“The arms race made the greatest contribution to the ending of the Cold War.” Discuss with reference to the period between 1980 and 1991.

 From the November 2021 Paper 2 IBDP History exam

The ending of the Cold War is a complex historical event whose causes have been the subject of intense debate among historians. Some argue that the arms race, particularly in the 1980s, played a key role in ending the ideological, political, and military conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union. However, other factors, including internal pressures within the Soviet Union, the roles of key individuals, and changes in foreign policy strategies, also significantly contributed to the conclusion of the Cold War. 

The arms race, with its increasing economic burdens and threats to global security, certainly played a significant role in the Cold War's ending. The Soviet Union's efforts to keep pace with American military and technological advancements put an immense strain on its already fragile economy. Under President Ronald Reagan, the US launched the Strategic Defence Initiative (SDI), colloquially known as "Star Wars", a proposed missile defence system intended to protect the United States from potential nuclear attack. The initiative never became fully operational, but it arguably pushed the Soviet Union into further unsustainable military spending. According to historians like John Lewis Gaddis in "The Cold War: A New History", the economic pressure resulting from this competition contributed significantly to the Soviet Union's eventual collapse. 

However, it is essential to evaluate the arms race within a broader context. The internal pressures within the Soviet Union, particularly its stagnating economy and increasing social discontent, were significant contributors to the end of the Cold War. The centrally planned Soviet economy was ill-equipped to deal with the demands of the technological and information age. By the time Mikhail Gorbachev came to power in 1985, he faced an economy in decline and rising dissatisfaction from the populace. Gorbachev's policies of glasnost (openness) and perestroika (restructuring), intended to address these issues, instead further exposed the systemic weaknesses of the Soviet system. Historian Vladislav Zubok argues in "A Failed Empire" that Gorbachev's internal reforms, more than the arms race, precipitated the dissolution of the Soviet Union. 

The role of key individuals and their foreign policy decisions should not be underestimated in analysing the end of the Cold War. Gorbachev's willingness to adopt a less confrontational foreign policy marked a significant departure from his predecessors. Meanwhile, Reagan's initially hardline stance softened in his second term, with him engaging in multiple summit meetings with Gorbachev to discuss arms reduction. The signing of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty in 1987, which eliminated an entire class of nuclear weapons, marked a substantial de-escalation in the arms race. 

Furthermore, the changing political landscape in Eastern Europe, triggered by Gorbachev's non-interventionist stance, significantly contributed to the end of the Cold War. The peaceful revolutions in 1989, culminating in the fall of the Berlin Wall, signalled the end of Soviet dominance in Eastern Europe and served as a symbolic conclusion to the Cold War. 

In conclusion, while the arms race, especially in the 1980s, was a crucial factor in the ending of the Cold War, it should not be seen in isolation. The internal pressures within the Soviet Union, the roles of key individuals, and changes in foreign policy strategies all played significant roles in this historical event. It is the interplay of these factors, rather than any single cause, that led to the ending of the Cold War. This complex interplay underscores the need for a nuanced understanding of the multifaceted nature of historical events and developments.