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Cold War

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The political situation in Europe during the Cold War.

The Cold War was the tense relationship between the United States (and its allies) and the Soviet Union (USSR, and its allies) between the end of World War II and the demise of the Soviet Union; i.e. the years 1945 to 1991. This war was unlike other wars in that the two sides never clashed directly in battle. The fear that the relationship would end in nuclear war did not materialize.

Conflicting countries

US-American alliances (blue) and USSR alliances (red)

Both the United States (U.S) and the Soviet Union (U.S.S.R) had several countries as allies. These countries were known as satellite states or client states.

The United Kingdom, France, New Zealand, Australia, West Germany, Canada, and the Netherlands are examples of countries on the American side. Allies in North America or western Europe were members of NATO. Others joined other regional alliances.

East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Romania, Hungary, Poland were on the Soviet side. These countries in eastern Europe were among the most powerful Soviet allies, and were members of the Warsaw Pact. Cuba, North Korea, China, Mongolia and numerous other countries were friendly to the USSR at various times.


The outbreak of the Cold War was due to the different ways of thinking - known as "ideology" - both in economy and government. The United States used capitalism as their economic system while the Soviet Union used socialism. Both countries claimed to be a "democracy" (the USA was basically a two party state and the USSR was a one party state) but neither believed the other. These differences, and a desire to show that their systems were better, led to a tense relationship between the two countries.

The USSR and the USA were allies during World War II because both countries were enemies of Nazi Germany. Even before the war started, they disliked Germany's ideology and policies but they traded with Germany, and the Soviet Union continued to do so after the Battle of France. When they became allies, the USSR and its western allies (the United States and Great Britain) still did not agree with each other, in terms of government, but both thought that it was more important to work together fighting against Germany and its allies.

After World War II

The "Big Three" at the Yalta Conference: Winston Churchill, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Joseph Stalin, early 1945.

After WWII, Germany was left in ruins. The victorious allies that occupied it split it into four parts. One part was given to the United Kingdom, one part to France, one part to the United States, and the eastern part was occupied by the USSR. The city of Berlin was also partitioned between the four parties even though it was located in the part occupied by the USSR.

Subsequently, the three non-soviet countries combined their sections of the country to form a country known as the Federal Republic of Germany (Bundesrepublik Deutschland or BRD). The USSR named their section of Germany the German Democratic Republic (Deutsche Demokratische Republik or DDR). The western parts of Berlin were likewise combined to form West Berlin, a BRD enclave inside the DDR. The Berlin wall divided the two parts of Berlin and was part of the iron curtain that divided Europe.

The Cold War included several proxy wars. In some third world civil wars, the United States and the Soviet Union supported opposite sides with arms, advisers and, on some occasions, with combat troops. For example, author Michael Lind wrote that the Vietnam War was a proxy war between the United States, the Soviet Union, and China, which was also a Communist country. The Soviet Union and China worked together to help North Vietnam but did not actually fight in the war. On the other hand, the United States fought directly on the side of the south against North Vietnam. In the Korean War the opposing great powers sent arms and advisors and indeed the US and many allies sent combat troops under the United Nations flag to support South Korea.

The 1950s

President Truman signs the National Security Act Amendment of 1949 with guests in the Oval Office.

Espionage, or countries spying on other countries was a great part of the Cold War. After its successes in the Manhattan Project the USSR built up its spy organs, especially the KGB. The Central Intelligence Agency led US efforts abroad, while the FBI did counterespionage. Catching foreign spies was among KGB functions, as well as fighting domestic subversion. Allied countries on both sides also made large efforts in the spy war.

In the USSR, the dictator Joseph Stalin died and Nikita Khrushchev (1953) took his place. Khrushchev's Secret Speech marked a period of de-Stalinization and Khrushchev tried to undo many of the things Stalin did (such as the Gulag prison camps and cult of personality).

In the USA, this was the period of the "red scare". Americans were worried that, if Communists became powerful in the United States, this would be tantamount to handing victory to the Russians. Many Americans were accused of being Communists, especially actors, artists, and political figures. Such accusations were used as a political weapon as well as in defense of country. Many actors were 'Blackballed' and were not hired to act in movies ruining their careers. Senator Joseph McCarthy accused some important Americans of being communists, including some in powerful positions in the government. This activity is also known as 'McCarthyism' and is looked at now as being a low point in American political life.

Mao Zedong and Joseph Stalin in Moscow, December 1949

Certain science fiction Hollywood movies of this period, (such as Invasion of the Body Snatchers, War of the Worlds and The Day the Earth Stood Still), may reflect the red scare. Typically, aliens from another planet began taking over small towns and the people in them, turning them into aliens too. The aliens and creatures in these movies reflected communists, and the fear of them taking over.

