The Cold War was named in 1947 by Bernard Baruch in his advisory role to President Truman as the United States, Great Britain, France, and its other Western allies faced off against the Soviet Union, with mutually aggressive maneuvers and countermoves, especially in Europe. This label was publicized more broadly by Walter Lippmann in a 1947 book with same name, and it came to describe much of the world’s twentieth century history. It was a multidimensional contest ranging from ideology, economics, and culture to geopolitics, diplomacy, and technology, which arguably began with the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, but its tensions were diffuse as first liberal capitalist and then illiberal fascist regimes both courted Soviet diplomats and sought access to the USSR’s markets. After years of intense competition, the Molotov Pact unified Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union in a joint invasion of Poland. Yet, within months, Berlin turned eastward in Operation Barbarossa, and Moscow allied itself with the capitalist West. Those struggles behind the Cold War were renewed near the close of World War II as the so called Big Five Allied powers began to disagree about how to organize the post 1945 world order with the defeat of the three major Axis powers – Fascist Italy, Nazi Germany, and Imperial Japan.
European Start of the Cold War
The Cold War’s immediate origins lay in 1944 to 1946, but the conflict crystallized in 1947 as the United States and the Soviet Union began to engage in a very direct cultural, social, and technological competition as well as more indirect military confrontation. To conduct this war, in July 1947, only 2 years after President Truman, Prime Minister Churchill, and Joseph Stalin met at the Potsdam Conference between Great Britain, France, the United States, and the Soviet Union to create a peaceful post-war world, President Truman reorganized the American military under a single Department of Defense, formed the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), and created the National Security Council to wage the Cold War.
During World War II, the divergent visions of the Western Allies and the USSR over the nature of the post-fascist governments in Europe were quite evident, but fairly moot as long as Nazi occupying forces were in place. By 1944, however, the conflicts became intense as Free French forces reestablished control in France, the German occupation of Italy ended south of the Piedmont, and the Soviet liberation of Poland brought Red Army units into Germany itself. Large numbers of communists fought against Hitler’s forces in France and Italy, and a free Polish regime hoped to return to Warsaw. However, the USSR set up a pro Moscow provisional government in Poland, and the Allies worked to keep communists out of both France’s and Italy’s new governments. As Hitler’s regime collapsed in May 1945, independent communist governments came to power on their own in Albania and Yugoslavia, while the USSR engineered the rise to power of communist regimes in Poland, Bulgaria, Romania, and Hungary.
Consequently, in his attempt to prevent the further spread of communism, President Harry S Truman promulgated the Truman Doctrine to aid anticommunist forces fighting in Greece and Turkey in March 1947. This move launched the official policy of ‘containment’, and it also triggered the Marshall Plan to fund Europe’s industrial reconstruction. Greece might have gone the way of Yugoslavia, but British, and then American assistance helped stop the communist insurgency there during the bitter Greek Civil War. Even though Czechoslovakia initially installed an independent multiparty parliamentary government after the war, communist activists sparked a crisis in February 1948 that prompted Prague to ally itself with Moscow as well.
During 1947 and 1948 Britain, France, and the United States increasingly moved toward consolidating their respective zones of occupation in Germany into a single administrative unit, so the USSR imposed a land blockade in the summer of 1948 against the three Western powers’ zone of occupation in Berlin. For 11 months, Berlin was sustained by a costly airlift, and this lifeline maintained Western control in the American, British, and French zones in the city. However, these developments led to the creation of West Germany in May 1949 and East Germany in October 1949 as separate states. The iconic center of the Cold War emerged here from a divided Berlin, a divided Germany, and a divided Europe. Similarly, the cooperative spirit of the Allied response during the Berlin Airlift continued with the creation of a formal alliance between the Western Powers around the North Atlantic Basin, or NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization). Even though minor progress was made after Stalin’s death in 1953 with the State Treaty between Austria and the four wartime allies, ending its German-style four power occupation and giving it independence in a formal state of neutrality during 1955, Europe remained very divided. And it stayed on the edge of war for the next 40 years after the creation of the two German republics. In 1955 asWest Germany also attained full sovereignty, it was allowed to rearm itself, and then join NATO. East Germany also began rearming in 1956, and then joined the East Bloc’s military alliance.
