The Wall Falls
Whether one views Star Wars—and the rest of the gargantuan Reagan defense budget—as a vast misjudgment, which quadrupled the national debt from one to four trillion dollars, or as a costly but brilliant strategy to win the Cold War, the fact is that the Cold War did end. The government of the Soviet Union was first liberalized and then fell apart, the nation’s economy in tatters and the people clamoring for democratic capitalist reforms. Even though Mikhail Gorbachev (b. 1931), general secretary of the Soviet Communist party (1985-91) and president of the U.S.S.R. (1988-91), introduced unheard of liberal reforms, President Reagan prodded him to go even further. In 1987, standing near the Berlin Wall, brick, stone, and razor-wire symbol of a half-century of communist oppression, the president made a stirring speech calling out to the Soviet leader: “Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” Two years later, Berliners began chipping away at the wall, tearing it down piece by piece, as a liberalized Soviet Union merely looked on.
Although communist hardliners staged a revolt against Gorbachev in 1991, progressive junior army officers refused to follow KGB (Soviet secret police) directives, and the attempted coup failed. Gorbachev then disbanded the Communist party and stepped down as leader of the Soviet Union. Boris Yeltsin (b. 1931), radical reformist president of the Russian Republic, assumed leadership not of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics—which ceased to exist—but of a loose commonwealth of former Soviet states.