Why did the cold war really end?

Many people give credit to Ronald Reagan, when he climbed up on the Berlin Wall and personally kicked it down brick by brick while under fire from the East German Stasi.

Many people give credit to Team USA, the Hockey Team that beat the USSR team at the Lake Placid Olympics.

Still others credit various movies , books, or political revelations.

But I tend to agree with what my father always said about this.


In 1987, teenager Mathias Rust flew a tiny, unarmed rented Cessna from Helsinki to Moscow, landing very near to Red Square. The soviets never detected the aircraft. This demonstrated that even the simplest available technology was sufficient to outsmart Soviet anti-ICBM or other defenses. Presumably, then, even the simplest technologies could fool US defenses. The fact that the Soviets were taking a bath in Afghanistan might have contributed to the collapse of that particular “empire” but it seems more likely that Rust’s foray was the key event. The withdraw from Afghanastan starting a year later postdated the important changes that began right after Rust’s flight.

That was the end of the whole damn presumption that there was a powerful East and a powerful West instead of just a bunch of boys with toys and too much power.

If you want to read the best cold-war era spy book that is based on the same premise (but that has no Cessna’s or teenage pilots in it) try this one: A Perfect Spy

Perhaps today’s Olympic Hockey game between the US and Canada will help warm relations between our countries. I hope so, because I’m pretty sure that if I get up on the roof on a clear day during the Spring, I can see brown air from dry-season fires burning up there. When a plane goes overhead, I never know if it is coming down from Canada. And besides, I’m getting tired of maintaining this Victory Shelter in the basement where we keep a stash of preserved walleye. Just in case.


  1. #1 NewEnglandBob
    February 21, 2010

    I thought anthropogenic global warming ended the cold war.

  2. #2 Alex Besogonov
    February 21, 2010

    “In 1987, teenager Mathias Rust flew a tiny, unarmed rented Cessna from Helsinki to Moscow, landing very near to Red Square. The soviets never detected the aircraft.”

    Wrong. Aircraft was detected and shadowed by fighter jets. Nobody just had the courage to give the command to shoot.

  3. #3 Anon
    February 21, 2010

    Dallas re-runs.

  4. #4 Jason
    February 21, 2010

    Wasn’t it more courageous to risk (as it turned out in fact) that he was unarmed and not a threat? How is it courageous to murder someone because they might be a threat? That kind of thinking baffles me.

  5. #5 Greg Laden
    February 21, 2010

    Alex, actually, that is partly correct, thanks for the correction, as misleading as it is.

    He was not “tracked” by soviet radar. He was picked up here and there, he confused them, they did not know what he was some of the time, they thought he was friendly aircraft some of the time, and they knew he was an intruder some of the time, and they had no idea what to do about that.

    When it comes to something like air defense, there is no “courage” … there are methods and procedures, technologies and weapons. Which totally failed in this particular very widely publicized instance in which it was tested.

    The system was tested in other cases as well. The occasional non-military aircraft was shot down by accident, for instance.

  6. #6 GaryB
    February 21, 2010

    You mean Gorbachev had nothing to do with it?

  7. #7 Greg Laden
    February 21, 2010

    Gary, he had a lot to do with it. Mikhail Gorbachev was able to fire several key powerful individuals in the government that were standing against reform because of this incident. Then, and only then, he was able to get these reforms moving.

  8. #8 mattb
    February 21, 2010

    I credit Rocky Balboa who after beating Drago in Rocky IV said to the Russian crowd, “During this fight, I’ve seen a lot of changing, in the way you feel about me, and in the way I feel about you. In here, there were two guys killing each other, but I guess that’s better than twenty million. I guess what I’m trying to say, is that if I can change, and you can change, everybody can change!”

  9. #9 Kevin
    February 22, 2010

    I just read Confessions of a spy about Rick Ames’s spying for the Russians in the middle of his job as a USSR expert for the CIA. The whole point seems to have been that neither country was really all that powerful but they each played up the strength of the enemy to encourage fear among the masses.

