The Cold War resulted from conflicting ideologies between the democratic United States and the communist Soviet Union. Communism initially gained popularity as an alternative form of government following World War II due to the government’s inability to provide a pragmatic solution to economic problems, reconstruction struggles, and rampant poverty that plagued many European citizens. In response to the spread of communism, the United States adopted a policy of containment and began to compete technologically with the Soviet Union in the arms race and the space race. This tension between the Soviet Union and the United States elicited various reactions from John F. Kennedy, Richard Nixon, and Ronald Reagan, the presidents of the United States during this chaotic and uncertain time in history. However, by attempting to lessen the threat of nuclear warfare, John F. Kennedy set the precedent for future presidents such as Nixon and Reagan, both of whom achieved more success in easing the tension between the Soviet Union and the United States But all of these presidents utilized different foreign policy approaches in dealing with the Soviet Union, which led to different outcomes from each presidency.
Inclusive of momentous events such as the Vietnam War and the Cuban Missile Crisis, the height of the Cold War occurred during John F. Kennedy’s presidency. Throughout Kennedy’s time in office, the United States became increasingly militarily and economically invested in the Vietnam War in an attempt to prevent the North Vietnamese communists from conquering South Vietnam. Another presidential action that highlighted Kennedy’s support for containment was his passage of the Alliance for Progress program, which strived to inhibit the spread of communism in Latin America. Despite the tension, Kennedy always wanted to explore the factors that united the United States and the Soviet Union instead of focusing on the differences that divided these two superpowers (Doc. 1). Kennedy’s main motivation to improve the United States’ relationship with the Soviet Union was the imminent threat of the usage of nuclear weapons which contained ten times the force of a single bomb used during World War II (Doc. 3b). Also, the detonation of a nuclear bomb would create an environmental hazard that would span generations (Doc. 3b). Contrary to his ideals, Kennedy’s military decisions dashed any potential hope for conciliation between the United States and the Soviet Union. Since Fidel Castro was their ally, the Soviet Union believed that the Bay of Pigs mission, authorized by Kennedy, was a direct threat, and they strategically placed nuclear missiles in Cuba. This sparked the Cuban Missile Crisis, and because the United States was within the firing range of these missiles, nuclear warfare seemed inevitable.
With cautious maneuvering, the United States and the Soviet Union narrowly avoided nuclear warfare, and Nixon’s presidency continued to avert further escalation of the Cold War. By establishing the policy of Vietnamization to decrease the United States’ involvement in Southeast Asia, Nixon dissipated some tension between the two superpowers. Additionally, Nixon attempted to strengthen the relationship between the United States and China, which was led by Mao Zedong. These dealings with China were intended to incite paranoia within the Soviet Union, giving them an incentive to improve their relations with the United States (Doc. 4). The Soviets did indeed become paranoid, and they agreed to attend a summit in Moscow where both superpowers worked toward achieving detente, a decrease in Cold War tensions. This agreement was based on mutual self-interest (Doc. 5). If tension between the Soviet Union and the West lessened, then trade between the two hemispheres would increase, benefiting both superpowers economically. Additionally, both nations could focus on further technological advancements if they did not have to constantly focus their efforts on militarization. Because of this realization, the S.A.L.T. agreement was signed in 1972 in Moscow (Doc. 4). It included provisions to reduce the production of weapons and it further decreased the chances of nuclear warfare. The agreement also eased the concerns of the general populace in the United States and Europe, all of whom had feared mass destruction due to nuclear warfare.
Unfortunately, the temporary attempts at peace did not last. There was a reversal of foreign policy when Ronald Reagan took office as the “most emphatically anti-Soviet American chief executive since Harry Truman, who presided over the beginning of the Cold War” (Doc. 7).
Reagan’s administration believed in increasing competition with the Soviet Union in areas where “rivalry was the sharpest” (Doc. 7), and he thought that the Soviet Union had taken advantage of Nixon’s proposal of detente for their own benefit. Under Reagan’s presidency, the United States experienced the most expensive peacetime military build-up (Doc. 7). He also proposed the Strategic Defense Initiative to “free the world from the nuclear stalemate of the Cold War” (Doc. 7). Also called the “Star Wars”, this initiative included an expensive plan to develop a high-tech defense system that could take down ballistic missiles, which would protect the United States if an event similar to the Cuban Missile Crisis were to escalate. However, Reagan never fully launched the plan during his presidency because the United States could not afford to pay the colossal costs associated with the program. Like Kennedy, Reagan also utilized military force and money to overthrow communist dictators overseas. Reagan targeted communist leaders in Nicaragua and the Caribbean region, and once again, the Soviet Union saw the United States’ policy of containment as a threat to their power.
However, Reagan’s second term engendered drastic changes, and his new ideals sharply contrasted with the plans from his first term as president. Reagan’s change of heart may have resulted from crucial transformations that occurred within the Soviet Union under the leadership of Mikhail Gorbachev. Gorbachev’s policy of glasnost emphasized openness in the Soviet Union’s society. “Some political prisoners were released. Certain foreign news broadcasts were no longer being jammed” (Doc. 8). The Soviet Union’s new policy of Perestroika increased economic freedom and condoned open markets, which strengthened its relationship with the United States. Although both superpowers made progress toward peace, Reagan still demanded that Gorbachev tear down the Berlin wall as a symbol of “liberalization and prosperity” (Doc. 8). Overall, Reagan’s change in foreign policy during his second term in office led to the end of the Cold War. Years after the end of the Cold War, in 2004, Gorbachev commemorated how Reagan’s strategic maneuvering of foreign policy led to the signing of an intermediate-range nuclear forces treaty in 1987 and to the resolution of the Cold War (Doc. 9).
Ultimately, the Cold War ended in 1991 and the Soviet Union collapsed, leading to the formation of numerous smaller, independent countries, including Ukraine, Latvia, and Lithuania. After the impending threat of nuclear warfare, which lasted for decades over the span of John F. Kennedy, Richard Nixon, and Ronald Reagan’s presidency, people across the globe could breathe a sigh of relief that mass death and destruction had been avoided. In more recent history, the events of the Cold War have increased global awareness about nuclear proliferation and deterred United States from engaging in nuclear warfare. However, the intermediate-range nuclear forces treaty, signed by Reagan and the Soviet Union in 1987, has recently ignited tension between the United States and Russia, the largest remnant of the Soviet Union. By placing a missile defense system in Romania, within close range of Russia, the United States is accused of violating the treaty. Vladimir Putin and Russian officials claim that they feel threatened by Obama’s placement of these weapons so close to Russian territory, and critics claim that the United States’ actions may have increased the chances for modern-day nuclear warfare.
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