party's monopoly on the electoral process. He encouraged more open and democratic elections with multiple candidates from different parties, especially at the local level.
As a younger, more sophisticated and worldly member of the Soviet elite, Mikhail Gorbachev (right) became the bridge between the old, rigid communist system and a more democratic Soviet Union. He and President Reagan (left) held their first summit in Geneva, Switzerland, in 1985.
Credit: Courtesy of Ronald Reagan Presidential Library

End of the Cold War

The Cold War ended in 1991 with the dissolution of the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union's collapse led to a new era of postcommunism.

In the late 1980s Mikhail Gorbachev initiated reforms in the Soviet Union and negotiated treaties with the United States. Yet the Communist Party was reluctant to release its grip on the region's political systems, along with its economy and military forces. In early 1989 communism had reigned supreme in Eastern Europe for some 45 years. Many experts in the United States feared communist hardliners would not want to relinquish power and would overthrow Gorbachev, returning the Soviet Union to a state of hostility.

Following the election of 1988, Reagan's vice president, George H.W. Bush, succeeded Reagan to the White House in January 1989. Unlike the optimistic Reagan, President Bush was more reserved about the new openness in the Soviet Union under Gorbachev. He and leaders of other democratic nations in the West watched as the seeds of reform Gorbachev had planted bloomed into political dissent throughout the Soviet Union. In the late summer and fall of 1989 demonstrations—mainly peaceful—erupted all over Eastern Europe.

One by one, the satellite countries of the Soviet Union overthrew or deposed their communist leaders in nonviolent democratic revolutions. Within months, many became independent nations for the first time since the end of World War II and would struggle to rebuild themselves as capitalist countries.

In October 1990 Mikhail Gorbachev received a Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to end the Cold War. A year later, however, he was placed under house arrest during a coup attempt led by Communist Party hardliners. Boris Yeltsin, the democratically elected leader of the Russian Federation, called on world leaders to support him against the coup. The coup fizzled, and with it went the last support for Soviet-style communism. In 1991 President Bush and General Secretary Gorbachev helped end the Cold War. Bush announced the Soviets were "no longer a realistic threat" to the United States. As a result, he pledged the United States would dismantle its nuclear weapons. He called for further arms talks with the former Soviet Union leaders.

Polish Resistance to Communism

Early resistance to Soviet rule had surfaced in Poland in 1980 when labor leader Lech Wałęsa helped form Solidarity, Poland's first independent trade union. His role in Solidarity and in resisting Soviet oppression in Poland earned Wałęsa the 1983 Nobel Peace Prize. Although declared illegal in 1982, Solidarity received government recognition in 1989. That year union-backed candidates won several seats in Parliament, and in 1990 Wałęsa was elected the first postwar noncommunist president of Poland.

Anticommunist Activism in Czechoslovakia and Romania

Beginning in November 1989 political activists in Czechoslovakia mounted what became known as the "Velvet Revolution." This revolution was a democratic transition of power in which noncommunist activists peacefully replaced the communist government. One of the activists, playwright Václav Havel, became Czechoslovakia's president and first noncommunist leader since 1948.

Not all the revolutions were peaceful. In December 1989 a violent transition of power took place in Romania, as communist president Nicolae Ceaușescu and his wife were executed by firing squad. Ceaușescu's death was the culmination of a tyrannical rule during which the population endured extremely poor living standards. Ceaușescu became enraged when citizens mounted antigovernment demonstrations and ordered troops to shoot the marchers. Protests then spread and the army revolted—joining the demonstrators. The Ceaușescus were rapidly taken into custody, tried, and executed. Political groups formed to lead Romania from communist to democratic rule. In 1992, however, Democratic National Salvation Front leaders, such as Ion Iliescu, were former Communists and favored state-run economic policies over private enterprise.

German Defiance of the Soviet Regime

In early November 1989 a million East Germans flooded the streets to demand the end of communism. On November 9, 1989, the East German government opened the border to West Germany. Germans from both sides began physically tearing down the Berlin Wall. East and West Germany reunified on October 3, 1990. Amid the celebrations of Germany's reunification, some problems became apparent. For example, the government had levied a tax on citizens of the former West Germany to help pay for modernizing the East German infrastructure. Meant to be temporary, this tax was extended twice through the early 1990s and was resented by many in the West. Adding to the resentment, a mass migration from the East created a housing shortage and rising unemployment in Germany's western region.

Former East Germans expected they would have the job security they had previously enjoyed along with new freedoms of democracy. However, in the new free-market economy, many in the East became unemployed and grew frustrated that they could not afford many newfound freedoms.

Disappointment and economic depression in the early 1990s led to the growth of far-right extremist groups in eastern Germany, including neo-Nazis. Many of these extremists chose foreigners as the target of their frustrations. Using what would later be called racial profiling, they attacked longtime residents as well as newly arrived immigrants.
From 1961 to 1989 the Berlin Wall separated East Berlin from West Berlin. On November 9, 1989, the breached wall became a symbol of freedom.
Credit: DOD Photo