Cold War

The tensions between the Eastern and the Western blocs were, at times, considerable and affected the fields of ideology and propaganda, economic measures and competition, espionage and surveillance, the arms race, technological competition, and psychological warfare. Still, it was a “cold” war because there was no “hot,” armed large-scale conflict between the two sides. In this entry, the debate about the origin and causes of the start of the Cold War is reviewed, followed by a thorough historical account of the three primary periods of the Cold War—the beginning of the First Cold War (1945–1953), a period of crises and détente (1953–1979), and the Second Cold War (1979–1991).

Origin and Causes of Debate

The Cold War started in the late 1940s as a nonviolent confrontation over Europe, but gradually the East-West tensions were moved over the Third (Developing) World, in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, where the Cold War often turned hot, with the USSR and the United States supporting their proxies with arms. Only occasionally, however, were American and Soviet soldiers involved in proxy wars, the former in the Korean War (1950–1953) and the Vietnam War (1955–1975), and the latter in the Soviet war in Afghanistan (1979–1989).

There is no scholarly consensus with regard to the debut of the Cold War, but generally it is considered that it began between 1945 to 1947, in the aftermath of World War II, and ended in 1991 with the collapse of the USSR and of the socialist system in Eastern Europe. Some authors, however, argue that if the Cold War represented the opposition between the United States and the Soviet Union, between capitalism and communism, between the free market and the state-planned economy, or between the Western pluralist society and the Eastern collectivist, single-party society, then the Cold War began in 1917 with the Bolshevik Revolution. Other authors claim that the debut of the Cold War must be placed in 1939, when World War II started.

There is no universally accepted periodization of the Cold War. According to one interpretation, it is divided into three main periods: (1) the first Cold War (1945/1947 to 1962), (2) détente (1962–1979), and (3) the second Cold War (1979–1991). According to another interpretation, the Cold War had four major eras: (1) 1945–1953—its beginning as a consequence of World War II; (2) 1954–1964—international crises and high tensions; (3) 1965–1979—détente and decreasing tensions; and (4) 1980–1991—reemergence of tensions.

There are different interpretations and theories with regard to the origins and causes of the Cold War. Simplifying, the Cold War orthodox historians (e.g., Thomas A. Bailey, Herbert Feis) emphasized the USSR’s responsibility in the emergence of the Cold War. They argued that Soviet Union leader Joseph Stalin’s policy was aggressive and threatened the interests of the free world, the United States having, therefore, the moral duty to respond through the containment policy. Some orthodox theorists argued that Stalin’s postwar goal was a worldwide communist revolution and that any attempt to reason with Stalin was futile. Others contended that Moscow’s actions were determined by its security needs and that the United States needed to accommodate those needs, especially in Eastern Europe.

In the late 1960s and 1970s, the revisionist historiography (of William Appleman, Walter LaFeber, Gar Alperovitz) followed. It stressed the United States’ responsibility for the beginning of the Cold War and argued that the United States’ expansion had begun long before the beginning of the Cold War and was not driven by moral principles and ideals but by economic pragmatism. According to other revisions theses, the United States had misinterpreted the postwar Soviet goals, intentions, capabilities, and power. The postwar Soviet Union was a weak state, legitimately concerned with its security, but the United States, through its policy to contain the expansion of communism, provoked Stalin to establish satellite states in Eastern Europe.

The Beginning of the Cold War (1945–1953)

In an attempt to jointly decide the postwar fate of the world, on October 9, 1944, in Moscow, the then British prime minister Winston Churchill and Stalin concluded the so-called percentages agreement, which secured the USSR’s influence in Eastern Europe and the United Kingdom’s influence in Greece. By 1945, the World War II alliance between the United States, the United Kingdom, France, and the Soviet Union had begun to break up under the pressure of the Allies’ different views with regard to the postwar order in Europe and Asia. The future of Germany, Eastern Europe, and Japan was the main concern. At the Yalta Conference (February 4–11, 1945), Stalin, Churchill, and the then U.S. president Franklin D. Roosevelt decided to split Berlin and Germany into four occupation zones (British, American, French, and Soviet). At the Potsdam Conference (July 17 to August 2, 1945), Stalin, Churchill, and the new U.S. president Harry Truman (Roosevelt had died on April 12, 1945) decided to partition Indochina; to divide Germany, Austria, and their capitals Berlin and Vienna, respectively, into four occupations zones; and to secure the denazification, decentralization, and democratization of Germany.

Stalin wanted to severely punish Germany and Japan for their participation in the war and to create a strip of puppet regimes at the USSR’s western border to function as a buffer zone in case of another German attack against the USSR. His war allies, however, had different aims. The Americans wanted to secure the United States’ economic interests and to create a system of collective security aimed at securing peace through negotiations; the British wanted to control the Mediterranean Sea; and both intended to ensure the independence of Central and Eastern Europe. However, between 1944 and 1949, the USSR gradually imposed communist-led regimes in Soviet-occupied Eastern Europe (Poland, Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and East Germany). Following the Berlin crisis and the Berlin Blockade (June 24, 1948 to May 12, 1949), by late 1949, the German Democratic Republic (East Germany), with East Berlin as the capital, and the Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany), with Bonn as the capital, were established.

