Modern history

The Fall of the Iron Curtain

When George H. W. Bush, Reagan’s vice president and successor, took office in January 1989, he encountered a very different Soviet Union from the one Ronald Reagan had faced a decade earlier. The USSR was undergoing an internal revolution, one that allowed Bush and the United States to take on a new role in a world that was no longer divided between capitalist and Communist nations and their allies. The United States led the formation of new global partnerships that included the former Soviet Union. Globalization became the hallmark of the post—Cold War era, replacing previously dualistic economic and political systems, with mixed consequences. Following the collapse of the old world order, local and regional conflicts long held in check by the Cold War broke out along religious, racial, and ethnic lines.

The Breakup of the Soviet Union

Bush’s first year in office coincided with upheavals in the Soviet-controlled Communist bloc, with Poland leading the way. In 1980 Polish dockworker Lech Walesa organized Solidarity, a trade union movement that conducted a series of popular strikes that forced the Communist government to recognize the group. Solidarity had ten million members and attracted various opponents of the Communist regime, including working-class democrats, Catholics, and nationalists who favored breaking ties with the Soviet Union. In 1981 Soviet leaders, disturbed by Solidarity’s growing strength, forced the Polish government to crack down on the organization, arrest Walesa, and ban Solidarity. However, in 1989 Walesa and Solidarity were still alive and seized on the changes ushered in by Mikhail Gorbachev’s glasnost in the USSR to press their demands for democracy in Poland. This time, with Gorbachev in command, the Soviets refused to intervene, and Poland conducted its first free elections since the beginning of the Cold War, electing Lech Walesa as president of the country. In July 1989, Gorbachev further broke from the past and announced that the Soviet Union would respect the national sovereignty of all the nations in the Warsaw Pact, which the Soviet Union had controlled since the late 1940s. “There is no universal road toward socialism,” the Soviet chief declared.

Gorbachev’s proclamation spurred the end of communism throughout Eastern Europe. Within the next year, Soviet-sponsored regimes fell peacefully in Hungary and Czechoslovakia, and elected governments replaced them. In Bulgaria, government officials dropped the word Communist from their party’s name and held free elections, which brought reformers to power. Only in Romania did Communist rulers put up a fight. There, it took a violent popular uprising to topple the brutal dictator Nicolae Ceausescu. The pent-up animosity was so great that Romanian revolutionaries executed Ceausescu and his wife in 1989. The Baltic states of Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia, which the Soviets had incorporated into the USSR at the outset of World War II, also regained their independence, signaling the geographical breakup of the Soviet Union itself.

Perhaps the most striking symbolism in the dismantling of the Soviet empire came in Germany, a country that had been divided between East and West states since 1945 and had been the scene of confrontations between the two superpowers throughout the Cold War (see chapters 24 and 26). With Communist governments collapsing around them, East Germans demonstrated against the regime of Erich Honecker. With no Soviet help forthcoming, Honecker decided to open the border between East and West Germany. On November 9, 1989, East and West Germans flocked to the Berlin Wall and jubilantly joined workers in knocking down the concrete barricade that divided the city. A year later, East and West Germany merged under the democratic, capitalist Federal Republic of Germany, the nation that the United States and its anti-Communist allies had set up after World War II.

Gorbachev also brought an end to the costly nine-year Soviet-Afghan War. More than 14,000 Soviet troops had died in the war, and more than 450,000 suffered from wounds and diseases. The war cost the Soviets more than $20 billion, which severely strained their already ailing economy. When the Soviets withdrew their last troops on February 15, 1989, they left Afghanistan in shambles. One million Afghans had perished, and another 5 million fled the country for Pakistan and Iran, resulting in the political destabilization of Afghanistan. Following a civil war, the Taliban, a group of Sunni Muslim fundamentalists, came to power in the mid-1990s and established a theocratic regime that, among other things, strictly regulated what women could wear in public and denied them educational and professional opportunities. The Taliban also provided sanctuary for many of the mujahideen rebels who had fought against the Soviets, including Osama bin Laden, who would use the country as a base for his al-Qaeda organization to promote terrorism against the United States.

