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Essay: What factors led to the end of the Cold War?

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  • What factors led to the end of the Cold War?
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Introduction:

There are several interpretations which explore the main reason for the end of the Cold War such as the Afghanistan War, Reagan’s Presidency, Gorbachev’s leadership, the economy and the independence of Eastern European countries. The main factor that led to the end of the Cold War was the debilitated relationship of the Soviet Union with Eastern European countries which meant that countries such as Poland and Hungary gained independence. As Levesqué argues, the independence of Eastern European countries led to the end of the breakdown of the Soviet Union, ultimately ending the Cold War because of the lack of focus on the East and the increased focus on the West. Moreover, the Soviet Union could not maintain their power and control over the Eastern European countries and could not provide financial aid when requested by Eastern European leaders. Thus, they saw Soviet control and support as inadequate. Although Oberdorfer sees Gorbachev’s leadership as the most important reason for the end of the Cold War, it is not true because the gaining of independence was the most detrimental factor which completely dissolved the Soviet Union, hence why the gaining of independence of Eastern European countries was the most impactful factor that led to the end of the Cold War.

Levesqué:

Levesqué believes the main reason for the end of the Cold War was the lack of control Gorbachev had over the Eastern European countries. Ultimately, this led to the end of the Cold War because the countries broke away from the Soviet control, which further led to the rapid downfall of the Soviets. Levesqué argues Gorbachev tried to have “the best of both worlds” by having “change and relative stability” in the Eastern European countries. Gorbachev was too focused on the West, disregarding the Eastern European countries which led to their independence because “first priority was given to the East-West rapprochement”. Therefore, the Eastern European countries were a significant reason for the end of the Cold War because the Soviet Union lost control over them as their power was minimised.

Additionally, Levesqué depicts how historians in the past thought that Soviet Union leaders had “very poor information on the situation in Eastern Europe”. His argument is based on newly released documents, such as the report from the Bogomolov Institute, which clearly reveal problems at the time – they were just not acted upon. Eastern countries e.g Bratislava were looking to become independent because they disliked the Russian control, but this desire for independence was negative since it meant that the Soviet Union had less control over reforming them. Gorbachev wanted the leaders themselves to implement the changes, supporting the idea of freedom and democracy, but this ultimately led to the Cold War’s end as many were hesitant and refused to implement changes. “Gorbachev was convinced that reform could work in Eastern Europe, but he believed that the initiative had to come from the top leadership of these countries”, supports Oberdorfer’s central argument of his leadership being the main reason of the Cold War’s end, which is a narrow perspective. Levesque argues “the information was abundant and accurate, and the analysis was sophisticated”, suggesting that the Soviet Union’s leaders were aware of the situation and they should have taken action for the reforms to advance further especially as Poland and Hungary were “evolving very rapidly” reflecting the quick political change within these countries. Major change was happening very fast for the first time, with no one knowing how things were going to evolve, similar to the uncertainty with Brexit. Gorbachev was expected to aid the two rapidly evolving countries financially but “Moscow was much more demanding and stingy in its economic relations with its allies” which was a result of the imbalanced focus between the East and the West which created political problems. Even so, the rapid change would have been a benefit if it was controlled to help reform the Eastern European countries. Gorbachev used Poland and Hungary as a form of persuasive propaganda, therefore countries who did not want to reform would have felt pressured and obliged to comply with his policies, due to the non-existent financial help. By not providing funding for the reforms he wanted, Gorbachev created discontent, therefore Levesque argues “it is not surprising that East European leaders complained privately to their Soviet counterparts about Soviet neglect”.

To Levesque, it is quite evident that Gorbachev’s lack of control played a big role in ultimately leading to the end of the Cold War, but it is not the only reason as to why this occurred because other factors such as the Soviet-American relations improving, Reagan’s presidency and his policies and the Soviet Union’s economy, contributed to why the Cold War came to an end. Relations between the Soviets and the Americans were damaged, and so were relations with Eastern European countries because Gorbachev’s focus was on the West and Soviet control was inadequate. Therefore, it is clear that the main reason for the end of the Cold War was the lack of control Gorbachev had over the Eastern European countries.

