End of the Cold War

Overview

In this exercise, teachers examine excerpts from a speech by U.S. President Ronald Reagan given in West Berlin and from a speech by Mikhail Gorbachev, General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. While examining each speech, teachers answer the following questions:

  • What do you notice about the speech?
  • What questions do you want to ask about the speech?
  • Which of these speeches do you think was given first? Why do you think that?

After discussing these questions, teachers learn more about the historical context surrounding foreign policy and the years leading up to end of the Cold War. After completing the activity, teachers discuss classroom applications.

Source Analysis, Reagan Speech

Reagan's Speech

  • Distribute a copy of the excerpt from Reagan’s speech to each person.
  • Ask teachers to read the speech carefully, jotting down initial observations and unfamiliar words, and then work in pairs to compare observations and generate a list of questions about the speech and the time period.
  • Group Discussion, Reagan Speech

    Write three columns onto the whiteboard: Notice, Questions, and Historical Background.
    Use the following questions to guide discussion:

    • What did you notice about this speech?
    • What do you already know about this speech? About the time period in which it was created?
    • What is the subject of this speech and what is its message?
    • How does Reagan use the language of freedom? How does he define freedom, and for whom?
    • Source Analysis, Gorbachev Speech

      Gorbachev's Speech

      • Distribute the excerpts from Gorbachev’s speech to each person.
      • Ask teachers to read the speech carefully, jotting down initial observations and unfamiliar words, and then work in pairs to compare observations and generate a list of questions about the speech and the time period.
      • Then ask each group to spend several minutes comparing this to Reagan’s speech.

      Group Discussion, Gorbachev Speech

      Write three columns onto the whiteboard: Notice, Questions, and Historical Background.
      Use the following questions to guide discussion:

      • What did you notice about this speech?
      • What do you already know about this speech? About the time period in which it was created?
      • What is the subject of this speech and what is its message?
      • How does Gorbachev use the language of freedom? How does he define freedom, and for whom?
      • What similarities and differences did you notice between this speech and Reagan’s speech?
        Ask teachers to make a tentative guess: Which of these speeches do you think was given first? Why do you think that?
      • What additional information would you want to know (e.g., about Reagan, Gorbachev, U.S. and Soviet foreign policy, the end of the Cold War)?

      Historical Background

      Present this historical background to enhance the group’s knowledge of the time period, and as a basis for drawing conclusions in Step 7. Write the words in bold on the whiteboard, and use the rest of the text for guidance.

      Ronald Reagan’s Foreign Policy

      When Reagan was elected in 1980, he promised to restore American power and influence in the wake of what Republicans called Jimmy Carter’s “ineffective foreign policy.” He took a decisive turn away from the foreign policy strategy of the 1970s that advocated easing tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union, largely through strategic arms-reduction treaties. The government, under Reagan, ramped up defense spending and made plans to implement the Strategic Defense Initiative, the “Star Wars” system that was designed to defend against a Soviet missile attack. He also developed the Reagan Doctrine with a focus on explicitly challenging Soviet influence around the world and on promoting capitalism in countries with Soviet-supported socialist governments.

      Mikhail Gorbachev

      Gorbachev became General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in 1985, bringing in a new era of reform in the Soviet Union. Almost immediately, he proposed personnel changes in the top echelons of the Party, putting forward younger candidates more open to reformist thinking. He also took the advice of economist and U.S. Secretary of State George Schultz. Schultz advocated reform of the Soviet Union’s command economy in order to keep pace with economic development in the rest of the world.

      These ideas worked their way into Gorbachev’s signature policy of perestroika (reconstruction) that he first sketched out in February 1986. In 1988, Gorbachev initiated a policy of glasnost (openness) that increased the political freedoms of the Soviet people, including freedom of speech. He also abandoned the Brezhnev Doctrine, and began to allow other Eastern bloc countries to determine their own internal affairs, a move that would prove to be the most significant of his reforms.

      The End of the Cold War

      In the past two decades, fierce historical debates have emerged over how and why the Cold War ended. While some argue that Reagan was the driving force behind Gorbachev’s reforms and abandonment of the Brezhnev Doctrine, many others point out that both leaders, and, perhaps more importantly, the actions of ordinary citizens in Eastern bloc countries, contributed to the eventual fall of the Soviet Union.

      It is important to note that Reagan’s speech at the Brandenburg Gate took on “greater significance in hindsight, when the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 came to symbolize the collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe and the eventual dissolution of the Soviet Union. As historian John Lewis Gaddis points out, the Reagan Doctrine was knocking on a door that Gorbachev had already opened.

      Conclusions

      Which of these speeches do you think was given first? Why do you think that?
      Answer: Gorbachev’s speech came first, as the opening speech to the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union’s plenary session on January 27, 1987. Reagan gave his speech at Brandenburg Gate in West Berlin about five months later, on June 12, 1987.

      Gorbachev’s speech focuses on enacting large-scale changes to the political and economic structures of the Soviet Union. He makes it clear that the Soviet Union was at a turning point (taking “a radical turn and measures of a revolutionary character”), and even points out that some members of the Party have accused him of “taking too sharp a turn.”

      One clue in Reagan’s speech that Gorbachev’s might have come first is when Reagan mentions “a new policy of reform and openness” from Moscow. Though Reagan was likely well informed of Gorbachev’s speech, he questions the resolve of the Soviets to reform, whereas Gorbachev seems steadfast in his commitment to the reform measures he advocates. Reagan also suggests that these changes might indicate that the Soviets are “coming to understand the importance of freedom.”

      Indeed, an important theme to examine in both speeches is the ways in which the leaders understand the idea of freedom. Right from the beginning of his speech, Reagan contrasts the “free” part of Berlin with the part enclosed by the Berlin Wall, implying that it is “unfree.” Reagan links freedom with prosperity, and prosperity with both freedom from the state and with “reduced tariffs, expanded free trade, lowered taxes.” In suggesting that the Soviets are “coming to understand the importance of freedom,” Reagan means that the only true reform for him would be a complete abandonment of socialism.

      Gorbachev, however, does not see his people as “unfree” in the way that Reagan does. Rather, Gorbachev sees socialism as enhancing freedom, pointing out that socialism did away with “national oppression, inequality, and infringements upon the rights of people on grounds of nationality.” He calls “free labour and free thought in a free country” Socialism’s “most powerful creative force.”

      Gorbachev does not advocate abandoning socialism, and there is no overt indication in Gorbachev’s speech that he expects the Berlin Wall to fall or the Soviet Union to collapse anytime in the near future. (Of course, this is a speech given to the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.) Rather than blaming socialism for problematic “elements of stagnation,” he calls these phenomena “alien to socialism.” Instead, he places blame squarely on the shoulders of the Party for not recognizing the problems that had emerged and not addressing them in a timely fashion, for not “making better use of the possibilities intrinsic to the socialist system.”

      While many credit Reagan with “ending the Cold War,” the timing of Gorbachev’s speech indicates that his reformist attitude was highly influential in bringing about the changes to the structure of the Soviet Union that enabled its collapse. While Reagan’s rhetoric may have pushed the Soviet Union towards greater reforms, Gorbachev’s January 1987 speech helps clarify that these reforms were not solely the result of Reagan’s foreign policy, and that without Gorbachev’s leadership it is likely that the Cold War would have lasted for many more years.

      Classroom Applications

      • Do you think this activity would work with your students?
      • Could you use this strategy with other resources?
      • Would you do anything differently in your classroom?

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