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Cold War

The Cold War (1947-1991) was the open yet restricted rivalry that developed after World War II between groups of nations practicing different ideologies and political systems. On one side was the Soviet Union and its allies, often referred to as the Eastern bloc. On the other side were the United States and its allies, usually referred to as the Western bloc. The struggle was called the Cold War because it did not actually lead to direct fighting between the superpowers (a "hot" war) on a wide scale. The Cold War dominated U.S. and Soviet foreign policy from 1947 (when the term was first used) until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

The US Department of Defense defines the "Cold War Period" as being from September 2, 1945 to December 26, 1991.



The Cold War was characterized by extreme mutual distrust, suspicion, and misunderstandings by the United States, the Soviet Union, and the allies of each. At times, these conditions increased the likelihood of a third world war, which could easily have escalated to nuclear war. The United States accused the Soviet Union of seeking to expand its version of communism throughout the world. The Soviet Union, meanwhile, charged the United States with practicing imperialism (often referred to as "Dollar Imperialism") and attempting to stop revolutionary activity in other countries.

The Cold War is usually considered to have occurred approximately from the end of World War II until the breakup of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s. The Korean War, the Vietnam War and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan were some of the occasions when the tension between those two ideologies took the form of an armed conflict, but much of it was conducted by or against surrogates and through spies and traitors who were working undercover. In those conflicts, the major powers operated in good part by arming or funding surrogates, a development that lessened direct impact on the populations of the major powers.

The major world powers never entered into direct armed conflict against each other, but the Cuban missile crisis in 1962 was the occasion when the Cold War was the closest to escalating into a hot one.

In the 1970s, the Cold War gave way to détente and a more complicated pattern of international relations in which the world was no longer clearly split into two clearly opposed blocs. Less powerful countries had more room to assert their independence, and the two superpowers were partially able to recognize their common interest in trying to check the further spread and proliferation of nuclear weapons (see SALT I, SALT II, Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty). U.S.-Soviet relations would deteriorate once again in the late 1970s and early 1980s, but improved as the Eastern bloc started to unravel in the late 1980s. With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Russia lost the superpower status that it had won in World War II.

One major hotspot of conflict was Germany, particularly the city of Berlin. Arguably, the most vivid symbol of the Cold War was the Berlin Wall. The Wall isolated West Berlin (the portion of the city controlled by West Germany and the Allies) from East Berlin and the territory of East Germany, which completely surrounded it.

Another major feature of the cold war was the arms race between the Soviet Union and NATO, especially the United States but also the United Kingdom, France, West Germany, and several other European powers. This race took place in a great many technological and military fields and resulted in enormous leaps in the state of the art. Particularly revolutionary advances were made in the field of rocketry and led to the space race. (Most or all of the rockets used to launch humans and satellites and to get to the Moon were originally military designs.)

Other fields in which arms races occurred include jet fighters, bombers, nuclear weapons, chemical weapons, biological weapons, surface-to-air missiles, anti-aircraft artillery, regular artillery, surface-to-surface missiles (including SRBMs and cruise missiles), inter-continental ballistic missiles (as well as IRBMs), anti-ballistic missile technology, armored vehicles, rifles, rocket propelled grenades and other anti-tank weapons, submarines and anti-submarine warfare, submarine-launched ballistic missiles, electronic intelligence, signals intelligence, reconnaissance aircraft, and spy satellites.

All of these fields required massive scientific and manufacturing investment and many identify the enormous cost of the arms race to the Soviet Union, whose inefficient economic system could barely afford it, as part of the reason for its eventual dissolution. Indeed, U.S. President Ronald Reagan commented in later years that it was the Soviet Union's economic weakness that encouraged him to structure U.S. military policy around expensive high-technology weapons systems. These were extremely costly for the Soviet Union to match, but it had no choice if it intended to militarily keep up with the United States.

In many fields, the Western bloc created weapons with superior effectiveness, mainly due to their lead in digital computers and reluctance to spend enough money to develop systems with brute force superiority. However, the Eastern bloc fielded a larger number of designs in each field, built a larger number of weapons, and arguably outperformed the West in total. Comparing the Eastern and Western technology is a very subjective task, and there is much debate about which systems are superior.

A major example of Western versus Eastern technology was the 1991 Gulf War, a conflict between Iraq and a coalition of Western nations following the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. During the war, Iraqi forces were equipped with some of the latest Soviet-built tanks and anti-aircraft defenses, but were decisively defeated by state-of-the-art U.S. military technology such as the M1A1 Abrams tank and F-117 stealth fighter. The Gulf War is considered one of the most lopsided military victories in the history of armed conflict. Western forces sustained more casualties from friendly fire and traffic accidents than were inflicted by Iraqi forces. Critics of Western weaponry argue that Iraqi forces were poorly trained compared to their Western counterparts, resulting in the poor performance of the Soviet-era weapons systems.

After the breakup of the Soviet Union, many extremely advanced technologies became available on the open market. Fighter jets, anti-aircraft missiles, small arms, and even nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons were rumored to have changed hands. In some cases, former Soviet-bloc states seized assets such as naval vessels moored in what were now their own ports. In many of these cases, the governments were unable to staff or maintain these assets, and were forced to auction them off to the highest bidder.