  10. #10 MadScientist
    February 22, 2010

    Some people credit Reagan, others credit Kissinger. No one credits the Russians who tried to peacefully disassemble the Soviet Union and to promote a world with a smaller nuclear threat. Reagan and his negotiators (and even – ugh – Kissinger) do deserve some credit though; I can’t imagine the current extremist GOP ever agreeing on anything with those stinkin’ commies. I think Gorbachev had some workable ideas (but Yeltsin was just a drunken boor). Unfortunately those in power tried to change the system overnight without any idea of how to change things, so there has been a bit of a regression (hopefully temporary) with Putin getting a grip on things.

  11. #11 Lassi Hippeläinen
    February 22, 2010

    Soviet Union collapsed pretty much under its own weight. The post-Stalin generations hated the system. Eventually the old guard at the top died out like dinosaurs – just check the last General Secretaries before Gorbachev.

    By the time he was nominated, the younger generations already held all the lower layers of bureucracy. The change was inevitable. Yeltsin may have been drunk much of the time, but at least he was smart enough to direct the change (in stead of trying to delay it, like Gorbachev), and he became the first leader of Russia in history to step down voluntarily.

  12. #12 Yaque
    February 22, 2010

    I think quite a lot of it was from the Chernobyl disaster. The local Party elite reportedly bugged out early, with their families, while downplaying the danger to the public.
    When they eventually had to order a huge evacuation, it exposed the the basic incompetence and self-interest of the Party.

  13. #13 csrster
    February 22, 2010

    Really? I thought it was Sting’s “Russians” that did it.

  14. #14 David
    February 22, 2010

    Shortly after the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, I predicted that it would collapse in 10 years. Demoralization, drug use, and and unwillingness to follow orders meant that the USSR could no longer count on its army to squash freedom movements in the satellite states. And that’s exactly what happened with Poland. Once the dominos started falling, the entire empire was doomed to collapse.

  15. #15 Aquinas Dad
    February 22, 2010

    Actually, the causes of the fall of the Soviet Union are rather well understood. There are three primary causes;
    1) The Communist economy of the USSR was as clumsy and fragile as any other Communist economy, making it very inefficient.
    2) The USSR was composed of multiple ethnic and social groups that had been coerced into membership with the USSR and the USSR’s clumsy attempts at forced socialization had actually hardened group divisions
    3) The USSR’s confrontational stance against the West had committed it to large expenditures on military budgets and a main army force of conscripts from throughout the USSR

    The fascinating thing from my view is the multi-pronged methods that accelerated the inevitable collapse; Reagan and Thatcher’s dual commitment to military expenditures prevented the USSR from decreasing its own military outlays or having the breathing room to restructure their economy; Pope John Paul II’s continual cultural pressure provided both a goal for separatist thinking and a path for non-violent cultural resistance; diplomatic efforts demonstrated quite publicly that the USSR’s opponents were not interested in a violent end to the USSR and a lack of animosity for the people of the USSR.

    Combined, these factors forced the leaders of the USSR to reform or face collapse – once begun, the security the various people of the USSR felt because of diplomacy and the actions of the Catholic Church created a slippery slope that ended the USSR in very short order.

  16. #16 Spiv
    February 22, 2010

    It’s funny that in all of these discussions, few ever mention Poland- who was probably more instrumental in initiating the breakdown than any other country. Of course, general economic landscape in Russia was a pretty significant catalyst.

    I’m not polish either- but I know Die Mauer would not have come down without all that was going on in poland the years before.

  17. #17 Aquinas Dad
    February 22, 2010

    That is part of the efforts of John Paul II that I mentioned. The Catholic Church was a powerful supporter of Solidarnosc (indeed, the union is named for a key tenet of Catholic social teaching which was echoed in Sollicitudo Rei Socialis by John Paul II in 1987). Jerzy Popiełuszko, a priest, was a key early figure in the movement until he was assassinated.

  18. #18 rob
    February 22, 2010

    wasn’t it the 1979 album by Pink Floyd that got everyone to tear down the wall?