Between 1945 and 1949, the mutual suspicion and distrust continued to increase. On February 22, 1946, the “long telegram” of George F. Kennan, Deputy Chief of Mission of the United States in Moscow, arrived at Washington, D.C. Keenan argued that the USSR was an expansionist, aggressive power, at continuous war with capitalism, unable or unwilling to be in peaceful coexistence with the Western world, and whose aim was to export the Marxist-Leninist ideology. As a solution, Kennan proposed a strategy of containment designed to block the Soviet expansion. Several weeks later, on March 5, 1946, in Fulton, Missouri, Churchill delivered his famous Iron Curtain speech, contending that Soviet Russia’s postwar goal was to achieve the “indefinite expansion of its power and doctrines” and asking the Western democracies to ally against Russia. Kennan’s ideas of containment were reflected in the 1947 Truman Doctrine, announcing the United States’ decision to aid Greece and Turkey so that they would not be taken over by communists.

The Marshall Plan was also consistent with the U.S. policy of containment. Implemented in Western Europe between 1948 and 1952, it was a $13 billion program designed to secure postwar Europe’s economic reconstruction, with the goal to prevent the spread of communism. The USSR refused to participate in the Marshall Plan and forced the same reaction from its Eastern European satellites. On January 8, 1949, the Soviet Union and its Eastern Bloc established the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance (Comecon or CMEA), an economic organization imagined—according to mainstream historiography—as a countermeasure to the influence of the Marshall Plan. In February 1949, Albania joined the CMEA (in 1961, in the context of the Sino-Soviet dispute, Albania stopped participating in the CMEA), followed by East Germany in 1950, Mongolia in 1961, Cuba in 1972, and Vietnam in 1978.

Adding military containment to economic containment, on April 4, 1949, NATO was created, becoming a military alliance whose members committed to consider an armed attack against one member state to be an armed attack against them all. Presented officially as a mutual military and defense alliance, NATO was designed to guarantee the security of Western European democracies, perceived to be threatened by Soviet expansionism. The founding members of NATO were the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Iceland, Canada, Belgium, Italy, Denmark, Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, and Luxembourg. Greece and Turkey joined in 1952, West Germany in 1955, and Spain in 1982. The joining of West Germany on May 9, 1955, was followed by the creation of the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact Organization 5 days later. In 1958, France withdrew from NATO’s integrated military command because Charles de Gaulle, Minister of Defense, felt that the United States and the United Kingdom did not treat France as an equal within the alliance. Although France remained a member of the alliance, in early 1959, the French Mediterranean fleet was withdrawn from NATO’s command, and the non-French NATO troops left France by 1967.

The first main confrontation between the East and the West occurred in Korea. Between 1950 and 1953, under the United Nations’ flag, 21 states contributed to the defense of South Korea, with the United States providing the majority of the soldiers. It is estimated that the United States participated in this war with more than 320,000 soldiers, of whom more than 36,000 died, more than 100,000 were wounded, and about 8,000 were missing in action. The Korean War offered the only occasion during the Cold War when the American, Soviet, and Chinese forces met directly in combat. At times, the three belligerents thought that this conflict was the preamble of a third world war. The Korean War marked China’s rise as a military power and the strengthening of NATO, and also the rise of the modern limited-war theories, which were caused by the development of nuclear weapons. Although the then U.S. president Dwight D. Eisenhower (1953–1961) was not ready to use nuclear systems as weapons of war, he did use them as a means of threat, warning that the United States might consider a nuclear attack to end the Korean War if the armistice negotiations were not resumed. Eventually, on July 27, 1953, an armistice agreement was signed; it divided Korea along the 38th parallel, a situation in place to this day.

Crises and Détente (1953–1979)

First Secretary of the Soviet Union since March 14, 1953, Khrushchev was the promoter of a new foreign policy built around two main concepts—de-Stalinization and peaceful coexistence. The first years of de-Stalinization (1953–1956) witnessed several major uprisings in Eastern Europe, such as the East German uprising (June 16–17, 1953), which was economically driven, and the Hungarian revolution (October 23 to November 10, 1956), which was mainly political and a direct result of the de-Stalinization process. Both uprisings were violently repressed by the Soviet forces.

De-Stalinization and peaceful coexistence greatly affected the relations between the communist states, determining, for instance, the improvement in Soviet-Yugoslav relations, Romania’s detachment from Moscow, and the deterioration of Sino-Soviet relations, the latter culminating in the so-called Sino-Soviet split (1960–1989).

Regarding East-West relations, Khrushchev’s peaceful coexistence doctrine aimed to lessen the tensions, to facilitate trade, and to diminish the nuclear danger. Formulated in 1953 to 1956, the doctrine argued that the Soviet Union and United States, with their blocs and ideologies, could coexist in peace and could settle any disagreements peacefully. The end of the Korean War in July 1953, the settlements regarding the borders of Turkey and Iran, and the recognition of Israel were, to a great extent, consequences of Khrushchev’s peaceful coexistence proposals. The signing of the Austrian Peace Treaty in May 1955 and the Geneva Summit of June 1955 were also possible in the special context of peaceful coexistence. Still, Eisenhower was skeptical of this thesis, and in 1957, he formulated the doctrine that took his name.