Meanwhile, the Soviet Union disintegrated. Free elections were held in 1990, which ironically threatened Gorbachev’s own power by bringing non-Communists to local and national political offices. Although an advocate of economic reform and political openness, Gorbachev remained a Communist and was committed to preserving the USSR. Challenges to Gorbachev came from both ends of the political spectrum. Boris Yeltsin, his former protégé, led the non-Communist forces that wanted Gorbachev to move more quickly in adopting capitalism; on the other side, hard-line generals in the Soviet army disapproved of Gorbachev’s reforms and his cooperation with the United States. On August 18, 1991, a group of conspirators from the army, the Communist Party, and the KGB (the Soviet intelligence agency) staged a coup against Gorbachev, placed him under house arrest, and surrounded the parliament building with troops. Yeltsin, the president of the Russian Republic, rallied fellow legislators and Muscovites against the plotters and brought the uprising to a peaceful end. After Gorbachev was set free, he resigned in December 1991. Following the official dissolution of the Soviet Union, Yeltsin engineered the formation of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), consisting of the Russian Federation and eleven of fifteen former Soviet republics (the Baltic states of Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia did not join). Later that month, the CIS removed the hammer and sickle, the symbol of communism, from its flag. With the Soviet Union dismantled, Yeltsin, as head of the Russian Federation and the CIS, expanded the democratic and free market reforms initiated by Gorbachev (Map 28.2).

MAP 28.2

The Fall of Communism in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, 1989-1991 The collapse of Communist regimes in Eastern Europe was due in part to political and economic reforms initiated by Soviet premier Mikhail Gorbachev, including agreements with the United States to reduce nuclear arms. These changes inspired demands for free elections that were supported by popular uprisings, first in Poland and then in other former Soviet satellites.

Despite his fall from power, Gorbachev deserves a great deal of credit for ending the Cold War. In bringing economic and political reforms to the Soviet Union, he opened the way for greater dialogue with the United States on arms control. His refusal to intervene when communism collapsed in Eastern Europe ensured that the nations in the region would follow their own course toward independence and democracy. He paid a high price for his efforts to restructure his country, as the reforms he set in motion ultimately led to his overthrow and the breakup of the Soviet Union. Yet he must be recognized as one of the prime movers in bringing the Cold War to an end.

Before Gorbachev left office, he completed one last agreement with the United States to curb nuclear arms. In mid-1991, just before conspirators staged their abortive coup, Gorbachev met with President Bush, who had traveled to Moscow to sign a strategic arms reduction treaty. Under this pact, each side agreed to reduce its bombers and missiles by one-third and to trim its conventional military forces. This accord led to a second strategic arms reduction treaty, signed in 1993. Gorbachev’s successor, Boris Yeltsin, met with Bush in January 1993, and the two agreed to destroy their countries’ stockpile of multiple-warhead intercontinental missiles within a decade.

Globalization and the New World Order

With the end of the Cold War, cooperation replaced economic and political rivalry between capitalist and Communist nations in a new era of globalization—the extension of economic, political, and cultural relationships among nations, through commerce, migration, and communication. In 1976 the major industrialized democracies had formed the Group of Seven (G7). Consisting of the United States, the United Kingdom, France, West Germany, Italy, Japan, and Canada, the G7 nations met annually to discuss common problems related to issues of global concern, such as trade, health, energy, the environment, and economic and social development. After the fall of communism, Russia joined the organization, which became known as G8. This group of countries represented only 14 percent of the globe’s population but produced 60 percent of the world’s economic output. Four of the G8 members—the United States, the United Kingdom, Russia, and France—controlled more than 95 percent of the nuclear weapons in the world.

