The Cold War
The Cold War was a period of political tension and rivalry between the two major superpowers of the latter half of the twentieth century, the Soviet Union and the United States, and their respective allies. The term ‘Cold War’ is used because it was not an official war, and the United States and the Soviet Union refrained from declaring war upon the other; however, several conflicts such as the Korean War and the Vietnam War were proxy wars, with each side allying with different political factions within these territories. The Cold War emerged as a result of different political and economic ideologies between the two superpowers, which had previously allied against the Germans and Japanese in World War 2. The Soviets embraced communism, while the United States embraced democracy and capitalism. As both nations sought to spread their ideologies around the globe, the result was a state of political hostility between the two countries.
The beginning of the Cold War can be seen to have emerged after the fall of the Axis powers, with President Harry Truman leading the United States and Josef Stalin leading the Soviet Union. During 1945, with Germany on the verge of collapse and surrender, the Soviets began to invade Germany from the East, while the United States and other European allies invaded from the west (Gaddis 13). After Germany’s surrender, the Soviet Union the United States agreed to divide the country, with East Germany adopting communism and West Germany adopting democracy. However, the capital of the country, Berlin, was territorially inside East Germany. As a compromise, the city of Berlin was divided into east and western portions, divided by a wall separating the two halves.
In 1948, the Marshall Plan, named after the Secretary of State George Marshall, a former general who proposed the plan, involved sending economic aid to European countries that had been devastated by war. However, the Soviet Union was opposed to this plan, because it saw it as the United States attempting to exert political influence in Europe (Gaddis 27). During the end of World War 2, as the Soviet Union liberated German-occupied countries in Eastern Europe, the Soviet Union also sought to spread its ideology of communism in these newly liberated territories, many of which were absorbed into the larger Soviet Union itself. The Marshall Plan was seen as a way of spreading capitalistic ideals, so the Soviet Union did not allow any of this aid to reach eastern European countries. Much of this aid went to western European countries that had been devastated in the war, such as France and England (Gaddis 30). This also solidified political relations between western Europe and the United States.
Germany, however, remained the divisive territory between eastern and western Europe, as signified by the literal division of the once unified country. In an attempt to block aid from reaching citizens in West Berlin, the Soviets denied entry into the country by road. In an act of defiance, the United States conducted the Berlin airlift, which was a campaign to airdrop supplies into West Berlin because the roads were blockaded. The Soviet Union did not stop the airlifts because it was concerned this could lead to full-scale war, and the Soviet Union was still recovering. This created a trend throughout the Cold War where one of the two nations would seek to provoke the other, although fortunately, this provocation did not result in outward military hostilities.
As it became clear that tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union were worsening, in 1949, the United States agreed with other nations in North American and Europe to form the North Atlantic Treaty. The treaty saw the emergence of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, or NATO, which was a mutual defense agreement between these nations (Gaddis 68). NATO was a direct response to the potential of Soviet aggression in Europe; by creating a mutual defense treaty, the NATO allies were signaling to the Soviet Union that an invasion of one nation would result in retaliation from multiple countries. Several years later, in 1955, this was mirrored by the Warsaw Pact, which was a mutual defense agreement between the Soviet Union and other communist eastern European countries such as Poland, Czechoslovakia, and East Germany (Gaddis 71). Thus, NATO and the Warsaw Pact were both mutual defense treaties that identified which countries would be allied with one another in the event of war.
Tensions between the Soviet Union and the United States during the Cold War were significant because of the technology that had been created to end World War 2: the creation of nuclear weapons. Following the end of World War 2, both the United States and the Soviet Union engaged in an arms race, developing more powerful nuclear warheads at an alarming rate. With the destructive power of these arsenals, it soon became apparent that an open outbreak of war would result in mutually assured destruction, or M.A.D. Mutually assured destruction meant that the launch of a nuclear weapon would result in a policy of massive retaliation by the other side (Gaddis 98). If a nuclear weapon was launched, it would result in automatic and total retaliation, and because of the destructive power of these weapons, the result could potentially be a civilization-ending nuclear holocaust. The destructive potential of full-scale war and the certainty of massive retaliation is perhaps the most influential reason as to why the Cold War did not devolve into open military conflict, and the nuclear arsenal of the other side is what prevented both the United States and the Soviet Union from actually using the nuclear weapons they were creating. Instead, both nations stockpiled these weapons as a show of strength, and to prevent the other side from using its own arsenal.
