Chapter 29 From the Past to the Future: 1968-2000

Section 1 From Cold War To “New World Order”

By the late 1960s the division of Europe into superpower spheres—the American sphere in the west, the Soviet in the east—had assumed an air of permanence. This air gave rise to a period of relaxation, or détente, between the United States and the Soviet Union. But appearances were deceiving, for the 1980s and early 1990s brought a complete breakdown of the Soviet sphere. With the collapse, a new set of challenges confronted world leaders. 


By the late 1960s, both the United States and the Soviet Union had a number of reasons to want a break from the Cold War. Opposition to the Vietnam War was causing increased tension within the United States, while many in the Soviet Union wanted to avoid another crisis like that in Czechoslovakia. Leaders in both Moscow and Washington also wanted to slow the arms race, which they saw as both dangerous and increasingly expensive. In addition, both superpowers had their eyes on China.

            Relations between China and the Soviet Union had grown worse since the 1950s, with Beijing challenging Moscow for leadership of the world communist movement. In 1969 fighting actually broke out briefly along the Soviet-China border. Hoping to take advantage of this split between the Communist powers, in 1972 U.S. president Richard Nixon reopened relations between the United States and China, which had been closed since 1949. The idea of Chinese-American friendship worried Soviet leaders.

            For all these reasons, in 1972 Nixon and Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev agreed to ease relations between their countries through what became known as détente. Détente included trade agreements between the superpowers, joint scientific experiments, and agreements on nuclear arms. The most significant agreement was the 1972 Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT), which banned most anti-missile systems and limited the construction of offensive missiles.

The Last Gasp of the Cold War

Although détente lasted several years, global competition between the superpowers continued. In Angola, civil war pitted a Soviet-sponsored faction against American-backed opponents. Revolutions in Nicaragua and Iran in the late 1970s, which replaced pro-American governments with regimes hostile to the United States, caused many Americans to question the value of détente. The deathblow to détente came in 1979, when the Soviet army invaded Afghanistan.[5] This convinced many in the West that the Soviets remained as aggressive as ever.

            U.S. president Jimmy Carter, until now an advocate of détente, wrote in his diary shortly after the Soviet invasion: “unless the Soviets recognize that it has been counterproductive for them, we will face additional serious problems with invasions or subversion in the future.”[6] Growing Soviet influence around the Persian Gulf, the primary source of oil for American allies, was especially worrying. Consequently, Carter proclaimed the Carter Doctrine:  

“An attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States of America, and such an assault will be repelled by any means necessary, including military force.”[7]

Carter also called for economic and cultural sanctions against the Soviet Union, including a boycott of the 1980 Olympics held in Moscow.[8]

            Confronted by such opposition, the Soviet Union began to take an even harder line against the West. In 1981 it ordered Polish Communists to crack down on the independent Solidarity trade union in Poland. In 1983 a Soviet fighter plane shot down a South Korean airliner that had strayed across the border into Soviet airspace.[9]

            Meanwhile, Carter’s successor, Ronald Reagan, proved even more resolute in his opposition to Soviet aggression. A longtime conservative and dedicated anticommunist,[10] Reagan called the Soviet Union “the focus of evil in the modern world. . . . [an] evil empire.”[11] Reagan opposed the Soviets by restoring and increasing U.S. defense spending that had been cut in the years of détente. He also approved plans for research into space-based weapons designed to knock down enemy missiles before they could strike the United States—a program officially called the Strategic Defense Initiative, but popularly known as “Star Wars.”[12]

            Convinced that Communism was bent on world domination, Reagan determined to fight it around the world. He ordered covert, or secret, operations against pro-Soviet regimes in Angola, Nicaragua, Afghanistan, and Cambodia. When a Marxist government took power in the small Caribbean island of Grenada in 1983, Reagan ordered an invasion. The Cold War had resumed with a vengeance.

Reshaping the Soviet System

The costs of this resumption of Cold War hostilities and military competition, however, and particularly the war in Afghanistan, soon brought the Soviet Union to the verge of economic collapse and social rebellion. As conditions deteriorated, within the Communist Party itself a new generation of party members began to raise a growing chorus of criticism of the older hardliners and soon a major internal struggle for power was underway. In 1985, one of those calling for changes, Mikhail Gorbachev, emerged as the leader of the Soviet Union.

