This Cold War timeline contains important dates and events from 1980 to 1991. It has been written and compiled by Alpha History authors. If you would like to suggest an event for inclusion here, please contact Alpha History.
January 4th: The United States halts wheat sales to the Soviet Union, a sanction imposed after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
January 23rd: US president Jimmy Carter promises to respond to any Soviet aggression against American allies in the Middle East. This position becomes known as the Carter Doctrine.
April 7th: The US severs diplomatic relations with Iran.
April 24th: The US military launch a failed attempt to rescue American civilians being held hostage by the fundamentalist regime in Iran. Eight American servicemen are killed.
March 8th: The Tbilisi Rock Festival begins in Georgia, the first rock music festival held in the Soviet Union. It continues for a week and is dubbed the “Soviet Woodstock”.
March 21st: President Jimmy Carter announces that the US will boycott the Olympic Games in Moscow (see July 19th).
May 4th: Josip Tito, the socialist leader of Yugoslavia, dies in Belgrade aged 88.
June 3rd: A device fault causes US defence computers in several locations to report an incoming attack from Soviet missiles. Cross checking soon exposes these reports as false alarms.
July 19th: The 22nd Summer Olympic Games begin in Moscow. A total of 65 nations refuse to attend, due to a US-led boycott in protest against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
August 31st: Seeking to end a series of general strikes, Poland’s communist government signs an agreement with the Lech Walesa-led Solidarnosc (‘Solidarity’) movement. It agrees to improve civil rights and allow the formation of non-communist unions.
September 22nd: War breaks out between the Islamic state of Iran, led by the Ayatollah Khomeini, and Ba’athist Iraq, led by Saddam Hussein. The Iran-Iraq War lasts almost eight years and claims up to 600,000 lives, some of them from the use of chemical weapons.
November 4th: Republican candidate and former California governor Ronald Reagan is elected president. Reagan defeats the incumbent president Jimmy Carter, winning 44 states to Carter’s six.
January 15th: Pope John Paul II meets with Lech Walesa and other members of the Polish reform group Solidarnosc.
January 20th: Ronald Reagan is inaugurated as the 40th US president. His inauguration speech focuses mainly on domestic and economic issues.
January 20th: After 444 days in captivity, the 52 American civilians held hostage in Iran are released.
March 30th: Two months after his inauguration Ronald Reagan is shot in the chest while leaving a Washington hotel. The gunman, John Hinckley, is found to be mentally unhinged and obsessed with actress Jodie Foster.
May 13th: While riding in an open-topped car through the Vatican, Pope John Paul II is shot four times in the abdomen and right arm. The gunman, Mehmet Ali Agca, is a Turkish Kurd with uncertain motives.
October 6th: Egyptian president Anwar Sadat is assassinated by Islamist military officers.
December 13th: The communist regime in Poland implements martial law and arrests leaders of the Solidarnosc trade union.
February 24th: Ronald Reagan unveils the Caribbean Basin Initiative, a plan to extend friendly economic terms to regional governments at risk from communism.
March 22nd: Ronald Reagan endorses a joint resolution of Congress, calling on the Soviet Union to “cease its abuses of the basic human rights of its citizens, in particular, the right to freely practice one’s religion and the right to emigrate to another country”.
April 2nd: Argentinian forces invade the Falkland Islands, a self-governing British territory in the South Atlantic Ocean. This leads to the Falklands War.
May 30th: Spain joins the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO).
June 12th: A nuclear disarmament rally in Central Park, New York City attracts an estimated 750,000 people. They hear addresses from prominent peace activists and musicians.
June 14th: Argentina surrenders to British forces, bringing the Falklands War to an end and liberating the islands.
November 10th: Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev dies in Moscow after a heart attack. He is replaced two days later by former KGB chief Yuri Andropov.
November 14th: Solidarnosc leader Lech Walesa is released from detention and returns to Poland.
January: Deiter Gerhardt, a former officer in the South African Navy, is arrested for espionage in New York. His Soviet handler, Vitaly Shlykov, is arrested a fortnight later.
February 2nd: US president Ronald Reagan hosts a delegation of Afghan mujahideen or freedom fighters in the White House.
March 8th: Reagan describes the Soviet Union as an “evil empire”.
March 23rd: Reagan unveils his Strategic Defence Initiative (SDI), a program to research and develop missile defence systems. The media later dubs it ‘Star Wars’ because it includes the use of space technology.
June 3rd: WarGames, a motion picture depicting a computer simulation that almost triggers World War III, opens in American cinemas.