  19. #19 Kapitano
    February 22, 2010

    You mean Gorbachev had nothing to do with it?

    AKA the “some guy somehow got the power and decided to do it for some reason” theory of history.

    No, the reasons were obviously economic. The whole point of a planned economy is to have a controlled and steerable economy – but under Stalinism planning was (a) incompetent and (b) still partly based on competition. Result: an unstable, unpredicatable and uncontrolled economy.

    As for why planning was so incompetent and a kind of capitalism still present, that’s the complex question.

    Hint: “Human nature” is not an answer.

  20. #20 Greg Laden
    February 22, 2010

    It’s funny that in all of these discussions, few ever mention Poland

    I believe that you are correct in noting that Poland’s role is underestimated here.

  21. #21 Greg Laden
    February 22, 2010

    Kevin, if you enjoyed that, you would enjoy A Perfect Spy as well! (Similar idea)

  22. #22 DCBob
    February 22, 2010

    I think Yaque #12 above is closest to an accurate explanation. As I understand it, Chernobyl pissed off a lot of mothers who realized the government/Party wasn’t going to take care of their children, and within a few weeks it became clear that they wanted an accounting and they weren’t going to go away. That episode led Gorbachev to strongly push for the ‘glasnost’ policy of substantially greater openness in government and especially in information flows. Gorbachev had long believed that Soviet Communism would work just fine if information could flow freely, and Chernobyl was his opening to push that new policy. Glasnost, in turn, resulted in the sudden availability of all manner of Western books, newspapers, and magazines suddenly becoming available to average people throughout the Soviet Union. That rush of information on conditions in the West revealed to average Soviet citizens something important that they for the most part really had not known: that they were indeed not nearly as well off materially as their counterparts in the West. That realization resulted in a rapid decline in the government/Party’s credibility and claim to power. The rest, as they say, is history.

  23. #23 Oran Kelley
    February 23, 2010

    Actually got to study with a former military man who had made Russia his specialty in service & out–he spoke Russian, lived there for quite a while, had many Russian friends in all walks of life . . .

    His take was that the system–the political system & the economic system–simply didn’t work well, and were generally perceived to not work well. The Soviet Union would have collapsed anyhow if it didn’t get more buy-in from the citizens of the Republics, and the only way to get that buy-in was through significant reform. This was known within the state for quite some time–Andropov was going to institute reforms of this nature, too.

    Unfortunately, by the time they got around to doing it, reform became a trigger for dissolution, not a way of addressing it.

    The ex-military guy had admiration for the moral suasion of Reagan & the Pope, but he didn’t give it a whole lot of credit: if the Soviet state & economy worked somewhat better, outside condemnation would have meant little.

  24. #24 mitchell porter
    February 26, 2010

    Conspiratorial common sense tells me that Gorbachev and his allies engineered this event precisely so they had an excuse to sack their opponents in the military.

  25. #25 co-conspirator
    December 9, 2010

    @mitchell porter : “Conspiratorial common sense”

    What a beautiful oxymoron have you invented!!

  26. #26 co-conspirator
    December 9, 2010

    You are right of course. The dominoes started falling with the Round Table negotiations between Polish communist party and the opposition of KOR and Solidarity. It was the first time that a communist party gave up the power. And of course it would not happen if Gorbachev was not a different kind of a Soviet leader. One that was not willing to kill thousands for an idea compromised long before.

  27. #27 vaughn nebeker
    June 2, 2011

    even thow I defeted russan tank 3,000 & tackic’s in egipt,serria in oct 1973/1974; chad 21 tanks in 1977,plus 8 russion t-90A-1’s in 1989’s in advanscan. I was ask to put out chernobyl reacter number 4#. I did not care what color creed or race thay were. only that thay were people who needed help. some time it hard to put downone eagio in helping a oponit of the cold war. anger and or war doe not salive problem’s people solve problems. list 25 years of life after cherobyl.
    vaughn s k nebeker the scintest whos invetions put out chernobyl.

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    April 19, 2017

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