            Gorbachev immediately launched a series of reforms, which he called perestroika and glasnost. Perestroika, or “restructuring,” was a plan for reforming the political and economic system by diminishing the role of the state in Soviet life.[13] In place of the rigid control of the Communist Party, Gorbachev introduced truly democratic reforms that would make the government more responsible to the people. At the same time, he began to undermine the command economy by introducing market-oriented policies and the beginnings of a regulated capitalism. Meanwhile, glasnost, or “openness,” was a call to Soviet citizens to voice their complaints about the failings of the Soviet system openly and without fear of reprisal—and to suggest ways of fixing the country’s problems. As one of Gorbachev’s supporters explained: “We have emerged from self-delusions, from a silence designed to cover up . . . abuses of power. Daringly and radically, we are changing our thinking and our practices.”[14]

             Gorbachev’s reforms caused wrenching changes in Soviet life. Most people enjoyed the freedom to speak their minds and to read what they chose. But many were disconcerted by the economic hardships that resulted from perestroika. People no longer had guaranteed lifetime employment and a secure income.  Although many embraced the changes, others remembered the old days fondly.

            Realizing that he could not afford both his reforms and a continued arms race, Gorbachev sought arms-control agreements with the United States. In 1987 the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty committed the United States and the Soviet Union to the elimination of intermediate-range missiles stationed in Europe.[15] The 1989 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty specified a substantial reduction in long-range weapons.

Eastern Europe Breaks Free

With Soviet citizens enjoying greater rights than before, the peoples of Eastern Europe began to call for similar reforms. Fearful of their own futures, the Communist governments of Eastern Europe at first resisted reform and looked for help to the Soviet Union. Instead, a Soviet spokesman announced what he called the "Sinatra Doctrine"—referring to the song “My Way” recorded by American singer Frank Sinatra—the Eastern European regimes must now go their own way. The results of this announcement were dramatic.

            In East Germany, thousands of people demonstrated, then rioted, to protest the practices of Communist dictator Erich Honecker. The Communist regime in Poland tried to appease the opposition Solidarity movement by offering elections for a minority of seats in the national parliament. In Czechoslovakia, the Communist party purged itself, replacing its most despised leaders with new faces. Demands for reform,  however, only grew louder and more pervasive. One by one, the Communist regimes of Eastern Europe began to totter.           

The Revolution of 1989. In 1989 revolution broke out across Eastern Europe.[16] Under its leader Lech Walensa, the Solidarity union in Poland expanded its foothold in government and pushed the Communists aside. Change in Czechoslovakia also came relatively peacefully when the dissident-playwright Vaclav Havel assumed the presidency in the so-called “Velvet Revolution.”[17] In Hungary too, a reformist government came to power in May. In Romania, on the other hand, Communist president Nicolae Ceausescu[18] tried to resist the popular tide.[19] When army units defected to the opposition, however, they seized the dictator and his wife and summarily executed them on Christmas Day.[20]

Fall of the Berlin Wall. The most symbolic transition occurred in East Germany. The hardline East German government at first tried to resist the tide of anti-communist reforms. When the reformist government of Hungary opened its borders with Austria, however, thousands of East Germans flooded across, intent on emigrating to West Germany. In East Germany itself, thousands more engaged in mass demonstrations demanding reform, including the right to travel to West Berlin without government permission.[21] With no hope of help from the Soviet Union to maintain its grip on power, in November 1989[22] the East German government capitulated and threw open the gates in the Berlin Wall. East and West Berliners climbed atop the wall that had divided their city for 28 years, singing, dancing, and weeping with joy as the world watched on television.[23] Two British journalists reported: 

“Berlin was itself a city reborn. The party clogged the streets as the barriers that divided Germany melted like the ice of the cold war. Officials said well over a million people had passed the frontiers from East Germany into West Berlin and West Germany in a matter of hours.”[24] 

