The Cold War is a fascinating event in human history. This sample essay from Ultius will explore how not only did the Cold War feature a static front between the two most powerful states the world has ever seen, but it also represented a staunch, ideologically-driven conflict that had the potential to end all human life on Earth. While the Cold War never turned “hot” except in proxy wars between the United States and the Soviet Union, the collapse of the latter in the 1990s meant that the United States had effectively won the war. Despite this, the war was not without its costs, and the American economy suffered substantially from the buildup of its armed forces during the Reagan era.
No one won the Cold War
While speaking to anyone who was around during the Cuban Missile Crisis, the threat of a nuclear war was very ripe and real. For forty-five years, the US and the USSR were actively engaged in a nuclear arms race. The Cold War was about more than just who had the most nuclear weapons, it was a philosophical showdown between capitalism and communism. The assertion prompting this essay, that no one won the Cold War opined by George Kennan is wrong. The direct threat against the United States was the use of a nuclear weapon by the USSR against the United States.
The Cold War ended in 1989 with a regime change in the USSR, now Russian Federation and the United States claiming the top spot as THE world superpower. Following the collapse of the USSR, democracy spread throughout the former Eastern European communist nations and in Russia itself. How these changes came about is the subject of much debate. This essay explores three theories on the collapse of the USSR.
- First, we explore the notion that excellence in Soviet leadership was the cause of the collapse.
- Second, the notion that the United States out equipped its military and the preponderance of nuclear weaponry created the notion of mutually assured destruction.
- Third, Communism is inherently flawed and the inevitable end of any communist nation is expected, and that is what happened to the USSR.
We will conclude that the United States did win the Cold War, but not without some economic suffering.
Origins of the Cold War
Since the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki effectively ending World War II with Japan’s unconditional surrender, the world was launched into the nuclear age. The devastating power of the nuclear bombs was simply stunning. As the technology advanced other countries acquired the ultimate weapon and the threat that it may be used has been present ever since. In 1963, the Cuban Missile crisis brought the threat of direct nuclear attack just off shore of the mainland United States. An entire generation of American’s were terrified and ultimately elected a president who represented the American desire to show military strength and economic superiority. More weapons bought with capitalist dollars would beat the USSR into submission and establish forever the superiority of the United States as the dominant world force both militarily and economically.
To this end, President Ronald Reagan promulgated the Reagan doctrine. Simply, that a nuclear arms race would win the Cold War. A program of extensive military expansion was implement as nuclear weapons were refined and enhanced for maximum potency. This came at a great cost, and President’s doctrine greatly expanded the national debt more than any other administration had before. The public felt this consequential debt was worth it. Keeping pace, the USSR countered with their own nuclear program. It wasn’t long before both sides had enough nuclear weapons to destroy the world several times over. This is the idea of mutually assured destruction. This notion is the belief that if one side launched a nuclear weapon against the other, the other would respond in proportion, with the other side responding and ultimately both sides would be destroyed. Certainly this scenario is to be avoided. However, the idea of military superiority is what won the Cold War.
Effects on the Reagan doctrine
Many scholars believe that it was the Reagan doctrine that won the cold war by outfitting a larger arsenal of greater sophistication.
“But Reagan led a revival of American spirit. He restored military strength and diplomatic assertiveness, he spoke eloquently about freedom and democracy, and he challenged Communism rhetorically as no recent president had done, dismissing it as, ‘a sad, bizarre chapter in human history whose last pages are even now being written.’ This supplied the painful context in which Soviet leaders had to read the bad news about their economy”(Derfler, 333-4).
Not only did Reagan exact a policy of incredible military expansion, he fanned the flames of the passions of the American people’s for capitalism. This presented a combined attack against the USSR, one on the military level, the second on the ideological level as capitalism would win out over communism in the end. Reagan’s plan was very expensive, but so was the USSR’s, the challenge then was to see which type of economic system would prevail in paying for the nuclear arms race.
Other scholars believe that the relative economies of both the United States and the USSR played pivotal roles in the ending of the cold war. It is believed by many that capitalism was better able to pay for the expansive nuclear program. Many economists believe that the inevitable end for any communist society is its floundering or its destruction. For over two decades before the end of the Cold War, the USSR’s economy under communism was suffering bitterly with widespread poverty. It was not as Karl Marx had portrayed it.
The sense of national identity and world dominance was motivating and inspiring to the Soviets, however they suffered under the lack of innovation traditional to communist economies. Communism works best in small countries with strong homogeneity. As the USSR became so large and people were expanding their belief systems under poverty, love for Mother Russia was waining. Also, when people are unsatisfied they tend to favor new leadership. The last President of the USSR was Mikal Gorbachev and many scholars believe it was his innovative leadership that brought the end of the cold war.