Cold War Outside of Europe
Outside of Europe, the Cold War was a misnomer from the beginning as military conflict raged for decades. In China, the last revolutionary civil war between the Nationalist, or Kuomintang, Party, and Communist Party led to the defeat of the Nationalists and their forced retreat to Taiwan by 1949, allowing the People’s Republic of China to be declared in Beijing on 1 October 1949. The United States did not intervene decisively to assist the Kuomintang, but it guaranteed the Nationalist regime’s security after the anticommunist forces fled to Taiwan. In less than a year, the partitioned Korean peninsula saw the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea under Kim Il Sung invade its southern neighbor, the American backed Republic of South Korea created in August 1948 with UN support. The Korean War ensued from June 1950 through July 1953 as both Moscow and Beijing backed Kim’s attempts to unify the Koreas militarily. An armistice was accepted after 3 years of war between a United Nations coalition under American leadership with North Korea and its Chinese communist and Russian backers. The first of many full blown ‘proxy wars’ between the United States and the Soviet Union, the Korean War still has not ended in a formal peace treaty.
At the same time, French efforts to reestablish control over Indochina for Paris, after local communist and nationalist rebels there fought with the Allies to defeat the Japanese, led to the First Indochina War from 1946 to 1954. The nationalist and communist Viet Minh forces under Ho Chi Minh divisively defeated the French in 1954, and the region was more formally partitioned into Cambodia and Laos, which remained under traditional royal rule, and two areas for a separate North and a South Vietnamese state. The Geneva Accords of 1954 promised national elections in 1956 to unify the nation, but the Southern regime in Saigon repudiated that pro vision, fearing a communist electoral victory. The Second Indochina War began in 1959, and it lasted until 1975. The Northern regime in Hanoi received arms and assistance from the communist bloc, and the United States continued its support to anticommunist forces as it had done since 1946. In 1965, however, the United States sent large contingents of its own troops into Vietnam, but then withdrew in 1973 after 8 years of tactically successful but strategically indecisive battles. The conflict had been taken into Laos and Cambodia by both sides since the early 1960s. After the American invasion of Cambodia in 1970, the communist Khmer Rouge fought against American forces and the pro American traditional regime until they too came to power in 1975 as the communist forces of North Vietnam and southern Viet Cong partisans finally defeated the American backed South Vietnamese regime.
The ‘hot war’ nature of conflict outside of Europe largely was fueled by local nationalist struggles against weakened or collapsed old European empires. Some of these nationalist struggles began or grew, during World War II as anti-Japanese, anti-German, or anti-Italian wars with Western backing, but communist parties often played a major role in many of anti-fascist struggles. Others were more local conflicts, but they soon became sites of struggle between the United States and the Soviet Union because of the communist parties. The collapse of the Batista government in Cuba, the coming to power of Fidel Castro in 1959, and the support given to radical nationalist Arab powers after the emergence of Israel in 1947 in many subsequent conflicts are good cases in point. While more indirectly ideological in nature, these two sites were the most volatile flashpoints of the Cold War era.
The Kennedy administration’s backing of the failed Bay of Pigs counterrevolutionary invasion of Cuba moved the Castro government closer to Moscow for military and economic support in 1961. By mid 1962, it was becoming apparent that the USSR was preparing to place a small number of intermediate range ballistic missiles in Cuba. While this deployment mirrored earlier American basing of comparable missiles in Western Europe and Turkey, the United States challenged Moscow in October 1962 with an ‘embargo’ of seaborne shipping into Cuba to prevent the completion of these Soviet missile sites and force their dismantlement. For nearly a week, the world teetered on a knife edge between this shaky peace and an all out nuclear war until Khrushchev backed away from confrontation. Such brinksmanship during the Khrushchev years, which had reached nearly the same levels of nuclear confrontation in Berlin and Taiwan, taught both sides to be more cooperative with each other in the Cold War’s intense conflict in the coming years.
This more cooperative spirit was reflected in the more subtle support the Soviet Union provided to the frontline Arab states against Israel, which had strong American backing, in its 1956, 1967, 1970, 1973, 1980, and 1981 conflicts with its neighbors. Although Soviet aid backing for Egypt and Syria led to an American global nuclear alert in 1973 during the Yom Kippur War, Moscow acted more gingerly around the explosive Arab–Israeli conflicts even when Israel openly invaded Lebanon, fought air battles with Syria, or destroyed Iraq’s developing nuclear weapons program by bombing the Osirak reactor complex. Moscow backed the Palestinian Liberation Organization and radical regimes in Libya, Yemen, Syria, Iraq, and Somalia, but it carefully avoided a more direct face off with the United States in the region even when it became apparent that Washington was actively supporting the Islamic mujahaddin counter revolutionaries in communist led Afghanistan against the Soviet invasion there.