One prominent feature of the nuclear arms race, supported in particular by the deployment of nuclear ICBMs, was the concept of deterrence via mutually assured destruction or "MAD". The idea was that the Western bloc would not attack the Eastern bloc or vice versa, because both sides had more than enough nuclear weapons to reduce each other to nothing, and to make the entire planet uninhabitable. Therefore, launching an attack on either party would be suicidal, and so neither would attempt it.

Both sides produced so many nuclear weapons that it was frequently questioned whether their numbers were superfluous to any "practical" need, and whether wars could really be deterred by the mere existence of nuclear weapons. Indeed, it was far from certain that a global nuclear war couldn't have resulted from smaller regional wars, which heightened the level of concern for each conflict. This tension shaped the lives of people around the world almost as much as the actual fighting did.


Western, Soviet and Eastern European historians have different views of the Cold War.

There have been three distinct periods in the Western study of the Cold War. For more than a decade after the end of World War II, few American historians saw any reason to challenge the official U.S. interpretation of the beginning of the Cold War: That the breakdown of relations was a direct result of Stalin's violation of the Yalta accords, the imposition of Soviet-dominated governments on an unwilling Eastern Europe, Soviet intransigence, and aggressive Soviet expansionism. This view is generally shared by historians from the Soviet-occupied Eastern Europe.

However, later historians, especially William Appleman Williams in his 1959 The Tragedy of American Diplomacy and Walter LaFeber in his 1967 America, Russia, and the Cold War, 1945-1968, articulated an overriding concern: U.S. commitment to maintaining an "open door" for American trade in world markets. Some revisionist historians have argued that U.S. provocations, aggressions, and imperial ambitions pursued by the Truman administration from 1945 to 1953 were at least equally to blame, if not more so. In short, historians have disagreed as to who was responsible for the breakdown of U.S.-Soviet relations and whether the conflict between the two superpowers was inevitable. This revisionist approach reached its height during the Vietnam War when many began to view the American and Soviet empires as morally comparable.

In the later years of the Cold War, there were attempts to forge a post-revisionist synthesis by historians, and since the end of the Cold War, the post-revisionist school has come to dominate. Prominent post-revisionist historians include John Lewis Gaddis and Robert Grogin . Rather than attributing the beginning of the Cold War to either superpower, post-revisionist historians focused on mutual misperception, mutual reactivity, and shared responsibility between the superpowers, the post-revisionists borrowed from the realist school of international relations, and essentially accepted U.S. European policy in Europe, such as U.S. aid to Greece in 1947 and the Marshall Plan.

According to this synthesis, "Communist activity" was not the root of the difficulties of Western Europe, but rather it was the disruptive effects of the war on the economic, political, and social structure of Europe. In addition, the Marshall Plan rebuilt a functioning Western economic system, thwarting the electoral appeal of the radical left. For Europe, economic aid ended the dollar shortage and stimulated private investment for postwar reconstruction. For the United States, the plan spared it from a crisis of over-production and maintained demand for American exports. The NATO alliance would serve to integrate Western Europe into the system of mutual defense pacts, thus providing safeguards against subversion or neutrality in the bloc. Rejecting the assumption that communism was an international monolith with aggressive designs on the "free world", the post-revisionist school nevertheless accepts U.S. policy in Europe as a necessary reaction to cope with instability in Europe, which threatened to drastically alter the balance of power in a manner favorable to the USSR, and to devastate the Western economic and political system.

This synthesis is unacceptable for historians from the countries of Eastern Europe. Soviet terror and occupation of these countries, which began in World War II with the Soviet-Nazi Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of 1939 and lasted throughout the Cold War, can be only equated to Nazism which also caused millions of deaths. In the view of these historians, this cannot be compared to even the worst behavior of the United States during the Cold War, and thus any attempt to view the American and Soviet empires as equivalent actors falling victim to mutual misperceptions is morally spurious.

Some Western historians like Norman Davies try to balance Western and Eastern view of the Cold War.

The term "Cold War" was coined by British author George Orwell. In an essay entitled You and the Atomic Bomb (1945), Orwell wrote:

We may be heading not for general breakdown but for an epoch as horribly stable as the slave empires of antiquity. James Burnham's theory has been much discussed, but few people have yet considered its ideological implications--this is, the kind of world-view, the kind of beliefs, and the social structure that would probably prevail in a State which was once unconquerable and in a permanent state of "cold war" with its neighbours.

The role of security intelligence agencies

The armies of the countries involved rarely had much direct participation in the Cold War; the war was primarily fought by intelligence agencies like the CIA (United States), MI6 (United Kingdom), BND (West Germany), Stasi (East Germany) and the KGB (Soviet Union).

The abilities of Echelon, a United States-United Kingdom intelligence sharing organization that was created during WWII, were used against the USSR, China and their allies. Echelon's heavy U.S.-UK bias led to Canadian (CSIS), New Zealander (NZSIS) and Australian (ASIO) security intelligence agencies participating in the Cold War either as signals intelligence gathering units or as initial processors of raw intelligence.

