The End of the Cold War and Desert Storm

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  • 0:02 The End of the Cold War
  • 5:15 The Gulf War
  • 8:48 Lesson Summary
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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 will learn about the end of the Cold War and the Gulf War - also known as Desert Storm. We'll learn what led to these events and highlight the key themes associated with them.

The End of the Cold War

Have you ever seen video footage of the fall of the Berlin Wall? I remember watching it as a child. The fall of the Berlin Wall was a dramatic and emotionally fueled event. It is one of the most iconic symbols of the end of the Cold War. Let's take a look and see what happened to bring about the end of the Cold War and the collapse of communism.

So if you remember, the Cold War was a prolonged period of tension and competition between the Soviet Union and the United States. It lasted between the end of World War II and the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. The Cold War contained numerous highlights. The Berlin Airlift, the launch of Sputnik, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the space race and nuclear arms race... all of these were critical and historic moments of the Cold War.

The end of the Cold War didn't happen overnight. It was brought about by years and years of Soviet decline. Throughout the 1970s, relations between the Soviet Union and the United States improved. This period is often called 'détente.' Détente is a French word which literally means 'the easing of strained relations.' When Ronald Reagan became President of the United States in 1980, Cold War tension heated up again. President Reagan increased defense spending, prompting the Soviets to do the same. The problem was the Soviet economy was not robust enough to handle so much money going into military spending. In a nutshell the American government essentially outspent the Soviet Union, pushing the Soviet Union into an economic crisis.

On top of this, the Soviet Union was fighting a demoralizing war in Afghanistan. That's right; we're not the first country to have gotten involved there. The Soviet War in Afghanistan was fought between 1979-1989. The war, sometimes called 'the Soviet Union's Vietnam War,' proved to be a drain on the Soviet economy, even as it highlighted the general decay of Soviet power. The war hurt Soviet pride and fueled discontentment with the government.

Also taking place throughout the 1980s was the implementation of reform programs under Mikhail Gorbachev. Gorbachev came to power as General Secretary of the Soviet Union in 1985. Reform-minded, he realized he had to take drastic measures to revive the stagnant Soviet economy. The two reforms most commonly associated with Gorbachev are 'glasnost' and 'perestroika.' Glasnost means 'openness,' and refers to government transparency and increased freedom of expression. Perestroika means 'restructuring.' Under perestroika, Gorbachev introduced elements of free market economics and implemented minor democratic reforms. These reforms had a profound impact upon Soviet society. Glasnost and perestroika allowed Soviet citizens to have a taste of the freedoms enjoyed by Western democratic states. As people got tastes of liberalization, their appetite for it grew.

In the spring of 1989, an anti-communist revolution broke out in Poland, igniting the Revolutions of 1989. The Revolutions of 1989 were a series of anti-communist revolutions that swept Eastern Europe. During these revolutions, Soviet satellite states like Poland, East Germany, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, and Romania threw off the shackles of communist rule and established democratic governments.

In November 1989, after weeks of civil unrest, East German authorities opened their borders. In the coming days and weeks, delighted crowds flocked to the Berlin Wall and began tearing it down, while the East German government was powerless to stop them. The traditional date for the 'fall' of the Berlin Wall is November 9, 1989, although it took months for the wall in its entirety to be dismantled. By 1990, Germany had been reunified into a single country.

By 1990, it was obvious that Soviet power was disintegrating. All of these events led to the dissolution of the Soviet Union, which occurred in December 1991. The breakup of the Soviet Union marked the fall of communism and the end of the Cold War.

The Gulf War

For nearly fifty years America's chief threat had been the Soviet Union. The fall of the Soviet Union created new geopolitical dynamics throughout the world. In the early 1990s, one such dynamic erupted into war.

The Gulf War, also called 'Operation Desert Storm' or the 'Persian Gulf War,' was a conflict between a coalition of forces (led by the United States) and Iraq. It took place between August 1990 and February 1991. The war began when Saddam Hussein launched an invasion into the oil-rich but small country of Kuwait. Saddam Hussein was the president of Iraq from 1979 to 2003. He had long felt Kuwait should be part of Iraq. Furthermore, Kuwait's refusal to forgive Iraqi debt contributed to Hussein's decision to invade and annex Kuwait.

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