In the lecture on the Cold War’s origins and course during in the 1940s and 50s, we noted that it must be understood as a strategic competition rather than a shooting war. Two mutually exclusive economic and political systems confronted each other and began competing for influence around the world. This competition began with the occupation and reorganization of Europe after the Second World War and then extended to Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Although the United States and Soviet Union did not engage in a shooting war, the essence of their conflict was military. Both sides occupied large areas outside their respective countries. The Soviet Union controlled Eastern Europe and the United States had troops in Western Europe and Japan, as well as an array of military bases around the globe. In addition, by the late 1950s both sides had nuclear weapons and the capacity to deliver them on ballistic missile platforms. This strategic balance of terror made the Cold War possible, in that it restrained both powers from engaging in direct conflict. This was good, in so far as it helped to avoid another world war, one that would have been more destructive than both of the World Wars combined. Nonetheless, it also brought with it other problems that would not be resolved for fifty years.
In order to understand the Cold War’s rise and decline more clearly, we must divide it into two stages: 1945-1961, and 1961-1991. We covered the first period in the lecture on the Cold War’s origins. In this lecture we will consider mostly the second period. 1961 was a crucial year in many respects. First, it marked Soviet Communism’s high-water mark politically. During the 1950s, it seemed that the Soviet Union and its allies, including China, were slowly taking over the world. To those living in the United States and Western Europe, their countries appeared as outposts in a hostile sea. The Soviets had gobbled up all of Eastern Europe after World War II and used force to keep their economic system in place. In 1953, Soviet tanks crushed riots in East Berlin. In 1956, the Soviet military also put down an anti-Soviet uprising in Hungary. In 1949, Mao Zedong led his Communist Party to victory and then promptly signed an alliance with the Soviets. In 1950, Communist North Korea launched a surprise attack on South Korea, and China also invaded Tibet. In 1959, Fidel Castro and his small band of followers overthrew the corrupt regime of Fulgencio Batista and promptly allied with the Soviet Union.
The United States responded to Soviet activity with a system of alliances that included NATO, SEATO, and CENTO, as well as a massive aid programs such as the Marshall Plan and other forms of direct aid to countries around the world. Although the United States had resisted Soviet attempts to increase its influence around the world throughout the 1950s, it was clear by 1961 that a national consensus against the Soviets had emerged. In his inaugural presidential address John F. Kennedy set the tone, saying, “Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, to ensure the survival and success of liberty.” The bi-polar world of the superpowers was now the stuff of daily politics.
Second, 1961 was also the highpoint of Soviet science’s world leadership. In 1949, the Soviets had exploded their own atomic bomb and a hydrogen bomb followed in 1953. The rapidity of these Soviet advances was impressive. In atomics the United States had had the lead for four full years from 1945 until 1949. The gap between the two superpowers narrowed more rapidly, however, with the hydrogen bomb: the US exploded the first hydrogen bomb in 1952, and Soviets caught up almost right away. When both acquired the H-bomb, the world entered an even more dangerous phase, since the destructive capacity of a hydrogen bomb was orders of magnitude greater than ordinary atomic weapons. (The United State’s explosion of an H-bomb in the south Pacific blew a hole in the ocean that was seven miles deep.)
In addition, the Soviets clearly had the lead in ballistic and space technology. On October 4, 1957, the Soviets launched Sputnik into orbit. Sputnik II, which carried a dog inside, went up only a month later. These launches gave the Soviets valuable experience in understanding space flight’s effects on living bodies. The United States responded quickly, if frantically, launching its first ballistic missile at the end of the year, and putting its first satellite, Explorer I, into orbit on January 31, 1958. The race for space was on, but the Soviets seemed to be winning. On April 12, 1961, Yuri Gagarin became the first human to orbit the earth, spending 1 ½ hours in space. The United States responded on May 5 by sending Alan Shepard into space for a brief 15 minutes, and then only on a sub-orbital path. Once again, the United States was behind. The first American to achieve full earth orbit was John Glenn in 1962, and it is in this context of perceived backwardness that we must understand John F. Kennedy’s famous call on May 25, 1961 to put a man on the Moon before the end of the decade. The Americans feared losing the technological edge to the Soviets and were willing to spend a lot of money to make up the distance. The difference between the two powers was that, ultimately, only the Americans had the money to wage this technological war.
