Ronald Reagan's election to the presidency in 1980 marked a significant conservative shift in America. He pursued a policy of government deregulation and built up the nation's military strength. In order to pay for the new military spending the government had to borrow money, which increased the national debt. Reagan's successor, George H.W. Bush, was an experienced leader in foreign affairs. A wave of democracy spread throughout Eastern Europe. In the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev tried to bring about reforms that would improve the lives of average citizens. In Poland shipyard workers organized an independent labor union—Solidarity—that led to the end of communism. In November 1989, Germans used hammers and chisels to break down the Berlin Wall. In December 1991, Gorbachev announced the end of the Soviet Union.
In 1990, Iraq invaded neighboring Kuwait. President Bush persuaded other nations to join in Operation Desert Storm. The allies succeeded in forcing Iraqi troops to pull out of Kuwait. Another challenge to world peace arose in Yugoslavia. The United Nations sent in peacekeeping teams to prevent the Serbs from committing further atrocities.
In 1992 Bill Clinton was elected president. He succeeded in cutting the national debt and running a budget surplus. However, legal questions arose over the president's involvement in certain real estate investments. In early 1998 a new scandal emerged involving a personal relationship between the president and a White House intern. Eventually the House of Representatives voted to impeach the president. In the Senate trial the president was found not guilty.
President Clinton's two terms had left the country divided. In one of the nation's closest elections, George W. Bush, son of former President Bush, defeated Vice President Al Gore. President Bush soon faced his first crisis. On September 11, 2001, two passenger airplanes crashed into the World Trade Center in New York City. Another crashed into the Pentagon. On a fourth hijacked plane passengers heroically attacked the hijackers, causing the plane to crash. President Bush established a new department, Homeland Security, and organized a war on terrorism. The effort to protect Americans continued when the U.S. military attacked Iraq in March 2003. President Bush argued that the Iraqis were hiding weapons of mass destruction. Even after the regime of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein was toppled, it was clear that the path toward a stable Iraq would not be easy.