The end of the Cold War

Ronald Reagan, former president of the USA
Ronald Reagan

In 1979, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan to try propping up the communist government there, which was being attacked by Muslim Mujaheddin fighters. This immediately caused a rift with America, which boycotted the 1980 Olympics.

In 1980, Ronald Reagan became president of the USA. As a strong anti-communist, he called the Soviet Union the 'evil empire' and increased spending on arms. The US military developed the neutron bomb, cruise missiles and a "Star Wars" defence system using space satellites.

By 1985, the Soviet Union was in trouble. In 1985, Mikhail Gorbachev became leader of the USSR.

  • He withdrew from Afghanistan.
  • He realised that the USSR could not afford the arms race, and opened the START (Strategic Arms Reduction Talks) with the USA. He signed the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty in 1987.
  • He began to reform the Soviet system by allowing perestroika (competition in business) and glasnost (freedom).
Mikhail Gorbachev, former leader of the USSR
Mikhail Gorbachev

As in 1956 and 1968, a relaxation by the Soviet government encouraged revolutions in Eastern Europe, only this time, the USSR did not have the means or the will to impose military control.

  • Free elections held in Poland in June 1989 were won by Solidarity, originally a banned trade union, and Lech Walesa became the first non-communist president of Poland.
  • Revolutions in other Eastern European countries quickly followed - notably the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989.
  • In 1991, Gorbachev fell from power and the Soviet Union was dissolved.