When Reagan became President he had only one well-defined foreign policy goal: containing the Soviet Union, or the "evil empire" as he once referred to it. He primarily wanted to stop the USSR from growing larger (as it tried to do when it invaded Afghanistan in 1979) and to keep other non-Communist countries from becoming Communist. He disliked the decade-long Detente begun by President Nixon and continued by President Ford intended to ease relations with the Soviets. Reagan firmly believed that the USSR was using Détente and the SALT talks to take advantage of the United States. The "window of vulnerability" was fast approaching, Reagan insisted, when Moscow would be able to launch a preemptive first strike against Washington and destroy the US nuclear defensive systems.
For this reason, Reagan reasoned that the US needed to prepare its military defense systems for this onslaught. He believed that only through military preparedness could the world achieve a stable peace. His Secretaries of State, General Alexander Haig and George Schultz, as well as his Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger, among others, assisted Reagan in developing this Cold War strategy. During Reagan's two administrations, the US military increased to unprecedented peacetime levels. The administration also spent billions of dollars on defense contracts to research and develop new weapons and military technology. The military increased production of nuclear arms and deployed them throughout the Western world. The exorbitant amount of money Reagan spent on defense contributed to the enormous national deficit during the 1980s.
The most notorious of the programs Reagan invested in was the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), more commonly known as the Star Wars program in reference to the popular 1980s science fiction film trilogy. The SDI was designed to be a national defense network of missiles that could target and destroy any incoming enemy missiles before they reached the United States. Unfortunately, Star Wars was mostly a fantasy–prototypes of the seek-and- destroy technology often failed the trial runs miserably. Worse still, SDI's estimated price tag totaled nearly $1 trillion dollars, a figure that concerned many Democrats and American citizens during a decade of recession. Many Americans also feared that Reagan's conservative, Cold War ideology would only lead to war. In 1982, 800,000 Americans rallied in New York City to press the administration to stop creating more nuclear weapons. Reagan denounced these protestors as peace-loving "doves" and continued developing the US weapons arsenal.
Reagan couldn't ignore these "doves" completely, however. The political cost of ignoring millions of Americans was too great, especially for a first term president possibly seeking reelection. To appease those who disliked his defense programs, Reagan initiated START, or the Strategic Arms Reduction Talks, with the Soviet Union in mid 1982. Not surprisingly, these talks quickly failed because the language of the talks demanded that the USSR significantly reduce its nuclear arsenal, but allow the US to continue building its arsenal.
The surprise did come in 1985, though, when Mikhail Gorbechev became the leader of the Soviet Union and actively sought both political and economic reform in the USSR as well as an easing of tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union.
For the first time since the beginning of the Cold War, a Soviet leader approached the United States to seriously discuss a possible peace. This initiative took the Reagan administration completely by surprise, but Reagan quickly responded in kind. Numerous summits between top Soviet and American officials were held during Reagan's second term. Eventually, even Gorbechev and President Reagan themselves sat together in both Washington and Moscow on a number of occasions to hammer out agreements. Many concessions were made on both sides: in 1987 Gorbechev agreed to withdraw most of its nuclear arsenal and troops from the Soviet-controlled states in Eastern Europe and to withdraw from Afghanistan while Reagan eventually abandoned his Star Wars plans and agreed to reduce the number of American nuclear weapons. Gorbechev initiated so many reforms that within three or four years after Reagan left office, the Soviet Union collapsed and disintegrated into individual states, effectively ending the Cold War.