The Cold War ended on December 26, 1991, with the breakup of the Soviet Union. Here is a look at the conflict that began in 1945 and what people should absorb from it.
The Cold War was the most unconventional dispute of the 20th century. World War I and II shaped humanity’s history and world. Still, they needed to match the complexity or the length of the struggle that occupied lesser powers and superpowers on each continent for more than four decades.
At risk was whether the postwar world would be controlled by the Soviet-led forces of totalitarianism or inspired by the principles of economic and political freedom embodied in the U.S. Had the Soviet Union’s ambitions not been restrained, much of Eastern Europe and Western Europe might have become communist or somehow friendly to communism, isolating the U.S. for years and perhaps more years to come.
From the year 1945 to 1991, under nine administrations, Democratic as well as Republican, the U.S. sought a policy of containing the Soviet Union and communism initially, then a policy of accommodation and détente, and finally a policy of bringing down and undermining what President Ronald Reagan called an “evil empire.”
The world has changed notably since 1945, but definite things stand true.
Lesson #1: Ideas matter. The philosophical ideas sustaining a regime matter because they guide governments and aid people in understanding their conduct. The U.S. has been shaped by its founding principles of justice, freedom, and equality. They have sustained the nation through depressions, wars, impeachments, and cultural revolutions. On the other hand, the Soviet regime was formed by the totalitarian principles of Marxism-Leninism. When the leaders of the Soviet state admitted they no longer believed in communism, they hindered the ideological foundations of their authority and power.
Lesson #2: Friends and allies matter. The U.S. led and called upon a grand pact against the Soviet Union through such instruments as the NATO, Marshall Plan, Euromissiles, the Korean “police action,” the special relationship with Great Britain, and the multifaceted Reagan Doctrine. In contrast, the Soviet Union could never command true loyalty from the people within the Soviet Union or Warsaw Pact nations. Marxism-Leninism was a strange doctrine imposed on the Soviet Union and the people of Eastern Europe by an imperial power. Moscow bought the allegiance of Cuba in Angola in Africa and Latin America.
Lesson #3: Leadership matters. The Cold War history can be written through the leader’s biographies on both sides of the Iron Curtain. It began with Josef Stalin and Harry Truman and ended with Mikhail Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan, who helped end the Cold War by deserting the Brezhnev Doctrine. That doctrine, which held that Moscow would authorize no communist state to become non-communist, had reinforced the Soviet regimes for many years. The U.S. was successful when led by clear-eyed statesmen like Reagan and Truman, who crafted principled actions that fit the circumstances they faced. Truman passed the historic Berlin Airlift of 1948, which provided the people of Berlin with medicine, food, and supplies by airplane for over a year, finally forcing the Soviets to lift their blockade. Right in front of the Brandenburg Gate, Reagan challenged Gorbachev to bring down the Berlin Wall and help end the Cold War. The State Department opposed Reagan’s defiance and was provocative. Still, within six months, Reagan and Gorbachev signed the INF Treaty, abolishing an entire class of nuclear weapons for the first time.
Lesson #4: Statecraft matters. A successful U.S. foreign policy rests on knowing when to demand force, as in Korea, and when to use diplomacy, as with the U.S.-Soviet negotiations to eliminate intermediate-range nuclear missiles. A primary strategy for U.S. foreign policy starts with the thesis that the U.S. should clearly express its general principles of democracy, freedom, and the rule of law; be economically, politically, and diplomatically active across the globe; and engage militarily when it is crucial to defend its vital interests.
See a glimpse of a Cold war story in the Agent 49 book by Gerald Brence. Agent 49 is a historical fiction story about one of the greatest crimes in American history. The book chronicles the illegal passing of the Atomic Bomb blueprint from the United States to the Soviet Union.
Whether it clashes with Islamic terrorists, Communist China’s attempts to expand its sphere of influence, or long-term challenges from autocratic Russia, a prudent foreign policy guided by people’s founding principles and backed by their capabilities offers the best path for the U.S. That is a master plan for today, tomorrow, and the ages.