Daily Class OutlineDaily Class QuestionsDaily Class Web LinksDaily Class Notes


Question for Discussion: Did President Reagan
and the United States win the Cold War in
the 1980s? How did the Iran-Contra scandal
affect Americans'faith in their government?

Reading: Gerster, pp. 205-210; National Identity in a
Post-Soviet World
(web); The End of the Cold War
Marked a Triumph for the United States
(web);

Video: High Crimes and Misdemeanors (1992)

Daily Class Web Links

Did Anyone Win the Cold War?

The United States and the World after the Cold War

The Threat of Nuclear War after
the Cold War

Daily Class Outline

1. Did President Reagan win the Cold War?

2. The Costs of "Winning the Cold War"

3. The Threat of Nuclear War after the Cold War

4. The Iran-Contra Scandal and American Democracy



Daily Class Questions

1. Do you agree with Chalberg that the United States' central goal in the Cold War was to "contain the spread of Soviet control and of communism"?

2. Was the United States more concerned about the spread of Soviet influence or maintaining its own global domination over the so-called Free World?

3. Do you agree with Chalberg that at the end of the Cold War the United States faces "the loss of a constant enemy that had helped define America's place in the world and provide a focus for its energies at home"?

4. Why does historian John Lewis Gaddis describe the years of the Cold War as "the Long Peace"?

5. Do you agree with Gaddis that the "Cold War really was about the imposition of autocracy and the denial of freedom. That conflict came to an end only when it became clear that authoritarianism could no longer be imposed and freedom could no longer be denied"?

6. Do you agree with Gaddis that what the United States did with "nuclear weapons was buying time--the time necessary for the authoritarian approach to politics to defeat itself by nonmilitary means"?

7. Do you agree with historian Ronald Steel when he argues that the Cold War provided "the framework by which American policymakers were able to extend globally the reach of American power and influence"?

8. Do you agree with Steel's conclusion that "the end of the Cold War means a dramatic decline in the ability of the United States to determine the course of [global] events"?

9. According to Leslie Gelb, why did the Soviet Union lose the Cold War?

10. According to Robert Reich in "National Identity in a Post-Soviet World," how did the Cold War help define American culture and identity?



Daily Class Notes

To better understand the danger and costs of preparing for nuclear war, let's look at an internet site, Documentation and Diagrams of the Atomic Bomb , that includes all the diagrams, parts list, and engineering specs you would need to make an atomic bomb. Now many critics of the internet argue that such information shouldn't be allowed in cyberspace. Any terrorist or rogue nation like Iraq or Libya could take this information and use it to build an atomic bomb. But this misses the larger point of internet sites and books describing how to build nuclear explosives. Any engineer or competent physicist could go to any major American research university library and in a day come out with all the information they would need to build and atomic bomb. The larger point is that the knowledge of how to make an nuclear weapon is no longer a secret. If we refuse to accept that any competent engineer or scientist with the right equipment can make an atomic bomb, we are denying the larger reality and danger posed by nuclear weapons in our global industrial civilization. If nations such as the United States, Israel, France, and India can threaten other peoples and nations with nuclear weapons, why shouldn't so-called rogue nations and terrorists be free to do the same? The genie is now out of the bottle. If we insist on using nuclear weapons to defend ourselves, we should expect other nations to do the same, which of course creates a very dangerous world in which nuclear war is not only possible but even likely.

To better understand the United States military reliance on nuclear weapons let's look at an internet site that provides a set of revealing numbers about the American commitment to fighting and winning nuclear wars: 50 Facts About U.S. Nuclear Weapons. The United States has built over 70,000 nuclear weapons since 1945. We still have over 12,000 strategic nuclear weapons in our arsenal. The Military is still committed, despite efforts to eliminate the danger and risk of nuclear war, to keeping about 2,500 nuclear weapons in reserve in case the need arises to use them! In the 1960s, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara declared that it would take only about 400 nuclear weapons to destroy the Soviet Union, so why does the Pentagon want to stockpile 2,500 nuclear weapons long after the Cold War is over? The larger point of all these numbers is that the United States has been committed, and is still committed, to fighting and winning nuclear wars in order to protect and defend its global economic and political interests. Despite the end of the Cold War, we are still preparing to fight and win nuclear wars. This raises the larger questions: Is the United States really committed to reducing and ending the threat of nuclear war? The answer if clearly no.

