cold war, term used to describe the shifting struggle for power and prestige between the Western powers and the Communist bloc from the end of World War II until 1989. Of worldwide proportions, the conflict was tacit in the ideological differences between communism and capitalist democracy.
The Iron Curtain and Containment
Mutual suspicion had long existed between the West and the USSR, and friction was sometimes manifest in the Grand Alliance during World War II. After the war the West felt threatened by the continued expansionist policy of the Soviet Union, and the traditional Russian fear of incursion from the West continued. Communists seized power in Eastern Europe with the support of the Red Army, the Russian occupation zones in Germany and Austria were sealed off by army patrols, and threats were directed against Turkey and Greece. Conflict sometimes grew intense in the United Nations, which was at times incapacitated by the ramifications of the cold war, at others effective in dealing with immediate issues.
In a famous speech (1946) at Fulton, Mo., Sir Winston Churchill warned of an implacable threat that lay behind a Communist "iron curtain." The United States, taking the lead against the expansion of Soviet influence, rallied the West with the Truman Doctrine, under which immediate aid was given to Turkey and Greece. Also fearing the rise of Communism in war-torn Western Europe, the United States inaugurated the European Recovery Program, known as the Marshall Plan, which helped to restore prosperity and influenced the subsequent growth of what has become the European Union.
During the cold war the general policy of the West toward the Communist states was to contain them (i.e., keep them within their current borders) with the hope that internal division, failure, or evolution might end their threat. In 1948 the Soviet Union directly challenged the West by instituting a blockade of the western sectors of Berlin, but the United States airlifted supplies into the city until the blockade was withdrawn (see Berlin airlift). The challenges in Europe influenced the United States to reverse its traditional policy of avoiding permanent alliances; in 1949 the United States and 11 other nations signed the North Atlantic Treaty (NATO; see North Atlantic Treaty Organization). The Communist bloc subsequently formed (1955) the Warsaw Treaty Organization as a counterbalance to NATO.
The Cold War Worldwide
In Asia, the Communist cause gained great impetus when the Communists under Mao Zedong gained control of mainland China in 1949. The United States continued to support Nationalist China, with its headquarters on Taiwan. President Truman, fearing the appeal of Communism to the peoples of Asia, Africa, and Latin America, created the Point Four program, which was intended to help underdeveloped areas. Strife continued, however, and in 1950 Communist forces from North Korea attacked South Korea, precipitating the Korean War. Chinese Communist troops entered the conflict in large numbers, but were checked by UN forces, especially those of the United States. The focus of the cold war in Asia soon shifted to the southeast. China supported insurgent guerrillas in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia; the United States, on the other side, played a leading role in the formation of the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization and provided large-scale military aid, but guerrilla warfare continued.
The newly emerging nations of Asia and Africa soon became the scene of cold-war skirmishes, and the United States and the Soviet Union (and later China) competed for their allegiance, often through economic aid; however, many of these nations succeeded in remaining neutral. As the cold-war struggle continued in Southeast Asia, in the Middle East, in Africa (in nations such as Congo (Kinshasa), Angola, and others), and in Latin America (where the United States supported the Alliance for Progress to counter leftist appeal), both the Soviet Union and the United States supported and maintained sometimes brutal regimes (through military, financial, and other forms of aid) in return for their allegiance.
In Europe, the East German government erected the Berlin Wall in late 1961 to check the embarrassing flow of East Germans to the West. In 1962 a tense confrontation occurred between the United States and the Soviet Union after U.S. intelligence discovered the presence of Soviet missile installations in Cuba. Direct conflict was avoided, however, when Premier Khrushchev ordered ships carrying rockets to Cuba to turn around rather than meet U.S. vessels sent to intercept them (see Cuban Missile Crisis). It was obvious from this and other confrontations that neither major power wanted to risk nuclear war.
Hopes for rapprochement between the Soviet Union and the West had been raised by a relaxation in Soviet policy after the death (1953) of Joseph Stalin. Conferences held in that period seemed more amiable, and hopes were high for a permanent ban on nuclear weapons. However, the success of the Soviet artificial satellite Sputnik in 1957, attesting to Soviet technological know-how, introduced new international competition in space exploration and missile capability. Moreover, both Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev and U.S. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles grimly threatened "massive retaliation" for any aggression, and the Soviet Union's resumption (1961) of nuclear tests temporarily dashed disarmament hopes. While Khrushchev spoke of peaceful victory, extremists in both camps agitated for a more warlike course, even at the risk of nuclear catastrophe. China began to accuse the USSR of conciliatory policies toward the West, and by the early 1960s ideological differences between the two countries had become increasingly evident.
Detente and the End of the Cold War
During the late 1950s and early 60s both European alliance systems began to weaken somewhat; in the Western bloc, France began to explore closer relations with Eastern Europe and the possibility of withdrawing its forces from NATO. In the Soviet bloc, Romania took the lead in departing from Soviet policy. U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War in Southeast Asia led to additional conflict with some of its European allies and diverted its attention from the cold war in Europe. All these factors combined to loosen the rigid pattern of international relationships and resulted in a period of detente.
In the 1980s, U.S. President Ronald Reagan revived cold-war policies and rhetoric, referring to the Soviet Union as the "evil empire" and escalating the nuclear arms race; some have argued this stance was responsible for the eventual collapse of Soviet Communism while others attribute its downfall to the inherent weakness of the Soviet state and the policies of Mikhail Gorbachev. From 1989 to 1991 the cold war came to an end with the opening of the Berlin Wall, the collapse of Communist party dictatorship in Eastern Europe, the reunification of Germany, and the disintegration of the Soviet Union.
See D. F. Fleming, The Cold War and Its Origins, 1917–1960 (1961); J. L. Gaddis, The United States and the Origins of the Cold War, 1941–1947 (1972, repr. 2000), The Long Peace: Inquiries into the History of the Cold War (1987), The United States and the End of the Cold War (1992), We Now Know: Rethinking Cold War History (1997), Strategies of Containment (1982, rev. ed. 2005), and The Cold War: A New History (2005); K. W. Thompson, Cold War Theories (1981); P. Savigear, Cold War or Detente in the 1980s (1987); J. Sharnik, Inside the Cold War (1987); M. Walker, The Cold War (1994); R. E. Powaski, The Cold War: The United States and the Soviet Union, 1917–1991 (1997); V. Zubok and C. Pleshakov, Inside the Kremlin's Cold War: From Stalin to Khrushchev (1997); J. Chen, Mao's China and the Cold War (2001); W. LaFeber, America, Russia and the Cold War (9th ed. 2002); A. Fursenko and T. Naftali, Khrushchev's Cold War (2006); W. D. Miscamble, From Roosevelt to Truman: Potsdam, Hiroshima, and the Cold War (2008); R. Khalidi, Sowing Crisis: The Cold War and American Dominance in the Middle East (2009); J. Mann, The Rebellion of Ronald Reagan: A History of the End of the Cold War (2009); C. Craig and F. Logevall, America's Cold War (2009); D. E. Hoffman, The Dead Hand: The Untold Story of the Cold War Arms Race and Its Dangerous Legacy (2009); E. H. Judge and J. W. Langdon, The Cold War: A Global History with Documents (2d ed. 2010); M. P. Leffler and O. A. Westad, ed., The Cambridge History of the Cold War (3 vol., 2010).