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Key Issues Nuclear Weapons History Post Cold War Reagan/Gorbachev Era

Reagan/Gorbachev Era

From opposite ends of the ideological spectrum, Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev carved a joint legacy in bringing the Cold War to a peaceful end. Both leaders pursued their own agendas with a focus that some considered heroic and others considered reckless, but their dialogue led to taking a step back from the brink of nuclear disaster. Together they warmed relations between the two most powerful countries the world has even known; and, at Gorbachev's insistence, they even entertained the possibility of a world without nuclear weapons.

Ronald Reagan's election in 1980 followed by the release of the US hostages on the day of his Inauguration is said to have sparked a renewal of American patriotism. For Reagan the Cold War was a simple battle between freedom and oppression, a struggle between the United States' "Shining City on a Hill" and the Soviet's "Evil Empire." His famous disdain for large government along with promises to bolster the military led to simultaneous tax cuts and exponential growth in military spending and the national debt. He ordered a direct intervention against Communist forces in Grenada and funded anti-communist governments and guerillas in several Central American countries. Reagan also proposed a Strategic Defense Initiative, labeled by its critics "Star Wars." The Initiative, in direct violation of the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty, would have placed nuclear weapons in space to protect the United States from nuclear attack.

Meanwhile the early 1980's in the USSR saw increasing tensions with the West, political dissent in the Soviet controlled "Eastern-Block," and instability in the office of General Secretary of the Communist party. Leonid Ilych Brezhnev's death in 1982 led to the rise to power of Yuri Andropov. Andropov died in 1984 and was replaced by Konstantin Chernenko. In 1985 Mikhail Gorbachev became the last General Secretary of the Soviet Communist party. Younger and more reform -minded than his predecessors, Gorbachev advocated "Glasnost" (Openness) first socially then economically with "Perestroika." He immediately met political opposition. He also faced the Chernobyl nuclear power accident at early in his presidency.
Together Reagan and Gorbachev formed an unlikely partnership that improved relations between East and West. In a series of summits that held the world's attention for weeks at a time, they negotiated arms reduction and a easing of hostility between the two Superpowers.

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More on the Web
Ronald Wilson Reagan on the Internet Public Library
Mikhail Gorbachev from Encyclopedia Brititannica
Mikhail Gorbachev from Time Magazine 100: Leaders and Revolutionaries
Ronald Reagan from Time Magazine 100: Leaders and Revolutionaries
At one point in Reykjavík, Iceland, Gorbachev offered to go to zero nuclear weapons if Reagan would agree to limit testing of his SDI program to the "laboratory." Reagan refused, although he did reach the conclusion, "A nuclear war cannot be won, and must never be fought."

The stock market crash of 1987 and the "Iran-Contra" controversy cast a pale over the final years of Reagan's administration. Congressional investigations proved that White House operatives sold Arms to Iran in exchange for the release of American hostages. The administration then used the proceeds to illegally fund the Contras fight against Communism in Nicaragua. Despite Reagan's involvement in the affair, his vice-president George Bush won the presidency in 1988. Reagan finished his term in 1989 with his legacy of spending the USSR into crisis (and spending the US out of its ability to maintain many social programs) firmly in place.

Meanwhile Gorbachev continued to force his reforms over the objections of hard-line Communists. All throughout 1989 as the Berlin Wall fell and other democratic reforms occurred throughout the Eastern block, Gorbachev voiced his support for the changes. For his efforts he won the 1990 Nobel Peace Prize.

Weakened by "Glasnost," the rigid system of controls that kept the USSR in intact for over five decades began to fall apart. Gorbachev avoided a coup by hardliners with the assistance of Russian President Boris Yeltsin. He then saw his power fade away to a federation of independent states led by Yeltsin. On Dec. 25, 1991, Gorbachev resigned the presidency of the Soviet Union as the USSR officially dissolved. The Communist party faded into minority status throughout the former union. New "freedom" and "market ideals" led to an unprecedented period of corruption and poverty that continues today.

In 1994 Reagan announced in a handwritten letter that he was suffering Alzheimer's. He explained that the condition would, "lead me into the sunset of my life." His name already is honored by his political followers with airports, buildings and perhaps most fittingly, warships.

Gorbachev continues in international affairs today as an outspoken advocate of nuclear abolition.