20 Years Ago, the Soviet Union Fell

COMMENTARY | Twenty years ago this December, the Soviet Union collapsed, breaking apart into 15 separate countries, ending the Cold War and with it the specter of thermonuclear war that had haunted the world for decades.

It is strange to think that an entire generation of people has grown from infancy to adulthood having never known a world where the USSR was an existential threat to not only the liberty of the world, but its life. While many people worried in the years after World War II about the prospect of a Soviet dominated world, most people were terrified about the Soviet Union not so much conquering the world, but ending it.

As onerous as modern life is, with the threat of terrorism abroad and political incompetence at home, people in the 21st century have been spared of the anxiety that gripped the years between about 1950 and 1990-that the world could end, suddenly and irrevocably. Someone could make a mistake, a miscalculation, and 30 to 90 minutes later the missiles would begun to fall and life as we know it would be incinerated in mushroom clouds. A radioactive desert would be all that was left of humankind’s achievements from the time people first descended from the trees to the moment the sirens sounded and the Emergency Broadcast System was activated.

The irony was that the abrupt turn of history was brought about by a man who was often accused of itching to push the nuclear button. His name was President Ronald Reagan. Reagan came into office with the idea that the Cold War could not just be managed, but won. It was an incredible idea. The conventional wisdom was that the Soviet Union was a permanent fixture in the world and that the balance of terror would last forever-if we were lucky.

Reagan laid out his vision for the end of the Soviet Union in a speech before the British Parliament on June 4, 1982. He expressed it thus, “What I am describing now is a plan and a hope for the long term — the march of freedom and democracy which will leave Marxism-Leninism on the ash-heap of history as it has left other tyrannies which stifle the freedom and muzzle the self-expression of the people.”

The idea that the Soviet Union could not just be contained, but destroyed was considered crazy by many people at the time. When, as part of this strategy, Reagan proposed his Strategic Defense Initiative program to end the threat of nuclear annihilation, the accusations of insanity became full throated.

But it turned out that one man can change the world. It happened as the year turned from 1991 to 1992 when the Hammer and Sickle was lowered for the last time. A new world was born, with all of its promise and peril.

Sources: Fall of the Soviet Union, Cold War Museum

Reagan’s Westminster Speech, President Ronald Reagan, Heritage Foundation, June 4, 1982

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