Cold War Evolution and Interpretations
Cold War Evolution and Interpretations
Walter L. Hixson
Interpreting the history of the Cold War has been a notoriously controversial pursuit. New evidence, unearthed in recent years from archives on both sides of the Atlantic and the Pacific, has not resolved old debates, but it has added immensely to our collective knowledge. Much remains to be learned and understood about the history of the global power struggle, the impact of which on the latter half of the twentieth century can scarcely be exaggerated. As it recedes into history, the passions of presentism (interpreting history on the basis of contemporary prejudices) have receded as well. These developments open up new possibilities for stimulating discussion of the evolution and interpretations of the Cold War.
Five key interpretive themes can be employed to explain the evolution of the Cold War and to interpret the history of the conflict: ideology, national expansionism, economic hegemony, militarization, and patriotic culture. These forces help explain the origins, evolution, and end of the Cold War. Despite the primary focus on Soviet-American relations, no one questions that the Cold War became a global phenomenon enveloping the fates of scores of nations, some modern and industrial, others premodern and developing. Nations such as Great Britain and China played key roles in the evolution of the Cold War, but so did smaller states as diverse as Angola, Cuba, Egypt, Greece, India, Israel, Japan, Korea, South Africa, Vietnam, and many more. As this list suggests, the Cold War encompasses a vast and complex history, overshadowing the latter half of the twentieth century.
Ideology is a central element in coming to grips with the Cold War. In this respect, the Cold War actually began in 1917, with the triumph of the Bolshevik communist revolutionaries in Russia. The Bolsheviks, led by Vladimir Ilich Lenin, a committed Marxist revolutionary, denounced capitalism as an exploitative and moribund social system. Lenin's contribution to Marxism was his theory that imperialism was the last gasp of capitalism. The Bolsheviks believed that the bloodletting then under way in World War I reflected the penultimate crisis of modern capitalism. Lenin and other communists sought to build socialism in Russia while doing what they could to facilitate expansion of Marxism-Leninism abroad.
The West greeted the Bolshevik Revolution with implacable hostility, including an ill-fated Allied intervention against the Bolsheviks in the Russian civil war, which the Marxists eventually won. The Western worldview was capably represented in the rhetoric of President Woodrow Wilson, who had called for U.S. intervention in World War I to make the world "safe for democracy." Wilson spoke not just for constitutional government but also for free-trade capitalism as well. Bolshevism, with its emphasis on state economic planning, was anathema to the deep-seated faith in free enterprise, a cornerstone of American ideology. Moreover, Wilson, like millions of Americans deeply religious, found Marxist atheism, which had condemned religion as the "opiate of the masses," profoundly offensive.
Hence, an ideological gulf between the Soviet Union and the United States, between communism and capitalism, emerged from World War I and divided East and West throughout the interwar period. Beginning in 1929 the Soviet Union came under the iron authority of Joseph Stalin, a pitiless autocrat responsible for the deaths of millions of his own countrymen in purges, forced agricultural collectivization, and breakneck industrialization. Washington declined to accord formal diplomatic recognition of the Soviet Union until 1933. Among other consequences, East-West hostility ensured that efforts to forge an antifascist alliance against Nazi Germany during the late 1930s would come to grief. When the Western powers rejected Soviet overtures for an alliance against the Nazis, Stalin negotiated his own pact with Adolf Hitler in 1939, paving the way for World War II. After sacking much of Europe, Hitler turned on the Soviets, long his primary target, in an invasion of Russia launched on 22 June 1941. The West quickly embraced the Soviet cause as its own in a mutual conflict against Nazi aggression.
Clearly the wartime Grand Alliance, forged by the Nazi bid to dominate Europe, was little more than a marriage of convenience. Indeed, nothing less than Hitler's bid to dominate Europe could have brought Stalin and the Soviet Union into alliance with Great Britain and the United States. Winston Churchill's memorable comment that he would ally with "the devil himself" against the Nazi regime was no mere quip; Churchill was explaining just how extraordinary the prime minister himself considered the unlikely alliance between East and West. Equally cosmopolitan, but markedly less anti-Soviet than Churchill, President Franklin D. Roosevelt saw the war as an opportunity not only to defeat Nazi aggression but to create a framework through Soviet-American cooperation for something like the world order Wilson had envisioned all too prematurely during the previous European war.
Roosevelt came to understand, however, in the weeks before his death on 12 April 1945, that his vision might not stand up to the hard realities embodied in a renascent Stalinist Russia. Once seemingly on the brink of destruction, the Soviet Union had turned the battle at Stalingrad in the winter of 1942–1943 and never looked back. Despite the unparalleled destruction of the Soviet state, including some 27 million dead in the war, the Red Army found itself ensconced in the heart of Europe, all with the blessing of its wartime allies. The onetime pariah state now stood poised to exert unprecedented influence on the postwar world.
World War II redrew the map of the world, creating vast power vacuums from the defeat of Nazi Germany in Europe and imperial Japan in Asia. Given his own ruthlessness and the lens of Marxist historicism, Stalin could only interpret the Soviet victory as an opportunity both to ensure his nation's security and to promote the inevitable expansion of the communist system. None of the new archival evidence that began emerging in the 1990s has contradicted Stalin's explanation to a group of comrades in 1945 that to the victors would go the spoils; that is, whichever power occupied a liberated European country could be expected to impose his own social system on that state. Stalin heard his allies' pleas for him to pay lip service to a postwar democratic order, best embodied in the Declaration of Liberated Europe issued at the Yalta Conference in February 1945, but at the end of the day this was "algebra," as far as the Soviet dictator was concerned, and he averred a preference for simple math.
Presiding over a vast global empire—though one verging on dissolution rather than expansion—Winston Churchill understood simple math as well. He and Stalin had engaged in just such an exercise in coming to the so-called percentages agreement during a tête-à-tête in Moscow in 1944. Running down the nations of East-Central Europe one by one, the two Allied leaders came to agreement as to which powers would call the shots in the states then being liberated from the Nazis. In effect, Churchill went a long way toward acquiescing in the very division of Europe that he later bitterly decried in his 5 March 1946 "Iron Curtain" address in Fulton, Missouri. Churchill hoped to temper Soviet ambitions, but when it came to the fates of neighboring states such as Poland and Romania, Stalin understood only one language—domination.
U.S.–Soviet relations, vastly improved during the war under Roosevelt, began to deteriorate. Within less than a year after the end of the European war, Cold War declarations emanated from both capitals. In a February 1946 address, Stalin offered up a plateful of Marxist verities, including the warning that conflict between communism and Western imperialism was inevitable and would continue. George F. Kennan, America's foremost Soviet expert, dispatched the "long telegram" from Moscow that same month warning of an unstable, xenophobic, and expansionist regime. The policy Kennan urged in response— "containment" of Russia's "expansive tendencies"—soon became the watchword of American foreign policy. Churchill's address in Fulton, delivered in Truman's presence in his home state, followed on the heels of Kennan's landmark 8,000-word telegram. Stalin responded to Churchill's speech by labeling Britain's wartime leader a "convinced reactionary" and accusing the Western powers of planning a new cordon sanitaire against the Soviet Union.
Rising Cold War tensions focused next on the Near East. Only a showdown in the new United Nations prompted Stalin's grudging withdrawal from neighboring Iran, where the Red Army had remained past an agreed-upon March 1946 deadline. By the spring of 1947, the threat of a leftist triumph in Greece, fear of Soviet influence in Turkey, and the decline of British power in the Mediterranean region combined to give rise to the Truman Doctrine. In a speech that has long been interpreted as an American declaration of cold war, Truman averred in April 1947 that the world had become divided between "alternative ways of life" and that "it must be the policy of the United States to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures."