July 7th: Samantha Smith, a 10 year old girl from Maine, visits the Soviet Union at the invitation of Yuri Andropov. Smith had earlier written to Andropov, asking if he intended to wage war on America.
September 1st: Soviet MiG fighters shoot down a civilian airliner, Korean Air Flight 007, after it overflew Soviet territory. The crash kills all 269 people on board.
September 5th: Ronald Reagan addresses the nation on the Soviet attack on Flight 007, calling it a “crime against humanity”.
September 6th: After days of denials, Moscow admits that Soviet fighters were responsible for shooting down Flight 007.
September 26th: A Soviet air force officer, Stanislav Petrov, averts nuclear war by ignoring computer reports of five incoming missiles. The reports are later found to be false, caused by cloud reflections.
October 5th: Polish unionist and political reformer Lech Walesa is awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
October 25th: US forces land in Grenada to overthrow the communist military regime and expel Cuban troops there.
November 2nd: NATO’s Able Archer, an operation to test missile warfare firing procedures, leads to Soviet forces being shifted to high alert.
November 13th: The US deploys nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles at Greenham Common in Berkshire, England. The site is surrounded and blockaded by anti-nuclear weapons protestors, most of them women.
November 20th: The Day After, a movie depicting a nuclear attack on American cities, is aired on US television.
November 23rd: Soviet delegates walk out of arms reduction talks in Vienna, a protest against the deployment of US cruise missiles in Europe.
February 13th: Konstantin Chernenko becomes general secretary of the Soviet Union, following the death of Yuri Andropov.
May 13th: A fire sweeps through the Severomorsk naval base in remote northern Russia, burning for four days. It causes a series of munitions blasts that kill as many as 300 people and destroy much of the Soviet Union’s naval missile stockpile.
July 28th: The 23rd Summer Olympic Games commence in Los Angeles, California. These games are boycotted by the Soviet Union and 13 of its communist allies, announced in early May.
August 11th: While warming up for a radio address, Ronald Reagan quips that he had “outlawed Russia forever” and that “we begin bombing in five minutes”.
November 6th: President Ronald Reagan is elected for a second term, defeating Democratic candidate Walter Mondale. Reagan wins almost 59% of the popular vote and carries 49 of 50 states.
December 16th: UK prime minister Margaret Thatcher holds cordial meetings with Mikhail Gorbachev, a member of the Soviet Union Politburo and a future general secretary.
January 20th: Ronald Reagan is sworn in for his second term as US president.
February 6th: Reagan announces that his administration will arm and support “freedom fighters” against communist regimes. This becomes known as the Reagan Doctrine.
March 11th: Mikhail Gorbachev becomes general secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.
March 24th: Arthur Nicholson, a US Army intelligence officer, is shot dead by a Soviet sentry while photographing military equipment in East Germany. The incident causes a deterioration in US-Soviet relations.
May 20th: John Anthony Walker Junior, a warrant officer in the US Navy, is arrested for espionage. It later emerges that Walker had been providing intelligence information to the Soviets since 1968.
July 10th: French agents sink the Greenpeace flagship Rainbow Warrior in Auckland Harbour, killing one man. The Rainbow Warrior had been involved in protests against French nuclear testing in the Pacific.
August 6th: On the 40th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Soviet Union declares a five-month moratorium (ban) on nuclear testing. The US refuses to reciprocate.
November 19th: Gorbachev and Reagan meet for the first time, at a three day summit in Switzerland. They agree to more meetings in the future.
January 28th: The US space shuttle Challenger explodes shortly after launch, killing all seven astronauts onboard.
February 25th: After years of popular unrest, a series of demonstrations in the Philippines leads to the removal of dictator Ferdinand Marcos.
February 25th: Speaking at a Communist Party congress, Mikhail Gorbachev unveils the keywords of his reformist policy: glasnost and perestroika.
March 13th: Two US warships, USS Yorktown and USS Caron, enter the Black Sea and sail through waters claimed by the Soviet Union. This action, designed to challenge Soviet maritime law, leads to a diplomatic incident.
April 26th: The Soviet nuclear reactor at Chernobyl, Ukraine, explodes, killing 56 people and contaminating a large area. The Chernobyl disaster has long-lasting physical, social and economic consequences.
July 5th: The opening ceremony of the first Goodwill Games is held in Moscow. Created by American broadcaster Ted Turner, the Goodwill Games were designed to heal the acrimony created by the 1980 and 1984 Olympic boycotts.
October 11th: Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev meet for a second time, at a summit in Reykjavik, Iceland. This meeting fails to reach agreement on arms control.
