Cold War

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Editors: Helmut K. Anheier , Mark Juergensmeyer , and Victor Faessel
Date: 2012
Encyclopedia of Global Studies
Publisher: Sage Publications, Inc.
Document Type: Topic overview
Pages: 7
Content Level: (Level 5)

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Cold War

The Cold War, which largely defined global politics in the latter half of the 20th century, was waged on many fronts. The first front, broadly referred to as the East-West confrontation, had two related Page 223  |  Top of Articlebut not completely identical components. The first and the most important component was the superpower conflict. The United States and the Soviet Union confronted each other globally as leaders of the competing camps, engaged in the nuclear arms race, and competed ideologically as models of modernity for developing nations. The second component of the East-West confrontation was the conflict between the West European alliance, headed by the United States, and the Soviet Union and its East European satellites. Although the East and the West confronted each other militarily in the contest of the two competing military alliances, each camp had to manage its alliance within itself. This two-layered East-West confrontation constituted the central core of the Cold War.

The second front of the Cold War was waged in Asia. China played a unique role, injecting an important element in the structure of the Cold War not only in Asia but also globally. The victory of the communists in China in 1949 expanded the area of the East-West conflict beyond Europe. But the Sino-Soviet conflict that had initially begun as a ideological contest developed into a state-to-state conflict and contributed to the “strategic triangle” in the 1970s with China serving as a pivot between the two superpowers. Furthermore, unlike the East-West conflict in Europe, two hot wars—the Korean War and the Vietnam War—were waged in Asia.

The Third World conflict was the third front of the Cold War. Decolonization of former colonies was placed in the Cold War context in the Third World. The United States and the Soviet Union competed with each other in expanding their influence in the Third World. The Cold War exacerbated the regional conflicts, while it imposed limitations on conflicts so as not to have these conflicts go beyond regions.

Last, the fourth front of the Cold War was fought on the domestic home fronts of each side. The Cold War was not merely confined in international relations, but it spilled over into domestic policies, culture, and popular consciousness.

Stages of the Cold War

The First Stage: 1945–1953

In the first stage, the Grand Alliance during World War II was transformed into the Cold War. Signs of impending East-West conflict emerged immediately after World War II ended. With Joseph Stalin’s Bolshoi Theater speech (February 1946), Winston Churchill’s “Iron Curtain” Speech (March 1946), and the Truman Doctrine (March 1947), conflict became intense, and differences widened. At the core of this conflict were divergent ideologies and misperceptions that each held about the motivations of the other side. In his Long Telegram (March 1946) and “Mr. X” article in Foreign Affairs (July 1947), George Kennan formulated a strategy of containment that became the foundation of U.S. policy toward the Soviet Union throughout the Cold War. But the Cold War did not begin until the Marshall Plan in 1947. Viewing the Marshall Plan as the West’s challenge to the Soviet Union, Moscow responded by creating the Cominform in 1947, and Andrei Zhdanov proclaimed that the world was now divided into two hostile camps, socialist and imperialist. From then on, the break was complete, and neither side expected to gain from negotiations. Germany became a focal point of the East-West conflict. Stalin’s gamble of the Berlin blockade, countered by the Western airlift in 1948, eventually led to the division of Germany into the Federal Republic Germany (West German) and the German Democratic Republic (East Germany) in 1949. After 1947, Stalin began transforming the East European states into communist satellites, precluding the possibility of “Finlandization” of Eastern Europe. To prevent Soviet expansion into Western Europe, the West formed the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). The Soviet Union responded by forming the Warsaw Treaty Organization (Warsaw Pact) in 1955, as a reaction not to the formation of the NATO but to the rearmament of West Germany. The East-West conflict thus came to bear military confrontation with nuclear weapons pointed at the other side.

Soviet failure in Germany was soon offset by two major events in 1949. First, the Soviet Union succeeded in detonating the atomic bomb, breaking the U.S. monopoly on nuclear weapons. Second, the Chinese communists succeeded in completing the revolution, establishing the People’s Republic of China (PRC). In 1950 Stalin and Mao Zedong concluded a treaty forging an alliance. Although East and West confronted each other in Europe, the focus of the Cold War shifted to Asia. With the tacit approval of Stalin and Mao, Kim Il Sung of North Korea invaded Page 224  |  Top of Articlethe South, provoking U.S. intervention. The Korean War ended in stalemate, dividing the Korean peninsula into North Korea (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) and South Korea (Republic of Korea) throughout the Cold War and beyond. With the outbreak of the Korean War, the United States committed itself to defending Taiwan, thus preventing the completion of China’s unification. Taiwan became a thorny issue between China and the United States.

The Second Stage: 1953–1964

After Stalin’s death in 1953, new Kremlin leaders initiated a new foreign policy to ease East-West tension. They ended the Korean War, concluded the Austrian Neutrality Treaty, and normalized relations with West Germany and Japan. Nikita Khrushchev’s policy of peaceful coexistence was partly based on the revision of the Stalinist doctrine on the inevitability of war. After having ousted his rival, Georgii Malenkov, Khrushchev appropriated his opponent’s thesis that with the advent of the nuclear weapon, it became possible to attain peaceful coexistence with the imperialist camp, although Khrushchev never abandoned the conviction that the socialist system would eventually prevail over the capitalist system.