General Douglas MacArthur, UN Command CiC (seated), observes the naval shelling of Incheon from the USS Mt. McKinley, September 15, 1950.

The 1950s were the beginning of the space race between the United States and USSR. It began with the USSR putting the Sputnik satellite into orbit around the Earth, making the Soviet Union the first country in space. The United States responded by starting NASA, and soon sent up its own satellites. The Soviet Union also sent the first man (Yuri Gagarin) into Earth orbit, claiming that this proved socialism was the better ideology.

In the 1950s, the United States (under president Dwight Eisenhower) created a policy called New Look whereby defense spending was cut but the number of nuclear weapons greatly increased. This policy of nuclear deterrence was intended to intimidate the Soviet Union and prevent them attacking the USA. The USSR responded in kind, putting the world on a knife edge of mutual nuclear destruction.

In the Suez crisis of summer 1956, the cold war alliances were broken for the first time with the Soviet Union and United States favouring one side, and Britain and France the other. Later that year, the Western allies did not interfere when Soviet troops suppressed an anticommunist revolution in Hungary.

United States Vice-President Richard Nixon engaged in several talks with Nikita Khrushchev during the 1950s. One of these was the 1959 "Kitchen Debate" in a model kitchen in Moscow. These debates highlighted the political and economic differences between the USA and the USSR. The following year, the United States U-2 spy plane crashed in the Soviet Union. Tensions between the two countries increased.

Cuban Missile Crisis (1962)

Flag of the July 26 Movement.
Leonid Brezhnev and Richard Nixon during Brezhnev's June 1973 visit to Washington; this was a high-water mark in détente between the United States and the Soviet Union.

After the United States tried to invade Cuba and failed (Bay of Pigs), the Soviet Union attempted to supply Cuba with nuclear missiles. These missiles in Cuba would have allowed the Soviet Union to effectively target almost the entire United States. In response the United States sent a large number of ships to blockade Cuba thus preventing the Soviet Union from delivering these weapons. The United States and Soviet Union came to agreement that the Soviet Union would no longer give nuclear weapons to Cuba as long as the United States does not invade Cuba again. This was the highest period of tension during the Cold War and it was the closest the world came to a nuclear war, with possible global conflict to follow.

Détente (1962-1981)

After the agreement that ended the Cuban Missile, relations between the two sides eased and several treaties, designed to reduce the number of nuclear weapons, were signed. During this period, the United States built a good relationship with China a previous ally of Russia. This is perceived to have been to the disadvantage of the Soviet Union.

The end of the Cold War (1981-1991)

Reagan speaks at the Berlin Wall's Brandenburg Gate, encouraging Gorbachev to "tear down this wall"

The policy of détente ended in 1981, when president Ronald Reagan ordered a massive military build-up to challenge the Soviet Union's influence around the world. The United States began to support, with money and weapons, anti-communists all over the world who wanted to overthrow their communist governments.

The Soviet Union had a slow economy during this decade because military spending was at an all-time high. They tried to keep up with the United States in military spending, but could not. In the Soviet war in Afghanistan starting in 1979, the Soviet Union had a very difficult time fighting resistance groups, some of them armed and trained by the United States. The Soviet Union's failed invasion of Afghanistan is often compared to the United States' failure during the Vietnam War.

Mikhail Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan sign the INF Treaty at the White House, 1987

In the late 1980s the new Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev made an effort to make an ally of the United States to fix world problems caused by the war, with the ultimate aim of eliminating nuclear weapons completely. However, this did not take place because the President of the United States, Ronald Reagan, insisted on having a nuclear missile defense system. The people of the Soviet Union were divided on their feelings about this. Some wanted President Gorbachev to fight harder to eliminate nuclear weapons, while others did not want him to be talking to the United States at all. These mixed feelings created an atmosphere of political in-fighting, and the people were no longer united behind one goal. Because of this, leaders of the Soviet Union started to fight against each other, the Communist Party began to crumble and the Soviet Union collapsed.

After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and without Communist rule holding together the countries that comprised the Soviet Union, the USSR broke into smaller countries, like Russia, Ukraine, Lithuania and Georgia. The nations of Eastern Europe returned to capitalism, and the period of the Cold War was over. The Soviet Union ended in December 1991.[1]

Not all historians agree on when the Cold War ended. Some think it ended when the Berlin Wall fell. Others think it ended when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991.[2]


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