Rise of Gorbachev
Gorbachev rose through party leadership and ultimately became the leader. It is believed that his intention, although not necessarily overtly stated was to end the Cold War,
“In the final analysis, only a Soviet leader could have ended the Cold War and Gorbachev set out deliberately to do so” (Derfler, 323).
The notion that excellence in leadership was the ultimate undoing of the USSR is hard to say. Garthoff believes it was Gorbachev’s intention to end the Cold War. The question remains on whether this was a truly ideological shift, or was Gorbachev ultimately acting as a good custodian as leader of his country. If the cost of the Cold War’s nuclear arms race was crippling the economy with widespread poverty and expanding frustration, then stopping the bleeding is a prudent action.
Reagan was adamant, as were the American people that we would continue the Cold War inevitably. The American economy under capitalism was better situated to last much longer with deficit spending than the USSR. Regardless of the ultimate reasoning the Cold War did end and the Americans quickly claimed victory. However, if the United States won is still a matter being sorted out by historians and social scientists.
There is also a strong belief that no one won the Cold War as asserted by Kennan.
“Nobody – no country, no party, no person – ‘won’ the cold war. It was a long and costly political rivalry, fueled on both sides by unreal and exaggerated estimates of the intentions and strength of the other party. It greatly overstrained the economic resources of both countries, leaving both, by the end of the 1980’s confronted with heavy financial, social, and in the case of the Russians, political problems that neither had anticipated and for which neither was fully prepared” (Derfler, 337).
For comity in their respective countries, the successes of the Cold War were greatly exaggerated by both countries. Although, the United States did not parade massive missiles down the streets of our capital, the American’s were very supportive of being the top military force in the world. American’s didn’t want to hear that this war could not be won because of the incredible cost of acquiring nuclear weapons, American’s just wanted to win. For the Soviets, the communist economy requires much more ideological engagement than capitalism because there are very few to no opportunities for wealth and comfort in this system. The major criticism of communism is that it stifles innovation. Motivation to innovate comes as a self-inspired desire to innovate, or fear of consequences for not performing.
Consequences of victory
In considering Kennan’s assertion that a no one won the cold war requires that we accept that the American government’s national debt to win the war was incredible, as were the Soviet’s. An economic draw is hardly sufficient to suggest that no one won. Russia has returned some economic prosperity, while the United States has never really recovered from the national debt. Since the cold war there has been economic prosperity in the United States, but a consequence of victory was also policing the world which carries even more economic cost. However, Kennan is underestimating the return on investment.
The United States did spend a great deal of money winning the war, but in exchange the United States has the most powerful military in the world. This great power is a very effective motivator in international affairs. Many countries fear the intrusion of the American military in their affairs. The resulting military power is the ultimate deterrence against any would be attacks. Certainly following the attack on September 11th, 2001, the world sat with bated breath on what the United States’ response would be. After all, the United States is the only country to actually use a nuclear weapon against another.
Kennan does not discuss the idea that where there is a winner, there is also a loser. The United States has asserted itself as the world superpower. Since the end of the Cold War, Russia has become a democracy with a capitalist economy. Although for quite some time, the Russians were struggling economically. They are much better off than they were under communism.
The opportunities for wealth, and rising through the middle class to the upper class is an incredible benefit. Also, with the fall of the most powerful communist country in the world, nearly all communist countries fell. Those who remain are usually small and more homogeneous (China is not included in this assertion because they enjoy a capitalist-communist hybrid economy). So, another benefit to the end of the Cold War, the world welcomed a new democracy.
This sample essay from Ultius dissected several theories on the collapse of the USSR following the cold war. Some think the end was all on the Soviets. Excellent leadership on behalf of the Soviets lead to their surrender to the pressures of the United States. Also, that the inevitable conclusion for any communist economy is its destruction, because it cannot maintain the requisite innovation as capitalist economies. Communism moreover requires a heavier commitment on behalf of the people to maintain, and that commitment is hard to maintain when poverty is widespread. Also, we’ve entertained the idea that no one won the war because of the economic and political costs of winning the Cold War. Regardless of who won, or if anyone won, the war is over and the by product of the entire experience was a new democracy on the earth, a single superpower who is economically and militarily powerful enough to affect all countries in the world. In the end it appears the ultimate winner was the world.
Dallin, Alexander. Causes of the collapse of the USSR. Berkeley, Calif.: Berkeley-Stanford Program in Soviet and Post-Soviet Studies, 1992. Print.
Derfler, Leslie, and Patricia Kollander. “The End of the Cold War and Collapse of the USSR.” An age of conflict: readings in twentieth-century European history. 3rd ed. Fort Worth: Harcourt College Publishers, 2002. 317-354. Print.
Michael, Howard. “Lessons of the Cold war.” Survival 36.4 (1994): 161-166. Print.
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