Most of the ideological contest between the United States and the Soviet Union evaporated as a battle of ideas in the 1960s and 1970s. Khrushchev’s limited efforts to reimagine communism after Stalin’s death in March 1953 in more flexible consumer oriented terms ended with his ouster in October 1964. The Warsaw Treaty Organization forcibly intervened in Czechoslovakia in 1968 to maintain Soviet style rule over and against more independent and innovative Czech ideological reforms, and a New Left all around the world repudiated the Brezhnev and Kosygin traditional party line as ‘obsolete communism’. Likewise, Washington became bogged down in the quagmires of Southeast Asia fighting the communist led wars of national liberation in Cambodia and South Vietnam by backing corrupt military dictatorships, even as it accepted strategic parity with the USSR with regard to its nuclear strike forces.
The People’s Republic of China erupted in a countrywide ideological civil war between radical Maoist ‘red’ activists and more technocratic ‘capitalist road’ economic reformers, which ended only with Mao’s death in 1976 and then Deng Xiao Ping’s consolidation of power in 1978. After these upheavals, Beijing slowly turned more toward the West just as a strange new era of de?tente unfolded between Washington and Moscow after West Germany made moves toward an ‘Ostpolitik’, or Eastern Politics, focusing on greater cultural, economic, and technical exchanges with the East Bloc. These geopolitical maneuvers and internal battles left Moscow’s pretense to being the world’s leading revolutionary center nearly a complete mockery, particularly in years between August 1968 after it invaded Czechoslovakia to impose a Moscow friendly communist regime after ousting a more maverick nationalist communist government and December 1979 when it charged into Afghanistan to prop up a putative Marxist–Leninist regime in Kabul. Rather than leading a global ideological movement, as it had tried successfully during the 1920s and 1930s, to convince others to embrace communism willingly, by the early 1980s Moscow was left embroiled in numerous interventions around the world in Latin America, Africa, the Mideast, and Asia seeking to impose or maintain its model of ‘actually existing socialism’, which fewer and fewer Soviet citizens even wanted anymore at home, with military assistance, economic subsidies, or actually armed interventions.
The neoliberal turn in Great Britain and the United States in 1979 and 1980 brought to power Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. Their revitalized faith in capitalist free enterprise and militant anticommunism created new tensions between the East and the West in the early 1980s as the Communist Party and Soviet Union saw four general secretaries and presidents come and go within 3 years. Recognizing that Leonid Brezhnev’s ‘actually existing socialism’ was only masking the institutional failings of the socialist order, while it stumbled into more and more unsustainable international entanglements, Mikhail Gorbachev became President of the Soviet Union and General Secretary of the Communist Party in 1985. He tried returning to Khrushchev’s reformist tendencies with his own three pronged program of greater perestroika (restructuring), democratikizatsiya (democratization), and glasnost (openness) in the USSR. These efforts were matched with new strategic arms accords with the West, a pullout from Afghanistan, and reductions in its military forces in Eastern Europe. By 1989, such rapid changes clearly were pulling apart the Soviet Union itself along with its satellite regimes in Eastern Europe. The nationalist and popular uprisings in Poland from 1980 triggered a real change as 1989 and 1990 saw a wave of peaceful popular uprisings replacing the Marxist–Leninist regimes of Eastern Europe. In November 1989, the Berlin Wall was breached, Germany reunited in 1990, and the Russian Republic essentially started refusing to collaborate in the Soviet Federation with the larger Soviet Union. By December 1991, the USSR itself dissolved, and the major republics within the Union became sovereign independent states under the rule of former communist authorities who generally repudiated their Communist Party memberships but not their authoritarian party leadership styles.
Legacy of the Cold War
The Cold War expressed at least two very different approaches to organizing and then living modern, urban, industrial life – one supposedly capitalist and one allegedly socialist. Despite each side’s pretense of ideological faithfulness, neither liberal democratic capitalism nor totalitarian state socialism was true to either their original ideological designs or their actual ordinary expectations. The free market aspirations of nineteenth-century liberalism always were constrained by state involvement, cultural inertia, or religious conviction just as the full communist utopia of nineteenth-century socialism failed to be realized in conditions of economic underdevelopment, feudal governance, or permanent militarization.
Consequently, liberal democratic capitalism – even in the 1920s, 1960s, or 1980s – never proved to be entirely liberal, fully democratic, or truly capitalist as bureaucratic paternalism, constitutional limitations, and national protectionism frequently hobbled personal rights and social progress. Likewise, totalitarian state socialism – even in the 1930s, 1950s, or 1970s – always lacked total social control, rational state authority, and convincing socialized community that undercut the foundational ideas of collective economic, cultural, social, and individual freedom. Racism, nationalism, elitism, and militarism, which existed in both blocs prior to 1914, and then worsened into the 1940s, clearly deformed both the capitalist West and the communist East in ways that arose from each bloc’s peculiar beginnings. Yet, their life or death struggle with fascism from the early 1930s to 1945 also created a system of permanent war that neither Washington nor Moscow, London or Beijing, Paris or Belgrade found easy to repudiate. What ideology could not sustain, geopolitics easily fueled for nearly 50 years.
