Updated: May 15, 2022
The Cold War was a period of geopolitical tension between the Soviet Union and the United States and their respective allies, after World War II. The period is generally considered to span the 1947 Truman Doctrine to the 1991 dissolution of the Soviet Union. The word "cold" is used because there was no large-scale fighting directly between the two superpowers. Still, they each supported major regional conflicts known as proxy wars. The conflict was based around the ideological and geopolitical struggle for global influence by the two superpowers, following their temporary alliance and victory against Nazi Germany in 1945.
While the Western Bloc (United States) and Eastern Bloc (Soviet Union) generally espoused the economic theories of capitalism and socialism, respectively, the U.S. government supported right-wing governments and uprisings across the world, while the Soviet government-funded communist parties and revolutions around the world, however, the conflict was mostly geopolitical. Each power had a nuclear strategy that discouraged a pre-emptive attack by the other side, on the basis that such an attack would lead to the total destruction of the attacker—the doctrine of mutually assured destruction. Aside from the nuclear arsenal development and traditional military deployment, the struggle for dominance was expressed via psychological warfare, propaganda campaigns, and espionage, embargoes, rivalry at sports events, and technological competitions such as the Space Race.
The first phase of the Cold War began in the first two years after the end of the World War II in 1945. The Soviet Union had been left with power over the former Nazi territories of Eastern Europe. In contrast, the United States had extensive military and financial influence over the countries of Western Europe (for example, supporting the anti-communist side in the 1946–49 Greek Civil War) and created the NATO military alliance in 1949. The U.S. termed its global policy against Soviet influence containment. The Berlin Blockade (1948–49) was the first major crisis of the Cold War. The conflict expanded with the 1949 victory of the Communist side in the Chinese Civil War and the outbreak of the Korean War (1950–1953). The USSR and the U.S. competed for influence in Latin America and the decolonizing states of Africa and Asia. The Soviet Union formed the Warsaw Pact in 1955 in response to NATO. The Soviets suppressed the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, and later more escalating crises occurred, such as the Suez Crisis (1956), the Berlin Crisis of 1961 and the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, which was perhaps the closest the two sides came to nuclear war. In 1961, a group of countries including India, Indonesia and Yugoslavia launched the nominally-neutral Non-Aligned Movement, which never had much power. Meanwhile, an international peace movement took root among citizens around the world. Campaigns against nuclear arms testing and for nuclear disarmament gained popularity at the turn of the 1960s and continued through the 1970s and 1980s, with massive anti-war protests. Following the Cuban Missile Crisis, a new phase began that saw the Sino-Soviet split between China and the Soviet Union complicate relations within the Communist sphere, while U.S. ally France began to demand higher authority of action. The USSR suppressed the 1968 Prague Spring liberalization program in Czechoslovakia, while the U.S. experienced internal turmoil from the civil rights movement and opposition to the Vietnam War (1955–75), which ended with the defeat of the US-backed South Vietnam.
By the 1970s, both sides had started making peace deal, ushering in a period of détente that saw the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks and the U.S. opening relations with China as a strategic counterweight to the USSR. Détente collapsed at the end of the decade with the beginning of the Soviet-Afghan War in 1979. The early 1980s were another period of elevated tension, with the 1983 Soviet downing of KAL Flight 007 and the "Able Archer" NATO military exercises. The United States increased diplomatic, military, and economic pressures on the Soviet Union, at a time when it was already suffering from economic stagnation. In the mid-1980s, the new Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev introduced the liberalizing reforms of perestroika ("reorganization", 1987) and glasnost ("openness", c. 1985) and ended Soviet involvement in Afghanistan. Pressures for national sovereignty grew stronger in Eastern Europe, especially Poland, and Gorbachev refused to support their governments any longer militarily. The result in 1989 was a wave of revolutions that peacefully (except the Romanian Revolution) overthrew all of the communist governments of Central and Eastern Europe. The CPSU itself lost control in the Soviet Union and was banned following an abortive coup attempt in August 1991. This, in turn, led to the formal dissolution of the USSR in December 1991, the declaration of independence of its constituent republics, and the collapse of communist governments across much of Africa and Asia. The United States was left as the world's only superpower.
The Cold War and its events have left a significant legacy. It is often referred to in popular culture, featuring themes of espionage (notably the James Bond book and film franchise) and the threat of nuclear warfare. Meanwhile, a renewed state of tension between the Soviet Union's successor state, Russia, and the United States in the 2010s (including its Western allies) and growing tension between an increasingly powerful China and the U.S. and its Western allies have each been referred to as the Second Cold War.
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