The 1980s were a pivotal decade for the world. As the decade opened, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan and set up what proved to be one of the last showdowns of the Cold War.
President Ronald Reagan and his administration pursued a foreign policy aimed squarely at bringing down the influence of communist governments in Europe and elsewhere.
Thirty years later, a recent forum in Milwaukee examined the legacy of that era of U.S. policy, both here and in the former Soviet Union.
Richard Friedman advised members of the Reagan administration at that time, and now is a senior fellow with the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. He says Reagan initially saw only confrontation with Soviet Union.
"He did not think, in the early years of his presidency, that there was any potential for détente, although there were significant pressures – let’s make a deal, let’s reduce the tension," Friedman says.
But when Mikhail Gorbachev came to power as Soviet Premier, the ice slowly began to melt between the two countries.
Svetlana Savranskaya, senior fellow at George Washington University’s National Security Archives, grew up in the Soviet Union and was in college at Moscow State University in East Berlin as the relationship between Reagan and Gorbachev warmed up.
"Within the system there was an understanding that things had to change," she says. "The average age of the Politburo when Gorbachev comes to power is 72. So they knew they needed new blood."
When President Reagan delivered his famous speech from the West Berlin side of the Brandenburg Gate, demanding the Berlin Wall be taken down, Savranskaya says people in East Berlin were listening attentively.
Though the wall didn’t come down until some time later, it was one of the watershed moments in the burgeoning peaceful relations between the U.S. and the Soviet Union.
Milwaukee-based filmmaker Chip Duncan produced a three-hour documentary on the Reagan Presidency for public television. He says his documentary examined the significant global transition that occurred under his administration.
"Really...you see the Cold War come to an end and the War on Terror begin," Duncan says.
While the easing of tensions brought both leaders much respect in their respective countries, Savranskaya says Gorbachev's legacy is more complex.
"Gorbachev was phenomenally popular in the late 1980s," she says. "Unfortunately, today, his popularity is very low."
The forum on U.S. foreign policy at the end of the Cold War was recorded earlier this month at the University Club of Milwaukee.