To better understand the costs of preparing for nuclear war, let's look at two studies trying to determine the amount the United States spent on building nuclear weapons since 1945. The first study is a major study by the Brookings institute trying to determine the total amount of money spend building atomic bombs: The U.S. Nuclear Weapons Cost Study Project. This study, funded and written by the Brookings Instituted, estimated in 1995 dollars the United States spent over four trillion dollars building and storing nuclear weapons since 1945. Another study asked the question: What do the military's own financial records indicate the United States spent building nuclear weapons: The $4 Trillion Deletion: Military Estimates of Spending for Nuclear Weapons. This study revealed some shocking information. When asked how much they spent building atomic bombs, the military couldn't say for sure:

"For example, our final report (Atomic Audit: The Costs and Consequences of U.S. Nuclear Weapons, 1940-1995, forthcoming) documents how government officials paid little or no attention to either the annual or cumulative costs of myriad nuclear weapons programs, to the point that the official classified Air Force history of the early years of the atomic program (completed in 1959) was forced to utilize estimated costs because "there was no current, systematic account of Air Force atomic costs."

This lack of concern over the cost of nuclear weapons contributed to the huge numbers eventually built (70,000 warheads and bombs, nearly 4,700 strategic bombers, and more than 6,100 ballistic missiles) and the often arbitrary way in which they were designed and deployed."

This study might explain why recent estimates in 1995 dollars of total American military spending on the Cold War ranges from 7 to 11 trillion dollars. The United States was so committed to fighting and winning the Cold War, what President Nixon once called World War III, that it was willing to spend seemingly endless amounts of money. This obsession might explain why the United States government is now in debt to the tune of 5.4 trillion dollars. If we hadn't spent so much money on the Cold War, the United States might now have a budget surplus instead of a massive national debt.


Let's now look at the larger question for today: Did President Reagan and the United States win the Cold War in the 1980s? This question involves three additional questions:

1. Was President Reagan's military build-up in the 1980s the primary cause of the United States winning the Cold War?

2. Did the United States win the Cold War not because of its massive military spending but because Soviet communism proved to be such an abject failure in providing abundance, freedom, hope for the future, and security to its people?

3. Did Soviet communism collapse because its people opted for the wealth, abundance, freedom, and opportunity offered by Western Europe and the United States in the 1980s over poverty, bread lines, no opportunity, and no future offered by communism?

4.  Did the United States negotiate an end to the Cold War in the late 1980s because it could no longer afford to spend over 300 billion a year defending the World against Soviet Communism?  Did the expenditure of 3.5 trillion dollars in the 1980s to defend the Free World exhaust the American people and lead to political pressure for the U.S. to negotiate an end to the Cold War?

5. How did winning the Cold War affect the United States? Were the costs and risks of winning worth the price of victory?

Many conservatives have argued that it was President Reagan and American military power in the 1980s that finally defeated and undermined Soviet communism. They argue that because our massive global military power defeated the Soviet Union, the United States must continue to spend billions and billions of dollars to support and reinforce that military power, to the tune of about 300 billion dollars a year. But when asked who the enemy we are now preparing to fight with this global arsenal, the American military can't really say. They just believe that if the United States is going to continue to be the dominant political, economic, and military power we must continue to prepare to fight a global war. For many critics, it would appear that the United States is still fighting the Cold War.


