The last quarter of the twentieth century saw the end of the Cold War, the collapse of Communist rule in Eastern Europe, and economic unification of Western Europe. American popular culture had a global influence, as did the use of terrorism as a political tool.
Section 1 Decline of the Soviet Union
The 1970s saw a relaxation of Cold War tensions, known as détente. The 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan brought back old fears of Soviet expansion. Tensions heightened further when Ronald Reagan called the Soviet Union an "evil empire" and began a new arms race. Leonid Brezhnev, the Soviet leader of the 1970s, had been uninterested in reform. However, Mikhail Gorbachev, who came to power in 1985, saw the need for radical change to save an ailing economy. Gorbachev coupled his domestic reform plans with an easing of Communist party control over the republics of the Soviet Union. Agreements with the United States sharply reduced nuclear arms stockpiles. Gorbachev's reforms led to the break-up of the Soviet Union into independent republics. Post-Soviet Russian leaders had to contend with the attempt by Chechen rebels to break away from the Russian Republic. Meanwhile, the shift to a free-market economy produced economic hardship, social disarray, and a sharp rise in organized crime.
Section 2 Eastern Europe
The collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe took varying forms in the late 1980s. In Poland the Solidarity trade union led a decade-long struggle for change. Often, the collapse of the Communist order was more sudden. In Czechoslovakia mass demonstrations ousted the Communists swiftly and with little violence. Ethnic pressures later led to the division of the country into Slovakia and the Czech Republic. The killing of thousands of peaceful demonstrators in Romania caused the army to withdraw its support for the repressive dictatorship. It quickly collapsed. Street protests also brought the fall of Communism—and the Berlin Wall—in East Germany. Free elections led to German reunification. Yugoslavia split into multiple republics. Calls for the formation of a Greater Serbia in the former Yugoslavia produced two wars in which NATO blocked Serbian attempts to annex Bosnia and strip Kosovo of its status as an autonomous province.
Section 3 Europe and North America
Economic problems plagued the West during the 1970s. A sharp increase in oil prices had ripple effects in most countries. After 1970 Western European nations moved toward economic union. A socialist, François Mitterand, tried unsuccessfully to remedy France's problems by expanding government ownership of business. Margaret Thatcher's budget cuts in Great Britain proved more successful but caused widespread poverty in old industrial areas. Although an economic boom in the 1980s at first helped West Germany absorb East Germany, German reunification proved to be more costly than originally thought. Subsequent economic problems led to a wave of anti-immigrant and neo-Nazi activity. In the United States, Jimmy Carter lost his reelection bid under the cloud of a hostage crisis and high inflation. Ronald Reagan made cutbacks in social programs but ordered a costly military buildup. Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton both left office under a cloud of misconduct. While Clinton oversaw an economic recovery, his legal problems helped elect a Republican, George W. Bush. In Canada, the province of Quebec came close to seceding during the 1990s.
Section 4 Western Society and Culture
Since 1970 the number of women in the work force has continued to rise, although women have continued to earn less than men. Issues of particular concern to women have gained prominence in political debates. Acts of terror have become a regular feature of Western society. One of the most destructive acts occurred in September 2001, when terrorists piloted airplanes into the World Trade Center Towers in New York City and the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., killing thousands. Wartime technological advances have revolutionized the lives of civilians. A new model for scientific research developed as the government and military worked together to complete large projects. Critics of rapid scientific and technological change point to damaging effects on the environment and the food supply. Fears of a collapse in values sparked a religious revival during the twentieth century. Americans dominated the art world after World War II and shaped popular culture.