Starting in the mid-1980s, the U.S.-Soviet summits in Geneva (1985), Reykjavik (1986), and Malta (1989) have stood for a special segment of twentieth-century history—the phasing out of the Cold War. These summits helped bring to a close the unremitting competition between irreconcilable worldviews and political systems, which left not a single corner of the world untouched.
Malta was where U.S.-Soviet relations crossed the Rubicon. The Malta summit between Mikhail Gorbachev and George H.W. Bush on storm-tossed seas stood for the end of the global communist project and the Soviet superpower. Today, looking back at the vertiginous history of the 1980s, one can trace the path toward Malta back to Ronald Reagan’s historic address on March 8, 1983, to the National Association of Evangelicals, where Reagan defined the Soviet Union as an “evil empire.” Consciously or not, Reagan was echoing his predecessor, Harry Truman, who in 1949 declared a head-on struggle against the “false philosophy” of communism, whose aims where completely opposite to those of democracy.
Reagan made a significant move on March 23, 1983, when he declared the development of a new kind of weapon capable of protecting American skies from a Soviet missile strike. Such missile defense would render Soviet nuclear capabilities and delivery vehicles useless. The principal aim of the Strategic Defense Initiative, which was known popularly as “Star Wars,” sought to demoralize the Kremlin leadership. Add to this a massive military buildup. While for America, the military expenditures on SDI represented an investment into a technological breakthrough, matters were rather different for Moscow. For the Soviet planned economy, the new arms race was an irrecoverable loss, which overlapped with a dramatic drop in oil prices. In short, Reagan imposed on the elderly Soviet leadership the excessive burden of his Cold War strategy and to a great extent helped the rise of Mikhail Gorbachev (who was the youngest member of the Politburo).