    "But the Cold War left one shining example of human wisdom as a legacy for the future.....The long confrontation of the Cold War, a struggle to the death between two systems for the mastery of human destiny, was managed and resolved without that nuclear war which lurked in monstrous imminence in silos and submarines around the globe. That was the real victory"
        Martin Walker, The Cold War (p.357)


To understand why we are still fighting the Cold War, we need to look closely at the conservatives' argument that only massive military power will defend America's global interests. In 1984 and 1985, as a result of President Reagan's efforts to prepare the United States and the American people to fight and win global nuclear wars, both Americans and Europeans demanded an end to this madness. They insisted that the United States back away from its dangerous policy of preparing to fight "protracted global nuclear wars." As a result of this political pressure, President Reagan was forced to tone down his rhetoric and at least publicly commit the United States to negotiate the reduction of tensions between it and the Soviet Union. So, contrary to the conservatives, it is entirely possible that it would increasing public pressure that forced the United States and the Soviet Union to negotiate and end to this dangerous arms race and their global Cold War. It could be that despite Reagan's military build-up, the United States won the Cold War by agreeing to an end to the arms race and reduce the threat of war, which in fact destabilized Soviet communism. Without the threat of an American nuclear attack, the Soviet people might have felt freer to challenge their government and demand fundamental changes in their society.

In 1985 Mikhail Gorbachev became President of the Soviet Union. He soon realized that the Soviet Union could not continue to compete with the United States in this financially ruinous arms race. In order to reform the Soviet economy and improve his peoples' standard of living, Gorbachev was committed to ending the arms race and negotiating with the United States. In 1986, meeting with President Reagan in Iceland, Gorbachev made an historical proposal: The Soviet Union would destroy all of its nuclear missiles if the United States would do likewise and agree not to go ahead with its Star Wars program. President Reagan was initially tempted by this agreement but decided to reject it. Reagan realized that because the United States was committed to using the threat of nuclear war to protect its global interests it couldn't afford to give up its nuclear arsenal.

When the people of the world discovered in 1986 that it was the Soviet Union, who Reagan had called "the evil empire," who was more committed to nuclear disarmament than the United States this caused a real problem for President Reagan. The Soviet Union clearly appeared to have taken the initiative and won the respect of many peoples for its commitment to reduce the threat of nuclear war. Faced with declining respect for the United States in the world, President Reagan began to compete with President Gorbachev to see which country could appear to be leading the efforts to reduce the threat of nuclear war and end the arms race. As a result of this diplomatic competition between the United States and the Soviet Union to win the hearts and minds of the world's people, both countries negotiated the destruction of 1000s of nuclear weapons and agreed to greatly reduce the number of weapons in their arsenals. With a reduction in tension between the two superpowers by the late 1980s, many people believed that the Cold War was coming to an end. In fact, by the late 1980s, President Gorbachev was more popular among the American and European peoples than either President Reagan or President Bush.

With this reduction in tension and the winding-down of the Cold War, the people in Soviet-dominated Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union itself began to increasingly challenge their communist governments. Throughout the 1980s, the communist countries saw their standard of living fall, and their countries were increasingly forced to import grain just to feed their people. It was clear to many of the peoples in these communist countries that their governments had failed to provide them with a high quality of life, abundance, security, freedom, and hope for the future. Many people in the so-called Soviet bloc concluded that their societies were deteriorating, that they were complete failures compared to the societies of the West. By 1989, facing bankruptcy itself, the Soviet Union allowed the peoples of Eastern Europe to peacefully overthrow their communist governments. The so-called peaceful "velvet revolution" occurred because the Eastern European people wanted to have the same wealth, freedom, abundance, and hope for the future that their neighbors in Western Europe had. Clearly, communism had proven that it was a political and economic system that could not meet the aspirations of its peoples.

By 1991, after a failed attempt by the hard-line communists in the Soviet Union to hold onto power and prevent the increasing collapse of communism in the Soviet Union, the Soviet Union itself collapsed. Communist rule in the Soviet Union collapsed with it. The Soviet Union was now a ragtag of independent states, desperately poor and divided after the corrupt and hopelessly inefficient rule of Soviet communism. Led by Boris Yeltsin, the Common Wealth of Independent States, which the nations of the former Soviet Union now called their loose economic and political affiliation, tried to quickly transform their poor and backward societies into modern, democratic, capitalist societies. Unfortunately, it would take many years to undo the errors and misfortune created by the Soviet communism. After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, American leaders finally declared that the Cold War was over and the United States had won. President Bush even declared the birth of a "New World Order" led by the United States, now the lone superpower.