The issue of Germany was still the main area of disagreement between the East and the West. While Khrushchev was asking for the reunification of the two Germanys and for the recognition of East Germany, the Western world was reacting by admitting West Germany—reconstructed with the aid of the Marshall Plan—in NATO. In September 1955, West Germany announced its Hallstein Doctrine, according to which Bonn would not establish diplomatic relations with any state that recognized and maintained relations with East Germany, with the exception of the Soviet Union. In practice, however, it was rather difficult to apply such a doctrine, and West Germany did have diplomatic relations with states that recognized East Germany (Romania, Yugoslavia, Cambodia, and Egypt).

In 1969, in the beneficial context of détente, the Hellstein Doctrine was abandoned and replaced by Ostpolitik. Formulated by Willy Brandt, West Germany’s chancellor, this Eastern policy aimed for the normalization of relations between West Germany and the Eastern European states, including East Germany. In 1971, Brandt won the Nobel Peace Prize for his successful Ostpolitik. In the beneficial context of détente, in the early 1970s, relations between West Germany and East Germany normalized, a four-power agreement on Berlin was concluded, and bilateral treaties were signed between West Germany and the Soviet Union, Poland, and other Eastern European countries.

The Second Cold War (1979–1991)

The Soviet military intervention in Afghanistan in 1979 may be regarded as an application of the so-called Brezhnev Doctrine. Formulated in late 1968 to justify the Soviet military intervention in Czechoslovakia, this Soviet doctrine argued that a threat to the cause of socialism in any given country was a common problem and the concern of all socialist countries. In 1979, the Soviet leadership feared that the overthrow of the communist regime in Afghanistan might influence the neighboring Soviet republics. Therefore, in December, Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev decided on a full-scale—he believed short-term—invasion to preserve the communist regime. The war, however, lasted 9 years, until February 1989, when it was ended by Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, and it greatly affected the economic and military establishments of the USSR.

To ensure national security, under the Reagan administration, the United States oversaw the largest military buildup in its history, developing new weapons systems, of which the Strategic Defense Initiative (better known as “Star Wars”) was the most ambitious. Despite the military buildup, between 1985 and 1988, Reagan and Gorbachev met successfully in Geneva, Switzerland; Reykjavik, Iceland; Washington, D.C.; and Moscow to discuss the reduction in nuclear weapons. In 1988, in Moscow, the two signed the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, the first nuclear arms agreement since SALT II in 1979.

The withdrawal in 1989 to 1990 of the Soviet military forces from the Middle East, Asia, Latin America, and Africa was seen by Reagan’s admirers as a victory of his doctrine. Gorbachev’s perestroika and glasnost were also regarded as major contributors to the end of the Cold War. In 1989, socialism in Eastern Europe collapsed without any Soviet intervention. In 1990, Germany reunified, and by the end of 1991, the USSR disintegrated. The Cold War was over, which took by surprise international relations practitioners and theorists alike.

Elena Dragomir

See also Berlin Wall ; Cuban Missile Crisis ; Détente ; Glasnost ; Perestroika ; Surveillance During the Cold War ; Truman Doctrine

Further Readings

Bischof, Günter,et al., eds. The Prague Spring and the Warsaw Pact Invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2010.

Calvocoressi, Peter. World Politics Since 1945 (9th ed.). New York, NY: Routledge, 2008.

Coll, Steve. Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and bin Laden, From the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001. New York, NY: Penguin Books, 2004.

Fremont-Barnes, Gregory. The Soviet-Afghan War, 1979–1989. Oxford, England: Osprey, 2012.

Graebner, Norman A., et al. Reagan, Bush, Gorbachev: Revisiting the End of the Cold War. Westport, CT: Praeger Security International, 2008.

Hastings, Max. The Korean War. London, England: Pan Books, 2010.

Kühn, Melanie. Iron Curtains on Paper. The Origins of the Cold War, 1917–1947. Norderstedt, Germany: GRIN Verlag, 2009.

Larres, Klaus and Ann Lane, eds. The Cold War. The Essential Readings. Oxford, England: Blackwell, 2001.

Lewis, Adrian L. The American Culture of War: The History of US Military Force From the World War II to Operation Iraqi Freedom. New York, NY: Routledge, 2007.

Lühti, Lorenz, M. The Sino-Soviet Split: Cold War in the Communist World. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2008.

McCauley, Martin. The Origins of the Cold War, 1941–1949. London, England: Pearson, 2006.

Nuenlist, Christian,et al., eds. Globalizing de Gaulle: International Perspectives on Global Foreign Policies, 1958–1969. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2010.

Westad, Odd Arne, ed.Reviewing the Cold War. Approaches, Interpretations and Theory. New York, NY: Routledge, 1998.