Finally, the Soviet Economy seemed to be outperforming the American one during the 1950s. Although we now know that Soviet growth rates were not real, there was great anxiety over Soviet Economic performance in America at the time. Whatever its limitations, the Fifth Five-Year Plan (1951-55) increased national income by 71%. The Sixth Five-Year Plan (1956-60) shifted some of the traditional emphasis on heavy industry toward consumer goods, though a subsequent Seven-Year Plan (1957-1962) rearranged these priorities yet again. This latter plan emphasized chemical industries and heavy investments in farming in the eastern Soviet Union and seemed to enjoy some initial success. National income increased 58%. Gross industrial production rose by 84%. Producer goods production went up 96% and consumer goods 64%.
Overall, Soviet annual growth rates between 1928 and 1955 were, supposedly, over 12%. Comparable western figures were 10%. By 1960, official Soviet statistics showed an annual growth rate of 10%, though those rates dropped steadily through the succeeding decades. These rising numbers even led the General Secretary of the Communist Party Nikita Khrushchev to predict that Communist economies would, one day, surpass the capitalist ones in wealth. By the mid-80s, however, growth rates were officially estimated at 2.2%, with GDP coming in at $2.4 trillion. Just for comparison, in 1985 the American economy grew at 7.3% (4.1% in 2000 dollars) and its GDP was over $ 4.2 trillion. Moreover, it was becoming common knowledge that Soviet numbers were a lie. In 1988, the General Secretary of the Communist Party Mikhail Gorbachev reported to the Central Committee that the Soviet economy had in reality not grown in twenty years.
In retrospect we can see, however, that by 1961 the Soviet Union’s rise was over. Economically, its main problem was that it could not match capitalist economies in the production of wealth, which was increasingly measured in terms of consumer goods. This was already clear in 1959, when then Vice-President of the United States and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev debated the relative merits of their respective economic systems in a mock-up of an American kitchen in Moscow. However silly the debate may appear to us today, it is clear that people living behind the iron curtain not only had few consumer goods at their disposal but also less vacation time. Moreover, at the same time that the Soviet people had to work harder just to fall behind, the Soviet economy had to make huge sacrifices to its military budget. In today’s dollars the US spent about $320 billion per year on military defense to defeat the Soviet Union, which comes to about 8% of its GDP for 30 years. By the mid-80s, the Soviet Union was devoting 15-17% of its GDP to defense and could not increase its expenditures any further, when Ronald Reagan increased the American defense budget in the 1980s. In this sense, the Cold War military competition between the two societies had a disproportionately negative effect on the Soviet Union, since it had to compete against the United States with fewer overall resources at its disposal.
The success of NASA is an example of the gap that emerged between the two powers after 1961. NASA was created in 1958 in response to Sputnik, as an organization devoted to space exploration and to catching up to the Soviets. Although the program existed before John F. Kennedy entered office in January 1961, this president’s unwavering support for it, both in words and money, gave the program a significant boost and it began feverishly to build space vessels with the intention of putting a man on the moon by the end of the decade. The progress toward a moon landing was deliberate. From 1961 until 1963, NASA pursued Project Mercury, which put a one-man capsule into space and then retrieved the pilot and capsule after a splashdown in the ocean. Mercury was succeeded by Project Gemini, which ran from 1964 to 1967. The Gemini system put a two-man capsule into space and recovered it and the pilots from the ocean. NASA’s world historical moment came, however, with Project Apollo, which was announced in 1961, but actually began in 1967. The Apollo Program sent a three-man capsule to the moon on top of the world’s most powerful rocket, the Saturn V Booster. On July 20, 1969 NASA put the first human beings on the moon with the Apollo 11 flight. The last moon landing occurred in December 1972, with Apollo 17. In this respect, the Soviet Union never matched America’s success.