January 5th: Ronald Reagan undergoes prostate surgery. Some sections of the media ponder whether Reagan may have to resign from office.
March 4th: Reagan addresses the nation on television and denies approving or ordering the sale of arms to Iran, in order to fund the Contras movement in Nicaragua.
May 17th: The American frigate USS Stark is attacked by an Iraqi jet, which fires two Exocet missiles. The blast kills 37 American sailors.
June: Soviet general secretary Mikhail Gorbachev announces new policies of open debate (glasnost) and economic reform (perestroika).
June 8th: Western musicians including David Bowie, Genesis and the Eurythmics perform in West Berlin, close to the Berlin Wall. A large crowd of East Berliners gather on the other side to listen and ignore police orders to disband.
June 12th: While visiting Berlin, Ronald Reagan delivers a speech that urges Soviet general secretary Gorbachev to “tear down this wall”.
August: American singer-pianist Billy Joel completes a brief tour of the Soviet Union, performing in Moscow, Leningrad and Tbilisi.
December 8th: Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev begin a three-day summit in Washington DC. They sign a treaty banning all medium-range nuclear missiles from Europe.
January 2nd: The Soviet Congress passes the first legislation implementing Gorbachev’s perestroika (economic reforms).
February 22nd: A naval clash between US and USSR vessels, after US ships enter Soviet waters in the Crimean Sea.
March 24th: A McDonald’s restaurant opens in Belgrade, Yugoslavia, the first in a Soviet bloc nation.
March 25th: In the Slovakian capital Bratislava, approximately 5,000 Catholics participate in a ‘candle demonstration’, demanding religious freedom.
April 14th: The US, USSR, Afghanistan and Pakistan sign the Geneva Accords. This agreement provides a timetable for the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan.
April 29th: McDonald’s Canadian branch signs an agreement with Moscow City Council, allowing for the opening of 20 restaurants in the Soviet capital.
May 15th: Moscow begins withdrawing Soviet troops from Afghanistan.
May 29th: Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev begin five days of talks in Moscow. They sign a treaty restricting intermediate-range nuclear forces.
July 1st: The Soviet Congress passes a further round of economic reforms, lessening the Communist Party’s control over economic policy.
July 19th: American singer Bruce Springsteen performs a four-hour concert in East Berlin. It is attended by an estimated 300,000 East Germans.
August 11th: Saudi-born mujahideen Osama bin Laden forms an Islamic military group called al-Qaeda.
September 11th: Approximately 300,000 people in Estonia protest for national independence from Moscow.
October 27th: Ronald Reagan orders that the US Embassy in Moscow be torn down and rebuilt, due to an infestation of KGB listening devices in its structure.
November 8th: Incumbent vice president George Bush wins the US presidential election, defeating Democratic candidate Michael Dukakis.
November 16th: The Estonian government passes a “sovereignty declaration”, proclaiming Estonian laws to be paramount over Soviet laws. It is, in effect, a declaration of independence from Moscow.
January 20th: George Bush is inaugurated as US president, replacing Ronald Reagan.
February 15th: The last Soviet troops are withdrawn from Afghanistan.
April 15th: The death of Hu Yaobang, a liberal-reformist official in the Chinese Communist Party. Students respond to Hu’s death with large gatherings in Tiananmen Square and elsewhere.
April 26th: The People’s Daily, the official state newspaper of communist China, publishes an editorial condemning the growing student demonstrations. The following day up to 100,000 students march through Beijing to Tiananmen Square.
May 2nd: The Hungarian government begins tearing down the barbed wire fence along its border with Austria.
May 16th: Mikhail Gorbachev makes a landmark visit to China in an attempt to normalise Sino-Soviet relations. Student gatherings, protests and hunger strikes continue during his visit.
May 20th: With student protests and calls for democratic reform growing, the communist government in China declares martial law.
June 3rd: Chinese military units are sent into Beijing to clear protestors from Tiananmen Square. Over the next 24 hours between 300 and 3,000 protestors are killed.
June 5th: Footage of a lone protestor, standing defiantly in front of a column of tanks in Beijing, is beamed around the world. It becomes an iconic image of protest against communist oppression.
June 18th: Poland completes two rounds of democratic elections, the country’s first free elections since World War II. Lech Walesa’s Solidarnosc wins 161 in the Polish lower house and almost all of the seats in its Senate.
August 24th: Christian-democratic politician Tadeusz Mazowiecki becomes prime minister of Poland.
October 18th: Hungary adopts a new constitution, allowing for multiple political parties and free elections.
October 18th: Erich Honecker is replaced as leader of the East German Communist Party.