The propaganda battle

Another manifestation of the Cold War was the propaganda battle between the two blocs.

The Cold War saw several stages of expansion of international broadcasting activities between the United States, United Kingdom, and their allies. This expansion was equaled, if not surpassed by the USSR and its Eastern European allies.

Most international broadcasting took place on shortwave. In Europe and the Middle East, MW and LW were also heavily used for international broadcasting. It is estimated that some 100 megawatts of transmission capacity was added to the shortwave broadcasting bands from 1950-1990. A figure of 125 megawatts of transmission capacity takes into account sales of high power MW and LW transmitters in Europe, the Middle East and Asia over this same timeframe. When jamming stations are taken into account, an approximate total of 150 megawatts is reached. There has been an estimated 15% decrease in transmission capacity since the end of the Cold War, mostly taking into account the cessation of jamming by the USSR.

Radio Australia's Chinese service played a minor part in the Cold War in Asia. Radio Australia here is more of a demonstration of the geographical extent of the Cold War. By the late 1980's the international broadcasting Cold War had settled into a purely ideological U.S.-UK versus USSR stalemate on shortwave. Jamming by the USSR ceased in the late 1980's. China, Myanmar (then Burma), North Korea and Cuba still jam U.S. and UK state broadcasters, and their surrogates.

The sixteen known nuclear crises of the Cold War

On March 6, 1996 David R. Morgan, the National President of Veterans Against Nuclear Arms presented The Sixteen Known Nuclear Crises of the Cold War, 1946 - 1985 to enumerate those world events wherein the imminent use of nuclear weapons was either threatened or implied:

The complete text of the article can be found at the Victoria Peace Coalition website.

Significant documents of the Cold War Period and beyond

  • Franck Report: June 11, 1945. Recommended that the US either a) keep its atomic discoveries secret for an indefinite time, or b) develop nucleonic armaments at such a pace that no other nation would think of attacking first from fear of overwhelming retaliation. Also proposed that a demonstration of the "new weapon" be made before the eyes of representatives of all of the United Nations, on a barren island or desert.
  • Potsdam Declaration: July 26, 1945. A formal statement issued by Harry S. Truman (US), Winston Churchill (UK), and Chiang Kai-Shek (China) which outlined the terms for a Japanese surrender.
  • Baruch Plan: 1946. A proposal by the US to the United Nations Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) to a) extend between all nations the exchange of basic scientific information for peaceful ends; b) implement control of atomic energy to the extent necessary to ensure its use only for peaceful purposes; c) eliminate from national armaments atomic weapons and all other major weapons adaptable to mass destruction; and d) establish effective safeguards by way of inspection and other means to protect complying States against the hazards of violations and evasions. When the USSR was the only member State who refused to sign, the US embarked on a massive nuclear weapons testing, development, and deployment program.
  • McCloy-Zorin Accords: 1961. Conceived by Dwight D. Eisenhower and JFK, the agreement established a foundation or "roadmap" for all future negotiations between the superpowers with regard to general disarmament.
  • Partial or Limited Test Ban Treaty (PTBT/LTBT): 1963. Also put forth by JFK; banned nuclear tests in the atmosphere, underwater and in space. However, neither France nor China (both Nuclear Weapon States) signed.
  • Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT): 1968. Established the US, USSR, UK, France, and China as five "Nuclear-Weapon States." Non-Nuclear Weapon States were prohibited from (among other things) possessing, manufacturing, or acquiring nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices. All 187 signatories were committed to the goal of (eventual) nuclear disarmament.
  • Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (ABM): 1972. Entered into between the US and USSR to limit the anti-ballistic missile (ABM) systems used in defending areas against missile-delivered nuclear weapons; ended by the US in 2002.
  • Strategic Arms Limitation Treaties I & II (SALT I & II): 1972 / 1979. Limited the growth of US and Soviet missile arsenals.
  • Prevention of Nuclear War Agreement : 1973. Committed the US and USSR to consult with one another during conditions of nuclear confrontation .
  • Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF): 1987. Eliminated tactical ("battlefield") nuclear devices and GLCM’s from Europe.
  • Strategic Arms Reductions Treaty I (START I): 1991. Signed by George Bush and Mikhail Gorbachev; reduced the numbers of US and Soviet long-range missiles and nuclear warheads from 10,000 per side to 6,000 per side.
  • Mutual Detargeting Treaty (MDT): [[1994]. US and Russian missiles no longer automatically target the other country; nuclear forces are no longer operated in a manner that presumes that the two nations are adversaries.
  • Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) 1996. Prohibits all nuclear test explosions in all environments; was signed by 71 States (US is not signatory).
  • Strategic Arms Reductions Treaty II (START II): 2000. Will reduce the numbers of US and Soviet long-range missiles and nuclear warheads from 6,000 per side to 3,500-3,000 per side. (START III proposed for 2007).
  • Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty (Moscow Treaty ): 2002. Established bilateral strategic nuclear arms reductions and a new “strategic nuclear framework;” also invited all countries to adopt non-proliferation principles aimed at preventing terrorists, or those that harbored them, from acquiring or developing all types of WMD's and related materials, equipment, and tech.

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