The United States took an active lead in promoting the World Trade Organization (WTO). The WTO emerged from the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, a multilateral agreement fashioned after World War II to encourage tariff reductions and free trade. Created in 1995, the WTO consists of more than 150 nations and seeks “to ensure that trade flows as smoothly, predictably and freely as possible.” The policies of the WTO generally benefit wealthier nations, such as the United States. From 1978 to 2000, the value of U.S. exports and imports jumped from 17 percent to 25 percent of the gross national product.

Globalization was accompanied by the extraordinary growth of multinational (or transnational) corporations—companies that operate production facilities or deliver services in more than one country. Between 1970 and 2000, the number of such firms soared from 7,000 to well over 60,000. By 2000 the 500 largest corporations in the world generated more than $11 trillion in revenues, owned more than $33 trillion in assets, and employed 35.5 million people. American companies left their cultural and social imprint on the rest of the world. Walmart greeted shoppers in more than 1,200 stores outside the United States, and McDonald’s changed global eating habits with its more than 1,000 fast-food restaurants worldwide. Traveling abroad, American tourists marveled at local inhabitants in Europe, Asia, and Africa wearing T-shirts and baseball caps with the logos of American companies. As American firms penetrated other countries with their products, foreign companies changed the economic landscape of the United States. For instance, by the twenty-first century Japanese automobiles, led by Toyota and Honda, captured a major share of the American market, surpassing Ford and General Motors, once the hallmark of the country’s superior manufacturing and salesmanship.

Globalization also affected popular culture. In the 1990s, reality shows, many of which originated in Europe, became a staple of American television. British imports included the hugely popular American Idol. At the same time, American programs were shown as reruns all over the world. As cable channels proliferated, American viewers of Hispanic or Asian origin could watch programs in their native languages. The Cable News Network (CNN), the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), and Al Jazeera, an Arabic-language television channel, competed for viewers with specially designed international broadcasts.

Globalization also had some negative consequences. Organized labor in particular suffered a severe blow. By 2004 union membership in the United States had dropped to 12.5 percent of the industrial workforce. Fewer and fewer consumer goods bore the label “Made in America,” as multinational companies shifted manufacturing jobs to low-wage workers in third world countries in Central America, East Asia, and Southeast Asia. Many of these foreign workers earned more than the prevailing wages in their countries, but by Western standards their pay was extremely low. There were few or no regulations governing working conditions or the use of child labor, and many foreign factories resembled the sweatshops of early-twentieth-century America. Not surprisingly, workers in the United States could not compete in this market. Furthermore, China, which by 2007 had become a prime source for American manufacturing, failed to regulate the quality of its products closely. Chinese-made toys, including the popular Thomas the Train, showed up in U.S. stores with excessive lead paint and had to be returned before endangering millions of children.

Globalization also posed a danger to the world’s environment. As poorer nations sought to take advantage of the West’s appetite for low-cost consumer goods, they industrialized rapidly and chaotically, with little concern for the excessive pollution that accompanied their efforts. The landscapes of some countries were transformed beyond recognition. The desire for wood products and the expansion of large-scale farming eliminated one-third of Brazil’s rain forests. The health of indigenous people suffered wherever globalization-related manufacturing appeared. In Taiwan and China, chemical by-products of factories and farms turned rivers into polluted sources of drinking water and killed the rivers’ fish and plants.

The older, industrialized nations added their share to the environmental damage. Besides using nuclear power, Americans consumed electricity and gas produced overwhelmingly from coal and petroleum. Gas-guzzling automobiles, and particularly sport-utility vehicles (SUVs) beginning in the 1990s, further harmed the environment. The burning of fossil fuels by cars and factories released greenhouse gases, which has raised the temperature of the atmosphere and the oceans and contributed to the phenomenon known as global warming. Most scientists believe that global warming has led to the melting of the polar ice caps and threatens the existence of human and animal survival on the planet. However, after the industrialized nations of the world signed the Kyoto Protocol in 1998 to curtail greenhouse-gas emissions, the U.S. Senate refused to ratify it. Critics of the agreement maintained that it did not address the newly emerging industrial countries that polluted heavily and thus was unfair to the United States.

