Reagan and the End of the Cold War

Common Core Standards: RH1, RH2, WHST2


Students study Ronald Reagan in a variety of important contexts. Students of twentieth-century history study the “Great Communicator” as the voice of the conservative renaissance that took hold of the Western world in 1979; students of American history study Dutch as the larger-thanlife character who welcomed “Morning in America”; students of economics study the champion of small-government and his low-inflation “Reaganomics”; students of government study “the Great Wholesaler”1 as one of the most resilient characters in American politics and policy-making, able to dismiss reporters with a chuckle, do battle with Tip O’Neil, and broker peace with the Evil Empire. Even in high school curricula, the old “straw man” of a singlehanded Reagan victory in ending the Cold War mostly has been debunked. High school students are quick to retort, “It was all more complicated than that!”

Because his presidency ended little more than two decades ago, Reagan is important to study both as a historical figure and as a policy-maker whose legacy still echoes in domestic and international affairs. For many of the leading secondary-school history textbooks, Reagan chapters are followed only by brief epilogues consigning the post-Cold War era to contemporary affairs and the curricula of government and current affairs teachers. As such, students should use the study of Ronald Reagan to test their methodological capacities as blossoming historians. Students should engage the rich diversity of sources available from the Reagan presidency— video, audio, oral history, the declassified official record, and contemporary public sources. An examination of those sources will indicate to students that Reagan’s foreign policy messages often remained inchoate and involved a rhetorical mélange of eradicating communism while simultaneously securing America’s interests alongside the Soviet foe. Additionally, by engaging a variety of diverse primary sources, students would see that the end of the Cold War rivalry constituted far more than a rapprochement between the United States and the Soviet Union but more importantly a historical process global in scope. To pose a capstone question for the unit, a teacher might ask how the end of the Cold War actually served as the genesis of a new era.


This content connects with many other topics of the traditional secondary-school curriculum. Many secondary-school social studies departments include studies in American government, comparative government, current events, and other topics based in contemporary affairs. Ronald Reagan’s presidency and the end of the global Cold War connect to each of those curricula. In their discussions, the teacher should challenge students to link contemporary political affairs to those developments in the 1980s and early 1990s.


This lesson can be completed in one hour. At the instructor’s discretion, the lesson naturally can be separated into multiple class sessions. Additionally, teachers might consider amending this lesson plan into a larger project-based assignment, particularly suited to younger students or students who have less background in the history of the 1980s.


Primary Objectives. At the end of this lesson, students should be able to do the following:

Identify and understand the historical precedents for topics of contemporary political, economic, and social significance. • Marshal historical evidence in framing answers to historical questions. Secondary Objectives. Additionally, students should be able to do the following tasks.

Learn new vocabulary terms related to the history of the 1980s and policy-making. • Differentiate between various policy-making branches and agencies of the United States government, including Congress, the Department of State, Department of Defense, National Security Council, and the Central Intelligence Agency. Initiation

Introduction. This lesson will offer a twofold challenge to students. First, students will analyze a series of primary sources from the 1980s and early 1990s seeking to explain why the global Cold War ended. Second, students will identify and analyze the relationships between political issues of the Reagan era and political issues of today. In both regards, the teacher needs to present the end of the Cold War both as the ending of a historical era and as the beginning of a new era in international politics.

The initiation foremost needs to provide students with the skills to answer the question “Why did the Cold War end?” using historical documents, the declassified official record, landmark speeches, and video and audio files. The initiation is twofold: (1) Introduce students to the major historical events and processes related to the end of the Cold War. (2) Introduce students to primary-source interpretive skills.

Introduce students to the end of the Cold War. The instructor should broach the topic with secondary source-level interpretation, in which the teacher provides the necessary contextual overview for subsequent student exploration of a variety of primary-source documents. Based on textbook readings and previous class lessons, teachers might begin by asking students to consider the following questions.

Why did the Cold War end?

What was the defining event in ending the Cold War? (Consider the ascension of Gorbachev to office, the opening of the Berlin Wall, the unification of Germany, the collapse of the Soviet Union, or the signing of the Maastricht Treaty.)