            More than any other single event, the opening of the Berlin Wall symbolized the end of the old order in Eastern Europe. Communism was swept aside as democratic elections installed new governments in the former Soviet satellites. In September 1990 the United States, Britain, France and the Soviet Union officially ended the occupation of Germany that had gone on since the end of World War II and restored full sovereignty to the German states. In October 1990, East and West Germany disappeared from the maps as the five states of Eastern Germany rejoined the Federal Republic of Germany in a single German state.[25] 

The Soviet Union Dissolves

The fall of communist regimes in Eastern Europe encouraged independence movements in many of the republics that made up the Soviet Union itself. The Baltic republics of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia, which had always resented their forcible inclusion in the Soviet Union by Stalin, led the call for independence. Yet for all his commitment to reform, Gorbachev had no desire to see the Soviet Union disintegrate. Neither did conservatives in the Soviet army and government who resented Gorbachev’s reforms. In January 1991, Soviet troops smashed uprisings in Lithuania[26] and Latvia.[27]

            Hard-line conservative Communists, however, remained suspicious of Gorbachev. In August 1991 they tried to take over the government[28] by arresting Gorbachev and declaring a state of emergency.[29] The coup fell apart when it encountered strong popular opposition led by the president of the Russian republic, Boris Yeltsin.[30] In fact, the attempted coup signaled the beginning of the end of the Soviet Union. The Baltic republics became independent days after the coup failed. A few days after that, Ukraine also declared its independence.[31] By December 1991 the Soviet Union had dissolved. In its place were 12 independent states, 11 of which later formed a loose confederation called the Commonwealth of Independent States.[32]

A New World Order?

The breakup of the Soviet Union signaled the end of the Cold War. For 45 years, two superpowers, the United States and the Soviet Union, had dominated international affairs. Now the Soviet Union no longer existed. Some observers predicted an era of peace after the Cold War. Others, however, feared an outbreak of instability in global affairs.

The Gulf War. Even before the breakup of the Soviet Union, the world was challenged by war in the Middle East. In August 1990[33] the Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein seized the small, oil-rich country of Kuwait and proclaimed it to be Iraq’s “19th province.”[34] This move gave him control of a sizable portion of the world’s oil supply and put him in a good position to threaten Sa’udi Arabia, the world’s largest oil producer.[35] The outcry around the world was immediate. Even Russia, one of Saddam Hussein’s staunchest allies during the Cold War, voted in the U.N. Security Council for intervention against Iraq.

            With U.N. approval, in January 1991 an international coalition, led by the United States under President George Bush, went to war against Iraq to restore Kuwait’s independence.[36] After more than a month of bombing raids, coalition forces launched a ground assault that liberated Kuwait within days.[37] The Iraqis suffered extremely heavy casualties—perhaps 100,000 died. Coalition casualties were very light. On February 27, President Bush called off the attack and the war ended[38]—although sanctions continued against Iraq.[39]

War in the former Yugoslavia. During the Gulf crisis, President Bush had spoken of a “new world order,” in which strong countries like the United States would defend weak countries like Kuwait against aggressors. Skeptics, however, wondered whether the international community would move so swiftly to the defense of small countries that lacked valuable commodities like oil. The skeptics’ case was bolstered by the experience of Yugoslavia.

            As the Soviet Union broke apart, Yugoslavia also began to dissolve. Slovenia and Croatia seceded in 1991,[40] followed in 1992 by the province of Bosnia and Herzegovina (usually called Bosnia).[41] The secession sparked violence among different ethnic groups in Yugoslavia. The fighting erupted first in Croatia but soon spread to Bosnia, where the worst of the fighting pitted Serbs against Muslims. Bosnian Serbs received help from the Serbs of Serbia (part of what was left of Yugoslavia). Much of the world watched with horror as the Serbs engaged in “ethnic cleansing”—a campaign of terror designed to drive Muslims out of the parts of Bosnia the Serbs claimed for themselves.[42]

            In an effort to end the fighting, the United Nations imposed an arms embargo against both sides—an act that particularly hurt the Muslims, who were not as well armed as the Serbs. NATO airplanes occasionally bombed Serb positions, but not heavily enough to do serious damage. UN peacekeepers also entered Bosnia to monitor intermittent ceasefires. As Serbian attacks against the Muslim population continued, the UN declared certain areas as “safe havens” under their own protection. Investigations of Serbian atrocities against civilians led the United Nations to indict top Serbian leaders on charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity.

