May 31

This Day in History

Presidential

May 31, 1988:

Three U.S. presidents close chapters on the Cold War

On this day in history, three U.S. presidents in three different years take significant steps toward ending the Cold War.

Beginning on May 28, 1988, President Ronald Reagan met Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev for a four-day summit in Russia. Upon his election in 1980, Reagan had abandoned Nixon, Ford and Carter's attempts to diffuse political tensions between the two superpowers and instead instigated an enormous build-up of arms and rhetoric against the Soviet Union. The Soviets could not keep up with the U.S.'s massive defense spending and this, along with Gorbachev's policy of granting increasing freedom to Soviet citizens (glasnost), helped to erode hard-line communism within Russia. In a remarkable and symbolic address to a group of Moscow University students on May 31, Reagan stood in front of an enormous bust of Lenin and spoke openly about freedom, technology, creativity and his desire to see the Berlin Wall torn down. He told the students your generation is living in one of the most exciting, hopeful times in Soviet historywhen the first breath of freedom stirs the air and the heart beats to the accelerated rhythm of hope, when the accumulated spiritual energies of a long silence yearn to break free.

Two years to the day after Reagan's 1988 visit, and just about a year after the 1989 demolition of the Berlin Wall, Reagan's successor George H. W. Bush met with Gorbachev in the United States to discuss the reunification of East and West Germany. Bush and Gorbachev outlined a plan that would unite the separate communist and democratic spheres into one nation not seen since World War II. In 1991, after an aborted communist coup against Gorbachev, Boris Yeltsin became president and the Soviet Union was officially declared over, dismantled and re-named Russia. Most of the former Soviet satellite territories were granted their independence. Russia then initiated tentative steps toward a capitalist economic system.

On this day in 1994, President Bill Clinton pledged continued cooperation with Russia in a New World Order, declaring that the U.S. would no longer point nuclear missiles at Russia, ending the antagonism and fear of mutually assured destruction that characterized the half-century-long Cold War between the two superpowers.

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