Historians are often tempted to imbue the peaceful end of the Cold War with a sense of inevitability. With the benefit of hindsight, they frequently point to a seemingly predictable sequence of events in which Mikhail Gorbachev’s campaign to restructure the Soviet system ultimately exposed its internal contradictions and seamlessly contributed to its collapse. 


For those of us serving in the George H.W. Bush administration during the 1980s, however, the end of the Cold War seemed neither predictable nor inevitable. Gorbachev’s “new thinking,” which envisioned an end to the Soviet Union’s isolation in favor of a “common European home” for capitalist and communist countries alike, confronted the reality of a sustained ideological struggle between the ideals of freedom and liberty championed in the West and the repressive policies undertaken to prop up socialist regimes in the Eastern bloc. 

Faced with the prospect of an enduring rivalry that would continue to deny Eastern Europeans the blessings of liberty and prosperity, the United States articulated a bold, transformational vision for Europe in 1989, one that moved beyond containment strategies of the past to promote the peaceful reunification of Germany, end the Cold War and lay the foundations for a free and democratic Europe.

Ironically, Gorbachev’s reforms provided the initial opening for this vision to be realized. By the early 1980s, the structural problems in the Soviet system had become increasingly difficult to overlook as the isolated, centralized and heavily militarized Soviet economy was surpassed by the more decentralized economies of capitalist systems that encouraged innovation from below. Although Gorbachev did not fully understand these inherent flaws in the Soviet design, he rightly recognized that the continued political and economic isolation of the Soviet Union would only exacerbate its predicament. 

Ending such isolation, however, would require a fundamental shift in Soviet foreign policy. Abandoning the notion of class struggle and hostility towards democratic capitalism that had defined the Soviet Union’s relations with the West, Gorbachev instead foresaw the Soviet Union taking its place in a “common European home” where it could coexist with capitalist, socialist and communist countries as partners in trade and international financial institutions. To facilitate its reintegration into the international system, the Soviet Union pledged to respect fundamental human rights and refrain from interfering with the internal affairs of other socialist regimes in Eastern Europe so that they could determine their own path free from direct Soviet influence. 

On one hand, Gorbachev’s “new thinking” augured a more conciliatory Soviet Union. By the end of 1988, the United States and the Soviet Union had signed the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, which committed both sides to eliminate these weapons systems and compelled the Soviets to agree to deeper arms reductions than their Western counterparts. The Soviets had also withdrawn from Afghanistan and negotiated settlements in southern Africa, easing longstanding tensions with the United States in each superpower’s scramble for influence in the developing world. 

On the other hand, Gorbachev’s reforms also served to maintain – perhaps even enhance – the Soviet Union’s status as a superpower, virtually guaranteeing that the ideological competition with the West would persist rather than abate. Gorbachev’s commitment to self-determination in Eastern Europe appeared to extend only insofar as these countries organized themselves with deference to a common Leninist framework. His goal was to create sufficient political space for other like-minded reformers to stamp out the harshest aspects of their socialist regimes, without sacrificing their fundamentally Leninist foundations. He saw little contradiction, however, between a socialist ideology premised on the subjugation of individual liberty and free enterprise domestically and a foreign policy purporting to respect common international values.

 When President George H.W. Bush came to power in 1989, the competing impulses of Gorbachev’s reform efforts began to expose cracks in the Soviet system. Facing enormous economic pressure, the Polish communist leadership had entered into talks with workers seeking to revive the outlawed Solidarity trade union. Members of the ruling Socialist Unity Party in East Berlin attempted to crack down on reformist elements within their own party, widening the traditionally small circle of popular unrest against the regime.

 This cascade of events presented President Bush’s young administration with a possible strategic breakthrough. The United States could continue the successful containment policies of its past by working to stabilize developments on the ground in Europe and avoiding major confrontation with its rival superpower. On the other hand, it had an opportunity to move beyond containment, to seize both on Gorbachev’s momentum toward reform and the stirrings of internal dissent in the Soviet bloc to transform Europe into a free and unified society. 

Though initially cautious, the Bush administration seized this historic moment. Within four months, President Bush became the first Western leader to say plainly that the Cold War would not be over until the division of Europe had ended and Europe was “whole and free.” He also granted economic assistance to the Polish government in exchange for lifting the ban against independent political associations.

Perhaps most importantly, President Bush embraced the bold vision that the Cold War could only truly end with the reunification of Germany under a democratic system of governance. To call this pronouncement ambitious was a vast understatement; most officials predicted that even with greater openness and pluralism taking root in Eastern Europe, it would be at least a century before the divisions separating East and West Berlin would fully collapse. 

President Bush, however, refused to allow present-day realities to constrain his thinking and pursued this transformative vision, even as critics derided it as politically unfeasible. Few, it seems, would have ever imagined that by the summer of 1989, scores of East German refugees would flee to West Germany by way of Hungary, that by November the Berlin Wall would come crashing down, or that less than a year later – and almost a century ahead of schedule – the Federal Republic of Germany would absorb the German Democratic Republic into a single democratic state. 

Although the United States articulated a bold transformative vision that helped end the Cold War, peace was not forged by America alone, nor were these efforts confined to a single time or place. Under the leadership of visionaries like Ernest Bevin of Great Britain and Konrad Adenauer of West Germany, America’s allies were instrumental in foreseeing possibilities for unification and liberation of Eastern Europe from the very beginning of this struggle. They joined with American leaders like Harry Truman and Dean Acheson to give rise to institutions like NATO, which would prove invaluable in achieving a vision that in 1949 was all but a dream. 

But perhaps the greatest credit for liberation of Eastern Europe lies with common people whose thirst for freedom survived decades of repression under Soviet rule – ordinary warriors like Russian author Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, whose Nobel Prize-winning writings documented the horrors of Soviet labor camps. They are the ones who led the mass exodus from East Germany to West, who tuned in to the broadcasts of Radio Free Europe against the objections of their government, who shed the shackles of oppression in pursuit of the ideals of liberty and prosperity offered by a free society. 

The brave actions of these impatient patriots – matched by the bold transformative visions of Western policymakers – ensured that freedom would triumph over tyranny.

Today, a new kind of ideological struggle emerges, one that finds freedom’s enemies in the form of dictators who persecute religious and ethnic minorities, in the form of tyrants who cling to artificial symbols of legitimacy, in the form of terrorists who seek to slaughter innocent civilians and seek to destroy civilized ways of life.

We must marshal the institutions of the Cold War era, like the NATO alliance, to help meet these 21st-century threats. And, perhaps most importantly, we must never surrender the bold vision that advances the goals of freedom and democracy around the world.

Dr. Condoleeza Rice served as National Security Advisor and Secretary of State under President George W. Bush.  As part of the George H.W. Bush administration, she witnessed first-hand the events that led to the fall of the Wall.

This piece is selected from Freedom’s Challenge, an Atlantic Council publication commemorating the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.