Despite its own history of often bellicose national expansion (such as the Mexican War or annexation of the Philippines), the United States would not accommodate itself to postwar Soviet expansion. Washington dominated postwar Japan and western Europe, both of which were reoriented along Western lines, and established a system of military bases across the world. The United States built and controlled the Panama Canal and backed British and French control of the Suez Canal, yet it rejected Soviet efforts to extend influence over the Black Sea straits. In addition to resenting these double standards, Stalin and his comrades feared America's ability to wield its unprecedented economic clout.
AMERICAN FINANCIAL HEGEMONY
In addition to the ideological divide and issues of national expansion, U.S. economic hegemony fueled the Cold War. The Soviets—who had suffered far more devastation, both human and material, in World War II than the United States (or any other country)—sought loans, grants, and reparations to rebuild. Washington had contributed immeasurably to the Soviet war effort through lend-lease and other forms of aid. The United States also promised a postwar loan but delayed the matter and then linked economic assistance with political issues, notably the fates of postwar governments in East-Central Europe. No loan was ever made.
In striking contrast to the devastation of Russia's economy, World War II had been phenomenally good for American business. Government-fueled war production ended the Great Depression and brought full employment and rapid economic growth to the United States. Unscathed by war and prosperous at home, the United States emerged as the unquestioned economic powerhouse of the postwar world. The dollar dwarfed all other currencies and New York displaced London as the world's financial center. At the 1944 Bretton Woods (New Hampshire) Conference, the United States established the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, agencies that would issue loans and assistance to anchor postwar economic recovery. Such assistance came with strings attached. In order to be eligible, countries would have to meet certain criteria compatible with free-market capitalism. After attending the conference, the Soviet Union never joined the Washington-based and U.S.-dominated international financial agencies.
If there was any hope of heading off the Cold War, it ended with the Marshall Plan. The European Recovery Program, launched by the U.S. Army general turned secretary of state George C. Marshall, laid the foundation for decades of American and western European economic and political integration. The program of loans, assistance, and psychological recovery from the destitution of war succeeded brilliantly in effecting the economic and political recovery of western Europe, especially in France and Italy, where communist parties backed by Moscow had been poised to bid for power. The Marshall Plan exemplified "empire by invitation," an interpretive framework that emphasized that American economic assistance and political influence were welcomed by the western European governments and the majority of public opinion. U.S. propaganda and covert operations, especially in Italy, played a significant role in the process, however. Nevertheless, there is little doubt that western Europeans welcomed American power and influence far more than Eastern Europeans welcomed Soviet power. This single reality carries a great deal of explanatory power as to both the origins and the eventual end of the Cold War.
By the late 1940s, the Marshall Plan had begun to achieve its aims of fostering western European economic recovery and political confidence building. It gave rise to a postwar order in which the United States emerged as the unquestioned world leader. It advanced an American campaign of global financial hegemony. As successful as the Marshall Plan was in advancing Western political and economic integration, the economic recovery program also cemented the division of Europe. Although the Soviets had attended the initial discussions in Paris, Stalin and his foreign minister, V. I. Molotov, understood all too clearly that they would be left, by design, on the outside looking in. With American economic clout dwarfing that of the devastated Soviet Union, Stalin and Molotov understood that the Marshall Plan posed a grave threat to the budding "people's democracies" of East-Central Europe. After Molotov strode out of the Paris discussions, Stalin ordered out the Czech delegation as well. Within months the Kremlin orchestrated a coup, brutally ousting Czech liberals in tactics that revived vivid memories of Hitler. "Moral Godfearing peoples," Truman declared, "must save the world from Atheism and totalitarianism."
THE DIVISION OF GERMANY
There was, of course, no precise moment when the Cold War can be said to have begun, yet there is no question that it was in place by 1948, the same year in which the term itself was popularized. The breakdown of Allied cooperation in Germany brought the division of the postwar world into the capital of the vanquished former common enemy. American, British, and French forces colluded in floating a new German currency without notifying the Soviets. The Kremlin and its German comrades cut off road, rail, and canal links to Berlin in an effort to force the Western powers out of the former Reich capital, which reposed in the heart of Soviet-occupied eastern Germany. The subsequent American airlift broke the back of the Kremlin blockade, which Stalin abandoned after eleven months in May 1949. The emergence of two rival German states, and years of bitter propaganda and covert operations, followed in the wake of the Berlin blockade and airlift.
The United States and its west European allies accepted the division of Germany under a strategy of "dual containment." The larger, more productive western Germany—soon to become the Federal Republic of Germany—would anchor the postwar European economy under U.S. occupation and supervision. This approach would not only fuel recovery but would reassure France and other past victims of aggression that Germany was now contained within the Western alliance. The Soviets incorporated into their sphere the smaller eastern rump Germany—which became the German Democratic Republic—and which the West subjected to unremitting psychological warfare in the form of radio propaganda, covert operations, and various forms of subversion. In any case, the division of Germany cemented, in both real and symbolic terms, the division of Europe.
One of the most significant outcomes of World War II was the enormous momentum of militarization. Four years of global conflict—indeed, two world wars in a single generation—had left a powerful imprint. Neither the Soviet Union nor the United States ever fully demobilized. Troops from both nations remained encamped in the heart of Europe, while U.S. air and naval bases spread throughout the world. Although the Soviet Red Army was the world's largest ground force, the United States possessed a formidable two-ocean navy and the most powerful air force the world had ever seen. As the Soviet economy and society struggled to rebuild from the ruins of war, U.S. economic might laid the foundation for the emergence of an awesome military power.
Sole possession of the atomic bomb offered both real and symbolic evidence of U.S. military superiority. Some historians have argued that the United States dropped the two bombs on Japan as much to make an impression on the Soviets as to end the Pacific war. "Atomic diplomacy" did not work, however, as Stalin adopted a nonchalant stance toward the bomb and refused to adjust Soviet political aims in deference to the U.S. monopoly. While Washington had shared atomic information with Great Britain during the war, the Soviets were kept in the dark—or so Americans thought. In actuality, Soviet spies had penetrated the atomic research program and stolen the secrets of the atom. Talks on international control of atomic weapons quickly foundered and became another casualty of the Cold War.
Both sides cultivated their military prowess and vowed to defend their territory and spheres of influence. While the Soviets trumpeted the heroic defense of the motherland against the Nazis, the Americans reorganized their defense establishment, now housed in the sprawling new Pentagon building. Under the National Security Act (1947), Washington created a new Department of Defense and departments of Air Force and Marines to join the Army and the Navy, all four branches coordinated by a new phalanx of generals, the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The legislation also created the National Security Council to advise the president on global foreign policy and the Central Intelligence Agency to gather information and carry out covert operations.
The West took the lead in dividing Europe into hostile military alliances. In 1949, acting under a UN provision for collective security arrangements, the West promulgated the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), a military alliance aimed squarely at the Soviet Union. The actual threat of a Soviet military attack on western Europe was remote, yet memories of Nazi blitzkrieg and Pearl Harbor remained vivid. More to the point, however, NATO furthered the course of Western economic and political integration and created a market for perpetuating the profitable wartime collusion between science, government, and the defense industry. The successful Soviet atomic test in 1949 fueled the nuclear arms race, as both powers pushed ahead with development of hydrogen, or thermonuclear, weapons. From this point forward, the two superpowers each cultivated the power to destroy one another in an all-out war.
Tumultuous developments in Asia ensured that the Cold War would become global. U.S. policy appeared well in hand in the early postwar years, as the occupation of Japan provided an unprecedented opportunity to further Washington's economic and political agenda in Asia. Establishing Japan as the focal point of an economic program across the "great crescent" of Asia, Washington sought to ensure an anticommunist order friendly to the supremacy of the dollar and U.S. ideology. The Japanese proved largely compliant, but the triumph of the communists in the Chinese civil war promptly shattered the American quest for a noncommunist Asian postwar order.
