In a nutshell: the Cold War

In the wake of World War II, tensions between two superpowers brought the globe to the brink of nuclear disaster.

In a nutshell: the Cold War © Getty Images

Why did the Cold War begin?

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Despite being allies in World War II, fighting together against the Axis powers, great tension and resentment existed between the USSR and the United States.

When the war ended in 1945, these diplomatic strains between the two great superpowers of the day erupted into outright mutual distrust and enmity, with the Western powers fearing the rise of Communist governments in Eastern Europe. Both sides began vying for international dominance and as the nuclear age had dawned, they built, tested and stockpiled immensely powerful weapons that could destroy the world.

This conflict without all-out military action became known as the Cold War, a term possibly coined in a 1945 article by author George Orwell to describe an ideological confrontation between the two powers.

Then in 1961, East Germany’s Communist government, which was part of the Soviet occupation zone, built an enduring symbol of the Cold War: the Berlin Wall. Built to prevent defections from East to West, the wall also kept people from West Germany from entering and undermining the Socialist state. Until 1989, families and friends were divided.

East German construction workers building the Berlin Wall, 1961 © British Army / Getty Images
East German construction workers building the Berlin Wall, 1961 © British Army / Getty Images

What were the areas of rivalry between the superpowers?

The war was ultimately a clash of civilisations: American Capitalism versus Soviet Communism. To prove the superiority of their own ideology – as well as technology, firepower and political-economic strength – the United States and USSR embarked on the nuclear arms race.

In 1952, the Americans exploded the H-bomb, a weapon 2,500 times more powerful than the atomic bomb detonated over Hiroshima, but not to be outdone, the Soviets built their own in 1953. The rivalry almost spilled into nuclear war with the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962, when the Soviets installed missiles on Cuba, just 90 miles from Florida. Disaster was eventually averted after Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev and US President John Kennedy came to an agreement.

Space provided another arena for the conflict as both sides competed to get there. In 1957, Sputnik became the world’s first artificial satellite and first man-made object to be placed into the Earth’s orbit – a win for the Soviets. But in 1969, US astronaut Neil Armstrong became the first person to walk on the Moon.

Soviet IRBMs are paraded through Moscow's Red Square in 1961 © Getty Images
Soviet IRBMs are paraded through Moscow’s Red Square in 1961 © Getty Images

Was any blood shed during the conflict?

Although neither side ever fought the other, the war was fought by proxy states that fought for the beliefs of both superpowers. The Vietnam War of 1954–75 was a prime example, with anti-Communist South Vietnam, supported by the Americans, pitted against Communist North Vietnam, which received military assistance from the Soviets and Communist China. The North wished to unite Vietnam under a single Communist regime, while the south was fighting for a country more closely aligned to Western values. The war was bloody and long, resulting in as many as 2 million civilian deaths on both sides as well as the deaths of some 1.1 million North Vietnamese and Viet Cong fighters.

Other battle zones were Afghanistan (from 1979–89), which saw the Soviet army and allied Afghan forces fight US-supported insurgent groups. Elsewhere, the Korean War (1950-53) saw Russian-backed North Korea fighting the American-backed South. Between 1 and 2 million civilians were killed.

At the height of the Cold War, US President John F Kennedy meets Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev at the 1961 Vienna summit © Getty Images
At the height of the Cold War, US President John F Kennedy meets Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev at the 1961 Vienna summit © Getty Images

Who won the Cold War and how did it end?

In 1969, Richard Nixon became US President and encouraged the use of diplomacy over military action. A policy of ‘détente’ (relaxation) was adopted towards the Soviets and, in 1972, the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty was signed, prohibiting the manufacture of nuclear missiles.

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Tensions rose under Ronald Reagan’s presidency, as he sought to rid the world of Communism, but the new Soviet Premier, Mikhail Gorbachev, was a much more willing diplomatic partner. In 1989, the Berlin Wall was finally ripped down after nearly three decades, and Gorbachev’s domestic policies of glasnost (‘openness’) and perestroika (‘restructuring’) helped make the country more democratic – leading to the dismantling of the Soviet Union in 1991.

This article was first published in the December 2015 issue of History Revealed.