Globalization also highlighted health problems such as the AIDS epidemic. By the outset of the twenty-first century, approximately 33.2 million people worldwide suffered from the disease, though the number of new cases diagnosed annually had dropped to 2.5 million from more than 5 million a few years earlier. Africa remained the continent with the largest number of AIDS patients and the center of the epidemic. Initially concentrated in gay men, intravenous drug users, and sex workers, AIDS constituted a continual though diminished threat. Increased education and the development of more effective pharmaceuticals to treat the illness reduced cases and prolonged the lives of those affected by the disease. Though treatments were more widely available in prosperous countries like the United States, agencies such as the United Nations and the World Health Organization, together with nongovernmental groups such as Partners in Health, were instrumental in offering relief in developing countries.

Globalization did not mean the end of regional cooperation. To boost their economic might, western European nations formed the European Union (EU) in 1993, and by 2007 twenty-seven countries had joined the EU. The EU allowed people to move freely by abolishing passport control and customs checks for residents traveling from one member state to another. The organization encouraged free trade and investment. In 1999 the EU introduced a common currency, the euro, which has been adopted by thirteen nations. In 2007 the EU had representation in the G8, contained a population of 500 million, and accounted for approximately 31 percent of the world’s output of goods and services.

To strengthen its trading position, the United States formed its own regional economic partnership in North America. In 1993, together with the governments of Mexico and Canada, the U.S. Congress ratified the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), and it went into effect the following year. The agreement removed tariffs and other obstacles to commerce and investment among the three countries to encourage trade. NAFTA produced noteworthy gains: Between 1994 and 2004, trade among NAFTA nations increased nearly 130 percent. Although income disparity remains large between Mexico and the United States, Mexico has seen a significant drop in poverty rates and a rise in real income. At the same time, NAFTA has harmed workers in the United States. From 1994 to 2007, net manufacturing jobs dropped by 3,654,000, as U.S. companies outsourced their production to plants in Mexico, taking advantage of the low wage and benefits structure.

Managing Conflict after the Cold War

The end of the Cold War left the United States as the only remaining superpower. Though Reagan’s Cold War defense spending had created huge deficits (see chapter 27), the United States emerged from the Cold War with its economic and military strength intact. With the power vacuum created by the breakup of the Soviet Union, the question remained how the United States would use its strength to preserve world order and maintain peace.

In several areas of the globe, the move toward democracy that had begun in the late 1980s proceeded peacefully into the 1990s. The oppressive, racist system of apartheid fell in South Africa, and antiapartheid activist Nelson Mandela was released after twenty- seven years in prison to become president of the country in 1994. In 1990 Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet stepped down as president of Chile and ceded control to a democratically elected candidate. That same year, the pro-Communist Sandinista government lost at the polls in Nicaragua, and in 1992 the ruling regime in El Salvador signed a peace accord with the rebels.

The end of the Cold War allowed President Bush to turn his attention to explosive issues in the Middle East. The president brought the Israelis and Palestinians together to sign an agreement providing for eventual Palestinian self-government in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. In doing so, the United States for the first time officially recognized Yasser Arafat, the head of the PLO, whom both the Israelis and the Americans had considered a terrorist.

Before Bush left the White House in 1993, he had deployed military forces in both the Caribbean and the Persian Gulf, confident that the United States could exert its influence without a challenge from the former Soviet Union. During the 1980s, the United States had developed a precarious relationship with Panamanian general Manuel Noriega. Noriega played the United States against the Soviet Union in this region that was vital to American security. Although he channeled aid to the Contras with the approval and support of the CIA, he angered the Reagan administration by maintaining close ties with Cuba. Noriega cooperated with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency in halting shipments of cocaine from Latin America headed for the United States at the same time that he collaborated with Latin American drug kingpins to elude U.S. agents and launder the drug lords’ profits. In 1988 two Florida grand juries indicted the Panamanian leader on charges of drug smuggling and bribery, pressuring President Reagan to cut off aid to Panama and to ask Noriega to resign. Not only did Noriega refuse to step down, but he also nullified the results of the 1989 presidential election in Panama and declared himself the nation’s “maximum leader.”