The rise to power of the Chinese Communist Party in October 1949 was a stunning blow to Americans, who had long waxed sentimental about the prospects of expanding Western influence in "the Orient." Roosevelt had given rise to false hopes during the war by floating the ill-fated concept that China would serve as one of the "four policemen" of the postwar world. In reality, the democratic China was a chimera. And while Stalin had repeatedly shown himself willing to sell out the Chinese communists during the war, now that they had come to power, he entered into an alliance with Mao Zedong's regime in 1950. Inexperienced in foreign affairs, and plagued by demagogues and opportunists in Congress, millions of Americans believed the leaders who told them that only domestic subversion could account for the dastardly turn of affairs in East Asia. Still adjusting to the burdens of world power, Americans became resentful when events did not unfold as they expected.
KOREA AND NSC 68
With capitalist and communist regimes ensconced in Japan and China, respectively, Korean communists led by Kim Il Sung sought to "liberate" their peninsula through armed aggression. Archival evidence found in the 1990s revealed that Kim practically pleaded with Stalin, on numerous occasions, before gaining the Kremlin autocrat's assent to an attack against southern forces backed by the American-educated Syngman Rhee. The outbreak of war in Korea in June 1950 stunned the Truman administration and an American public already reeling from a series of Cold War setbacks. Unaware and unwilling to consider that Kim, and not Stalin, had fomented the war in Korea, the Truman administration decided immediately to respond with force to what it was sure was a deliberate Soviet provocation. Within months, U.S. and UN forces reversed the battle, prompting a massive Chinese intervention that turned the Korean War into a bloody three-year stalemate. Korea would remain a divided nation for at least the rest of the century, yet another casualty of the Cold War.
The outbreak of war in Korea, punctuated by the approval of the historic U.S. foreign policy document National Security Council Document 68 (NSC 68) marked the end of the first phase of the Cold War. The apocalyptic policy paper envisioned a fight to the finish with Soviet-sponsored world communism. The document, approved by Truman, literally envisioned spending whatever was necessary in the name of national security. During the course of the Korean War, defense spending more than tripled, ensuring the predominance of military Keynesianism for the remainder of the century. Military Keynesianism encompassed stimulation of the economy through federal investment and expenditure on defense.
Among other significant repercussions of the Korean bloodletting was the establishment of U.S. military bases in Asia; lasting involvement in the dispute between Taiwan and mainland China; assignment of U.S. troops to Europe on a permanent basis; and West German rearmament. Approval of NSC 68 culminated the first phase of the Cold War. The Korean War cemented militarization and the adoption of worst case scenarios of "enemy" behavior on both sides. Sometimes referred to as the "forgotten war," insofar as it was sandwiched between World War II and the Vietnam War, the Korean War was one of most significant conflicts in modern world history.
PATRIOTIC CULTURE IN THE UNITED STATES
Cold War anxiety reached new heights, or depths, during the Korean War and had a profound effect on American society. Conservatism outpaced reform. The process began early in World War II, when Roosevelt himself announced that "Dr. New Deal" had been replaced by "Dr. Win the War." The reform era was over, replaced by the inevitable conservative reaction of war, mirroring the World War I experience. War and Cold War provided an opportunity that conservative elites, alarmed by the specter of creeping socialism in the New Deal, would not let pass. The profitable matrix revolving around science, business, government, and defense cemented military Keynesianism over government spending on domestic concerns. While federal dollars fueled Cold War militarization, spending on social programs, deemed socialistic by many conservatives, would be contained at home. An inveterate New Dealer, Henry Wallace, launched a last-gasp campaign against the new order but was thoroughly repudiated in the 1948 election. Truman's stunning upset victory over Thomas Dewey underscored that containment, anticommunism, and militarization would illuminate the path to electoral triumph.
Hysteria over domestic communism brought repression and exercised a lasting chilling effect on left-wing sentiment. Beginning with the "Hollywood Ten" in 1946, former communists and left-wing sympathizers were harassed, purged, and put on notice. In 1950 the Alger Hiss case, in which a former high-level State Department diplomat was convicted of perjury for lying about being a communist agent, put liberals and former New Dealers on the defensive while giving rise to a new breed of politician, best embodied by Richard Nixon, for whom the Cold War provided the core of their identity. Federal Bureau of Investigation director J. Edgar Hoover—accountable to no one and since World War I obsessed with destroying radicalism—launched a campaign against thousands of Americans who had harbored left-wing sentiments. Despite the extraordinarily crude and reckless tactics of Joseph McCarthy, the junior senator from Wisconsin conducted a four-year campaign against thousands of alleged subversives. The victims of the postwar hysteria were not only the tens of thousands of men and women harassed by McCarthy and the FBI, but the basic constitutional rights of freedom of thought and association as well.
THE FAILED QUEST FOR "LIBERATION"
While U.S. national security elites still hoped to force the Soviet Union to allow political independence throughout Eastern Europe, the State Department grasped the possibilities inherent in the independent communist course being pursued in Yugoslavia since the open breach in 1948 between Stalin and Josip Broz Tito. Both Truman and his successor, Dwight D. Eisenhower, sought to promote "Titoism" in Eastern Europe, but the confrontational quest for "liberation" of the "captive nations" undermined this effort. Right-wing critics insisted that containment was a fatalistic and unmanly (even "pantywaist," to some critics) policy, which supposedly acquiesced in Soviet hegemony over Eastern Europe. In reality, Kennan's conceptualization of containment, embraced as U.S. Cold War policy, had always encompassed liberation, or rollback, of communist power in Eastern Europe.
Eisenhower intensified a campaign of "psychological warfare" that had begun under Truman in an effort to destabilize Soviet hegemony. A variety of strategies, focused especially on radio propaganda, did indeed help shake the foundations of Communist Party authority in Eastern Europe. When necessary, however, as in East Germany in 1953 and Hungary in 1956, the Soviet Union simply resorted to direct military intervention to maintain its hard sphere of influence over East-Central Europe. Nothing the United States and its NATO allies could have done, short of initiating World War III, would have altered this fundamental geopolitical reality flowing from the World War II settlement and the postwar ideological clash.
A more subtle Western approach might have enhanced the possibility of the post-Stalinist leadership loosening the bonds of authority over the East-Central European Communist Party regimes. However, by confronting the Soviet Union with both NATO and aggressive psychological warfare, Washington gave the Kremlin no opportunity to allow for liberalization, or Titoism, in the region. It was all too clear to Soviet leaders that if the "satellites" were allowed to go their own way they would end up ultimately—as in fact occurred decades later after the end of the Cold War—being transferred directly into the hostile NATO orbit. The Kremlin had no choice, short of capitulation to the West, but to protect its sphere at all costs. With psychological warfare having failed to deliver the ultimate prize of liberation, the Eisenhower administration was compelled to adopt an evolutionary approach emphasizing toned-down radio propaganda, exchanges of film, trade fairs, exhibitions, and people-to-people contacts.
Following the death of Stalin in 1953, Nikita S. Khrushchev eventually emerged as the new Kremlin leader. In 1956, Khrushchev stunned communists throughout the world by denouncing Stalin for his many "crimes" against the people. A dedicated Marxist-Leninist known for his thundering denunciations of the West, Khrushchev also took concrete steps, including meaningful cuts in Soviet defenses, toward achieving "peaceful coexistence" with the West. Khrushchev's brash style, however, combined with deeply ingrained American Cold War anxieties, continued to plague any progress toward a genuine détente. A hysterical American reaction to the Soviet launch of Sputnik, the first Earth satellite, in 1957 complicated Eisenhower's hopes for a breakthrough in the Cold War. The president's own decision to authorize a campaign of aerial spying over Soviet airspace doomed the Eisenhower-Khrushchev "thaw" in the Cold War. Hopes for achieving what would later be called détente came crashing down with Gary Powers's U-2 spy plane in May 1960. Eisenhower limped out of office decrying the "unwarranted influence" of the military-industrial complex, a phenomenon that, ironically, had gained substantial momentum on his own watch.