Who (person, groups) were responsible for ending the Cold War? Introduce students to primary-source interpretive skills. The teacher likewise should outline the differences in interpreting primary and secondary sources and have a discussion with the students about the two.

Learning Activities

For the instructor. In small groups, students then should approach a list of teacher-supplied primary sources that offer insight into the end of the Cold War. Dependent upon the size of the class and the amount of time alloted to the lesson, students can work in small groups to analyze the documents listed below. These sources should harness students’ abilities to interpret various types of primary sources. Each student group would have the opportunity to review its documents and fomulate a synthesis of perspectives in explaining why the global Cold War ended. In the following section, each primary source is listed along with information about its author and interpretive information about the document.

Ronald Reagan, “A Strategy for Peace in the ‘80s” (19 October 1980)

Author. Ronald Reagan, president of the United States from 1981 to 1989, has been credited by many for working to end the Cold War through his policies of negotiating from a position of strength. A gifted orator, Reagan’s rhetoric in 1983 fueled Soviet suspicions that he was gravitating toward confrontation with the communist bloc. When he delivered this speech (19 October 1980), Reagan was serving as governor of California and running on the Republican ticket for the presidency. Interpretive information. Reagan delivered this speech amid the fury of the last few weeks’ campaigning before the 1980 presidential election. Opposing the unpopular Democratic President Jimmy Carter in the election, Reagan outlined in this televised address his “strategy” for achieving peace in the 1980s. In particular, he wished to differentiate his own ideas from the recent foreign-policy failings of the Carter administration—the Iran hostage crisis and reactions to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Additionally, this speech by Reagan illustrates his rhetorical reliance on soaring patriotic American ideals and the personal appeal he exercised in identifying with his audiences (e.g., “I’d like to speak to you . . . not as a candidate for the Presidency, but as a citizen, a parent—in fact, a grandparent . . . .”) This speech outlines the initial approaches of Reagan in confronting the foreign-policy challenges of the 1980s as he entered the Oval Office, namely increasing defense spending and aiming to “restore” America’s postition of international strength. Students will recognize Reagan’s fierce anti-terrorism rhetoric, words that resound in their own contemporary political discourse.

This source is available electronically courtesy of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library.

Ronald Reagan, Address to the National Association of Evangelicals (8 March 1983)

Interpretive information.

Reagan’s address, delivered in Orlando, Florida, called upon his audience to understand (from his perspective) the Soviet origins of the Cold War struggle between good and evil. As articulated in his speech, for Reagan, the Soviets constituted an “evil empire” bent on domination through intimidation and violence. Both a video recording and transcript are available online, courtesy of the Miller Center for Public Affairs.

Ronald Reagan, Address to the Nation on National Security (24 March 1983)

Interpretive information.

This address of Ronald Reagan has become one of his most famous speeches. In his discussion of “national security,” Reagan outlined his Strategic Defense Initiative, sometimes called his “Star Wars” program. The year 1983 represented the lowest point in U.S.-Soviet relations since the days of the Cuban Missile Crisis. The increasingly nervous Soviet leadership saw Reagan’s fierce rhetoric, including that in his “Evil Empire” speech two weeks earlier, as an indication of the American president’s lack of willingness to cooperate with the USSR and his bellicose resolve to confront Soviet advances.

Both a video recording and transcript are available online, courtesy of the Miller Center for Public Affairs.

Ronald Reagan, Address to a Special Session of the European Parliament (8 May 1985)

Interpretive information.

This address of Reagan’s, delivered to a special session of the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France, commemorated the Allied victory in Europe forty years earlier. Reagan used the speech as an opportunity to discuss the virtues of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), the collective defense alliance formed to protect against potential Soviet aggression. Reagan explained the NATO’s purpose was to defend Europe against “tyrants.” Reagan again reiterated its message about relative U.S. weakness vis-à-vis the Soviet Union under his predecessor and reaffirmed his resolve to outmatch the Soviets in defense preparedness. This source is available electronically, courtesy of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library.

[Polish Government] Report, “A Synthesis of the Domestic Situation and the West’s Activity” (28 August 1987) Author. This document is an official government report by the communist People’s Republic of Poland.