While alliances in Europe had been defined by NATO and the Warsaw Pact, the political landscape in Asia was not as clear. During World War 2, Japan had annexed many Asian countries, including China and Korea (Painter 109). After Japan’s unconditional surrender in 1945, there was renewed political instability throughout Asia, with some countries becoming communist and others becoming democratic. During 1941 in China, under the leadership of Mao Zedong, a communist revolution occurred (Painter 114). The spread of communism throughout China alarmed the United States that Asia could become the next hotbed of communist countries, believing that nations would topple to communism in a sort of domino effect. To prevent this from happening, the United States engaged in a policy of containment in Asia aimed at preventing the spread of communism. This policy of containment was first tested when communist North Korea, supported by China and the Soviet Union, led an invasion into South Korea, which was the United States ally after it had been liberated from Japan. Similar to Germany, Korea had also been divided into separate communist and democratic countries after World War 2. In 1950, however, North Korean troops invaded South Korea, prompting immediate American intervention. The United States and South Korean armies were successful at repelling the invasion, with the opportunity to push further into China, but President Truman prevented this action fearing it would lead to full-scale conflict with China, and eventually the Soviet Union (Painter 137). The result of the three-year Korean War was that the country remained divided, as a stalemate between the two had been reached.
In Vietnam, similar conflicts between communists and anti-communists were occurring. Inspired by the successful communist revolution in China, communist leaders in Vietnam also began aiming for a revolution against the capitalist government. The revolutionaries were armed and supported by the Soviet Union, while the South Vietnamese government and armed forces were supported by the United States. As the revolution gained support from locals, the United States military became actively engaged. The war in Vietnam soon became deeply unpopular, but the justification for the war was due to the policy of containment, believing that if Vietnam fell to communism, other countries in Asia were also at risk of falling. The nearly twenty-year conflict eventually ended in 1975, when the capital city of Saigon fell to the revolutionaries, and Vietnam became a communist nation (Painter 204).
Although tensions remained high throughout the entirety of the Cold War, the incident that brought the United States and the Soviet Union to the brink of war was the Cuban Missile Crisis, in 1962. In this year, NATO allies had positioned nuclear weapons in Italy and Turkey, which were aimed at Moscow (Loth 22). In response, the Soviet Union placed weapons in Cuba, which had recently also undergone a communist revolution, with these weapons aimed at the United States. The decision to place weapons in Cuba was made by the Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev. His American counterpart, President John F. Kennedy, considered nuclear weapons in Cuba an intolerable threat to the United States. The United States enacted a blockade around Cuba so that Cuba could not receive further shipments of weapons. The Soviets and Cuba considered the blockade an aggressive action, and this led to threats of open nuclear conflict. However, because of the concept of mutually assured destruction, if war did occur, Khrushchev and Kennedy eventually negotiated terms designed to lessen hostilities. In the end, the Soviets agreed to dismantle the weapons in exchange for a public declaration from the United States that it would not launch an invasion of Cuba, ensuring that Cuba would remain a Soviet ally.
During the 1970s, a policy of detente between the United States and the Soviet Union began to emerge. Detente was an unofficial policy, but its central aim was to reduce tensions between the two countries because an outbreak of actual war would be catastrophic, and both nations understood the threat (Loth 53). While several tentative agreements were made, tensions remained high throughout the 1980s. By the 1980s, however, the economy in the Soviet Union was beginning to collapse. American President Ronald Reagan initiated rapid military increases, and in an attempt to match these increases, the Soviet economy was being drained. Reagan also placed pressure on the Soviet Union to allow German unification efforts, due to internal political pressure in East Germany to defect to the West. Finally, in 1989, the Berlin Wall came down, and by 1991, the Soviet economy collapsed and it was unable to maintain control of many territories it had seized during the end of World War 2 (Loth 212). This represented the dissolution of the Soviet Union, as many formerly occupied countries drafted new constitutions based on democratic principles. As a result, the Cold War was over.
The Cold War, therefore, represents an era of increased tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union based on differences in ideology. While there was never a declaration of war between the two, the conflicts in both Korea and Vietnam are considered proxy conflicts. Although the Cold War is over, it’s lingering impact on the modern world is the proliferation of nuclear weapons, which remain one of the greatest threats to humanity.
Gaddis, John Lewis. The Cold War: a new history. Penguin, 2006.
Loth, Wilfried. Overcoming the Cold War: a history of détente, 1950-1991. Palgrave Macmillan, 2002.
Painter, David S. The Cold War: an international history. Routledge, 2002.
The Cold War