The Apollo Program is an important example of the difficulties that the Soviet Union faced in trying to keep up with the United States. Overall, the program cost $ 25.4 billion, a sum of money that only the United States could afford, given the growing economic differences. In 1971, for example, US per capita income was the highest in the world at $18,842. For the Soviet Union the figure in that year was $1,385. Moreover, the space program spun off a series of important skills and inventions that the American consumer industry rapidly took over. For example, much of the impetus for miniaturization stemmed from NASA’s need to stuff as much electronic gear into as small a space as possible. America also gained vital experience in writing complicated computer programs. The codes that were loaded into the Apollo computers would have extended for miles, had they been printed out and laid end to end. The transfer of these programming skills to industry is an essential backdrop for the software revolution that undergirds modern computing.
In addition, the US space program’s relative success continued. The Soviets made a big push in the 1970s to surpass the United States by building a space station, and enjoyed great success in keeping the station working. The US matched the Soviets in 1973, though only barely, by building its own orbiting space lab. US superiority in space technology became clear, however, when it built the Space Shuttle, the world’s first reusable space vehicle, which was first launched in 1981. The latter two NASA programs were both scientific and business failures. Skylab, the American space station, never produced the kind of scientific breakthroughs that some scientists originally promised. In the end, it fell into the earth’s atmosphere and burned, due to an unforeseen problem in its orbital trajectory. The Space Shuttle, in particular, was supposed to be paying for itself by now by launching satellites into space, though it is now clear that the program is too expensive to cover its costs. Still, the Soviets were never able to do more in space than force their Cosmonauts to spend a lot of time in orbit. In the end, their technical abilities were always limited by their economic weaknesses.
In politics the first clear sign of the Soviet Union’s limits came with the Cuban Missile Crisis. In 1960, Nikita Khrushchev promised to defend Cuban sovereignty with nuclear arms. Given the tensions that existed between the two powers, this was a dubious policy move. Had the United States promised to defend Hungary with nuclear weapons after it rose up against the Soviets in 1956, there could very well have been a nuclear war. Nonetheless, in 1962, Khrushchev took the Soviet Union on what can only be described as a foreign policy adventure, sending nuclear missiles to an island that was only 90 miles off the coast of Florida. The missiles’ proximity to the US border meant that United States would have had no warning of a nuclear attack, were the missiles ever launched. The only proper military posture in this case would have been a higher alert status that brought with it, in turn, a greater likelihood of an accidental launch against the Soviets. To understand how foolish Khrushchev’s policy was, consider how the Soviets would have reacted had the United States put nuclear missiles in Japan. They would rightly have seen this as a provocation and would have increased their alert status. President Kennedy was, therefore, right to respond forcefully to Khrushchev’s provocation and did so by blockading Cuba and forcing the Soviets to back down. In exchange for this retreat the United States agreed never to invade Cuba.
In 1964, Nikita Khrushchev was removed from power. This was due mostly to the dramatic failure of his agricultural policies, though the Cuban Missile Crisis had not helped matters. Under Khrushchev’s “Virgin Lands Campaign,” the Soviets invested huge sums of money in planting uncultivated land in the eastern Soviet Union. The plan was a fiasco, as the farms never produced much food, due to bad weather and even worse management. Khrushchev was replaced by a much more cautious man, Leonid Brezhnev, who became First Secretary of the Communist Party. Brezhnev was more business-like than Khrushchev and less prone to silly outbursts. Khrushchev had once said that the Soviets would give up their revolutionary ambitions only when shrimp learned how to sing. Brezhnev, however, resisted the temptation to rock the diplomatic boat.
Although Brezhnev ruled with an iron fist within the Communist world—he put down a mild reform movement in Czechoslovakia in 1968—he also tried to normalize relations with the West. The diplomatic result was a series of meetings and agreements that are now called détente. Brezhnev’s desire to bring more realism and less tension to the competition between the two great powers was mirrored in the United States by President Richard Nixon and his close adviser Henry Kissinger.