After the United States tried unsuccessfully to foment an internal coup against Noriega, in 1989 the Panamanian leader proclaimed a “state ofwar” between the United States and his country. The situation worsened in mid-December when a U.S. marine was killed on his way home from a restaurant, allegedly by Panamanian defense forces. On December 28, 1989, President Bush launched Operation Just Cause, sending some 27,000 marines to invade Panama. Bush justified the invasion as necessary to protect the Panama Canal and the lives of American citizens, as well as to halt the drug traffic promoted by Noriega. In reality, the main purpose of the mission was to overthrow and capture the Panamanian dictator. In Operation Just Cause, the United States easily defeated a much weaker enemy. The U.S. government installed a new regime, and the marines captured Noriega and sent him back to Florida to stand trial on the drug charges. In 1992 he was found guilty and sent to prison.

Flexing military muscle in Panama was more feasible than doing so in China. President Bush believed that the acceleration of trade relations that followed full U.S. diplomatic recognition of Communist China in 1978 would prompt the kind of democratic reforms that swept through the Soviet Union in the 1980s. His expectation proved far too optimistic. In May 1989, university students in Beijing and other major cities in China held large-scale protests to demand political and economic reforms in the country. Some 200,000 demonstrators consisting of students, intellectuals, and workers gathered in the capital city’s huge Tiananmen Square, where they constructed a papier-mache figure resembling the Statue of Liberty and sang songs borrowed from the African American civil rights movement. Deng Xiaoping, Mao Zedong’s successor, cracked down on the demonstrations by declaring martial law and dispatching the army to disperse the protesters. Peaceful activists were mowed down by machine guns and stampeded by tanks. Rather than displaying the toughness he showed in Panama, Bush merely issued a temporary ban on sales of weapons and nonmilitary items to China. When outrage over the Tiananmen Square massacre subsided, the president restored normal trade relations.

By contrast, the Bush administration’s most forceful military intervention came in Iraq. Maintaining a steady flow of oil from the Persian Gulf was vital to U.S. strategic interests. During the prolonged Iraq-Iran War in the 1980s, the Reagan administration had switched allegiance from one belligerent to the other to ensure that neither side emerged too powerful. Though the administration had orchestrated the arms-for-hostages deal with Iran, it had also courted the Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. U.S. support for Hussein ended in 1990, after Iraq sent 100,000 troops to invade the small oil-producing nation of Kuwait, on the southern border of Iraq.

President Bush responded aggressively. He compared Saddam Hussein to Adolf Hitler and warned the Iraqis that their invasion “will not stand.” Oil was at the heart of the matter. Hussein needed to revitalize the Iraqi economy, which was devastated after a decade of war with Iran. In conquering Kuwait, which held huge oil reserves, Hussein would control one-quarter of the world output of the “black gold.” Bush feared that the Iraqi dictator would also attempt to overrun Kuwait’s neighbor Saudi Arabia, an American ally, thereby giving Iraq control of half of the world’s oil supply. Bush was also concerned that an emboldened Saddam Hussein would then upset the delicate balance of power in the Middle East and pose a threat to Israel by supporting the Palestinians. The Iraqis were rumored to be quickly developing nuclear weapons, which Hussein could use against Israel.

Rather than act unilaterally, President Bush organized a multilateral coalition against Iraqi aggression. Secretary of State James Baker persuaded the United Nations—including the Soviet Union and China, the United States’ former Cold War adversaries—to adopt a resolution calling for Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait and imposing economic sanctions. Thirty-eight nations, including the Arab countries of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Kuwait, contributed 160,000 troops, roughly 24 percent of the 700,000 allied forces that were deployed in Saudi Arabia in preparation for an invasion if Iraq did not comply. Hussein’s bellicosity against an Islamic nation won him few allies in the Middle East.

