World History 2 256 - 14.5.1 The Collapse of Communism: The Eastern Bloc

The Cold War had begun in Greece, an unlikely place. Its last shot was also fired in an unlikely place—Afghanistan, the site of the final proxy war waged between the allies of the Soviet Union and those of the United States.

In 1973, the nationalist Mohammad Sardar Daoud Khan, once the prime minister of Afghanistan from 1953 to 1963, came to power again in that country after deposing its king. He was originally backed by the communist People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA), which received support from the Soviet Union. Not all factions of the PDPA supported Daoud, however. When he failed to reconcile the factions and realized he was losing the support of PDPA members who had helped him to power, he turned to the United States for support. He wished to free Afghanistan from dependence on the Soviet Union, which had extended assistance to the country in the past, and he reasoned that the United States would help. He also sought closer relations with U.S. allies Saudi Arabia and Iran and expelled Soviet military and economic advisers from the country.

In 1978, Daoud was overthrown and killed by one of the PDPA factions. As the victors sought to eliminate their enemies, a group of Islamic fundamentalists who opposed secular and Western influences on Islamic societies and endorsed strict codes of behavior fought back against government attempts to spread communism to tribal areas. When it became clear that the PDPA leader favored by Moscow could not maintain control of the country and a pro-U.S. rival was gaining ascendancy, the Soviet Union sent ground troops to invade Afghanistan in December 1979.

President Jimmy Carter protested the Soviet incursion and imposed economic sanctions. The United States also continued arming the Islamist enemies of the pro-Soviet Afghan regime, a policy it had been following for some time. These Islamist insurgents, called the mujahideen (Arabic for Muslims who battle non-Muslims on behalf of Islam), regarded the Afghan government and the Soviet Union as enemies of religion and waged a guerrilla war against them. The Soviet Union fought the various groups of mujahideen for ten years without coming close to victory. It spent the equivalent of billions of dollars and lost some fifteen thousand soldiers. About two million Afghans were killed.

Among the groups of mujahideen who fought the Soviets were young men from the Pashtun tribe who had studied at Islamic religious schools in Pakistan. They were supported by both the CIA and its Pakistani equivalent, the Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate, and were called the Taliban (meaning “student” in the Pashtun tribal language of Pashto). Following the withdrawal of the Soviets, various groups of mujahideen battled for control of Afghanistan, with the Taliban eventually emerging victorious. The stability and order their rule offered was welcomed by many Afghans after the long years of chaos.

Although the United States offered the mujahideen support to combat the Soviets in Afghanistan, it found itself the enemy of another group of Islamic fundamentalists, this time in Iran. Since the 1950s, the United States had provided funds and weapons to the leader of Iran, Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. With U.S. aid, the Shah had built one of the largest armies in the Middle East and SAVAK, one of the most feared secret police forces. He allowed no dissent, and the secret police spied upon, arrested, and tortured anyone suspected of opposing him. The Shah’s efforts to modernize and Westernize Iran by granting women the right to vote, outlawing their wearing of veils, and providing them equal opportunities for education angered many traditionalist Muslim religious leaders. They also disliked the messages contained in the Western movies and music the Shah had allowed into Iran. In contrast, although liberal Iranians approved of these actions, they disliked the lack of political freedom. Nearly all Iranians resented the enormous wealth the Shah and his closest friends had amassed as a result of U.S. assistance. The Shah had few supporters.

One of his most outspoken critics was the Shiite religious leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Despite being repeatedly arrested, Khomeini continued to criticize both the Shah and his patron, the U.S. government. In 1964, Khomeini was expelled from Iran. This did not end his influence, however, and tape-recorded messages from him encouraging opposition to the Shah were smuggled into the country. Beginning in 1977, Khomeini exhorted Iranians to go on strike and refuse to pay their taxes. In 1978, waves of protests and strikes by government and oil industry workers were punished with attacks by government forces. Each was followed by a larger wave of protest.

On January 16, 1979, the Shah and his family fled the country, and two weeks later Ayatollah Khomeini returned. He was greeted enthusiastically by the vast majority of Iranians, and in mid-February 1979, Shapur Bakhtiar, the prime minister appointed by the Shah, was replaced by Mehdi Bazargan, selected by Khomeini. In December 1979, the Iranian people voted to adopt a constitution making the country an Islamic republic. Islam became the nation’s official religion, and the constitution ordained that all laws passed must conform to Islamic law.

On October 22, 1979, the Shah entered the United States for medical treatment. Many Iranians feared this meant Washington was about to take steps to return him to power. On November 4, Iranian students stormed the U.S. embassy in the Iranian capital of Tehran and took its staff and Marine guards hostage, demanding the Shah be returned to Iran for trial and execution (Figure 14.19). Their actions were widely supported within Iran, including by Khomeini, which led the moderate prime minister to resign. Although female and African American hostages were released within a few days, the others were held for 444 days, to be set free on January 20, 1981, the day President Carter left office.

A photograph shows two men in front of a crowd. They both have one first in the air and hold on to a gun in the other hand. They both yell. Behind them is a large group of men, some waving their hands in the air, some yelling, and some holding various weapons. There is a large banner with Persian script hanging across a building behind them, as well as other smaller banners.
Figure 14.19 Protesters outside the U.S. embassy in Tehran in 1979 hold a banner that reads “Long live anti-imperialism and democratic forces.” (credit: “Iranian Revolution” by Ana News/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

Fearing that Iraqi Shiites would be radicalized by events in neighboring Iran, the Sunni-dominated government of Iraq, controlled by the socialist Ba’ath Party, sent its troops to invade Iran. Iraq also hoped to resolve long-standing border disputes between the two nations and replace Iran as the dominant nation in the region, which had not been possible when Iran was receiving U.S. military and economic support. The United States provided economic and technological support to Iraq. The Iran-Iraq war ended in August 1988 with a cease-fire arranged by the United Nations and no real gains by either side.