Pemberton:

Pemberton’s interpretation of Reagan’s leadership outlines why Reagan was a significant factor that influenced the end of the Cold War. Ultimately, he changed the political landscape of America by enforcing relationships with the Soviet Union through summits with Gorbachev. The Geneva summit in 1985 for instance, was essential in improving Soviet-American relations because Reagan and Gorbachev met for the first time to discuss international diplomatic relations and the arms race. Similar to Eisenhower, Reagan believed that a personal relationship among leaders was the necessary first step to breaking down the barriers of tension that existed between the two countries, which then allowed the following summits to be more effective, for example by setting out terms for treaties and forming consensuses. The 1986 Reykjavik summit discussed the banning of ballistic missiles proposed by Gorbachev and the Moscow Summit of 1988 allowed Gorbachev and Reagan to finalise the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. Reagan’s goal was to convince Gorbachev that America desired peace above all else. Therefore, Pemberton considers Reagan to have positively impacted the end of the Cold War through his contribution to the 5 summits he had with Gorbachev.

Pemberton argues Reagan “envisioned possibilities for change that many experts ridiculed” but he had difficulties convincing experts to implement the ideas he wanted to within the system. Although initially a “hard-line anticommunist”, he changed his views and his foreign policy because he “joined with Mikhail Gorbachev to bring the Cold War to an end”. After reaching a consensus with Gorbachev, Reagan made drastic changes in which he “directed the biggest defence buildup in history” and “disconcerted his arms control experts by envisioning a world free of nuclear weapons and by taking the first important steps towards achieving the goal” which exemplifies Reagan’s change in attitude to the Cold War. Reagan was extremely influential in the Cold War, especially solidifying a relationship with Gorbachev. In spite of this, although Reagan had a role in the end of the Cold War, he was not the main reason in leading to its end because the main reason was the Eastern European countries gaining independence which directly impacted on the Soviets, disintegrating the Union. Pemberton depicts Reagan as a leader who relied on his advisors and was “perfectly willing for others to act for him if they stayed in line with his general policy”, suggesting he was less actively involved in the end of the Cold War compared to Gorbachev, again emphasising that his presidency was not the most important in influencing the end of the Cold War. His advisors were more active than Reagan who was too passive questioning the extent to which he actually contributed in the Cold War coming to an end. After his “Middle Eastern peace initiatives did not get far” and the “large exclusion from the Iranian policy”, he acted as a more involved individual in the Cold War which meant that “great successes came in Soviet-American relations”. By having a rather harmonious relationship, Reagan regained some form of credibility and it was at this point where Pemberton highlights his contribution to the Cold War’s end.

 

Furthermore, Reagan’s advisors had strong opinions towards Soviet-American relations which inhibited the growth of the relations. For example, Weinberger had “little interest in negotiating with the Soviets” which acted as a hindering factor on the progress of Soviet-American relations. On the other hand, Shultz “clearly understood Reagan intended his defence buildup to be a prologue to negotiations with the Soviets” which Weinberger did not, so conflict arose between the two advisors. Shultz outlined Weinberger doesn’t “analyze things” which affects the decisions suggested by him since he takes rushed actions and he does not consider the long-term positive impacts. Alternatively, he takes into consideration the short-term consequences. Thus, this enhances the ambiguity behind whether Reagan’s leadership truly led to the end of the Cold War or not because it looks like his advisors suggested conflicting ideas to him.