KENNEDY AND CRISES
The essential forces that fueled the Cold War— ideology, geopolitics, economics, militarization, and patriotic culture—persisted throughout the conflict. The Cold War manifested itself in waves, or cycles, of varying intensity. After the brief thaw of the mid-1950s, another intense wave of conflict emerged during the presidency of John F. Kennedy. Bitter confrontation over the anomalous western enclave in Berlin, deep inside East Germany, ended with construction of the Berlin Wall in August 1961. The wall brought a pernicious settlement to the German problem, but the concrete and barbed wire divide gave substance to Churchill's metaphor of an Iron Curtain. Despite scores of bold and often successful escapes by East Germans, the wall was an effective physical barrier, though ultimately a devastating propaganda liability and harbinger of the West's eventual triumph in the Cold War.
The 1962 Cuban missile crisis marked the apogee of Cold War confrontation, including a palpable threat of nuclear annihilation. Already livid over the loss of Cuba to communism under Fidel Castro, Americans were angered even further by Khrushchev's decision to place mediumrange nuclear warheads ninety miles off U.S. shores. From the Cuban and Soviet perspective— a perspective rarely considered under a monolithic U.S. patriotic culture—the action might have been seen as an understandable response to blatant American efforts to topple Castro, which had failed once in the Bay of Pigs invasion in April 1961 but would continue in no fewer than eight assassination plots against the Cuban leader. Moreover, as Khrushchev pointed out, nuclear missiles in Cuba would confront the United States with an analogous situation to that faced by the Soviet Union, which had nuclear weapons targeting its cities and defense sites from a variety of hostile NATO states.
Kennedy ultimately rejected the most hawkish advice he received—unilateral bombing of Cuba—but the president opted for a national television address rather than private diplomacy to demand that Khrushchev dismantle the missile sites. Kennedy then confronted the Soviets with a naval blockade, an act of war that the administration tried to soften by employing the euphemism of a "quarantine." Khrushchev backed down, but only after Kennedy renounced intervention in Cuba and pledged privately to dismantle U.S. missile sites in Turkey.
The last months of Kennedy's abortive presidency marked a turning point in the history of the Cold War. Following the crises in Berlin and Cuba, a sobered Kennedy and Khrushchev began to usher in a new thaw by establishing a "hotline" for instant communication and signing the 1963 Limited Test Ban Treaty, terminating aboveground nuclear test blasts. Cultural exchange picked up throughout the 1960s as well. Cold War rivalry continued on a global scale, but after 1963 the shadow of Armageddon began to recede, particularly as the Soviets achieved a rough parity in the nuclear arms race by the end of the decade.
THE THIRD WORLD
While both sides accepted the status quo in Europe and embraced mutual deterrence through MAD (mutually assured destruction), the Cold War continued to rage in the so-called Third World of developing nations. From 1946 to 1960, thirty-seven new nations emerged from under a history of colonial domination to gain independent status. Both the United States and the Soviet Union, backed by their respective allies, competed intensively for influence over the new nations of Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East. Strategists in both camps believed that ultimate victory or defeat in the Cold War depended on the outcome of Third World conflicts. Moreover, many of these areas harbored vital natural resources, such as oil in the Middle East, upon which the developed world had become dependent. With American and allied automobiles, industry, and consumerism dependent on ready access to vast supplies of crude oil, maintaining access to foreign energy sources emerged as a key element of U.S. foreign policy.
Both the United States and the Soviet Union abhorred neutralism, that is, they demanded that their allies and Third World nations side with them against their Cold War rival. Both powers equated neutralism with appeasement and sought to punish not just states that sided against them but those that attempted to remain equivocal. Both the United States and the Soviet Union worked tirelessly in Asia, Africa, Latin America, and the Middle East to convince Third World leaders that their ideology was on the right side of history and held out the best hope for those nations to grapple with their pressing social problems, including poverty, disease, and rampant population growth. The Soviets had less money and a weaker economy than their Western rivals, but they did have the advantage of arguing that communist ideology offered liberation from the legacy of colonialism.
Adopting a much harsher line toward the West than Khrushchev, China's leader, Mao Zedong, called on Third World revolutionaries to launch "wars of national liberation" against the capitalist world. The message had resonance since the overwhelming majority of Third World states had been under the control of foreign powers, including Belgium, Britain, France, Germany, Holland, and the United States, for much of the previous century. Washington sought desperately to counteract the Soviet message and to contain revolutionary movements in the Third World. U.S. leaders went to great lengths to stave off defeat in even the most obscure and strategically insignificant corners of the globe out of fear of a bandwagon or domino effect. They insisted that a communist victory anywhere would encourage other revolutionaries and thus precipitate the much-feared red avalanche.
While the United States was most sensitive to revolutionary movements in neighboring Latin America, Cold War intervention was a global phenomenon. For years Washington coveted as a strategic partner South Africa, at the time a racist white minority regime that attempted to isolate and contain black radical movements in southern Africa. In North Africa and the Middle East, Washington backed Egypt and Israel against more radical regimes, some of which, such as Syria, became close Soviet allies. The United States and the Soviet Union supported different sides in the Middle East Arab-Israeli conflict. The United States backed the Zionist state, a policy supported by most American Jews—the largest population in the world in any one country—but also by a majority of overall public opinion. While Washington became Israel's chief diplomatic benefactor and weapons supplier, the Soviet Union embraced the cause of Arab nationalism and Palestinian statehood. When wars erupted in 1956, 1967, and 1973, however, Washington and Moscow ultimately found the common language to work together to prevent the conflicts from escalating into longer wars.
While the Soviets and Chinese appealed to the Third World on the basis of Lenin's theory of imperialism, Washington offered its democratic ideology as well as its advanced economy to woo Third World nations. Through its supervision of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, the United States offered aid and loans on the condition that the recipients join the capitalist camp in the Cold War struggle. The United States confronted serious obstacles, however, in its efforts to win over the Third World. First of all, most of the Third World consisted of populations of people of color. The leaders and peoples of those nations condemned America's history of slavery, racism, and support for imperialism based on a racial hierarchy. Many scholars believe, in fact, that the Cold War played a significant role in the slow emergence of federal government support for the civil rights movement, which culminated in the United States in the mid-1960s. U.S. leaders recognized that they could not hope to appeal successfully to the Third World while sanctioning segregation, denial of voting rights, and other forms of racial discrimination in the United States itself.
CIA COVERT OPERATIONS
When economic, ideological, and cultural appeals failed, the United States, like the Soviet Union, employed spies and covert operations in an effort to achieve its aims in the developing world. Both employed a variety of tactics, including bribes, intimidation, propaganda, and violence. As a Communist Party dictatorship, the Soviets were less accountable to their public than the Americans were to theirs. Anxious to avoid public scrutiny, the Central Intelligence Agency and other covert branches of the national security state conducted their operations in secret. U.S. covert operations included extralegal coups against revolutionary regimes in Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East. In 1953, for example, a CIA operation, approved directly by Eisenhower, led to the overthrow of the elected leader of Iran, Mohammad Mosaddeq. The Iranian leader had moved to assert national control over his nation's oil supplies, an action that menaced the interest of U.S. and British oil conglomerates and smacked of socialism. The coup succeeded, as the CIA paved the way for Shah Reza Pahlavi to assume power and keep Iran open to the West. The foreign policy of intervention proved shortsighted a quarter-century later, however, as Iranian fundamentalists overthrew the shah, condemned the United States as the "Great Satan" in world affairs, and held fifty-three American hostages for more than a year.
