Another Cold War essay

I think I am starting to get the hang of these A2 history essays now (finally) so instead of writing a new piece I spent my time doing a revision essay and came away with a decent L5 (the highest level essay possible).  This title was realy interesting to research – some of the views regarding President Reagan in his first term (1981-85) were quite flamboyant. Anyone currently taking this topic at any level please leave a comment with any questions or suggestions of further argument ( one great thing about this sight is that I’m always learning new things from fellow bloggers).

To what extent had relations between the USA and the USSR deteriorated between 1981 and 1985?

Throughout President Reagan first term in office, 1981-85, tensions between the US and Soviet Union had deteriorated from an era of coexistence back to confrontation. Tensions between the superpowers had reached peak; the highest since the Cuban crisis of 1962, as the aftermath of the Russian invasion of Afghanistan in late 1979 unfolded. Reagan’s inauguration signified the movement of American politics back towards containment show with the success of his anti-détente campaign within which he famously described détente as “what a turkey has with his farmer until thanksgiving”. Within his first term Reagan introduced multiple anti-communist policies, including the Reagan Doctrine and the Strategic Defence Initiative (SDI), this further deteriorated an already dwindling relationship. The collapse of détente under carter showed the earlier weakness of this movement and the escalation to a second arms race in 1981 could be argued as a progression of this tension. The deterioration of 1981 to 85 was an extension of the tensions built up during Détente and a continuation of the underlying themes of the cold war ; mistrust, power purist, global destabilisation and ideological confrontation.

Many in the white house, political hawks and anti-communist, were still applying a typically orthodox viewpoint on the cold war. One aspect used to their advantage was the Brezhnev Doctrine; this simply stated that the Soviets would continue to gain territory but it would never lose any to capitalism. The Orthodox historians such as T.A. Bailly argue that the soviets nature was to be expansionist and that American reaction to prevent the self-determination of a country from being lost were justified. The implementation of this Doctrine had seen 10 countries fall to communism during the period of détente of particular concern to the Americans was the fall of friendly governments in Nicaragua and Grenada in Central America; the USA’s “backyard”. The tensions built from the application of the Brezhnev doctrine between 1974 and 1980 led to not only the containment of communism under Reagan but its “roll back”. Reagan’s decision to act and subsequently liberate Grenada in 1981 showed the new age in the cold war, one where America was prepared to act aggressively.  America’s aggressive containment and roll-back policies were set into motion with the aim to restore the US to unilateralism and military dominance and began with a military intervention in Grenada. It is in this way that the new height of tension under Reagan was simply the acceleration of an already deteriorating relationship.

Reagan’s fervent anti-communist character was the main cause of this acceleration and led to an instantaneous deterioration in relations between the superpowers. His outspoken hatred of the Soviet regime, referring to it as “an evil empire” did nothing to improve tensions. His speech in 1981 to the University of Notre Dame he stated that “the west won’t contain communism. It will transcend communism. It will dismiss it as some bizarre chapter in a human history whose last pages are even now being written”. His speech in the UK parliament (June 1982) saw him pass further insult saying “the further march of freedom and democracy will leave Marxism-Leninism on the ash heap of history”. He applied this anti-communist ideology on a reinvention of the 1950’s policy of “roll back” in the Reagan Doctrine of 1984. Though this the USA supplied support, financially and militarily, to anti-communist fighter predominantly in South America, Africa and Afghanistan.

Historian Barbara Tuchman argued that of instead of deploying confrontation and “roll back”, as a way of restoring the Americans Unilateralism, the west should instead ingratiate itself with the soviets. The weakening of the soviet economy lead Tuchman to suggest “the stuffed-goose option – that is providing them with all the grain and consumer goods they needed.” The weakening of the Soviet Union was used as leverage; Reagan described the Soviets as a “sick bear”. The anthropomorphism was accurate – sick bear are often dangerous and seek territory in more favourable climates. Reagan’s ‘poking’ at the ‘sick bear’ fuelled the mistrust felt by the soviets and undoubtedly bruised their pride. This led them to desire increasing power having felt, like the US that under détente their global leadership had been reduced, and returned to their primary strength in the military.

Soviet mistrust was fuelled by initiatives in Europe, specifically the NATO “Able Archer 83” exercise and the positioning of 108 Pershing II and 464 Tomahawk cruise missiles in Europe. However orthodox historians argue this as a counter move to the Soviet positioning of SS-20s whereas post-revisionist, with contemporary evidence, look at the transcripts of the ‘zero option’ or INF talks whereby the soviets rejected the deal to remove the SS-20s in exchange for the halting of Pershing II and Tomahawk deployment to Europe. Post-revisionists view this failure to consolidate the ‘zero option’ as further evidence of the deterioration of the relationship. Their deployment signified the return of Cold War tensions to Cuban crisis levels.  Able Archer 83 was another tension in Europe that furthered this deterioration and brought the question of who would send the first strike. The exercise, designed to simulate the coordination of a nuclear attack under DEFCON1 protocols however it almost led to a real attack. The Soviet Politburo believed this exercise to be a ruse for genuine first strike nuclear war and readied their nuclear forces to respond, some argue to strike.  Historians argue that this was the closest the world came to nuclear war alongside the Cuban Crisis of 62. The Norwegian rocket incident is also argued in the same way as the high altitude of the test resembled that of a US Trident missile and alarmed Russian radar to a potential attack.

Reagan’s aggressive and reactionary policy towards the USSR showed the deterioration of the superpowers relation. Many historians argue that the 1980’s was a “new era in the cold war”. As J.L Gaddis perceived; the evolution of motivation from the original 1945 conflict is grounds to argue that this period became “the second cold war” as the conflict war no longer wholly ideological but became about the power pursuit of both superpowers, each fearing the dwindling of their influence. The deterioration resulted in an accelerated arms race, with Reagan investing $1.5 trillion on military build-up – the largest in peacetime American history, the scale of this new nuclear armament is unprecedented. There is no doubt that the relations had dramatically deteriorated in Reagan’s first term in office. This is partially due to Reagan’s aggressive anti-Soviet policies and growing military capabilities.

  • Daisy Turnbull A-level history L5



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