Ronald Reagan & The Cold War

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  • 0:04 Ronald Reagan
  • 0:58 Context
  • 1:39 The Cold War
  • 3:20 Reagan's Legacy
  • 4:29 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Nate Sullivan

Nate Sullivan holds a M.A. in History and a M.Ed. He is an adjunct history professor, middle school history teacher, and freelance writer.

In this lesson, we'll learn about the role Ronald Reagan played in the Cold War. We'll explore his foreign policy, his attitudes toward communism and the Soviet Union, and we'll focus specifically on his role in ending the Cold War.

Ronald Reagan

Ronald Reagan is consistently ranked one of the most popular presidents in American history. He is typically ranked by scholars and in popular polls as one of America's top ten presidents, along with men like Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, George Washington, John F. Kennedy, Theodore Roosevelt, and others.

Some of you may know that Ronald Reagan was a Hollywood actor before becoming involved in politics. Reagan had actually been a Democrat in his early years, but concern over the spread of communism helped convert him to the political right during the 1950s.

Reagan soon became known as a staunch anti-communist and a fierce Cold Warrior. After serving as Governor of California from 1967-1975, he was elected President of the United States in the Election of 1980. He served between 1981-1989, and played a critical role in bringing an end to the Cold War.


If you don't already know, the Cold War was a period of intense rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union. The Cold War lasted between the end of World War II in 1945 and the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. The Cold War was not an actual war fought with men, guns, tanks, and fighter planes, but rather a period of competition between the world's two superpowers.

Each state tried to ''out-do'' one another by acquiring superior technology, building a stronger military, and gaining greater power through a variety of means. The Cold War led to numerous regional wars called proxy wars. The Korean War and the Vietnam War are examples of proxy wars.

The Cold War

As president, Ronald Reagan took a bold foreign policy stance against the Soviet Union and communism in general. He was not afraid to let the world know his views; on one occasion, he publicly referred to the Soviet Union as an ''evil empire.''

President Reagan felt that the U.S. needed to have a strong military. He was willing to negotiate with the Soviets (and he did), but he wanted to do so from a position of strength. In 1983, Reagan proposed a missile defense system called the Strategic Defense Initiative, or SDI. This was basically a missile defense shield in which lasers and other state-of-the-art technology would neutralize incoming missiles. Although the project relied on technology that was not yet available, the project sparked fear in the Soviets and gave the U.S. an advantage in negotiating. The project was never fully deployed.

Reagan increased defense spending, which brought about an arms race with the Soviets. Each superpower was trying to build up a bigger and better military. The problem for the Soviets, however, is that their economy could not handle this surge in defense spending. The Soviet economy was damaged as a result.

Reagan cultivated a relationship with Soviet leader Michail Gorbachev, who came to power in 1985. Gorbachev was reform-minded, and his policies of perestroika (restructuring) and glasnost (transparency) give the Russian people a taste of freedom. Once they drank from the cup of liberty, they demanded more.

Reagan encouraged Gorbachev in his reforms, and the two leaders became relatively close. In 1987, Reagan visited West Berlin and gave a famous speech in which he demanded that Gorbachev ''tear down this wall!'' (referring to the Berlin Wall). These words are among Reagan's most famous.

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