Second Cold War

Soviet-American tensions revived in the late 1970s as ‘détente’ (co-operation) gave way to a renewed arms race. Both the United States and the Soviet Union enhanced their nuclear weapons arsenals and deployed long-range missiles in Europe. With much of Western Europe and the Soviet Union within range of nuclear attack, the world braced itself for a potentially devastating strike. This proved to be the last major crisis of the Cold War. In 1986 Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and US President Ronald Reagan agreed on a major weapons reduction programme, heralding a thawing of relations between the superpowers.

The Berlin Wall

Built in 1961, the 112-kilometre Berlin Wall ran right through the city, separating West Berlin from East Berlin and East Germany. Designed to stop East German citizens fleeing to the West, it was not entirely successful. Between 1961 and 1989 around 5000 people successfully defected to West Berlin. Another 136 were killed while trying to escape.* The Wall was torn down in 1989 following the collapse of communist rule in East Germany.

*Source: Berlin Wall Memorial

The crisis in Europe reignited a peace movement worldwide. For New Zealanders there was a South Pacific focus. Initially provoked by French nuclear testing, from 1975 this was directed more at the United States’ nuclear presence in the region. Reinforced by world trends, the New Zealand movement exploded in size in the early 1980s.

Nuclear-free New Zealand

In 1985 the fourth Labour government clashed with the United States over its ban on port visits by nuclear-powered or nuclear-armed ships. This distanced New Zealand from its Cold War allies and led the United States to suspend its ANZUS obligations to New Zealand. Nevertheless, the depth of sentiment in New Zealand was such that the National Party adopted Labour’s ‘anti-nuclear’ stance in 1990. By then Soviet control had collapsed in east and central Europe, and the Cold War was approaching its end.

The Soviet Union collapses

The Berlin Wall came down in 1989. The demise of the Soviet Union itself at the end of 1991 completed the process. Some commentators saw the Soviet Union's disastorous war in Afghanistan (1979-1989) and their inability to keep pace with the United States in the nuclear arms race as a crucial factors. The collapse of Soviet power probably owed more to Eastern European resentment of Soviet domination and to internal factors, in particular the declining ability of the Soviet system to meet its citizens’ needs and the loss of legitimacy on the part of the country’s governing Communist Party.

How to cite this page

'Last decade', URL:, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 17-May-2017