[Polish Government] Report, “A Synthesis of the Domestic Situation and the West’s Activity” (28 August 1987)

Interpretive information.

This document illustrates the internal recognition of some of the challenges faced in Poland, including economic crisis, protest, and worker strikes. The document was intended as a dispassionate appraisal of Poland’s domestic situation. It demonstrates suspicion of internal resistance elements, including “Solidarity” and the Catholic Church, as being fueled and supported by the United States and NATO. The Cold War International History Project offers a rich source for educators teaching about the global Cold War. Sponsored by the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, the CWIHP offers historical documents, most translated into English, from around the world and spanning the period between 1945 and 1991. Students may access this document online.

Excerpt from Anatoly Chernyaev’s Diary (28 October 1988)

Author. Anatoly Sergeevich Chernyaev served as one of Mikhail Gorbachev’s closest advisors, becoming his foreign-policy advisor in 1986. Chernyaev remained a pragmatic analyst of Soviet policy—both its strengths and its weaknesses. Writing in his personal diary, intended only for his own eyes, Chernyaev’s writing possesses a particular level of honesty and sensibility, largely exclusive of official jargon. In 2004, Chernyaev donated his diaries covering the period 1972 to 1991 to the National Security Archive, wishing to preserve his words for scholars and students interested in the last years of Soviet communism.

Courtesy of the National Security Archive, Chernyaev’s diaries are being translated and published electronically.

Interpretive information.

This day’s entry in Chernyaev’s diary discussed a meeting between West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl and Mikhail Gorbachev. Chernyaev reflected upon the “new thinking” or Gorbachev and the new Soviet leader’s foresight in bolstering the USSR’s reputation in the international community. This source is published online in the CWIHP collection.

Ronald Reagan, “Farewell Address to the Nation” (11 January 1989)

Leaving office in January 1989—ten months before the Berlin Wall opened—Ronald Reagan reflected upon the successes and weaknesses of his eight-year presidency. In his discussions of relations with the Soviet Union, Reagan spoke of “a satisfying new closeness,” based “not on words but deeds.” In particular, students might compare and contrast this speech of 11 January 1989 and his campaigning speech of 19 October 1989. His depictions of the Soviet Union had shifted dramatically from an untrustworthy foe to an important new partner. Notably, as well, Reagan’s depictions of the United States remained relatively constant, as a defender of freedom and a “shining city upon a hill.” Both a video recording and transcript are available online, courtesy of the Miller Center for Public Affairs at U.Va.

Excerpt from Anatoly Chernyaev’s Diary (2 May 1989)

Interpretive information.

This entry in Chernyaev’s diary reflects the vicissitudes of resolving the many challenges within the Soviet bloc during 1989. While in October 1988, Chernyaev confessed to his diary his great appreciation for Gorbachev’s “new thinking” “without any theoretical preparation.” By May 1989, those feelings had turned to suspicious of the potential chaos Gorbachev was inviting. This source is published online in the CWIHP collection.

Gorbachev Speech to the Council of Europe, “A Common European Home” (6 July 1989)

Author: Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev served as general secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union beginning in March 1985. Gorbachev was the youngest member of the Politburo and a proponent of reform to remedy ailing Soviet political and economic institutions. In particular, Gorbachev introduced his Glasnost (“openness”) and Perestroika (“restructuring”) initiatives in early 1986. Interpretive information. Gorbachev’s address to the Council of Europe on 6 July 1989 represented one of his most important speeches and encapsulated one of the most fundamental ideas in his vision for the future of the Soviet Union and Europe. In advocating for “a common European home,” Gorbachev envisioned the military, defense-based institutions of the Cold War giving way in favor of cooperative international institutions of peace and prosperity.

Margaret Thatcher, Press Conference in Moscow (23 September 1989)

Author: Margaret Thatcher served as prime minister of the United Kingdom and leader of the Conservative Party. Interpretive information. In this interview with the Financial Times, Margaret Thatcher responded to questions comparing the prospect for societal “openness” in the Soviet Union and the prospect for openness in China. On 4 June 1989, the Chinese Communist Party government violently crushed protests for reform in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. This source is published online.

