COLD WAR a term used to describe the shifting struggle for power and prestige between the Western powers and the Communist bloc from the end of World War II until 1989. Of worldwide proportions, the conflict was tacit in the ideological differences between communism and capitalist democracy.


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The Iron Curtain and Containment

Mutual suspicion had long existed between the West and the USSR, and friction was sometimes manifest in the Grand Alliance during World War II. After the war the West felt threatened by the continued expansionist policy of the Soviet Union, and the traditional Russian fear of incursion from the West continued. Communists seized power in Eastern Europe with the support of the Red Army, the Russian occupation zones in Germany and Austria were sealed off by army patrols, and threats were directed against Turkey and Greece. Conflict sometimes grew intense in the United Nations , which was at times incapacitated by the ramifications of the cold war, at others effective in dealing with immediate issues.

In a famous speech (1946) at Fulton, Mo., Sir Winston Churchill warned of an implacable threat that lay behind a Communist "iron curtain." The United States, taking the lead against the expansion of Soviet influence, rallied the West with the Truman Doctrine, under which immediate aid was given to Turkey and Greece. Also fearing the rise of Communism in war-torn Western Europe, the United States inaugurated the European Recovery Program, known as the Marshall Plan , which helped to restore prosperity and influenced the subsequent growth of what has become the European Union.

During the cold war the general policy of the West toward the Communist states was to contain them (i.e., keep them within their current borders) with the hope that internal division, failure, or evolution might end their threat. In 1948 the Soviet Union directly challenged the West by instituting a blockade of the western sectors of Berlin, but the United States airlifted supplies into the city until the blockade was withdrawn (see Berlin airlift ). The challenges in Europe influenced the United States to reverse its traditional policy of avoiding permanent alliances; in 1949 the United States and 11 other nations signed the North Atlantic Treaty (NATO; see North Atlantic Treaty Organization ). The Communist bloc subsequently formed (1955) the Warsaw Treaty Organization as a counterbalance to NATO.

The Cold War Worldwide

In Asia, the Communist cause gained great impetus when the Communists under Mao Zedong gained control of mainland China in 1949. The United States continued to support Nationalist China, with its headquarters on Taiwan. President Truman, fearing the appeal of Communism to the peoples of Asia, Africa, and Latin America, created the Point Four program, which was intended to help underdeveloped areas. Strife continued, however, and in 1950 Communist forces from North Korea attacked South Korea, precipitating the Korean War . Chinese Communist troops entered the conflict in large numbers, but were checked by UN forces, especially those of the United States. The focus of the cold war in Asia soon shifted to the southeast. China supported insurgent guerrillas in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia; the United States, on the other side, played a leading role in the formation of the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization and provided large-scale military aid, but guerrilla warfare continued.

The newly emerging nations of Asia and Africa soon became the scene of cold-war skirmishes, and the United States and the Soviet Union (and later China) competed for their allegiance, often through economic aid; however, many of these nations succeeded in remaining neutral. As the cold-war struggle continued in Southeast Asia, in the Middle East, in Africa (in nations such as Congo (Kinshasa), Angola , and others), and in Latin America (where the United States supported the Alliance for Progress to counter leftist appeal), both the Soviet Union and the United States supported and maintained sometimes brutal regimes (through military, financial, and other forms of aid) in return for their allegiance.

In Europe, the East German government erected the Berlin Wall in late 1961 to check the embarrassing flow of East Germans to the West. In 1962 a tense confrontation occurred between the United States and the Soviet Union after U.S. intelligence discovered the presence of Soviet missile installations in Cuba. Direct conflict was avoided, however, when Premier Khrushchev ordered ships carrying rockets to Cuba to turn around rather than meet U.S. vessels sent to intercept them (see Cuban Missile Crisis ). It was obvious from this and other confrontations that neither major power wanted to risk nuclear war.

Hopes for rapprochement between the Soviet Union and the West had been raised by a relaxation in Soviet policy after the death (1953) of Joseph Stalin . Conferences held in that period seemed more amiable, and hopes were high for a permanent ban on nuclear weapons. However, the success of the Soviet artificial satellite Sputnik in 1957, attesting to Soviet technological know-how, introduced new international competition in space exploration and missile capability. Moreover, both Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev and U.S. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles grimly threatened "massive retaliation" for any aggression, and the Soviet Union's resumption (1961) of nuclear tests temporarily dashed disarmament hopes. While Khrushchev spoke of peaceful victory, extremists in both camps agitated for a more warlike course, even at the risk of nuclear catastrophe. China began to accuse the USSR of conciliatory policies toward the West, and by the early 1960s ideological differences between the two countries had become increasingly evident.

