Fall of the Berlin Wall: people from East and West Berlin climbing on the Wall at the Brandenburg Gate, Berlin, Germany (Newscom TagID: ibpremium177619.jpg) [Photo via Newscom]

Lessons of the Cold War

ALL THE GREAT HISTORICAL PERIODS and events are instructive. The Cold War is no exception. It offers lasting lessons that can help us deal with the challenges of the present and the future.

What, then, are the major lessons of the birth and death of the Cold War that can be applied to the conduct of U.S. foreign policy today? The world has changed since 1945 when the Cold War began and 1991 when it ended, but certain things remain true.

Regime Matters

Contrary to Machiavelli and his modern-day realpolitik disciples, power is not everything, even in totalitarian regimes. The philosophical ideas undergirding the regime matter as well, because they guide governments and help us to understand their conduct.

The United States was shaped by ideas drawn from its founding principles. By contrast, the Soviet regime from the beginning to the end was shaped by Marxism-Leninism: Gorbachev initiated glasnost and then perestroika in order to save Soviet Communism, not to initiate Western democracy. Once Communists in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe admitted they no longer believed in Communism, they destroyed the ideological glue that bound their façade of power and authority.

Similarly, in Iran today, the mullahs who govern the country are guided by their commitment to Islam, a commitment that shapes their world view and influences their conduct on the world stage. In China, the Communist government struggles to rationalize the contrary demands of economic liberalization and political control. As China’s economy inevitably weakens, there will be increased pressure for political liberalization.

Friends and Allies, Real and Potential, Matter

Early and late in the Cold War, the United States called upon and led a grand alliance against the Soviet Union through economic and strategic instruments such as the Marshall Plan, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, the “police action” in Korea, the deployment of Euromissiles to counter the Soviet SS-20s, its “special relationship” with Great Britain, and the multifaceted Reagan Doctrine. Where it acted more unilaterally, as in Vietnam, it was not successful.

In contrast, the Soviet Union was never able to command true allegiance from the members of the Warsaw Pact or the various nationalities and peoples within the Soviet empire. The Soviet Union was not a true nation, but rather a conglomeration of captive peoples and nationalities united by the Red Army.

Marxism-Leninism was an alien doctrine imposed on the peoples of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union by an imperial power. Once Western governments began to encourage the people within the “evil empire” to stand up, they did so with increasing confidence and success. The Hungarian Revolution of 1956 was crushed by Soviet tanks, but in 1980, the Communist government of Poland could only “ban” the Solidarity union for fear of alienating the West.

Leadership Matters

The history of the Cold War is the biography of leaders on both sides of the Iron Curtain. It began under Truman and Stalin and was ended by leaders that included Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, Pope John Paul II, Czech dissident Vaclav Havel, Solidarity founder Lech Walesa, and even Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev, who helped to end the Cold War by reluctantly abandoning the Brezhnev Doctrine that had propped up the Communist regimes of Eastern Europe for decades. Containment might have continued to be the policy of the United States for years if Reagan had not laid down a new way to wage the Cold War: “We win, and they lose.”

A firm commitment to freedom is something the two Presidents who served at the beginning and end of the Cold War had in common. As important as Ronald Reagan was to the winning of the war, there is much to be learned from the American President who was there at its birth. Harry Truman’s Cold War was a conflict between good and evil, between freedom and tyranny, between liberal democracy and totalitarianism, between capitalism and Communism. His strategy was (1) to articulate America’s basic principles of freedom and equality and
(2) to assist those who lived under such principles to maintain them and to aid those under totalitarianism to realize them in the future.

The United States enjoyed successes in the Cold War when led by visionaries, including Truman and Reagan. When American leaders sought to deal with the Communist threat through containment, however, they were less successful.

Meanwhile, the Soviet Union and its satellites were led by aging tyrants like East German Communist boss Erich Honecker, who in early 1989 declared that the Berlin Wall would stand for at least another 100 years. Gorbachev’s three immediate predecessors had believed that the Soviet Union could spend an estimated 40 percent of its budget on military weapons indefinitely.

Statecraft Matters

Victory over a determined adversary requires not only strength and resolve, but also a strategy relevant to the times and the nation-states involved. Containment was an appropriate strategy in the beginning of the Cold War when the United States was sorting out its domestic and foreign responsibilities and the Soviet Union was in place and in power in Eastern Europe. Forty years later, the United States could take the offensive against an economically weakened Soviet Union and its Communist satellites that had failed to deliver the goods to their peoples and whose Marxist ideology was disintegrating.

A successful U.S. foreign policy depends on the exercise of prudence. It is impossible to predetermine the extent, priority, and immediacy of the nation’s security requirements: They shifted constantly throughout the Cold War as the balance of world forces changed. Likewise, it is impossible to predetermine the challenges and opportunities for furthering American principles and interests in the world. It is therefore impossible to know beforehand what policy prudence will dictate at any particular time and place.

Cold War policies such as the Marshall Plan were prudent. Its economic aid helped our World War II allies get back on their feet and at the same time created markets for our goods. Less prudent policies, including Jimmy Carter’s human rights fixation that resulted in a Marxist Nicaragua and an Islamist Iran and the Nixon-Kissinger détente that allowed the Soviets to surpass us in strategic weapons, were failures.

A grand strategy for U.S. foreign policy should begin with the thesis that the United States should step in only when its vital interests are at stake and it has the capability to act. Those interests are:

  • Protecting American territory, sea lanes, and airspace;
  • Preventing a major power from controlling Europe, East Asia, or the Persian Gulf;
  • Ensuring U.S. access to world resources;
  • Expanding free trade throughout the world; and
  • Protecting Americans against threats to their lives and well-being.

Whether it is clashes with Islamic terrorists or long-term challenges from autocratic Communist China or Russia’s economic-strategic attempts to expand its sphere of influence, a prudent foreign policy guided by our founding principles of liberty and justice and based on our capabilities offers the best path for the United States. That is a strategy for the ages.


Dr. Edwards is the Distinguished Fellow in Conservative Thought at the B. Kenneth Simon Center for Principles and Politics at The Heritage Foundation. Dr. Spalding is Associate Professor of Government at Claremont McKenna College. This article is excerpted from their book A Brief History of the Cold War, published by The Heritage Foundation, © 2014 by The Heritage Foundation.