In 1954 another CIA coup overthrew Jacobo Arbenz Guzmán, the legitimate ruler of the Central American nation of Guatemala. Arbenz had engaged in land redistribution, threatening the interest of the United Fruit Company, a U.S. corporation. Moreover, Washington was determined to curb such socialist-style behavior out of fear that it would inspire similar actions by other nations of the region. The coup replaced Arbenz with a more compliant leader but ultimately led to more than a quarter-century of factionalism, poverty, and state terror in Guatemala. In part it was the success of the Guatemalan coup that led the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations to confidently approve plans for a takeover in Cuba, an initiative that failed spectacularly at the Bay of Pigs. Castro's fully prepared forces destroyed the U.S.-backed Cuban exile guerillas shortly after their landing at Cochinos Bay. Lack of air support and widespread publicity on the eve of a putatively "covert" operation doomed the invasion and left a humiliated Kennedy administration even more determined to contain communism. An even more disastrous intervention subsequently unfolded in Asia.
THE VIETNAM WAR
While securing Japan as the centerpiece of the "great crescent" strategy, Washington successfully fended off a leftist insurgency in the Philippines after granting independence to the archipelago in 1946. U.S. economic and strategic influence (weapons sales, for example) helped contain radical movements in the new nations of Indonesia and Malaysia. Taiwan depended heavily on the United States to maintain its defensive posture and separation from mainland China.
In 1954, just a year after the Korean armistice, a new Cold War crisis arose in Indochina (Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam) as France suffered a humiliating defeat following an eight-year campaign to reassert imperial authority. The Viet Minh, a nationalist group led by a communist, Ho Chi Minh, won the battle of Dien Bien Phu, forcing France to capitulate. Determined to prevent Vietnam from falling to communism, the United States helped sabotage an international agreement that elections would be held in 1956 to unify the Southeast Asian nation. The problem with the elections, as the Eisenhower administration well understood, was that Ho Chi Minh would have won them. Washington threw its support behind Ngo Dinh Diem, who proclaimed the existence of a separate Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam) in opposition to Ho's regime in the northern half of the country. The United States thus began a commitment that would eventually cost billions of dollars and more than 58,000 American lives while bringing unparalleled death and destruction to Indochina.
Despite occupying the country with more than half a million ground troops and pummeling the region with the most intensive bombing campaign in world history, Washington could neither subdue the Vietnamese opposition nor create a viable government in Saigon. By the time President Richard M. Nixon pulled out in January 1973, the United States itself had become deeply divided over the war. Saigon fell to the communists two years later. The much-feared domino effect never transpired in Southeast Asia. Laos and Cambodia did "go communist," but well before the end of the Indochina war, the Soviet Union and China had become enemies. In 1979, Communist Party governments of the region were at war with one another, as China briefly invaded Vietnam, a Soviet ally, for its attack on the blood-thirsty regime of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, a Chinese ally.
The consensus interpretation is that the Vietnam War was a tragic foreign policy blunder. Some diehard elements of the patriotic culture insisted that Washington could have won the war with a divergent strategy, but this argument ignores the decisive political aspects of the struggle as well as the very real possibility that an unlimited assault on North Vietnam in the mid-1960s would have brought China into the war, much as events had transpired in Korea. The nation as a whole struggled for decades to recover from a foreign policy debacle that, however tragic, had flowed logically from U.S. Cold War ideology and perceptions.
Despite the aggressive U.S. militarism in Southeast Asia, and a brutal Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, a new thaw in East-West relations emerged in the 1960s and 1970s. Détente (relaxation of tensions) emerged as part of the cyclical pattern of Cold War history in which periods of relative calm followed periods of bitter great-power conflict. Kennedy and Khrushchev started the process in the wake of the missile crisis, but both were removed from the scene with Kennedy's assassination in Dallas and Khrushchev's ouster in a 1964 Kremlin power shift. The new, hard-line regime of Leonid Brezhnev aggressively pursued Soviet aims, including sending the Red Army into Czechoslovakia to repress the "Prague Spring." Although the Czechs had not rejected the Warsaw Pact alliance with the Soviet Union, the Brezhnev Doctrine proclaimed that none of the East European states would be allowed to vacate the communist camp.
Preoccupied with his foreign policy debacle in Vietnam, Lyndon Johnson made little progress toward détente, but his successor, Nixon, was keenly interested in improved East-West relations. Nixon's support for détente was ironic, since he had made his reputation in politics as a fervent anticommunist, yet he would achieve a breakthrough in the Cold War. The impetus for détente, however, actually came from European leaders Charles de Gaulle, president of France, and Willy Brandt, the West German chancellor. Bitterly opposed to the U.S. war in the former French colony of Indochina, De Gaulle excoriated U.S. foreign policy, withdrew France from NATO's integrated military command, and met with Brezhnev in Moscow in 1966. Brandt, a former mayor of West Berlin, pursued a diplomacy of Ostpolitik (Eastern policy), improving relations with neighboring East Germany.
Nixon and Henry A. Kissinger, a refugee from Nazi Germany and a former Harvard professor turned national security adviser, pursued détente in part to prevent the Europeans from undermining Washington's leadership. Nixon and Kissinger also hoped to use improved relations to gain the assistance of Moscow and Beijing in bringing an end to the Vietnam War without the United States suffering a humiliating defeat. Nixon and Kissinger exploited the Sino-Soviet rift with a "triangular diplomacy" that sought to play off the great communist powers against one another to the betterment of U.S. national interests. After Kissinger traveled secretly to Beijing for talks in 1969, the momentum toward rapprochement (reconciliation) was irreversible. During a dramatic state visit in 1971, Nixon clinked cocktail glasses with Mao Zedong in Beijing and posed for photographers atop the Great Wall of China. The next year the two powers issued the Shanghai Communique, a joint statement that China and the United States would strive to improve their relations and to contain "hegemony," a euphemism for the Soviet Union.
The dramatic "Nixinger" summit diplomacy with the onetime archenemy "Red" China wowed the American public and created anxiety in Moscow. The Kremlin warned the Americans against playing the "China card" but also received Nixon in Moscow in 1972 despite the American mining of Haiphong Harbor in North Vietnam, where Soviet supply ships regularly anchored. The high point of the U.S.–Soviet détente was the signing of the 1972 Strategic Arms Limitation Agreement, known as SALT I. The treaty established ceilings on offensive missiles and sharply limited destabilizing defensive weapons systems, but it was more important as a political vehicle for improved relations than for its actual achievements in limiting the weapons of mass destruction. Nixon and Kissinger failed completely in their quest to go through China and the Soviets to prevail upon North Vietnam to accept an independent South Vietnam, which instead fell in April 1975.
The momentum of détente began to wane in the mid-1970s. Nixon, its chief architect, met his political demise in the Watergate scandal. With the Soviet Union maintaining its hegemony over Eastern Europe, sponsoring revolutionary movements in the Third World, and denying human rights to many of its own citizens, American critics began to equate détente with appeasement. In the southwest African nation of Angola, the two superpowers backed competing forces in a raging civil war. Cuban troops, viewed as Soviet "proxies," fought in behalf of leftist rebels in Angola while the United States and China supported the opposition. A Cold War battle also emerged in Ethiopia and throughout the horn of Africa. Soviet and Cuban influence was confined mainly to those two countries, as U.S. trade and diplomacy proved advantageous in several other key African states.