Excerpt from Anatoly Chernyaev’s Diary (5 October 1989)

The opening of the Berlin Wall on the evening of 9 November 1989 followed a year of popular upheaval and protesting in the German Democratic Republic. Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev already had agreed that he would not intervene in the domestic affairs of other Soviet bloc countries, including matters surrounding domestic turmoil. This source is published online in the CWIHP collection.

Record of Conversation between Gorbachev and Krenz (1 November 1989)

Author: Egon Krenz replaced long-time GDR leader Erich Honecker as head of state in October 1989. Although Krenz had promised reforms to quell the protests against the regime, his rhetoric and efforts offered little success in calming agitators against the repressive government. Interpretive information. Having only served in his new office for a few weeks, Krenz was eager to find a solution to the societal unrest with the GDR. As his telephone conversation with Gorbachev shows, Krenz had hoped for more support from the general secretary in stemming discontent in the eastern bloc.

This source is published online in the CWIHP collection.

Transcript of Television Press Conference, Günter Schabowski (9 November 1989)

Author: Günter Schabowski served as a member of the GDR Politbüro and, on the evening of 9 November 1989, was tasked with briefing the press. Interpretive information. For months, communist Hungary had maintained an open border with neighboring neutral Austria. East Germans had been flooding out of the country, “vacationing” in Hungary, and passing through to the west. The leadership of the GDR was embarrassed by the mass exodus from the country and, in a meeting, discussed possibilities for reducing regulation of travel. In the press conference, Schabowski mistakenly told reporters that East Germans could leave the GDR through any of the border crossings. This source is published online in the CWIHP collection.

Excerpt from Anatoly Chernyaev’s Diary (10 November 1989)

Interpretive information. Only one day after the opening of the Berlin Wall, the peaceful end of the Cold War hardly was a foregone conclusion. In this entry of his diary, Chernyaev reflected on the the collapse of the socialist system around the world, leaving in power only leaders “who hate our guts.” This source is published online in the CWIHP collection.

Margaret Thatcher, Remarks on the Berlin Wall (10 November 1989)

Interpretive information. Thatcher expressed a great deal a concern at the possibility of German unification, fearing the power of a united German state could wield on the continent. As a policy-maker, Thatcher confronted the vast excitement that accompanied the Berlin Wall’s opening and her worries of the speed at which events in Germany seemed to unfold following the opening of the Wall. This source is published online, courtesy of the Margaret Thatcher Foundation.

Memorandum of Conversation between Bush and Kohl (3 October 1990)

Author. Helmut Kohl served as chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany from 1982 to 1998. As chancellor, Kohl negotiated for Germany’s peaceful unification despite forty years’ division. Interpretive information. After eleven months of international negotiations, the two Cold War German states unified on 3 October 1990, the west absorbing the eastern German states into the Federal Republic of Germany. In this short three-minute conversation, U.S. President George H. W. Bush and Chancellor Kohl, the two leaders shared an energetic conversation congratulating each other on Germany’s peaceful unification. This document is available online, courtesy of the George H. W. Bush Presidential Library.


After the students have completed their small-group discussions, the teacher might reconvene the group by posing the original question: “Why did the Cold War end?” and revisiting some of the students’ suggestions from the beginning of the lesson. As students volunteer to speak, ask them to support their answers with the document(s) they reviewed and to share the main ideas of the document with the class.

Secondly, based upon their previous knowledge and this activity, ask students to explore the connections between international politics in the 1980s and today. Before this lesson, the teacher might identify key news stories of contemporary political salience for which the students might find connections with the 1980s. Suggested topics might be European integration, U.S.-Russian relations, China’s ascent, nuclear proliferation, or conflicts in the Middle East.

Further Reading

Jeffrey A. Engel, ed., The Fall of the Berlin Wall: The Revolutionary Legacy of 1989 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009).

Mary Elise Sarotte, 1989: The Struggle to Create Post-Cold War Europe (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009).

Svetlana Savranskaya, Thomas Blanton, and Vladislav Zubok, eds., Masterpieces of History: The Peaceful End of the Cold War in Europe, 1989 (New York: Central European University Press, 2010).