Oberdorfer:

Oberdorfer argues that Gorbachev’s leadership was the main factor that led to the end of the Cold War. He portrays Gorbachev as the main factor that led to the end of the Cold War in his book, From the Cold War to a New Era The United States although other factors that contributed to an extent are mentioned; Oberdorfer ties all of them to Gorbachev, unlike Pemberton problems with the economy didn’t cause an end to the Cold War, but the way in which Gorbachev handled it and allowed it to ultimately fall. Moreover, Oberdorfer portrays him as a “stark and welcome contrast to the three aged and failing general secretaries of the Communist Party”, which clearly illustrates how Gorbachev was completely different to leaders like Brezhnev, Andropov and Chernenko. Gorbachev was 54 and “in robust health”, which meant that he was energetic, young and less set in his ways as leader. He was ultimately more open to ideas compared to previous leaders, so change was already taking place. Oberdorfer argues that Gorbachev was a strong leader as he had more potential to induce change compared to other leaders as since 1972, “there has never been a time when a politically strong U.S. president and a physically strong Soviet general secretary had been in office at the same time”. Oberdorfer highlights there has been 13 years of weak, unhealthy leaders attempting to mend the economy and negotiate with other countries. Oberdorfer calls Gorbachev an “impressive leader” which enforces his central argument: Gorbachev’s leadership was the main reason for the end of the Cold War.

 

Furthermore, Oberdorfer depicts how Gorbachev was a family man and how he appreciated his wife since he took her “wherever possible”, which clearly shows he valued his wife’s opinion, in contrast to other leaders such as Reagan who didn’t take Nancy with him wherever he went, implying he was strongly opinionated. Gorbachev was a man who was interested in the public’s opinion in order to induce changes tailored on their opinions and preferences, not solely based on his own. The Secretary of State George Shultz observed how “He performs like a person who has been in charge for a while, not like a person who is just taking charge” which illustrates Gorbachev as an extremely adaptable, unforeseeable, hardworking and diplomatic individual. Gorbachev’s leadership was the main factor that led to the end of the Cold War because he was so naturally talented and capable of leading. Also, Gorbachev was extremely experienced as he was “the leader of the youth organization and then the Communist Party” which illustrates his determination and work ethic which contrasts with the work ethic of the previous leaders drastically, since most of them didn’t make significant changes to the Soviet Union’s economy or any other aspect of it. Oberdorfer offers a convincing argument as to why Gorbachev was an important factor that led to the end of the Cold War.

 

I agree with Oberdorfer that Gorbachev is an important factor that led to the end of the Cold War because if he wasn’t in charge, things would have most likely carried out in the same manner as before. For example, the Soviet Economy would have fallen drastically even faster than it fell under his leadership, thus the big impact Gorbachev had through managing the economy in a better way than others, creating or enforcing relationships with leaders such as Reagan and being more active than previous members changed the outcome of the Cold War. After the demise of the previous leader, Chernenko, Reagan sent his vice president, Bush to the funeral to meet Gorbachev, the new leader who was going to induce “serious change” to the Soviet Union, and bring it out of “its long time troubles”. This positive perception did not become reality because of the breakup of the Soviet Union and the loss of power and control over the Eastern European countries, hence why we cannot ignore the vast importance of Eastern European countries gaining independence as the main cause of the end of the Cold War. Gorbachev’s leadership was not inadequate but, Levesque argues, when he needed to focus on the Eastern countries, he did the exact opposite and focused on the West. Moreover, he offered no financial support to those who wanted change in the Eastern European countries since the Soviet Union’s economy was rapidly declining as evident in the Soviets increased the price of oil exports. Therefore, it is quite apparent that the Cold War ended as a result of the lack of control the Soviet Union had over Eastern European countries.