Both the United States and the Soviet Union had sound fiscal reasons for wanting to negotiate rather than to compete. The Soviet economy had ceased to grow and the United States had dramatically increased its public spending in the 1960s. On the one hand, President Lyndon Johnson’s domestic expenditures increased with the passage of a series of social initiatives that are known collectively as “the Great Society.” On the other hand, Johnson’s expansion of US involvement in the Vietnam War led not only to an increase in deaths but also to a major increase in military spending. By Richard Nixon’s election as president in 1968, Americans had grown weary of paying for the war, and Nixon began winding down US involvement in order to cut American losses. By 1973, the United States had signed a cease-fire with the North Vietnamese. This policy change came too late, however, for the American economy, as Nixon’s own fiscal policies combined with those of his predecessor to overheat the US economy, bringing nearly a decade’s worth of double-digit inflation.
Nonetheless, the Nixon administration also brought with it a new foreign policy realism to match Brezhnev’s. Both Nixon and Kissinger were willing to climb down from the traditional binary US-Soviet opposition out of practical concerns, and Nixon’s history of vocal anti-Communism gave him sufficient domestic political cover to pull this change off. We have already discussed Nixon’s famous visit to China; his negotiations with the Soviets over nuclear arms limitations were equally historic.
Between 1969 and 1972, both sides began to negotiate with each other in earnest to lessen political and military tensions. The American idea was that it would get the Soviets to moderate their international behavior by offering favorable economic deals. This came to be known as linkage in the West. Access to US money was deliberately linked to Soviet internal and international policies. The Soviet side, for its part, also wanted to restrain American military spending and fell back on an idea that had originated with Khrushchev, “peaceful coexistence.” The diplomatic result of these trends was the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks, or SALT. First suggested by Lyndon Johnson, these talks produced two agreements on the limitation of strategic weapons, SALT I and SALT II. Signed on May 26, 1972 in Moscow, SALT I was a complicated collection of agreements, the most important of which were the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (ABM) and the Interim Agreement and Protocol on Limitation of Strategic Offensive Weapons. The ABM treaty limited both sides in the development and installation of anti-ballistic missile systems. The fear was that if either side were to have such a system, the other side would have no choice but to produce more missiles in order to overwhelm the system. The Interim Agreement froze both sides’ inter-continental (ICBM) and sea-launched (SLBM) missile systems. This was thought to be fair, since the Soviets had the lead in ICBMs and the United States in SLBMs.
President Nixon submitted SALT I to the United States Senate, where it was ratified. SALT II, which was negotiated by President Jimmy Carter in 1979, suffered a different fate. Signed in June 1979, this agreement expanded SALT I’s reach, limiting the number of MIRVs (Multiple Impact Re-entry Vehicles), heavy bombers, and the total number of ballistic missile launchers. President Carter was forced to withdraw the treaty from Senate consideration after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, however. Nonetheless, both sides voluntarily observed the limits until the signing of subsequent agreements.
The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan on December 24, 1979 soured superpower relations for the next decade. First, the invasion raised again the specter of an aggressive Communist ideology that was bent on world domination. Public opinion in the United States rapidly turned against any further negotiation with the Soviets. President Jimmy Carter famously responded by boycotting the Olympics in Moscow and stating that he had learned a lot about the Soviet Union. Second, and at a much deeper level, technological change had overwhelmed SALT I and II’s basic premises.
During the late 1970s the Soviets developed a new intermediate-range ballistic missile called the SS-20, which could deliver a nuclear warhead about 5,000km. It then stationed these new missiles east of the Ural Mountains, which meant that the Soviet Union could blow up all of Europe in less than ten minutes. Some of America’s European allies responded by pressuring the United States to develop its own intermediate-range ballistic missiles and to station them in Western Europe. The results were the Pershing II and the Tomahawk Cruise missile, both of which could reach Moscow from Western Europe within 10 minutes. In spite of tremendous protests across Western Europe against their deployment, NATO put Pershing IIs on the Continent in the early 1980s. Taken together these weapons systems destabilized the fragile agreement between the two superpowers. The result was further talks and the signing of the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty in 1987, in which both sides pledged to eliminate their IRBMs.