            Instead of complying with UN demands that they stop their aggression, Serb forces began to take UN peacekeepers as hostages against further air strikes. In the summer of 1995, the Serbians even attacked and overran several of the U.N. designated “safe areas”—with no effective response from the peacekeeping forces or NATO. Meanwhile, a counterattack against the Serbs by Bosnian government forces, supported by Croatia, threatened to turn the fighting into a third Balkan War. Although they condemned the Serbs as aggressors, neither the European nations nor the United States were anxious to commit their own forces to a potentially bloody full-scale war on behalf of the Bosnians. 

Chechnya. Bosnia was not the only example of on-going ethnic conflict that seemed to threaten the “New World Order.” Throughout the former territories of the old Soviet Union, low intensity conflict periodically broke out as various factions struggled for power in the post-Communist era. Perhaps the worst case developed in the region of southern Russia known as Chechnya. The Chechens had a long history of conflict with Russia. In the 1800s Russia had fought a 30-year war to conquer Chechnya, and in 1944 Stalin had deported the entire population of Chechnya to Kazakhstan—leaving nearly a third of the Chechen population dead.[43] Even then, the Chechens never fully accepted Russian rule.[44]

            Soon after the failed coup against Gorbachev in August 1991, Chechnya declared its independence—though no other country recognized it.[45] By late 1994, however, Boris Yeltsin made it clear that he would not let Chechnya go free. Not only was Chechnya rich in oil resources, but Yeltsin feared that other parts of Russia might follow Chechnya’s example.[46] Yeltsin ordered troops into Chechnya to capture the capital city of Grozny and put an end to the rebellion.[47] The fighting was bitter and bloody, as the Russians laid siege to Chechen towns and villages.[48] The Russians eventually captured almost all towns in Chechnya, pushing the Chechen rebels into the mountains where they continued the struggle.[49]

Rwanda. Even grimmer than the fate of the Chechens was that of the Rwandans in Africa. For decades, tensions between Rwanda’s two major ethnic groups, the Tutsi and the Hutu, had periodically erupted in violence.[50] In late 1993[51] Tutsi soldiers and civilians massacred about 150,000 Hutus.[52] Marie Kaboinja, a Hutu survivor of the massacres, told of the violence her family had endured: 

“Tutsis charged us with spears and pangas [machetes].[53] Then came the soldiers . . . . We ran away with my family. But many of us were killed, including my grandfather, father, mother, aunt, and my three children.”[54] 

            The violence escalated in 1994, but this time it was the Hutu slaughtering the Tutsi. In July, the Hutu killed perhaps a million Tutsi,[55] and more than 2 million Tutsi fled the country.[56] In refugee camps in neighboring Zaire, Burundi, and Tanzania, thousands of refugees succumbed to disease, hunger, and thirst in the makeshift camps. In Rwanda itself, the fighting turned into civil war, with little hope for peace in sight.[57]

            As in Bosnia and Chechnya, the international community did little to halt the bloodshed in Rwanda—although it did provide some aid for refugees. Meanwhile, low-intensity conflict also continued to ravage other regions of world— Sudan, Somalia, and Cambodia to name only a few. The international ideal of collective security, first attempted under the League of Nations after World War I, seemed no more effective under the United Nations after the Cold War. By 1995, prospects for a peaceful “new world order” remained elusive.



IDENTIFY and explain the significance of the following:

arms race


Carter Doctrine




“Velvet Revolution”

“ethnic cleansing”


1. Main Idea What was détente and what was its purpose?

2. Main Idea  What were the aims of glasnost and perestroika?

3. Politics and Law  How did the weakness of the central Soviet government affect the independence movements in Eastern Europe? 

4. Writing to Explain  How did the views of American presidents toward the Soviet Union affect relations between the USSR and the US?

5. Hypothesizing  Was the breakup of the Soviet inevitable? Why or why not?