Critics of détente advocated "linkage"— linking trade, arms control, and improved relations with Soviet behavior in world affairs and in the regime's human rights policies. The Soviets bitterly resented this approach and any effort to influence their internal affairs. They had left themselves vulnerable to such criticism, however, not only by denying freedom of intellectual and religious expression in Russia but by violating pledges to respect human rights embodied in the 1975 Helsinki Accords. Under this agreement, the United States, Soviet Union, and governments throughout Europe recognized current borders as permanent, thus in effect renouncing the old U.S. Cold War depiction of Eastern Europe as a set of "captive nations."
Jimmy Carter, elected president in 1976, advocated arms control but made human rights the centerpiece of his diplomacy and criticized the Soviets for their violations. U.S. relations with China continued to improve, however, a process that culminated in 1979 with formal recognition of Beijing at the expense of the longtime U.S. ally on Taiwan. The Japanese, too, expressed dismay at not being consulted about the dramatic shift in U.S. East Asian policy. Détente deteriorated under Carter, who adopted conflicting policies that reflected the conflicting advice he received from Secretary of State Cyrus Vance, an advocate of détente, and national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, a Polish emigré who adopted a harder line toward the Soviets. Carter himself allowed the SALT process to break down. Although a SALT II treaty was negotiated, Carter never took it before the U.S. Senate, where it faced rejection.
Two climactic events in 1979 destroyed détente and ensured Carter's defeat in the 1980 presidential election. First, in November a militant fundamentalist regime in Iran took over the U.S. embassy in Tehran, holding fifty-three Americans hostage. Carter began painstaking negotiations aimed at securing their release, which would not come for more than year. Meanwhile, the United States appeared helpless as Iranian radicals burned the U.S. flag and shouted "Death to Carter" in daily rituals outside the embassy. In December the Soviet Union launched an invasion of neighboring Afghanistan, where the pro-Soviet government in Kabul had come under siege. The Soviet assault seemed to confirm critics' charges that détente had been a form of appeasement. Carter declared that Brezhnev had lied to him and instituted a variety of sanctions, including a U.S. boycott of the 1980 Olympic games in Moscow.
REAGAN'S COLD WAR
Yet another cycle of Cold War confrontation followed in the wake of the collapse of détente and the foreign policy disasters in Iran and Afghanistan. Like the previous similar waves, this one featured hostile rhetoric, military escalation, little or no diplomacy, and fear of a superpower conflict. What distinguished the new cycle of conflict was the dynamic personality of President Ronald W. Reagan, an inveterate cold warrior who labeled the Soviet Union an "evil empire." A former Hollywood actor and two-term California governor, Reagan declared that the country had grown weak but soon would once again "stand tall" in world affairs. The new president embarked on an enormous campaign of militarization reminiscent of similar spurts following NSC 68 (1950) and in the wake of the "missile gap" controversy in the late 1950s and early 1960s.
U.S.–Soviet relations deteriorated sharply in Reagan's first term. Diplomacy virtually ceased. In March 1983 Reagan stunned the Soviets, and threatened to destabilize the nuclear arms race, by announcing his support for a space-based defensive shield. The president glibly declared that nuclear weapons could be rendered "impotent and obsolete" by developing a perfect defense against incoming ballistic missiles. The program, known as the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), was both costly and a violation of the 1972 treaty limiting defensive systems. The Kremlin feared, however, that the initiative would force the Soviets, already suffering from a badly flagging economy, into a costly new arena of superpower competition. The Kremlin bitterly criticized SDI, launched an offensive missile buildup of its own, and accused the United States of enhancing the threat of another world war.
On 1 September 1983, U.S.–Soviet relations reached their nadir when a Soviet pilot carried out an order to shoot down Korean Airlines Flight 007 en route from Anchorage, Alaska, to Seoul, Korea. The passenger jumbo jet had deviated from its course and flown hundreds of miles into Soviet territory. The Soviet pilot could not distinguish the Boeing aircraft from U.S. reconnaissance jets, which routinely played "chicken" with Soviet forces along their vast border. The Reagan administration claimed that the Kremlin had deliberately destroyed the civilian airliner, which had gone off course as a result of a computer programming error. The Soviets, after remaining silent for days, insisted, apparently truthfully, that they had not recognized the plane as a civilian airliner. The Kremlin charged that the civilian jet clearly had been on a U.S.– and South Korean–backed intelligence mission.
While Reagan unnerved the Soviets, most of the American public supported his policies. Even foreign policy disasters did not undermine the president's appeal. In one such incident in 1983, Reagan dispatched U.S. forces to Lebanon on an uncertain mission to combat "terrorism" and contain Syrian "aggression." The action brought little more than the deaths of 241 U.S. marines from a radical suicide assault on their position. Reagan also overthrew a leftist government in Grenada by direct invasion and conducted a series of raids against the Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi. The most intense arena of the revived Cold War, however, was Central America. In Nicaragua, the Sandinista rebels, named for a martyred reform leader from the 1930s, came to power in 1979 and launched a socialist government. In neighboring El Salvador, leftist rebels battled a murderous U.S.-backed military regime. Although Carter had initiated the move to contain the perceived threat, it was Reagan who embarked on an all-out campaign to destroy the left in America's "backyard." While employing every possible means to isolate and economically weaken Castro's Cuba, Reagan sharply increased aid to the Salvadoran military, which allied with "death squads" responsible for executing not only leftist leaders but liberal critics of the government, students, citizens, Catholic priests, and even American churchwomen. The CIA authorized funding for the contras, rebels whose aim was to overthrow the government in Managua. Funded, armed, and trained on U.S. bases in Florida as well as in Honduras, the contras began to fight their way through the Nicaraguan jungles.
Although the United Nations, the Organization of American States, and the World Court condemned the United States for actions such as the illegal mining of Nicaragua's harbors in 1982, Reagan ignored the world community. Reagan's campaign against the left led to the Iran-Contra scandal, which tarnished his presidency. The president either authorized illegal actions or failed to exercise supervision over his subordinates—he was not sure himself which had been the case. What became clear was that the administration had secretly sold arms to Iran—officially a terrorist nation with which Washington had refused to conduct diplomacy—as part of a scheme to gain the release of hostages being held in Lebanon as well as to circumvent congressional restrictions on funding for the contra rebels in Nicaragua.
While Reagan remained a popular president, the damage done by the Iran-Contra scandal as well as changes in the Soviet Union prompted him to reconsider his hard-line Cold War policies. Throughout the 1980s, antinuclear protesters in the United States and Europe, as well as liberal and moderate critics, also brought pressure to bear on the White House to pursue an arms-control agreement and a renewal of East-West diplomacy. Some of the president's advisers, including his wife, Nancy, urged him to leave a legacy of peace rather than one simply of zealotry and confrontation.
THE GORBACHEV PHENOMENON
A dynamic new Soviet leader, Mikhail S. Gorbachev, prompted Reagan's turn to moderation. Following the death of Brezhnev in 1982, two more Soviet leaders assumed the helm but died within a short period. Born in 1931, well after the Bolshevik Revolution, Gorbachev represented a new generation of Communist Party leadership in Moscow. Assuming power in 1985, Gorbachev sought to revitalize Soviet society through a series of dramatic reforms. He called the program perestroika, or restructuring, a concept that included sweeping economic and social reforms. The Soviet government authorized joint ventures with foreign companies, allowing some free enterprise to emerge in the socialist economy, and lifted restrictions on free speech and intellectual expression. Gorbachev called that reform glasnost, or openness.