The United States claimed to have won the Cold War because it had achieved all of its military objectives. In 1948, in NSC 20, the United States had clearly spelled out its strategy for winning the Cold War:

1. Liberate Eastern Europe from communist domination.

2. Dismantle the Soviet military and eliminate it as a threat to America's global interests.

3. Cause the collapse of Soviet communism and communist rule in the Soviet Union.

NSC 20 committed the United States to using the threat of global nuclear war, what it called deterrence, to prevent Soviet challenges to American power and to one day cause the collapse of communism itself. For the United States military, America had clearly won the Cold War and it was our global military arsenal that was responsible for it.

But as we have seen, this is not necessarily true. The failure of Soviet communism to provide abundance, prosperity, freedom, and hope for the future since 1945 also played a major role in the United States winning the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union. In addition, the political pressure the people of the world put on both the United States and the Soviet Union to reduce the danger of nuclear war and end the arms race also played a major role in ending the Cold War. Without the real danger of global war between the two superpowers, both Americans and Soviets could challenge their government to end their ruinous competition to see you could spend so much money on their military arsenals and bankrupt their enemy. In addition, the failure of Soviet communism to live up to its promises to its people played a major role in ending the Cold War and causing the collapse of the Soviet Union. Finally, President Gorbachev's commitment to political and economic reforms in the Soviet Union and negotiating an end to the threat of global war played a major role in ending the Cold War. Which of these factors is more important than the others is not entirely clear. We can say, however, that it wasn't President Reagan's military build-up alone that defeated the Soviet Union in the Cold War.

Now we must answer the final larger question: Was the costs the United States paid to win the Cold War worth the price of victory? America spent between 7 and 11 trillion dollars to fight and win the Cold War. The United States government and American leaders lied to the American people throughout the Cold War, not trusting the people to make the right decisions to allow the United States to win the Cold War. As a result of this systematic lying, and government contempt for the American people, many Americans lost faith in their government and their democratic institutions. Ironically, in winning the Cold War, the United States fundamentally damaged its democracy, the very thing it was fighting the Cold War to protect. In many ways in fighting the Soviet Union, the United States government began to act like its communist enemy: suppressing political dissent, spying on and intimidating its political opponents, lying to and deceiving its people, and believing that the government knew what was best for the people. Tragically, as a result of government arrogance and corruption, more people vote in Eastern Europe and in the countries in the former Soviet Union than vote in the United States. In some ways, then, the United States, like the Soviet Union, lost the Cold War. Our military and political victory over Soviet communism increasingly seems hollow in a country burdened by crushing debt, government corruption, and global economic competition.

The real winners of the Cold War, ironically, were the very enemies that the United States and the Soviet Union together fought in World War II, Germany and Japan. Throughout the Cold War, while Americans and Soviets were spending trillions of dollars preparing to fight a global war, Germany and Japan were rebuilding their economies and societies. Protected by the United States, they could spend billions of dollars supporting their industries, education, peoples, and societies. As a result the German and Japanese economies and societies are in many ways stronger and healthier than the United States. And, of course, they are not burdened with the trillions of dollars of debt that Americans are.

So while American leaders and the military are still basking in the glow of the United States victory in the Cold War, insisting that we continue to spend billions and billions of dollars on our global military arsenal, many Americans are worried about the economic, cultural, and political decline facing the United States. The larger question we now face is not who won the Cold War, but how America can recover from the deep wounds created by the Cold War. How can we recover our faith in our government, our democratic institutions, our economy, and in our collective future? If we don't stop fighting a Cold War that we supposedly won and commit ourselves to rebuilding American society and democracy, we will continue to undermine our own society. Ironically, we may have won the Cold War but we are now losing the peace. If the United States government and the American people can't commit themselves to the economic, cultural, and political challenges we now face, we will continue to decline. And this would be the real tragedy of American victory in the Cold War.


© 2002 by Chris H.  Lewis, Ph.D.
Sewall Academic Program; University of Colorado at Boulder
Created 7 August 2002:  Last Modified: 3 Dec. 2002
E-mail: cclewis@spot.colorado.edu
URL:    http://www.colorado.edu/AmStudies/lewis/2010/collapse.htm
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