Despite its support of Iraq in its war against Iran, the chief concern of the United States in the 1980s was not violence in the Middle East but the destruction of communism. Jimmy Carter was followed in office by President Ronald Reagan, who considered the Soviet Union an “evil empire” and vowed to eliminate communism. He believed the United States should negotiate with the Soviets to ensure world peace but should do so from a position of strength. To this end, he ordered a buildup of the country’s abilities to fight both a conventional and a nuclear war. His successor in office, George H.W. Bush, continued those efforts.

In Their Own Words

An “Evil Empire”

In a speech delivered in March 1983, President Ronald Reagan called for peace with the Soviet Union but on U.S. terms. Specifically, Reagan said he would not agree to arms limitation talks until the United States was equal to the Soviet Union in military capacity. In his speech, he described the contest between the two countries as one between good and evil.

I intend to do everything I can to persuade [the Soviet Union] of our peaceful intent. [. . .]

At the same time, however, they must be made to understand: we will never compromise our principles and standards. We will never give away our freedom. We will never abandon our belief in God. [. . .]

Yes, let us pray for the salvation of all of those who live in that totalitarian darkness—pray they will discover the joy of knowing God. But until they do, let us be aware that while they preach the supremacy of the State, declare its omnipotence over individual man, and predict its eventual domination of all peoples on the earth, they are the focus of evil in the modern world. [. . .]

Like other dictators before them, they’re always making “their final territorial demand,” some would have us accept them at their word and accommodate ourselves to their aggressive impulses. But if history teaches anything, it teaches that simpleminded appeasement or wishful thinking about our adversaries is folly. It means the betrayal of our past, the squandering of our freedom.

—Ronald Reagan, “Evil Empire Speech

  • Why does Reagan use religious language? What effect does this have?
  • To what other country is he comparing the Soviet Union when he talks about “simple-minded appeasement”? Do you think this is a good comparison? Why or why not?

When the new leader of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev, came to power in 1985, discontent was simmering in the Soviet Union and in the countries of Eastern Europe. Shortages of food and other goods were making people angry. In Poland in 1980, shipyard workers under the leadership of labor activist Lech Wałęsa formed a trade union and went on strike to protest government policies. Within a year, one-third of Poland’s population had joined the Solidarity union. The Polish government tried to suppress the movement and banned the union, but its ten million members could not be silenced. Pope John Paul II, himself a Pole and an opponent of communism, called upon the Polish church to support the workers.

Gorbachev realized the need for reform in the Soviet Union. The country simply could not afford to both compete militarily with the United States and provide its citizens what they needed to lead decent lives. Gorbachev thus willingly entered into arms limitation talks with Reagan. He also began a program of perestroika, a “restructuring” of the Soviet state and economy. He cut military spending and encouraged the beginnings of private enterprise. As part of his reform efforts, Gorbachev also encouraged glasnost or openness, allowing those who were angry to be critical of the government.

Changes in the Soviet Union mirrored changes taking place elsewhere in the Eastern Bloc. In 1988, protests broke out again in Poland, and strikes swept the country. The Polish government was forced to negotiate with Solidarity leaders and make concessions to them, including free elections for some government offices. In 1989, Hungary and East Germany opened their borders, allowing their citizens to come and go freely. Berliners climbed atop the wall that divided their city and began to tear it down. People in Bulgaria and Czechoslovakia called for changes in their government as well. Soviet tanks did not roll through the streets, and troops did not arrest or fire upon protesters. Gorbachev informed other members of the Soviet government that he did not intend to use military might to maintain control of Eastern Europe. In 1990, Germany was reunified, and the capital was returned to Berlin.

But the reforms Gorbachev initiated to save the Soviet Union eventually tore it apart. The Soviet republics also wanted their independence. Advocates of reform and democracy pushed for greater change. Not everyone in the Soviet Union was pleased by the reforms taking place, though. In August 1991, conservative members of the Communist Party attempted to remove Gorbachev from power, only to be foiled by the actions of Boris Yeltsin, the president of the Russian republic. Acting together, Yeltsin and the presidents of the Soviet republics of Belarus and Ukraine voted in December 1991 to dissolve the Soviet Union. The Cold War was at an end.

Ironically, the collapse of the Eastern Bloc also meant the demise of Yugoslavia, which had tried so hard to stand apart from it. The need to present a united front to the Soviet Union and the other Warsaw Pact nations had served as a powerful glue binding together the many disparate ethnic groups and states that comprised Yugoslavia. Had Tito lived, the country might have remained unified for a while longer, but he died in May 1980. In 1991 the states of Slovenia, Croatia, and Bosnia-Herzegovina declared their independence from Yugoslavia. When Serbian minorities in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina and Albanians in the Serbian province of Kosovo attempted to proclaim their independence from these larger states, violence broke out. Slobodan Milošević, the former president of both the state of Serbia and of Yugoslavia, funded Serb rebels in Bosnia and conducted a genocidal campaign against the Albanians of Kosovo. He was indicted for war crimes by the United Nations in 2001 and died in prison in 2006.

Link to Learning

The Soviet Union no longer exists. However, whether Russia has become a democratic country is a matter for debate. Read about efforts to establish democracy in Russia at the Freedom House website.

This lesson has no exercises.

The content of this course has been taken from the free World History, Volume 2: from 1400 textbook by Openstax