What Was the Cold War? A Brief Historical Overview

(Last Updated On: March 6, 2020)
What Was the Cold War? A Brief Historical Overview

The United States and Russia have had a complicated relationship over the years, to say the least. Though both countries were allies during World War II, sharing a common enemy in Nazi Germany, they would soon after find themselves in a struggle for global supremacy. This conflict, later called the “Cold War”, was not fought directly, but rather through a series of proxy wars, propaganda campaigns, intelligence operations, economic aid to countries they could influence, military coalitions, and the building of massive arms capabilities. 

The term “cold war” originates in George Orwell’s 1945 essay, “You and the Atomic Bomb”. It was first used to describe the geopolitical confrontation between the USSR and the US in a 1947 speech by Bernard Baruch, an influential Democratic presidential advisor. Experts place the official years of the Cold War between 1947 to 1991. 

Related post: List of Nuclear Weapons Countries 

Geopolitical Tension

After Nazi Germany surrendered in May, 1945, the shaky wartime alliance that had existed between the United States, the United Kingdom, and the Soviet Union began to fall apart. In addition to general disagreements over what the map of Europe should look like, the three powers were also suspicious of one another.

Winston Churchill sought to maintain the British Empire by securing control of the Mediterranean and creating a buffer of independent states between the UK and USSR. Franklin D. Roosevelt had more global goals–he hoped that America might emerge as the leaders of a world peace organization. He also wanted to ensure US economic supremacy over the British. 

But both leaders had to deal with the unpredictable Joseph Stalin. The Soviet Union wanted to expand their territory and exert influence over their neighbors, and had demonstrated their willingness to do so when they invaded Poland just 17 days after the start of World War II. But Stalin was also very skeptical of the US and UK. In fact, it was his belief that both countries had conspired against the USSR to make sure they bore the brunt of fighting against Germany. His negative perceptions of the West would only fuel the tension and hostility between the Allied powers.

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The Truman Doctrine

Following the war, the Soviets maintained control (both directly and indirectly) of various countries in central and eastern Europe, some of which they had annexed themselves, and some of which they had liberated from the Nazis. By the late-1940s, the Soviet Union had installed left-wing governments in virtually all of these countries. 

Eventually, both the Americans and British would come to fear the permanent Soviet domination of eastern Europe and the threat of Soviet-influenced communist parties cropping up in the West. 

The start of the Cold War typically coincides with the Truman Doctrine, which was an American foriegn policy outlined in a speech by President Harry S. Truman on March 12, 1947. 

“I believe 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.”

The Truman Doctrine was further developed the following year, when amidst the Greek Civil War (1946-49), Truman argued that if Greece and Turkey did not receive economic aid, they would inevitably fall to communism.

Both Democratic and Republican politicians would come to a consensus over the Truman Doctrine, with the US ushering in a new global foreign policy centered on containing and deterring the spread of communism and Soviet influence. 

NATO and the Warsaw Pact

As tensions continued to mount, including international crises like the Berlin Blockade, Western powers began to seek a military alliance to protect against Soviet threats. The US, Britain, France, Canada, and other western European countries signed the North Atlantic Treaty in April of 1949. This established the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). A few months later, the Soviet Union detonated their first atomic bomb. 

Animosity between the US and USSR would be expanded by events such as the Chinese Civil War and the Korean War. Both would compete for influence in Latin America, as well as decolonizing states in Africa and Asia. 

In 1955, the Soviet Union would counter NATO with their own super team of countries. The Warsaw Pact was a military alliance made between the Soviet Union and several satellite states. This would ultimately divide the world up into two large spheres of influence, dominated by the US on one side and the USSR on the other. 

The Cold War would continue to escalate throughout the 1950s and 1960s. In 1956, the Soviet Union quelled the pro-democracy Hungarian Revolution. And more crises would continue, like the Suez Crisis (1956), the Berlin Crisis (1961), and the Cuban Missile Crisis (1962). That latter was perhaps the closest either side came to nuclear war. 

Issues Within

After the Cuban Missile Crisis, China and the Soviet Union began to see their relations crumble, as philosophical differences in the interpretations of Marx and Lenin began to arise. This brought a rift within the sphere of communist influence. The Soviet Union also found itself continuing to face unrest within its satellite states. In 1968, for example, they had to squash another uprising, this time the Prague Spring liberalization programs in Czechoslovakia. 

Meanwhile, the US was facing issues of their own. Internally, there was much unrest in the country as opposition to the Vietnam War grew, and as the broader Civil Rights Movement began to really take off. 

With various issues from within, both sides began to make allowances for peace and security by the 1970s. During this period of détente, disarmament talks would begin, and the US would open relations with the People’s Republic of China. 

However, this period of relative peace would collapse at the end of the decade, with the start of the Soviet–Afghan War in 1979.

The Cold War Ends

The early 1980s once again saw a period of escalated tension with both sides becoming more militaristic. In 1983, President Ronald Reagan labeled the Soviet Union an “evil empire,” going all-in on his efforts to “win” the Cold War. 

By the mid-1980s, however, the Soviet Union was suffering greatly from economic stagnation, and the US would increase diplomatic, military, and economic pressures. New Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev would introduce liberalizing reforms and would end Soviet involvement in Afghanistan. 

At the same time, independence movements were growing throughout Eastern Europe, especially in Poland. After Gorbachev stopped giving military aid to these countries, a wave of largely peaceful revolutions would spread throughout Europe in 1989. With communism falling, the USSR would formally dissolve in December, 1991. The United States became the world’s lone superpower.

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But while the Cold War may have ended, its legacy lives on today. Many of us have seen it referred to in popular culture or the media. And even beyond that, there exists a renewed state of tension between Russia and the United States today. Coupled with tensions between an increasingly powerful China, some have referred to this period of history as the Second Cold War.


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Mark Heald
About Mark Heald 216 Articles
Mark Heald is the Managing Editor of Sporcle.com. He enjoys spending time with his family, traveling, and bemoaning the fact the Sonics left Seattle.