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Second Cold War

Second Cold War

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To Americans and Russians in the 1970s, it seemed that the Cold War had finally come to an end. The two powers entered a period of, if not friendly relations, then less hostile ones. They both signed the Helsinki Accords in 1975, agreeing to respect the rights of other nations, which many saw as a sure sign of progress.

But by the 1980s, the US and the USSR were once again hostile and aggressive to one another. What caused this turnabout? And why did peace fail? This is the story of the second Cold War.

Second Cold War Period Background

By the 1970s, both the US and the USSR were occupied with their internal affairs and domestic issues.

The Soviet leader, Leonid Brezhnev, struggled to revive a stagnating economy and improve the standard of living for Soviet citizens. In the United States, the White House was grappling with the backlash from the Vietnam War, a major oil crisis, and the Watergate Scandal, which led to President Richard Nixon’s resignation.

Crucially, the US and the USSR continued to distrust one another. Despite the Helsinki Accords, they both continued to play a role in foreign nations’ politics and governance to advance their own interests.

Causes of the Second Cold War

The Second Cold War was brought about by short-term triggers such as the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Ronald Reagan’s confrontational foreign policy, and changes in leadership.

Second Cold War Afghanistan

The event that put an end to détente (the easing of hostility) and led to this period of rising tensions was the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. As Democratic President Jimmy Carter said:

The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan is the most serious threat to peace since the Second World War. It is a sharp escalation in the aggressive history of the Soviet Union."

- President Jimmy Carter to members of Congress, 19801

Despite his strong remarks, Carter was severely criticised by the Republicans. Carter's foreign policy had previously involved cutting military spending and reducing the number of military weapons. The Republicans pressed Carter to respond to the invasion and characterised the moderate nature of his foreign policy as weak.

Second Cold War Jimmy Carter, 39th President of the United States StudySmarterFig. 1 - Jimmy Carter, 39th President of the United States (20 January 1977 - 20th January 1991)

Indeed, after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Carter reversed his policies. Carter now favoured a hardline approach towards the USSR, which included the following policies:

  • Placing harsh embargoes (ban on trade) on grain and other consumer goods from the USSR.

  • Supporting a US boycott of the Olympic Games, which were to be held in Moscow.

  • Committing to a 5% increase in military spending.

  • Declaring a willingness to defend American interests in the region with military action if necessary.

  • Withdrawing the American ambassador to Moscow.

  • The formation of the Rapid Deployment Joint Task Force to Afghanistan, which was a mobile three-division force that could easily move around the world.

  • Approving military aid for Afghan rebels.

  • Issuing PD-59, a classified and aggressive military defence strategy, designed to allow American presidents greater flexibility to carry out nuclear warfare.

These actions against the USSR would later be referred to as the Carter Doctrine and represented a strict departure from the platform of peaceful coexistence that he had campaigned on.

Reagan and the Second Cold War

In 1980, Ronald Reagan replaced Jimmy Carter as the President of the United States. Reagan was outspoken about his stance against communism and frequently referred to the USSR as an ‘evil empire’. Once he was in power, Reagan put into place aggressive policies that aimed to stop the spread of communism.

The start of President Reagan's policy aimed to not only contain communism but also eliminate it. His rollback policy was a stark symbol of his willingness to mobilise military and economic resources to stop the spread of communism across the world.

Rollback policy

Reagan's policy to actively 'roll back’ communism in different parts of the world. It led to the direct interference of America in the politics of various countries. This marked a significant change from containment, which aimed to stop the expansion of communism, and détente, which had resulted in a working relationship between the two superpowers.

This policy led to the secret US support of anti-Communist rebels throughout the world. For example, Reagan gave covert support to the Contras in their attack on the socialist government in Nicaragua, the Afghan rebels in their fight against the USSR, and the anti-communist Angolan forces which fought in the country’s bloody civil war. Reagan also gave support to the Marcos dictatorship in the Philippines and the South African apartheid government.

President Reagan viewed the Second Cold War as about:

[F]undamental differences over important moral questions dealing with the worth of the individual and whether governments shall control people or people control governments.