Decrying the Cold War as dangerous and wasteful, Gorbachev unilaterally reduced Soviet investment in the great-power struggle. Declaring that intervention in Afghanistan had been a mistake, he pulled out Soviet troops in 1989. Gorbachev implemented sharp cuts in Soviet defense spending, including the withdrawal of tens of thousands of Red Army troops occupying Eastern Europe. Reagan and his advisers reacted with skepticism to Gorbachev's initiatives in world affairs, but the sweeping changes promoted by the charismatic new Russian leader soon became impossible to ignore. Gorbachev pressed Reagan to join him in bold new diplomatic ventures, and the U.S. president nearly responded at the Reykjavik summit in Iceland in 1986. There the two world leaders flirted with the "zero option"—an agreement to eliminate all nuclear weapons by the year 2000. This breathtaking proposal collapsed, however, over Reagan's refusal to sacrifice research and development of his Strategic Defense Initiative. Despite the summit breakdown, Reagan and Gorbachev had formed a bond, one that led the next year to a successful nuclear arms summit in Washington, D.C. Under the INF Treaty, both sides agreed to dismantle all intermediate range nuclear forces throughout the world. The Soviets agreed to on-site verification of their missile installations, a concession that would not have been possible in the pre-Gorbachev era.
By the time Reagan left office in 1989, the warlike atmosphere he had fostered in the early 1980s was but a distant memory. Both the U.S. and Soviet presidents were calling for an end to the Cold War, but no one envisioned just how sudden, dramatic, and complete that end would be. Perestroika and glasnost could not help but reverberate beyond Russia's borders. The sweeping economic reforms and loosening of restrictions on freedom of speech, the press, and artistic and intellectual life unleashed powerful forces that proved impossible to contain. Before they had run their course, the Communist Party regimes would topple throughout Europe and the Soviet Union and the Cold War would come to an end.
Skeptics assumed Gorbachev would inevitably respond in the fashion of the Chinese Communist Party, which conducted a bloody crackdown on student demonstrators in June 1989 at Beijing's mammoth Tiananmen Square. The United States condemned the repression at Tiananmen but maintained trade, diplomatic, and cultural ties with the People's Republic of China. U.S. national security elites concluded that continuing dialogue with China was too important to make an issue of the regime's repressive action. Rejecting the Chinese model, Gorbachev concluded that the costs—militarily and politically, and in world opinion—were too high to forcefully maintain Soviet hegemony over Eastern Europe. The Soviet leader stunned Western national security experts by renouncing the Brezhnev Doctrine, which held that the Kremlin would use force to maintain communist regimes.
THE END OF THE COLD WAR
Once Soviet intervention had been renounced, the people of Eastern Europe took matters into their own hands. Poland had assumed the lead, well before Gorbachev's time, under Lech Walesa and the Solidarity trade-union movement. Similar pro-democracy reform movements emerged in Czechoslovakia and throughout Eastern Europe. The movement climaxed in 1989 with the sudden dissolution of the Soviet empire. A leader of Solidarity became prime minister of Poland, where a year later the first free elections in sixty-eight years were held to turn out the communists. Soviet troops departed from Hungary, where a new government unearthed the remains of the martyred reform leader Imre Nagy, executed by the Soviets after the 1956 rebellion, in order to give him a burial ceremony with full honors. The poet and playwright Vaclav Havel led the "velvet revolution" in Czechoslovakia. In November 1989 security forces bludgeoned hundreds of protesters in Wenceslas Square in Prague, but even more massive crowds returned on successive days, shouting for an end to communism. The regime came tumbling down.
The most dramatic change came in Berlin, the heart of the nation that had been divided by the Cold War. After the East German authorities announced under pressure that citizens would no longer be prevented from traveling to the western sector of the city, the Berlin Wall, the ultimate symbol of the Cold War, literally crumbled in the hands of crowds of jubilant, hammer-wielding Germans. German reunification soon followed. Contending parties agreed on free elections in Albania and Bulgaria, but the regime of Nicolae Ceausescu in Romania grimly clung to power. In December, after his security police fired into crowds murdering hundreds of protesters, the Romanian army joined forces with the street protesters to topple the regime. Ceausescu and his wife were summarily executed by firing squad on Christmas Day 1989.
Meanwhile, in the Soviet Union itself, the three Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, forcibly annexed by Stalin in the 1939 pact with Hitler, demanded independence. All across the vast Eurasian empire, ethnic republics such as Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldavia, Tajikistan, Ukraine, and Uzbekistan rejected the essence of Soviet political life: the central authority of the Kremlin. Gorbachev repeatedly ruled out military intervention against the breakaway republics, but violence erupted in regions throughout the Soviet Union. Finally, in August 1991, on the eve of Gorbachev's planned signing of a new union treaty that would have created a formal confederation, hard-liners effected a coup, placing Gorbachev under house arrest in the Crimea. Protests, led by renegade Russian Communist Party leader Boris Yeltsin, overwhelmed the plotters of the coup after three days of tense standoff.
The collapse of the coup left a changed world in its wake. Gorbachev attempted to return to power after the coup, but in fact— because he was the leader of the discredited Communist Party—he had no real authority left. The Soviet reformer had won the Nobel Peace Prize but had lost the real prize: state power. Yeltsin assumed the Russian presidency under a new democratic system. Russia, and most of the fifteen other republics, rejected the Soviet system, though individual communists could remain engaged in parliamentary politics. The infamous KGB security police assumed a new name and no longer hounded intellectual critics of communism but otherwise remained active. Western Europe and the United States embraced the newly independent East European regimes, even encouraging several to join NATO over the opposition of Yeltsin and many residents of the former Soviet Union.
The United States confronted a world in which the nation's preeminent adversary for almost a half century had suddenly ceased to exist. President George H. W. Bush, who had succeeded Reagan in 1989, reacted cautiously to the dramatic change before declaring the triumph of the United States in the Cold War. The Cold War had been costly and dangerous but had provided a pernicious kind of stability in world affairs. With regional conflicts raging in the former Yugoslavia, Africa, parts of Asia, and in ethnic enclaves of Russia, many wondered if the post–Cold War world might bring even greater instability and uncertainty to world affairs.
INTERPRETING THE COLD WAR
From the outset of the Cold War, the two adversaries blamed one another for the conflict. For a long time, historians, echoing the patriotic culture of their nations, followed in train. In the Soviet Union, historical interpretation adhered to the rigid Communist Party line, which held the "imperialist" United States responsible for the Cold War. The Americans had tried to strangle the Soviet Union during its infancy and had sought ever since, with the brief interlude of World War II (known there as the Great Patriotic War) to contain Russia by surrounding it with hostile states. The United States and its allies had menaced the Soviet Union with the atomic bomb and had tried to isolate and destroy the "motherland" with their economic power and trade restrictions. The Soviet Union depicted itself as a defensive outpost of progressive reform in a world dominated by ruthless but ultimately doomed capitalist imperialists.
Until a wave of revisionism emerged in the 1960s, historians in the United States interpreted the evolution of the Cold War in orthodox terms: that it was a struggle to contain an expansionist and "totalitarian" Soviet regime. The totalitarian model linked Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union as two ruthless military powers that forced their will upon neighboring states and employed terror at home against their own people. Like the Soviets, Americans insisted that their actions in the Cold War had been primarily defensive, as the term "containment" suggested. The essential argument, reflected in the language of NSC 68, was that the United States represented the "free world" in a struggle against atheist totalitarianism.
Revisionists of various shades began to emerge in the United States in the late 1950s, reaching their apogee in the wake of the disastrous U.S. intervention in Indochina. Revisionists challenged the patriotic culture with their will-ingness to consider the Soviet point of view. Some argued that economic necessity, specifically the need for foreign markets, determined the direction of U.S. Cold War diplomacy. Revisionists emphasized that the United States, not just the Soviet Union, had been an expansionist power throughout its history. They also underscored the willingness of U.S. national security elites to ally themselves with a host of dictators across the globe, as long as those rulers embraced anticommunism and left their nations open to U.S. economic penetration.
