What was the Cold War?

Key facts

  • It was the name given to the relationship developed between the U.S.A. and the USSR after the Second World War.
  • A state of geopolitical tension existed between the two sides.
  • Historians date it between 1947-1989 when communism fell in Eastern Europe. Some sources, however, indicate that it ended in 1991.
  • The term ‘Cold’ was used as there was no large-scale fighting between the two sides.
  • Both sides supported major regional wars known as proxy wars.
  • The war arose because of the need to dominate and dictate international affairs.
  • The war gave rise to some major crises in history: Cuban missile, the Vietnam War, Hungary Revolution and the Berlin Wall.
  • The proliferation of weapons of mass destruction was a major concern for many.

The USSR was Russia post-1917 and included countries that now stand independently, for instance, Georgia and Ukraine. The Cold War came about as a result of differences in opinions between the West and East, that is the U.S.A. and The Soviet Union. It can be thought of as capitalism versus communism. Some major alliances were formed between the U.S.A. and its NATO allies and between The Soviet Union and its satellite states (Czechoslovakia, Germany, Hungary, Poland and Romania). Both nations took advantage of every opportunity presented to expand and ‘conquer.’

In 1947, the U.S. foreign policy known as the Truman Doctrine vowed to help countries threatened by Soviet expansion.

Extreme distrust existed between the allies during the war. The Soviet leader, Joseph Stalin’s distrust grew after Truman threatened him by telling him of a new and terrifying weapon that he was going to use against the Japanese. This became apparent when reports of Hiroshima got back to Moscow.

Agree to Disagree

The cooperation each party afforded the other during World War II should have translated into a firm and friendly relationship after the war. Instead, it led to vastly different stances. They only came together as a result of having a common enemy, Nazi-Germany, but even though it proved successful, they despised each other. General Patton, one of America’s leading generals, once said he felt that the Allied army should unite with what was left of the Wehrmacht in 1945 and take advantage of the military brilliance that existed within it to fight the oncoming Soviet Red Army.

Back Home

The USSR was led by the communist party, which was dominated by a leader going by different titles over time and had a small committee called the Politburo. This party controlled the press, the military, the economy and many organisations within the country. It also controlled countries in the Eastern bloc and funded communist parties around the world, sometimes in competition with communist China, mainly because of the Sino-Soviet split, which was the termination of all relations between China and the USSR in the 1960s.

In the West, however, stood a system of a capitalistic, federal republic with a two-party presidential system, namely the republicans and the democrats. The first world nations of the Western bloc were different in that they had a free press and independent organisations but were, however, entwined with some ‘banana’ republics and other authoritarian Third world countries, the majority of which were the Western bloc’s former colonies. Major Cold War front lines like Vietnam, Indonesia and Congo were still Western colonies in 1947. In addition to these, America supplied rebel Afghans when Afghanistan was invaded by the Soviet Union, thus avoiding direct conflict.

The Crises that Ensued

Cuban Missile Crisis

This occurred in October 1962 when there was a 13-day political and military stand-off over the installation of nuclear-armed Soviet missiles in Cuba, just 90 miles from the shores of the U.S. In a presidential address in 1962, President John F. Kennedy notified Americans of this situation explaining his decision to enforce a military blockade around Cuba and his determination to defend the U.S.A., even if it meant going the great length of using military force to neutralise this threat.

Many people around the world were terrified by the thought of there being a nuclear war. Disaster was averted, when the U.S. agreed to the demand of  Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev (1894-1971), which was that the U.S. would not invade Cuba. President Kennedy also secretly agreed to remove U.S. missiles from Turkey. Following all offensive missiles being publicly dismantled, the blockade was formally ended on November 21, 1962. There was also a need for a form of direct communication between Washington and Moscow and, as a result, the Moscow-Washington hotline was established. A series of agreements followed that eased U.S.-Soviet tensions for several years.

Vietnam War

This was a conflict that occurred in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia from 1 November 1955. It mainly involved the Northern and Southern Vietnamese governments. America supported Southern Vietnam, which was anti-communist, whereas pro-communist Northern Vietnam was supported by China and Russia. This support was through the supply of weapons. This conflict was further intensified by the Cold War and is considered as a Cold War proxy-war. Over 3 million people (58,000 of them Americans) were killed in the Vietnam War and more than half of the dead were Vietnamese civilians. The U.S. government justified its involvement in the war as a way to prevent a communist takeover of South Vietnam.

There was a bitter division of Americans on this even after President Richard Nixon ordered the withdrawal of U.S. forces in 1973. The war ended when communist forces seized control of South Vietnam in 1975 and the country became unified under the name of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam the following year.

The Hungarian Revolution

From 1945 onwards, the Hungarians were under the control of Moscow. All the wealth and resources were taken from Hungary by the Russians who enforced this by placing thousands of Russian troops in Hungary. Matyas Rakosi, the Hungarian leader put in power by Joseph Stalin of Russia, was submissive to Russia. When Stalin died in 1953, the people of Eastern Europe were given some hope that they might be free from Soviet rule.

The revolt began in 1956 as a student demonstration, which attracted thousands as they marched through central Budapest to Parliament. This revolt quickly spread across Hungary and soon the government collapsed. Pro-Soviet communists were executed or imprisoned and imprisoned protesters were released and armed. A new government was formed and disbanded the initial government and pledged to bring political change in the form of free and fair elections. After this, a sense of normality began to return. The Politburo was willing to negotiate the withdrawal of Soviet forces from the country, but later reversed this decision and moved to crush the opposition. On 4 November, a large Soviet force invaded Budapest and other regions of the country.

The Hungarian resistance continued until 10 November. Over 2,500 Hungarians and 700 Soviet troops were killed in the conflict, and 200,000 Hungarians fled as refugees. Mass arrests and denunciations continued for months after. By January 1957, the new Soviet-installed government had suppressed all public opposition. 23 October was declared a national holiday at the inauguration of the Third Hungarian Republic in 1989.

The Berlin Wall

The Berlin Wall was a guarded concrete barrier that physically and ideologically divided Berlin from 1961 to 1989. It was constructed by the German Democratic Republic (East Germany), starting on 13 August 1961 and was known as “Antifascistischer Schutzwall.” It cut off West Berlin from virtually all of surrounding East Germany and East Berlin until government officials opened it in November 1989. The official purpose of the Berlin Wall was to keep out Western “fascists”. Its demolition officially began on 13 June 1990 and finished in 1992.

The Wall was erected to prevent a massive emigration and defection East Germany and the communist Eastern Bloc had experienced after World War II. Before the Wall’s erection, 3.5 million East Germans circumvented Eastern Bloc emigration restrictions and defected from the German Democratic Republic, many by crossing over the border from East Berlin into West Berlin and then travelling to West Germany and other Western European countries.

The Berlin Wall stood until November 9, 1989, when the head of the East German Communist Party declared that citizens of the German Democratic Republic could cross the border as they pleased. Euphoric crowds swarmed the wall, crossing freely into West Berlin, while others brought hammers and picks and began to collect souvenirs in the form of parts of the wall. The fall of the Berlin Wall paved the way for the reunification of Germany, which formally took place on 3 October 1990. To this day, the Berlin Wall remains one of the most powerful and enduring symbols of the Cold War.

In general, the U.S.A. and USSR differed on a number of key issues ranging from elections and the form of governance, to the right of expression, that is the media, and other organisations.