Did the fear of a nuclear annihilation and the incredible cost of the United States’ military buildup of the 1980s help to make the Cold War too ghastly to contemplate and, simultaneously, too expensive for either side to continue?
The Soviet Union surprised everyone by falling apart late in the 20th century. No longer were they a huge enemy in Eurasia that demanded our constant attention and scared us into continued military buildup. Whatever forces brought down the USSR had a lot to do with ending the Cold War.
I believe the two most important events that led to the eventual end of the "Cold War" were:
- President Richard Nixon's diplomatic appeals to the Republic of China which eventually led to the relatively friendly relations we have today; and
- President Ronald Reagan's philosophy of ultra-spending on his Star Wars military programs which nearly bankrupted the Soviet Union in their attempt to keep pace with the U.S.
I would certainly agree that the build up of nuclear arms was part of the reason the Cold War ended. I do not think it was the only reason but it was clearly a major part. The US might have been willing to continue spending money on the nuclear arms race, but the Soviet Union was not. It is also true that both sides were terrified of nuclear annihilation. Everyone was worried about the cost of a true nuclear war.
I would say that it made the Cold War too expensive for the Soviets to continue but did not make it too expensive for the US. The Soviet Union had a much weaker economy and the sacrifices needed to maintain its military helped lead to internal strains and anger against the Soviet regime.
One school of thought gives policy-makers in the United States the credit for pushing the conflict toward a swift end for exactly these reasons. According to this way of thinking, president Ronald Reagan, through massive investment in the military, combined with tough talk and simultaneous diplomatic overtures, helped bring about the end of the Cold War. So the incredible cost was an effort to drive the conflict toward a swift conclusion, a departure from the detente approach pursued by Nixon/Kissinger.
Another school of thought points out that while the strain of the arms race certainly caused problems for the Soviet economy, what really ended the Cold War were internal changes in the USSR and in the eastern bloc in general. A series of events, including the war in Afghanistan and the Solidarity movement in Poland were both symptoms of and catalysts for change that caused the collapse of communist governments in the Warsaw Pact nations. This school of thought tends to give Mikhail Gorbachev more credit than anyone else for managing and encouraging the reforms that eventually spiraled out of his control.