Detente and the End of the Cold War

During the late 1950s and early 60s both European alliance systems began to weaken somewhat; in the Western bloc, France began to explore closer relations with Eastern Europe and the possibility of withdrawing its forces from NATO. In the Soviet bloc, Romania took the lead in departing from Soviet policy. U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War in Southeast Asia led to additional conflict with some of its European allies and diverted its attention from the cold war in Europe. All these factors combined to loosen the rigid pattern of international relationships and resulted in a period of detente.

In the 1980s, U.S. President Ronald Reagan revived cold-war policies and rhetoric, referring to the Soviet Union as the "evil empire" and escalating the nuclear arms race; some have argued this stance was responsible for the eventual collapse of Soviet Communism while others attribute it to the inherent weakness of the Soviet state. From 1989 to 1991 the cold war came to an end with the opening of the Berlin Wall , the collapse of Communist party dictatorship in Eastern Europe, the reunification of Germany, and the disintegration of the Soviet Union.


See D. F. Fleming, The Cold War and Its Origins, 1917-1960 (1961); J. L. Gaddis, The United States and the Origins of the Cold War, 1941-1947 (1972, repr. 2000), The Long Peace: Inquiries into the History of the Cold War (1987), The United States and the End of the Cold War (1992), We Now Know: Rethinking Cold War History (1997), Strategies of Containment (1982, rev. ed. 2005), and The Cold War: A New History (2005); K. W. Thompson, Cold War Theories (1981); P. Savigear, Cold War or Detente in the 1980s (1987); J. Sharnik, Inside the Cold War (1987); M. Walker, The Cold War (1994); R. E. Powaski, The Cold War: The United States and the Soviet Union, 1917-1991 (1997); V. Zubok and C. Pleshakov, Inside the Kremlin's Cold War: From Stalin to Krushchev (1997); J. Chen, Mao's China and the Cold War (2001); W. LaFeber, America, Russia and the Cold War (9th ed. 2002).

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The Cold War Timeline
  • 1917: The Communist Revolution in Russia led to the fall of the Tsarist dictatorship. The fall led to the beginning of the Soviet Union.
  • 1939: The Manhattan Project was created in secrecy under the Roosevelt administration to develop the first atomic bomb.
  • 1939-1945: World War II was a war involving 70 nations. The war began when Nazi Germany invaded Poland.
  • 1941: Germany invaded the Soviet Union during World War II on June 22, 1941.
  • 1945: World War II ended when the Soviet Union defeated Berlin.
  • 1948: The splitting of Korea was the result of the Korean War. The Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) was created on July 27,1953 as militarized border between North Korea ad South Korea. The DMZ currently still divides North Korea and South Korea.
  • 1948: The defeat of Nazi Germany divided Germany into four occupied zones.
  • 1949: The Chinese Civil War that began in 1927 led to communist control over China by the Pingjin campaign.
  • 1949: The Soviet Union tested its first nuclear weapon on August 29, 1949.
  • 1950: On June 25, 1950 North Korea invaded South Korea starting the Korean War.
  • 1950: Communist control over Vietnam was one of the causes of the Vietnam War.
  • 1953: On July 27,1953 the acceptance of the Korean War Armistice by the United Nations ended the Korean War.
  • 1955: On May 15, 1995 Austria was re-established as a sovereign State as a result of the Austrian State Treaty.
  • 1957: The Soviet union launched the first artificial satellite, Sputnik on October 4, 1957.
  • 1959: On January 1, 1959 Fidel Castro forced Fulgecio Batisto from power and took control of Cuba.
  • 1960: After a shooting down of an American fighter jet by the Soviet Union, President Eisenhower and Khrushchev have a summit conference in Paris. The negotiations fail.
  • 1961: On April 17, 1961 Cuban exiles supported by the United States made a failed attempt to overthrow the Cuban government.
  • 1962: On October 15, 1962 the United States was on heightened alert because of Soviet missile construction in Cuba.
  • 1963: Lee Harvey Oswald assassinates President John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963.
  • 1965: In March 1965 the United States enters the Vietnam War.
  • 1969: On July 16, 1969 the United States puts Neil Armstrong the first man on the moon.
  • 1975: In April 1975 the North Vietnamese Army captured Saigon resulting in the end of the Vietnam War.
  • 1969-1972: The first round of treaty negotiations between the United States and the Soviet Union.
  • 1972:President Nixon visited China and succeeded in ending the isolation between the United Sates and the Republic of China.
  • 1981: The inauguration of Ronald Reagan the 40thPresident.
  • 1983: President Reagan creates the Strategic Defense Initiative on March 23, 1983.
  • 1985: Gorbachev becomes general secretary of the Soviet Union.
  • 1987: In a speech on June 12, 1987 President Reagan challenges Gorbachev to tear down the Berlin Wall.
  • 1989: The fall of the Berlin Wall on November 9, 1989.
  • 1991: The dissolution of the Soviet Union at the end of the Cold War.

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