Introduction to the Cold War (1945–1991)

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Introduction to the Cold War (1945–1991)

The Cold War was not a war in the traditional sense. It was a political, philosophical, and economic conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union (USSR) that spanned four decades and influenced the culture of virtually every nation in the world. The Cold War did turn “hot” from time to time, as the major players applied military might to protect their interests abroad and control events in developing countries. But for the most part, the era was marked by tough rhetoric and high tension, not open combat.

Tensions between the U.S. and USSR had existed before the Cold War started. The United States, Great Britain, and France all denounced the Marxist ideas that had sparked a revolution in Russia in 1917 and led to the formation of the Communist Soviet Union. The Communists’ talk of “word revolution” alarmed leaders in the United States, but the Soviets were too busy, first with a civil war and then with establishing a government, to push their political philosophy abroad in the 1920s and 1930s. As World War II came to an end, however, the United States and the Soviet Union emerged as the world’s two superpowers. By the end of the 1940s, both had atomic weapons and both sought global influence.

The first Cold War “battle” was over the fate of Europe. Britain, France, the United States, and the Soviet Union had been allies during World War II. They all realized that the devastated continent, and Germany in particular, needed rebuilding. They also wanted to ensure that German aggression never again disturbed European peace. The Allies divided Germany and its capital, Berlin, into western and eastern halves. The division came to mark the spheres of influence of the Soviets and Americans. All the democratic nations of Western Europe came under the protection of the United States. All the nations of Eastern Europe, where Communist governments were soon installed, came under the influence of the Soviets. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill characterized this division as an “iron curtain”across the continent.

Tensions ran high through the 1950s and 1960s, as both the Unites States and the Soviets raced to produce as many nuclear weapons as possible. The threat of global thermonuclear war was palpable. In 1961, the two superpowers came as close as they ever did to using their devastating weapons to attack each other. Sensing weakness in newly elected President John F. Kennedy, Soviet leader Nikita Kruschev sent several dozen nuclear missiles to its ally Cuba and trained the missiles on American targets. Kennedy seriously considered military strikes against the installation, a move that would likely have led to all-out nuclear war. However, the Cuban Missile Crisis was resolved diplomatically after several nerve-jangling days.

Facing the implications of nuclear war head-on sobered U.S. and Soviet leaders. By the 1970s, the Cold War was characterized by some relaxation of tensions (known as a period of détente). The two sides began Strategic Arms Limitations Talks that led to some caps on the development of nuclear warheads. As the Vietnam War began to wind down under President Richard Nixon, the Soviets and the United States began to soften their attitudes toward one another.

In the late 1980s, a wave of democratic reform movements in the Communist Bloc nations resulted in free elections and the end of Communist rule in most of Eastern Europe. Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev, who had helped foster reform in his own country, tried to maintain the vast Soviet state, but was unsuccessful. In 1991, the Soviet Union was officially dissolved. Its member states became independent nations. The Cold War had finally ended.

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Introduction to the Cold War (1945–1991)

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Introduction to the Cold War (1945–1991)