Orthodox interpretations returned with a vengeance with the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union. The triumphalist argument held that the Cold War policies of the United States and its allies had been necessary to contain communism and that they had proven spectacularly successful. Despite the violence of the era, some viewed the Cold War as a "long peace," because, in fact, the superpowers had not gone to war. One scholar went so far as to assert that the end of the Cold War marked the "end of history" insofar as democratic politics and capitalism soon would be embraced by everyone.
Others rejected the triumphalist interpretation of the history of the Cold War as well as the notion that the long struggle had been worth the effort. They argued that the Cold War had been extremely expensive, diverting resources to the respective militaries and away from economic and social development. Moreover, the superpowers typically carried out military conflicts on Third World battlefields, leaving many of those nations divided and wracked by poverty and degradation. The East-West struggle might have come to an end, but the great divide in wealth and quality of life between North and South had never been greater. Moreover, market reforms failed to revive the Russian economy. Indeed, "shock therapy" brought a sharply lower standard of living for most of the population, which had lost the guaranteed employment and safety net once provided under the Soviet system. In 1999, Yeltsin stepped down for Vladimir Putin, a little known former KGB officer, who became the new Russian president.
Interpretations of the Cold War will continue to evolve as scholars gain access to more evidence and as world events continue to unfold and illuminate fresh perspectives on the past. New archival evidence, made available by the collapse of the former Communist Party regimes, has revealed fascinating insight into Cold War conflicts such as the Korean War and the Cuban missile crisis. Scholars now argue that Third World countries, rather than being mere pawns in the Cold War, often shaped the agenda for their superpower allies. Others argue that the real significance of the Cold War was its impact on science, technology, and culture, including popular culture and consumerism.
By century's end, the Cold War may have been over but many legacies remained. Russian-American and Sino-American relations continued to be strained. Ethnic and regional conflicts simmered across the globe. The threat posed by nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons remained real, whether they might be wielded by terrorists or by so-called outlaw regimes. At the same time, information technology, rapid population growth, and environmental threats such as global warming began to establish an agenda for the new millennium. The efforts of the people of the world and their leaders to meet these challenges would determine the character of the post–Cold War world.
Brands, H. W. The Devil We Knew: Americans and the Cold War. New York, 1993. A pithy overview of Cold War history.
Carroll, John M., and Herring, George C., eds. Modern American Diplomacy. Rev. ed. Wilmington, Del., 1996. An excellent anthology.
Chomsky, Noam. World Orders Old and New. New York, 1994. A radical perspective on the end of the Cold War and its implications.
Engelhardt, Tom. The End of Victory Culture: Cold War America and the Disillusioning of a Generation. New York, 1995. An enlightening cultural perspective.
Gaddis, John Lewis. Strategies of Containment: A Critical Appraisal of Postwar American National Security Policy. New York, 1982. A worthwhile read on American grand strategy.
Garthoff, Raymond L. Détente and Confrontation: American-Soviet Relations from Nixon to Reagan. Washington, D.C., 1985. A magisterial history.
——. The Great Transition: American-Soviet Relations and the End of the Cold War. Washington, D.C., 1994. The best work on the end of the Cold War.
Gorbachev, Mikhail. Perestroika: New Thinking for Our Country and the World. New York, 1987. The deposed Soviet leader's revolutionary ideas on society and foreign policy.
Herring, George C. America's Longest War: The United States and Vietnam, 1950–1975. New York, 1996. 3d ed. An excellent survey of the Indochina war.
Hixson, Walter L. Parting the Curtain: Propaganda, Culture, and the Cold War, 1945–1961. New York, 1997. Assesses psychological warfare and cultural perspectives.
Hogan, Michael J. A Cross of Iron: Harry S. Truman and the Origins of the National Security State, 1945–1954. New York and Cambridge, 1998.
Hunter, Allen, ed. Rethinking the Cold War. Philadelphia, 1998. The best anthology on the end of the Cold War.
LaFeber, Walter. The American Age: United States Foreign Policy at Home and Abroad Since 1750. 2d ed. 2 vols. New York, 1994. One of the best texts on postwar U.S. foreign policy.
Lebow, Richard Ned, and Janice Gross Stein. We All Lost the Cold War. Princeton, N.J., 1994. A critical perspective on the argument that the West "won" the Cold War.
Leffler, Melvyn P. A Preponderance of Power: National Security, the Truman Administration, and the Cold War. Stanford, Calif., 1992.
Lundestad, Geir. East, West, North, South: Developments in International Politics Since 1945. 4th ed. New York, 1999. The perspectives of a top Norwegian scholar.
May, Ernest R., ed. American Cold War Strategy: Interpreting NSC 68. New York, 1993. Multiple perspectives on perhaps the most revealing document on the American side of the Cold War.
Pessen, Edward. Losing Our Souls: The American Experience in the Cold War. Chicago, 1993. A historian's biting assessment of U.S. Cold War diplomacy.
Schulzinger, Robert D. American Diplomacy Since 1900. 4th ed. New York, 1998. One of the better texts on modern U.S. foreign policy.
Sherry, Michael S. In the Shadow of War: The United States Since the 1930s. New Haven, Conn., 1995. The best analysis of the role of militarism in American society.
Smith, Tony. "New Bottles for New Wine: A Pericentric Framework for the Study of the Cold War." Diplomatic History 24, no. 4 (fall 2000): 567–591. Emphasizes the centrality of peripheral nations in the Cold War era.
Stueck, William W. The Korean War: An International History. Princeton, N.J., 1997. A solid international history of a pivotal Cold War conflict.
Trachtenberg, Marc. A Constructed Peace: The Making of the European Settlement, 1945–1963. Princeton, N.J., 1999. An excellent analysis of the first generation of the Cold War.
Westad, Odd Arne. "The New International History of the Cold War: Three (Possible) Paradigms." Diplomatic History 24, no. 4 (fall 2000): 551–565. A stimulating reconceptualization based on new documentation.
White, Donald W. The American Century: The Rise and Decline of the United States as a World Power. New Haven and London, 1996. A mammoth study of the American empire.
Williams, William A. The Tragedy of American Diplomacy. 2d rev. ed. New York, 1972. A classic work on the economic imperatives underlying U.S. diplomacy.
Zubok, Vladislav, and Constantine Pleshakov. Inside the Kremlin's Cold War: From Stalin to Khrushchev. Cambridge, Mass., 1996. The best assessment of Soviet Cold War diplomacy by two accomplished Russian scholars.
See also Arms Control and Disarmament; Arms Transfers and Trade; Balance of Power; Cold War Origins; Cold War Termination; Cold Warriors; Collective Security; Containment; Covert Operations; Deterrence; Domino Theory; Foreign Aid; Globalization; Intelligence and Counterintelligence; International Organization; Intervention and Nonintervention; The National Interest; National Security Council; North Atlantic Treaty Organization; Nuclear Strategy and Diplomacy; Outer Space; Post–Cold War Policy; Science and Technology; Summit Conferences; Superpower Diplomacy; The Vietnam War .
"Cold War Evolution and Interpretations." Encyclopedia of American Foreign Policy. . Encyclopedia.com. (February 22, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/social-sciences/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/cold-war-evolution-and-interpretations
"Cold War Evolution and Interpretations." Encyclopedia of American Foreign Policy. . Retrieved February 22, 2019 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/social-sciences/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/cold-war-evolution-and-interpretations
Encyclopedia.com gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).
Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.
Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, Encyclopedia.com cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use Encyclopedia.com citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:
Modern Language Association
The Chicago Manual of Style
American Psychological Association
- Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most Encyclopedia.com content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
- In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.