The Cold War: A Very Short Introduction

By Robert McMahon | Go to book overview

1
From confrontation to
detente, 1958–68

In the late 1950s, the Cold War entered perhaps its most dangerous phase, the time in which the danger of general nuclear war was highest. A succession of crises, culminating in 1962 with the epochal confrontation between Washington and Moscow over the presence of Soviet missiles in Cuba, brought the world perilously close to a nuclear conflagration. On both sides of the superpower divide, risk-taking and shrill rhetoric reached levels not witnessed since the late 1940s.

Soviet Premier Khrushchev chilled American observers with his boasts about Soviet economic and technological prowess and his infamous remark that the Soviet Union would soon be turning out missiles like sausages. In January 1961, he vowed to lend Moscow's active support to wars of national liberation—wars that he said ‘will continue as long as imperialism exists, as long as colonialism exists’. The communist world was destined to bury the West, the Russian ruler was fond of saying.

Not to be outdone, newly elected President John F. Kennedy implored Congress in his first state-of-the-union message that same month to provide sufficient funds for ‘a Free World force so powerful as to make any aggression clearly futile’. Neither the Soviet Union nor China, he said, ‘has yielded its ambitions for world domination’. The young chief executive offered a bleak vision of the

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