American technological superiority also undermined the rough parity in inter-continental ballistic systems enshrined in SALT I. Until the 1980s, the United States had relied on two sea-borne missile systems, the Poseidon and Polaris, which were based on 1950s-era technology. After roughly 30 years in service, however, these systems needed to be updated, if for no other reason that they could no longer be maintained properly. During the late 1960s, the Americans began designing a new SLBM called the Trident I. This system was deployed during the 1980s and 90s. The Trident system was problematic for the Soviets for two reasons. First, the Soviets had no idea where American ballistic missile submarines were. The new Ohio-class submarines, which first appeared in 1981 were not only too quiet to be tracked by the Soviets, but they also carried 24 Trident missiles, each of which had eight MIRVed warheads. Since each warhead had an explosive capacity of 100 kilotons, only one submarine parked off the Soviet Union’s eastern coast could have wiped out half of the country. Second, by the time the Trident II was deployed in the early 1990s, American SLBMs had become so accurate that they had not only great range (7400km) but also hard-target kill capabilities. Each Trident II missile had ten 475-kiloton nuclear warheads, which meant that the United States could obliterate most of the Soviet Union’s land-based missile silos from just about anywhere in the Atlantic or Pacific, while keeping its own land-based forces in reserve.
What this meant for arms control was that the United States needed fewer launchers and fewer land-based missiles to threaten the Soviet Unions ICBMs. Thus, the basic logic of arms limitation was no longer applicable to the strategic situation, and one sign of this was the Strategic Arms Reduction Talks. Begun under President Ronald Reagan in 1982 and completed in 1991 by President George Bush and General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev, these talks led to a treaty that reduced strategic stockpiles in both sides for the first time.
Against these various backdrops we now need to consider two of the most significant among the Cold War’s many leaders, President Ronald Reagan and General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev. Ronald Reagan swept into office in November 1980 with a landslide election victory over the incumbent Jimmy Carter. The US economy’s dismal performance during the late 1970s sealed Carter’s fate, but dissatisfaction with his foreign policy was also a significant factor in the defeat. America wanted a more assertive leader, and Reagan entered office promising tax cuts, cuts in social programs, and an increase in defense spending. He delivered on all these promises, though there is much disagreement about their effects on the US economy.
Some people hold that Ronald Reagan jeopardized America’s financial health by increasing annual federal deficits. Others hold that his tax cuts liberated the American economy and made growth possible. Regardless of which side is right, by 1983 the American economy was growing rapidly. In 1984 the American voters gave Ronald Reagan credit for it, sweeping him back into the White House in another landslide victory and this time with an astonishing 59% of the popular vote. Thus, during his second term, Reagan not only had the support of the American people, but also a growing economy that boosted America’s spending power. The Soviets could not keep up with America’s increasing military spending and eventually had to bow out of the game entirely.
Mikhail Gorbachev confronted a decidedly different political and economic situation. In 1985, he became the Soviet Union’s leader amidst complete stagnation. The Soviet economy was not growing, and things such as alcoholism and infant mortality were on the rise. Recognized as a reformer, he instituted deep-seated structural reforms in Soviet public life and the economy. These reforms fell under two rubrics glasnost, which means openness, and perestroika, which means restructuring. Gorbachev opened the economy to more individual initiative and public life to more debate, in an attempt to compete more effectively with the United States.
Unfortunately for Gorbachev, his measures merely succeeded in destroying the old Soviet Union. Russians began to demand more freedom and democracy than Gorbachev was willing or able to give--for even Gorbachev’s limited reforms were outraging old-line Communists in the government and army. The apparent softening of Soviet politics led events very rapidly to get out of control. In 1989, the Berlin Wall fell and most of Eastern Europe declared its independence from the Soviet Empire. Gorbachev allowed these states to go their own way, even negotiating the former German Democratic Republic’s absorption into the Federal Republic of Germany. Gorbachev’s perceived weakness, however, spelled the end of his regime.
In 1991, old-line Communists held an unsuccessful coup, which not only broke Gorbachev but also the Soviet Union. Within a few months an imperial tradition that dated back to Peter the Great disintegrated, as peripheral Soviet Republics became independent states for the first time. Unable to muster enough strength to compete with the United States, the Soviet Union collapsed, leaving a poor and sick Russia in its wake.
It was believed at the time that the Cold War’s end marked the end of history. The two great adversaries had finally become friends. The new Russia would now become capitalist and prosperous, and the world could now live at peace. This dream was not to be fulfilled.