With military forces stationed in Saudi Arabia, Bush gave Hussein a deadline of January 15, 1991, to withdraw from Kuwait or else risk attack. However, the president faced serious opposition at home against waging a war for oil. Demonstrations occurred throughout the nation, and most Americans supported the continued implementation of economic sanctions, which were already causing serious hardships for the Iraqi people. In the face of widespread opposition, the president requested congressional authorization for military operations against Iraq. Lawmakers were also divided, but after long debate they narrowly approved Bush’s request.

Saddam Hussein let the deadline pass. On January 16, Operation Desert Storm began when the United States launched air attacks on Baghdad and other key targets in Iraq. After a month of bombing, Hussein still refused to capitulate, so a ground offensive was launched on February 24, 1991. Under the command of General Norman H. Schwarzkopf, more than 500,000 allied troops moved into Kuwait and easily drove Iraqi forces out of that nation; they then moved into southern Iraq. Although Hussein had confidently promised that the U.S.-led military assault would encounter the “mother of all battles,” the vastly outmatched Iraqi army, worn out from its ten-year war with Iran, was quickly defeated. Desperate for help, Hussein ordered the firing of Scud missiles on Israel to provoke it into war, which he hoped would drive a wedge between the United States and its Arab allies. Despite sustaining some casualties, Israel refrained from retaliation. The ground war ended within one hundred hours, and Iraq surrendered. An estimated 100,000 Iraqis died; by contrast, 136 Americans perished (see Map 28.1 on page 738).

Gulf War Protests, 1991 The United States gave Iraq a January 15, 1991, deadline to withdraw from Kuwait or face military force. Protesters at the University of South Florida in Tampa favored continued diplomatic efforts. They carry signs that refer to the January 15 deadline, which also was the birthday of Martin Luther King Jr., a critic of U.S. militarism.

Courtesy of steven Lawson and Nancy Hewitt

With the war over quickly, President Bush resisted pressure to march to Baghdad and overthrow Saddam Hussein. Bush’s stated goal had been to liberate Kuwait; he did not wish to fight a war in the heart of Iraq. The administration believed that such an expedition would involve house-to-house, urban guerrilla warfare. Marching on Baghdad would also entail battling against Hussein’s elite Republican Guard, not the weaker conscripts who had put up little resistance in Kuwait. Bush’s Arab allies opposed expanding the war, and the president did not want to risk losing their support. Finally, getting rid of Hussein might make matters worse by leaving Iran and its Muslim fundamentalist rulers the dominant power in the region. For these reasons, President Bush held Schwarzkopf’s troops in place.

The Gulf War preserved the U.S. lifeline to oil in the Persian Gulf. President Bush and his supporters concluded that the United States had the determination to make its military presence felt throughout the world. Bush and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Colin Powell, understood that the United States had succeeded because it had pieced together a genuine coalition of nations, including Arab ones, to coordinate diplomatic and military action. Military leaders had a clear and defined mission—the liberation of Kuwait—as well as adequate troops and supplies. When they carried out their purpose, the war was over. However, American withdrawal later allowed Saddam Hussein to slaughter thousands of Iraqi rebels, including Kurds and Shi’ites, to whom Bush had promised support. In effect, the Bush administration had applied the Cold War policy of limited containment in dealing with Hussein. The end of the Cold War and peaceful relations with former adversaries in Moscow and Beijing made possible the largest and most successful U.S. military intervention since the war in Vietnam.


• What led to the end of Communist rule in Eastern Europe and the breakup of the Soviet Union?

• How did the end of the Cold War contribute to the growth of globalization?

You can support our site by clicking on this link and watching the advertisement.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at Thank you!