- President Ronald Reagan, Address to the United Nations, New York, 19882

The Reagan administration further created a new policy towards the USSR through the implementation of the NSDD-32 (National Security Decisions Directive), which aimed to confront the USSR on three fronts:

  1. Hinder Soviet access to advanced technology and diminish their resources, including putting downward pressure on the value of Soviet exports on international markets.

  2. Increase American military spending, which would fortify America’s negotiating position.

  3. Make it necessary for the USSR to devote more of its national budget to defence.

Reagan’s policies revived hostilities and the arms race. With the aggressive Reagan Doctrine, the US believed they could reverse Soviet expansionism and eventually end the Cold War, not through appeasement, but by intimidation.

Changes in leadership and the decline of Brezhnev

Reagan found a close ally in the newly elected Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, Margaret Thatcher. Both leaders were staunchly anti-communist and both had pledged to roll back communism.

Additionally, the USSR was led by Leonid Brezhnev who was in very poor health and took a backseat to foreign policy decisions. The strength of the new alliances in the West, which were determined to fight communism and the weakness of Brezhnev contributed to the onset of the Second Cold War.

Consequences of the Second Cold War

The historian Robert L. Ivie claimed that:

“In [Reagan’s] view, the only possibility worth entertaining was that of converting the Soviet Union into a Western democracy, thereby realising the [...] dream of eternal peace among free, civilised, and God-fearing nations. Anything short of a complete ideological conversion would produce only disappointment and deepening disillusionment in the West, further undermining prospects for peaceful coexistence with an ‘evil empire’. The terms of Reagan’s bargain were the legacy of Cold War rhetoric in America.”

- Historian Robert L. Ivie, 19973

Perhaps the most significant impact of the Second Cold War was its economic strain on the USSR. By the time the Soviet leader Gorbachev ascended to power in 1985, he was committed to reducing the toll of the Cold War on the USSR, and thus complied with most of Reagan’s policies.

The USSR suffered from an economic growth rate close to 0%, combined with a sharp fall in export earnings due to the decline of world oil prices in the 1980s, during which petroleum exports made up around 60% of the USSR’s total export earnings. Thus, to institute rapid reform, Gorbachev redirected the country’s resources from costly Cold War commitments to more profitable areas in the civilian sector and offered major concessions to the US on the levels of conventional forces, nuclear weapons, and policy in Eastern Europe.

After this period, tensions cooled off once again, and the Cold War came to an official end in 1989, when the Soviet Union began to break down.

Second Cold War - Key takeaways

  • The period of high tension between the US and the USSR in the years 1979-85 is known as the Second Cold War.

  • This period marked the end of 15 years of détente and the escalation of tension between the US and the USSR which had not been seen since the Cuban Missile Crisis.

  • The event that finally put an end to détente and led to this period of rising tensions was the Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan in 1979.

  • The rise of Ronald Reagan and the weakness of Brezhnev during this time also helped to usher in the Second Cold War period.

  • Reagan re-ignited the arms race and put significant pressure on the Soviet economy.


  1. President Jimmy Carter, Remarks at a White House Briefing for Members of Congress, January 8, 1980. Public Papers of the Presidents: Jimmy Carter, 1981, p.40
  2. President Ronald Reagan, as quoted in Medhurst, Ivie, Wander and Scott's Cold War Rhetoric: Strategy, Metaphor, and Ideology, 1997.
  3. Robert L. Ivie, Cold War Rhetoric: Strategy, Metaphor, and Ideology, 1997.
  4. Fig. 1 - Jimmy Carter (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Jimmy_Carter_(1988).jpg) by Rob Croes (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Category:Rob_Croes) Licensed by CC0 1.0 (https://creativecommons.org/publicdomain/zero/1.0/deed.en)

Frequently Asked Questions about Second Cold War

The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 was the critical trigger to the rising tensions that led to the Second Cold War Period.

Reagan’s aggressive rollback policies led to the revival of the arms race, which made him ultimately responsible for entering the Second Cold War

The Second Cold War came about because of Reagan’s aggressive foreign policy, the rise of conservative leaders in the West, the weakness of Brezhnev and communist expansionism.

The second Cold War ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union, beginning in 1989 and ultimately collapsing in 1991. 

The Second Cold War was the indirect war or hostility between the US and the USSR, 1979 - 1985.


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