In a truly Orwellian fashion, the peace that allegedly dawned in 1945 actually led to an era of continuous war; and, the victories and defeats incurred by both sides in supposedly ‘low intensity’ conflicts in Asia, Africa, and Latin America soon sparked new ‘high intensity’ confrontations between Cold War client states, parties, and movements and their former sponsors in Washington and Moscow. The spillover from this violence has plagued the daily lives of millions since the Cold War purportedly ended in 1991. Indeed, many of the seeds of today’s post Cold War conflicts were sown in the 1970s as narcocapitalism developed out of socialist national liberation movements, radical jihadism came from fighting for Washington against Moscow’s Mideastern client states, and maverick capitalist and socialist countries went off on their own irrational nationalist misadventures in Santiago, Buenos Aires, Pretoria, Taipei, Tel Aviv, Tehran or Havana, Pyongyang, Mogadishu, Baghdad, Hanoi, Belgrade, and Damascus. Anarchy in Africa, poverty in Latin America, jihadism in the Mideast, and genocidal nationalism everywhere all were fueled by the conduct of the Cold War.
Washington’s inept diplomacy after 1991 in so many places around the world, and Moscow’s diminished capacity to rule after 1989 led not ‘the end of history’ but a return of so much ‘history repressed’ since 1914 that the past two decades have been ones of geopolitical drift and destruction rather than years leading to a progressive equitable and developmental New World Order. In many respects, the Cold War has not truly ended. It has simply abated somewhat in its intensity or morphed significantly in its form. Two decades after Ronald Regan called for Mikhail Gorbachev to tear down the Berlin Wall and fully engage the communist bloc with global society, which have both occurred, the United States and Russia continue to maintain thousands of strategic nuclear weapons. Six thousand of these are deployed with longrange strategic strike forces whose most probable use would be against each other – the two former Cold War rivals. Moscow continues to resistWestern inroads into its former spheres of influence all across Central and Eastern Europe, while Washington still frets over the popularity of Fidel Castro’s regime in Cuba and his close ties to populist anti-American regimes at various times Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia, Peru, and Argentina.
Meanwhile the survival of ruling communist parties, and the rise of new authoritarian regimes with anti-Western leanings, ranging from Cuba and North Korea to Belarus and Serbia, are persistent factors that keep an aggravatingly Cold War style of diplomacy alive and well in some corners of the world. Even though these smaller states no longer have the backing of powerful ideologically antagonistic patrons in Moscow or Beijing, these countries maintain repressive, and sometimes militant, governments that are anti-Western, anti-capitalist, and anti-American in tone, which Russia and China occasionally have found useful to support. The USA, in turn, continues its policies of armed containment, economic sanctions, and ideological condemnation in many of its relations with these governments long after the demise of the Soviet Union. It also expects its allies to follow this lead in their respective regional ties, but this pattern varies. Most US allies, for example, maintain a Cold War stance vis a` vis North Korea, but many others have developed more cordial relations with Cuba. Likewise, Moscow is threatened by the German, French, and the US advances into Central and Eastern Europe with the enlargement of the European Union and NATO.
The domestic effects of the Cold War in the United States and the Soviet Union, then, have been fundamental and long lasting. Whatever hope remained for those seeking to build a truly alternative modernity grounded in a revolutionized socialist society was lost in the permanent mobilization of a red garrison state. After the 17 June 1953 uprising in East Germany, Moscow had to forcibly impose, and then maintain, its socialist designs through military coercion for nearly four decades. Ultimately, the cultural, economic, political, and social costs of actually existing socialism during the Cold War led to the union’s fragmentation, socialism’s bankruptcy, the republics’ secession, and the soviets’ degradation. In December 1991, the USSR ended without a bang and with few whimpers. The remaining republican autonomy presumed to be held by the American states and citizenry has been continually beset by federal emergency measures in the USA. The young nation was instructed by its first president to avoid entangling foreign alliances and to stay true to its original revolutionary ideals. Instead, it created a vast network of treaties, an empire of bases, and an institutionalized military–industrial apparatus that has borrowed trillions, misspent billions, and disserved millions to attain its Cold War victories. In the meantime, the blowback from its decades of proxy wars, engineered coups, military interventions, and diplomatic misadventures has set the stage for much of today’s twenty first century post Cold War global affairs. Just as there has not been an ‘end to history’, there is not yet truly an end to Cold War.