The Cold War rebooted

cold war

A Soviet military parade in Moscow in the 1980s

By the mid-1970s, both superpowers appeared preoccupied with domestic issues: the US with the political aftermath of Vietnam and Watergate and Moscow with its stagnating economy. Relations between the United States and the Soviet Union seemed to have normalised and many believed that detente would extend into the next decade. In 1975, representatives of 35 countries met in Finland and signed the Helsinki Accords, a commitment to respect the borders, sovereignty and rights of other countries. The 1970s also saw two successful Soviet-American summits – the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks, or SALT I and SALT II. SALT I, signed in 1972, produced an agreement to freeze the numbers of ballistic missile launchers at current levels. SALT II, concluded in 1979, codified an agreement to limit the manufacture of nuclear weapons and new missile systems. There was criticism in some quarters that SALT II had not gone far enough to reduce nuclear weapons stockpiles – but it was progress nevertheless. Whatever the outcomes, the two superpowers now seemed more willing to negotiate on critical issues.

Beneath the surface, however, Cold War mistrust continued to fester. Both the US and USSR continued their active support for political leaders, revolutionaries and paramilitary groups around the world, particularly in Africa and South America. Both superpowers also continued to initiate and support covert operations, espionage and assassinations. In America, the arms race was reinvigorated in the late 1970s by some startling new information. A CIA-organised thinktank, dubbed Team B, spent months examining intelligence on Soviet Russia’s military capabilities and strategic plans. Team B’s report, made public in 1976, claimed that American intelligence agencies had underestimated the USSR’s nuclear arsenal, weapons systems and battle plans. According to Team B, the Soviets not only had the tools to win a war with America, many in the Soviet military hierarchy believed that they could. This dramatic new assessment prompted the Carter administration to increase military spending. Most experts now consider Team B’s ‘findings’ to have been wrong on most counts.

New war, new president

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The US boycotted the Moscow Olympic Games in 1980

The final nail in the coffin of detente was the Soviet Union’s decision to invade Afghanistan in December 1979, to prop up the left-wing regime in power there. This prompted some extraordinary rhetoric from the normally placid Jimmy Carter. The president called the Soviet invasion “the most serious threat to peace since the Second World War”, ordered that grain and goods shipments to Russia be halted, and supported a US boycott of the 1980 Olympic Games in Moscow. In November 1980 Carter was replaced as president by Ronald Reagan, who was determined to ‘rollback’ communism rather than tolerate it. Reagan found a strong-minded ally in newly-elected British prime minister Margaret Thatcher. Both resolved to resurrect open confrontation with the Soviet Union and force the Cold War to a conclusion. The USSR during this period was still led by Leonid Brezhnev, Khrushchev’s successor and one of the architects of detente. But from the late 1970s Brezhnev was in very poor health; he became a figurehead and played a much smaller role in policy and decision-making.

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Ronald Reagan and British leader Margaret Thatcher

The 1980s was marked by increases in both military spending and hostile rhetoric. For these reasons it is sometimes known as the Second Cold War. Reagan was especially prolific with his criticisms of Soviet communism and imperialism. In 1982 the president delivered a speech to the British parliament, where he predicted that human progress would 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 following year, while addressing Christian leaders in Florida, Reagan pledged to retain America’s nuclear arsenal because the Soviet Union was an “evil empire” that deserved “total elimination”. Moscow was no less shy with its responses, claiming that Reagan was only capable of thinking “in terms of confrontation and bellicose, lunatic anti-Communism”.


The arms race revived

“Ronald Reagan had a dream. Anticipating Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s trip to the US in 1987, Reagan wanted “to take him up in a helicopter and show him how Americans lived.” From the air above sun-drenched California, Reagan dreamed: “I would have pointed out an ordinary factory and showed him its parking lot filled with workers’ cars, then we’d fly over a residential neighborhood and I’d tell him that’s where the workers lived – in homes with lawns and backyards, perhaps with a second car or a boat in the driveway.” Reagan then planned to say: “They not only live there, they own that property.”
David S. Foglesong, historian
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A cartoon criticising the increased spending on arms, particularly Reagan’s SDI

The early 1980s also saw the revival of the Cold War arms race. Though elected on promises to slash government expenditure, Reagan dramatically increased defence spending. In 1985 US military spending peaked at $US456 billion – almost a half-trillion dollars, a $US130 billion increase from 1980. Fuelled by the 1976 warnings of Team B, Washington sought to bridge the perceived ‘missile gap’ with the Soviets. When the Russians deployed medium-range SS-20 nuclear-capable missiles in East Germany and Czechoslovakia in 1984, the US responded by installing Pershing II missiles in West Germany. For the most part, however, the USSR could not match Reagan’s arms build-up; such an escalation was beyond the capabilities of the Soviet economy, which by the early 1980s was stagnant.

Reagan also spent vast amounts on research, believing the arms race would be won by technological superiority as much as by the size and quantity of weapons. In 1983 he initiated a program called the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) to defend the US from a ballistic missile attack. This would be accomplished by ground-based defences and, eventually, by making use of space technology; missiles would be destroyed in sub-orbital flight by smaller missiles or laser beams mounted in artificial satellites. SDI was incredibly ambitious for the time and many critics queried whether it was even possible; the sceptical press dubbed the program ‘Star Wars’. Yet despite this, more than $US100 billion was invested in SDI’s space research alone.

This ‘Second Cold War’ had some dangerous flashpoints. In September 1983 a Korean passenger jet flying from New York to Seoul accidentally strayed into Russian airspace; it was attacked and destroyed by Soviet jets, and all 269 people on board were killed. Among them was Larry McDonald, a sitting member of the US Congress. This event caused outrage in the West, Reagan describing it as a “massacre”, “a crime against humanity” and “an act of barbarism”. The Soviets claimed the jet was hundreds of miles off course, deep in Soviet territory, and had failed to answer numerous radio challenges. Three weeks later, the Soviet Union’s nuclear warning computers detected an incoming ballistic missile, apparently launched from the US. Only some diligent checking by a Soviet officer, Stanislav Petrov, prevented a reciprocal attack. A similar situation occurred in November when NATO forces commenced Able Archer, a simulated launch of strategic nuclear weapons. Unaware that Able Archer was an exercise, some in Moscow interpreted it as a first strike against the USSR. Soviet missiles, bombers and nuclear submarines were placed on high alert.



1. The US and USSR signed arms reduction treaties in the late 1970s, though suspicion about arms levels remained.
2. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980 ended a decade of Cold War detente.
3. Reagan, supported by British leader Margaret Thatcher, resolved to rollback Soviet communism, rather than contain it.
4. Reagan used belligerent anti-Soviet rhetoric, increased military spending and authorised new programs, like the SDI.
5. This revival of the Cold War and its 1950s arms race caused consternation around the world and led to several accidents and near misses that almost led to nuclear confrontation.