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End of the 20th Century, Reagan assumed office in 1981

Helsinki Accords, UNSCOM, Camp David Accords, Strategic Defense Initiative, Palestinian uprising

End of the Cold War

In the decade after Watergate, the United States continued its policy of detente, an easing of Cold War tensions that began under Nixon and Kissinger. Under President Gerald Ford, in 1975, the United States joined the USSR and 33 other countries to sign the Helsinki Accords, in which member nations vowed to respect boundaries and human rights.

When Jimmy Carter became president in 1977, he took a firm stand on human rights and tried to combat rights abuses in Chile, Argentina, Ethiopia, South Africa, and elsewhere. Carter also opened full diplomatic relations with China in 1979. In 1978 he hosted a meeting between the president of Egypt and the prime minister of Israel to work toward a peace agreement. In March 1979 Israel and Egypt signed the Camp David Accords. Negotiating the settlement was one of Carter’s finest moments. But trouble lay ahead. In January 1979 a revolution in Iran, led by Muslim clergyman Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, toppled the ruler of Iran, Muhammad Reza Shah Pahlavi. Fueled by anti-American feelings, the revolutionaries seized more than 50 American hostages in November 1979. They were not freed until Detente faltered under Reagan, who revived Cold War antagonisms. The president restarted the arms race, denounced the Soviet Union as an “evil empire,” and supplied funds and weapons to anti-Communist forces in Latin America, notably in El Salvador and Nicaragua, two poor nations beset by revolution. In 1982 the CIA organized and financed a guerrilla army in Nicaragua; the trail of secret funds for this venture led to the revelations of the Iran-Contra Affair. Reagan also advocated a huge military buildup and supported plans for the Strategic Defense Initiative, known as Star Wars, a multibillion dollar missile defense system. A heated-up Cold War prevailed through most of Reagan’s tenure.

But suddenly, after George Bush took office in 1989, a series of revolutionary changes occurred. Within a short time, from 1989 to 1990, the Communist Party in the USSR lost control of the government, and Communists lost power in the Eastern European countries as well. The Soviet revolution that dominated the 20th century ground to a halt. The Cold War was over.

The first signs of the end of the Cold War appeared during the Reagan administration, in 1985, when Mikhail Gorbachev came to power in the Soviet Union. To reverse the process of economic decline in the USSR that had been under way since the 1970s, Gorbachev declared a policy of perestroika (economic restructuring) and glasnost (political openness). Under Gorbachev, freedom increased but the economy deteriorated. Blaming Communist Party bureaucrats for the economic problems, Gorbachev replaced them with a freely elected legislature.

Then in 1989, Gorbachev refused to send Soviet troops to bolster Communist regimes in Eastern Europe. Those regimes began to crumble—first in Poland and Czechoslovakia, then in East Germany, Bulgaria, and Romania. On November 9, 1989, exuberant Germans dismantled the wall between East and West Berlin. The two Germanies, which had been separated since the end of World War II, were reunited in 1990. The Baltic nations—Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia—declared their independence from the USSR, and other republics in the USSR followed.

The collapse of the Soviet Union transformed world politics. Reagan held four major summit conferences with Gorbachev in three years. The two leaders signed agreements to establish scientific and cultural exchanges, to reduce strategic arms and conventional forces, to improve the environment, and to destroy nuclear missiles that had been placed in Europe. Seeking new opportunities, American businesses swiftly made inroads in the former Soviet Union.

With the Cold War over and the Soviet Union dismantled, the United States faced problems elsewhere. In August 1990 Saddam Hussein of Iraq invaded the neighboring nation of Kuwait. In February 1991, after extensive bombing of Iraqi forces, President Bush sent U.S. troops into Kuwait and Iraq. They were part of a United Nations coalition led by the United States.

The Persian Gulf War was brief; the UN coalition swiftly retook Kuwait and defeated Iraq. The American victory failed to satisfy critics who believed that Saddam should have been ousted from power. After Saddam’s defeat in 1991 a UN special commission (UNSCOM) was appointed to force Iraq to disarm. However, Iraq continued to produce chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons. Beginning in 1998, after Iraq repeatedly refused to allow UNSCOM to inspect its weapons sites, the United States again bombed Iraq on several different occasions.

After the Persian Gulf War, the United States assumed an active role in trying to preserve global peace. Many new challenges emerged in the 1990s. The part of the world once dominated by the USSR was in turmoil. Trouble arose in formerly Communist Yugoslavia, where fierce battles erupted among Serbs, Croats, and Bosnian Muslims. In March 1999 NATO forces began bombing Serbia and Serbian targets in Kosovo. Both Serbia and Kosovo are part of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (FRY). The attack sought to stop Serbian troops from “ethnic cleansing,” which drove Albanian Kosovars out of the province to neighboring nations. In June 1999 NATO and FRY military leaders approved an international peace plan for Kosovo, and NATO suspended its bombing.

Disputes festered outside Europe as well. In 1989 Chinese-U.S. relations faltered when China crushed a prodemocracy movement in Tiananmen Square. In Latin America, the civil wars of the 1970s and 1980s waned, but other problems endured: poverty, guerrilla warfare, and drug trafficking.

The Middle East remained another insecure region. In late 1987 the intifada, a Palestinian uprising against Israeli occupation, began in the Gaza Strip and spread to the West Bank. Although Israel and the Palestinians signed agreements in 1993, 1995, and 1998, peace remained elusive.

Also, throughout the 1980s and 1990s the United States contended with a worldwide threat of terrorism, at home and abroad. Terrorists bombed the World Trade Center in New York City in 1993. In 1995 a massive bomb exploded in a truck in front of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, killing 168 people and destroying much of the building.

At the end of the 20th century, Americans confronted a world divided between highly industrial societies and underdeveloped ones. Industrial societies had high literacy rates, high living standards, and stable birth rates. Underdeveloped societies had extensive poverty, high rates of disease, high population growth, and low literacy. Threats of annihilation no longer came primarily from the Soviet Union, parts of which retained thousands of nuclear weapons, but from disgruntled rogue nations with nuclear weapons and from terrorists.

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