Comparison:

Levesque has the most valid interpretation because the breadth of it is larger than Oberdorfer’s and Pemberton’s interpretations. Levesque ultimately argues that the Cold War’s end was a result of the Soviet Union’s sheer lack of control of Eastern European countries. His argument is articulate in exploring the reason of the end of the Cold War as well as exploring other contributing factors such as the Soviet economy and how its status was slowly dissolving the Soviet diplomacy and the impact of the Afghanistan War on them, which is further explored by Reuveny and Prakash. Therefore, Levesque’s interpretation is considered objective as he takes a holistic approach in viewing the majority of the factors that contributed to the end of the Cold War, then pinpoints the most impactful one- the lack of control of Eastern European countries and their attainment of independence. Similarly to Levesque’s interpretation, Pemberton and Oberdorfer touch on the Soviet economy and how it led to a diverse variety of distasteful issues for them. Therefore, it could be said that the economic status of the Soviet Union led to the problems they faced- if it wasn’t an issue in the first place, it would not have led to so many other problems that the Soviets had to deal with, but this does not mean that it was the primary reason to the end of the Cold War as it was only a trigger for many issues that arose. Instead of eliminating them, Gorbachev ignored them which led to their aggravation- Eastern European countries gaining independence. However, Oberdorfer argues that Gorbachev’s leadership was the reason as to why the Cold War ended. Several historians have interpreted Gorbachev’s leadership as the main reason to the Cold War’s end, which suggests it is perceived as a big impact. However, what historians tend to ignore and neglect is the fact that his poor leadership didn’t lead to the end of the Cold War alone, but other more significant factors such as the lack of control of Eastern European countries and their attainment of independence. Oberdorfer’s interpretation is not only an example of poor reductionism which often leads to a misrepresentation of information, but an example of determinism. He does not approach the argument at stake in an objective manner by assessing several contributing factors whilst Levesque’s objectiveness makes his interpretation more useful and more credible to a historian holistically assessing the different reasons for the end of the Cold War. This allows us, as historians, to make a judgement as to what we personally think and what we truly believe the main reason for the end of the Cold War was. Even though Oberdorfer’s account is a very in-depth analysis of Gorbachev’s leadership style, Oberdorfer limits us by not taking a holistic approach and look at all the factors revolving around the Cold War’s end, it could be argued his source is not as useful as Levesque’s interpretation since he does not explore other factors. Similar to Oberdorfer, Pemberton glorifies Reagan’s presidency, hence why his interpretation is that Reagan led to the end of the Cold War because of his advisors. Similar to Oberdorfer, Pemberton takes an extremely reductionist approach in explaining that Reagan led to the end of the Cold War because of his advisors and how that occured. Therefore, this limits our understanding of the other factors that contributed to the end of the Cold War, ultimately classifying the source as not useful to a historian. Overall, Levesque’s interpretation defeats Oberdorfer’s and Pemberton’s interpretations as it is not only an in-depth analysis of one factor, but it also considers other factors whereby he takes a holistic approach in viewing the many factors that led to the end of the Cold War. Moreover, his interpretation would be more useful to a historian assessing the importance of different factors that contributed to the end of the Cold War, ultimately making his interpretation useful and credible.

Assessment:

There are many different dates for the end of the Cold War, but I believe the end of the Cold War was in 1991, when the Soviet Union dissolved. This was as a result of the Soviet Union being more proactive with the West and more passive with the Eastern countries leading to a lack of control there, ultimately leading to the breakup of the Soviet Union, ending the Cold War. Furthermore, Reuveny and Prakash argue the Afghanistan War impacted the Soviet economy and their image. By investing in arms forces, the Soviet Union lost focus of their major problem- the Cold War, which led to complications of their economy and control, thus ultimately leading to their deterioration, which allowed EECs to gain independence.

They showed the Eastern European countries a lot of Soviet weaknesses when they asked for financial aid which was refused. They resorted to independence, which was an unexpected action from the Eastern European countries. Therefore, if the Soviets had not ignored the real problem in the East by prioritising the relationship with the West, they may have been able to keep control of the Eastern European countries by intervening early on. However, because they allowed the problem to increase by ignoring it, they didn’t regain control over the Eastern European countries so this is the most significant factor that led to the end of the Cold War.

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