March 11, 1985
Dear Mr. General Secretary,
As you assume your new responsibilities, I would like to take the opportunity to underscore my hope that we can, in the months and years ahead, develop a more stable and constructive relationship between our two countries…
Thus began President Ronald Reagan’s first letter to Mikhail Gorbachev, the newly-appointed General Secretary of the Communist Party—and the first step towards ending the Cold War, forever changing U.S.-Soviet relations.
Though the United States and the Soviet Union were united in their anti-Hitlerism during World War II, the cooperation between the world’s two largest powers was somewhat begrudging. Americans were still wary of Joseph Stalin’s bloody, two-plus-decades desire to end capitalism worldwide. Though the U.S.S.R. received roughly $11 billion from the U.S. in war relief from both American coasts, the nation lost millions of troops when the Germans invaded and the U.S. delayed its entrance and commitment to the war. Agreements were made in 1945 at Yalta and Potsdam regarding how to put the post-war world back together, but Stalin, in just three years, went about the occupation of Yugoslavia, Albania, Bulgaria, Poland, Hungary and Czechoslovakia. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill warned of the “Iron Curtain” being pulled across Europe. The U.S.’s aim, proposed by diplomat George F. Kennan and solidified in the Truman Plan, was to contain the Soviets and their communist expansion, both geographically and politically. Tensions grew further when each nation demonstrated its ability to vaporize a city in seconds: the Soviets tested their first successful atomic bomb in 1949, followed by the U.S.’s successful test of the new hydrogen bomb three years later. These very public displays of military might yielded decades of fear.
Around the same time, the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) was put in place in Washington, D.C. to investigate and prosecute any forms of subversion by or propaganda for anti-American, anti-capitalist movements or governments. That committee pushed hard and far into Hollywood to root out what it viewed as communist sympathizers, creating a blacklist—and effectively ending the careers—of more than 300 artists. In 1956, new Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev announced a new point of view: unlike Stalin, he believed that capitalism and communism could co-exist without necessarily leading to war. This briefly eased tensions between the two powers, but with the Soviet Union’s 1957 launch of the first man-made satellite into space, which many considered the next frontier for both exploration and militarization, Americans feared that a nuclear attack could be launched from outside Earth’s atmosphere. The Americans followed suit months later with the launch of Explorer I and, in 1958, President Eisenhower announced the creation of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) to match the longstanding Soviet space program (SSSR). The “space race” to control and militarize outer space would continue for decades.
The 1960s renewed fears of a nuclear war when Fidel Castro, the new leader of Cuba following the Cuban Revolution in 1959, pledged economic allegiance to the Soviets. Only 90 miles away from America, Cuba’s position was a major military advantage. Presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy approved a failed CIA-lead mission to the Bay of Pigs to overthrow Castro in 1961—and the following year, Kennedy announced in a televised address the discovery of Soviet nuclear missiles pointed squarely at the United States. The Cuban Missile Crisis, which lasted 13 days, was what some consider the closest the Cold War ever came to breaking out into actual warfare. It ended when Khrushchev agreed to remove the missiles in exchange for the U.S.’s promise to not invade Cuba, as well as the removal of some U.S.- owned nuclear missiles stationed in Turkey.
The 1970s brought a period of stagnation to both economies, but the Soviet Union was hit especially hard, resulting in massive famines. U.S. President Richard Nixon traveled to Moscow at the start of his term to sign two agreements with Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev: the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and the first Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty. Throughout the decade, Brezhnev’s relationships with U.S. leaders—including Presidents Nixon, Gerald Ford and James Carter—remained relatively strong, as more and more treaties were signed to control the development and construction of nuclear weaponry. However, the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in December of 1979, seemingly erasing much of the goodwill that had been established between the powers over the prior decade. The Soviets entered the conflict to render “internationalist assistance to the friendly Afghan people,” said Soviet Defense Minister Dmitriy Ustinov, trying to quell the rise of an Islamic fundamentalist government in Afghanistan after the brief installation of a socialist government, but soon found that much of the country despised the socialist government. The U.S. quietly began funding the fundamentalists, hoping that a prolonged conflict would drain the already faltering Soviet coffers.
In 1981, President Reagan entered the White House, bringing with him a staff as sharply split on the topic of the Soviets as Reagan himself. He hated communism and the atheism it required; he saw that way of thinking as one of the biggest threats to the American way of life. But he also wanted, more than anything, peace—even while he invested huge amounts of money into arms stockpiles. In 1982, he welcomed George Shultz to his cabinet as Secretary of State, and the two believed that engagement with the Soviets was worthwhile, that the Soviets were capable of change. With the election of Mikhail Gorbachev in 1985 and the appointment of his Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze, they found, for the first time in a long time, allies in the Cold War.