19.5 The Cold War Ends

During the Cold War, relations between the Soviet Union and the United States swung back and forth between confrontation and détente. The superpowers confronted each other over issues such as the Berlin Wall, Soviet intervention in Eastern Europe, and Cuba. However, in the 1970s, Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev pursued détente and disarmament with the United States.

Photo of tanks driving through a city street, each bearing several missiles.

Missiles are paraded in Red Square in Moscow. The heavy military commitments of the Soviet Union was one of the factors that led to its decline.


  • Understand why the Soviet Union declined.
  • Identify the reforms introduced by Mikhail Gorbachev.
  • Describe the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union.
  • Evaluate how the end of the Cold War affected the remaining communist nations and the United States.

Key Terms

  • mujahedin
  • Mikhail Gorbachev
  • glasnost
  • perestroika
  • Lech Walesa
  • Solidarity
  • Václav Havel
  • Nicolae Ceausescu

The Soviet Union Declines

Détente came to an abrupt end in 1979, after the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan to ensure its influence in that neighboring nation. Like the Vietnam War in the United States, the Afghan War drained the Soviet economy and provoked a crisis at home.

The Soviets in Afghanistan

The Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in late 1979 to support an Afghan communist government that had seized power a year earlier. The new government's efforts to introduce social reforms and redistribute land roused bitter resentment among the anti-communist, devoutly Muslim Afghan people. As insurgencies, or uprisings, threatened the government, the Soviet Union stepped in.

For ten years, Soviet forces battled widely scattered groups of mujahedin (moo jah heh DEEN), or Muslim guerrilla fighters. Despite 100,000 troops, the Soviets controlled only the cities, not the countryside. When the Soviets turned to bombing rural areas, millions of Afghan refugees fled into neighboring Pakistan. The United States funneled weapons and other military supplies to help the insurgents battle Soviet troops.

By the late 1980s, the Afghan War had become a quagmire for the Soviet Union. It was draining badly needed resources and costing many casualties. In 1989, the Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan to focus on troubling issues at home.

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Table of Contents

World History Topic 1 Origins of Civilization (Prehistory–300 B.C.) Topic 2 The Ancient Middle East and Egypt (3200 B.C.–500 B.C.) Topic 3 Ancient India and China (2600 B.C.–A.D. 550) Topic 4 The Americas (Prehistory–A.D. 1570) Topic 5 Ancient Greece (1750 B.C.–133 B.C.) Topic 6 Ancient Rome and the Origins of Christianity (509 B.C.-A.D. 476) Topic 7 Medieval Christian Europe (330–1450) Topic 8 The Muslim World and Africa (730 B.C.-A.D. 1500) Topic 9 Civilizations of Asia (500–1650) Topic 10 The Renaissance and Reformation (1300–1650) Topic 11 New Global Connections (1415–1796) Topic 12 Absolutism and Revolution Topic 13 The Industrial Revolution Topic 14 Nationalism and the Spread of Democracy (1790–1914) Topic 15 The Age of Imperialism (1800–1914) Topic 16 World War I and the Russian Revolution (1914–1924) Topic 17 The World Between the Wars (1910–1939) Topic 18 World War II (1930–1945) Topic 19 The Cold War Era (1945–1991) Topic 20 New Nations Emerge (1945–Present) Topic 21 The World Today (1980-Present) United States Constitution Primary Sources 21st Century Skills Atlas Glossary Index Acknowledgments