October 25th: Gorbachev repudiates the Brezhnev Doctrine, the idea that Moscow could intervene in Soviet bloc nations if socialism was perceived to be under threat.
November 9th: The East German government announces that it will shortly open checkpoints in Berlin. This triggers the storming and eventual fall of the Berlin Wall.
November 20th: More than 200,000 Czechoslovakians gather in Prague to protest against the communist government there. Government leaders resign four days later.
December 2nd: Mikhail Gorbachev and US president George Bush begin a two-day summit in Malta. At its conclusion, they proclaim a new era of peace.
December 9th: Solidarnosc leader Lech Walesa is elected president of Poland.
December 25th: Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu is overthrown after 34 years in power. Ceausescu and his wife are swiftly executed.
December 29th: Playwright and anti-Soviet dissident Vaclav Havel is elected as the president of Czechoslovakia.
January 20th: Soviet troops occupy the Azerbaijani city of Baku after prolonged demonstrations for independence. A total of 130 protestors are killed.
January 31st: The first McDonald’s store opens in Moscow.
February 7th: The Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) votes to end the one-party state and allow other parties to participate in elections.
March 11th: Lithuania declares independence from the Soviet Union.
March 13th: Constitutional reform in the Soviet Union ends the Communist Party’s monopoly on political power. Gorbachev is elected president of the Soviet Union for a five-year term.
March 18th: East Germany holds the first free elections since its formation in 1949. The election is won by a coalition promising speedy reunification with West Germany.
May 4th: The Latvian government declares independence from the Soviet Union. This is not recognised by Moscow.
May 30th: US president George Bush and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev begin a five-day summit in Washington DC. During this summit, they sign a treaty ending production of chemical weapons and agree to reduce current stockpiles.
July 16th: West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl meets with Mikhail Gorbachev. Together they reach agreement on a process for the reunification of Germany.
August: The Soviet Union receives its first connection to the Internet.
September 12th: East Germany and West Germany sign a peace treaty. This treaty is countersigned by the US, USSR, Britain and France, who surrender the role of occupying powers. This clears the way for German independence and reunification.
September 24th: Mikhail Gorbachev is given extraordinary powers for a period of 18 months, to effect major reforms to the Soviet economy.
October 3rd: Germany is formally reunified. The reunification of Germany does not please everyone: it is opposed by some politicians in Britain, France and Israel.
October 15th: Mikhail Gorbachev is awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for easing Cold War tensions.
November 17th: Gorbachev proposes a significant restructuring of the Soviet government.
November 21st: Leaders of 34 nations, including the US and Soviet Union, sign the Paris Charter. Many historians consider this charter to be the de facto peace treaty that ends the Cold War.
January 1st: The government of Czechoslovakia announces a new policy approach, abandoning socialist economics.
January 13th: Soviet troops enter the Lithuanian city of Vilnius to restore the pro-Moscow government. Clashes between Soviet troops and unarmed Lithuanian demonstrates claim 14 lives.
March 3rd: Citizens in Estonia and Latvia vote overwhelmingly in favour of independence from the Soviet Union.
March 15th: World War II Allied powers relinquish all post-war rights, giving Germany full independence.
March 17th: More than three-quarters of citizens in nine Soviet republics vote in favour of maintaining the Soviet Union.
March 31st: More than 99 percent of citizens in Georgia vote for independence from the Soviet Union. Georgia formally declares its independence and leaves the USSR on April 9th.
June 12th: Boris Yeltsin is elected president of Russia.
July 1st: The formal dissolution of the Warsaw Pact.
July 31st: US president George Bush and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev sign the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) in Moscow.
August 19th: Communists launch a coup attempt in USSR, arresting Gorbachev. The coup collapses after two days, due to popular opposition whipped up by Russian president Boris Yeltsin.
August 24th: Ukraine declares its independence from the Soviet Union. Over the following week, Belarus, Moldova, Azerbaijan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan will also declare independence and leave the USSR.
December 8th: Russia and 11 other Soviet bloc nations form the Commonwealth of Independent States.
December 25th: President George Bush delivers a Christmas speech and declares that the Cold War is over.
December 25th: Gorbachev resigns as leader of the Soviet Union.
December 26th: The Supreme Soviet meets to formally dissolve the Soviet Union.
This page was written by Jennifer Llewellyn, Jim Southey and Steve Thompson. To reference this page, use the following citation:
J. Llewellyn et al, “Cold War timeline: 1980-1991”, Alpha History, accessed [today’s date], https://alphahistory.com/coldwar/cold-war-timeline-1980-91/.