Khrushchev’s de-Stalinization, however, created serious problems within the socialist camp. His secret speech denouncing Stalin’s “cult of personality” at the 20th Party Congress in 1956 caused unrest in Poland and Hungary. Although Khrushchev managed to avoid a crisis in Poland by installing national communists in power, he had to send tanks into Hungary to suppress the revolution. From this moment on, East European satellites presented a difficult challenge for the Kremlin in search of methods to maintain its outer empire by propping up a regime that lacked legitimacy. Moscow had to allow the ruling communists to liberalize their domestic policies, but ultimately the maintenance of the outer empire depended on the threat of military intervention.

Khrushchev’s secret speech also contributed to the Sino-Soviet split. Mao Zedong made sure that the criticism of the cult of personality would not be extended to the Chinese communists, and he voiced opposition to Khrushchev’s peaceful coexistence. Mao created two Taiwan Strait crises by bombarding the offshore islands in 1954–1955 and 1958. Furthermore, against the advice of the Soviet leaders, Mao launched the “Great Leap Forward,” an ambitious and irrational economic policy that threw the Chinese economy into utter chaos. The Soviet Union reneged on its commitment to provide China with a sample and the technology of the nuclear weapon and eventually withdrew all its advisers from China. From 1960 on, the Soviet Union and China began to attack each other, using the surrogates of Yugoslavia and Albania, but soon their criticisms became directed at each other.

Although pursuing a policy of peaceful coexistence, however, Khrushchev initiated a series of adventurous policies on his own, challenging the United States and its Western alliance. To prevent East German citizens from escaping into West Germany, Khrushchev issued an ultimatum to the West to conclude a peace treaty with East Germany and hand over the control of Berlin to the East German government. The Berlin crisis eventually led to the construction of the Berlin Wall in 1962, which served as a symbol of the East-West division over Germany and over Berlin.

Khrushchev’s contradictory policy was partly based on his confidence and insecurity about Soviet nuclear capabilities. During the 1950s Khrushchev was instrumental in carrying out the “nuclear revolution” in the Soviet military doctrine. Rejecting Stalin’s military doctrine that downgraded the importance of nuclear weapons, Khrushchev placed nuclear weapons at the center of the new Soviet military doctrine. But he was fully aware that the Soviet nuclear arsenal was far inferior in quality and quantity to that of the United States. To conceal this inferiority, Khrushchev engaged in disinformation, calculated to magnify the Soviet nuclear capability far more than its reality. For this purpose, Khrushchev exploited the success of the satellite Sputnik in 1957 to intimidate the United States.

The problem was it worked too well. This disinformation provoked a sense of crisis in the United States, first, as the fear of the bomber gap, and then of the missile gap, that the United States was lagging behind the Soviet strategic military buildup. Although it was clear to U.S. presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower and, then, John F. Kennedy that the United States was still far ahead, Kennedy used the issue of the missile gap for domestic Page 225  |  Top of Articlepolitical purposes and launched a large-scale modernization of U.S. strategic forces.

Kennedy’s robust modernization of U.S. strategic forces pushed Khrushchev into a corner. To redress the strategic inferiority, Khrushchev decided to install medium- and intermediate-range nuclear missiles in Cuba in 1962. Kennedy’s reaction was swift. He used the naval blockade, euphemistically calling it “quarantine,” and demanded the total withdrawal of Soviet missiles from Cuba. It was the closest encounter during the Cold War with a nuclear holocaust. But the crisis was averted by Khrushchev’s withdrawal of missiles.

The Cuban Missile Crisis was a major turning point in the Cold War. Both Kennedy and Khrushchev realized the danger of nuclear confrontation. This triggered a series of crisis management measures, including the installation of the “hot line” connecting the White House with the Kremlin. It also contributed to the conclusion of the Partial Test Ban Treaty, the first major arms control agreement between the United States and the Soviet Union. More importantly, both sides tacitly agreed to recognize each other’s sphere of influence. From then on the Cold War was fought outside the European core of the conflict.

Khrushchev also turned Soviet attention to the Third World, assisting the national liberation movements, even if they were not led by communists. The Soviet Union insinuated itself into the Middle East conflict, supporting Egypt, Syria, and Iraq. The United States countered by invoking the “Eisenhower doctrine,” and militarily intervened in Lebanon. In Africa, the Soviet Union and the United States supported competing political factions in the Congo. At this stage, however, Soviet assistance to national liberation movements, on the whole, proved ineffective.

The Third Stage: 1964–1972

Khrushchev’s failure in the Cuban Missile Crisis cost his job, leading to the formation of the Brezhnev-Kosygin collective leadership. Generally, Leonid Brezhnev represented a hard-line policy, allied with the military and hard-liners within the Politburo, while Aleksey Kosygin represented a softer line, supported by the economic elite and the scientific community. Kosygin’s attempt at economic reform was offset by Brezhnev’s relentless arms buildup.

The most important event that took place during this stage of the Cold War was the Vietnam War. At the Geneva Conference in 1954, the Eisenhower administration under its secretary of state, John Foster Dulles, rejected the general election in Vietnam. Subscribing to the domino theory, which speculated that the fall of Vietnam under communism would lead to the communist takeover in Southeast Asia, and beyond, the United States backed Ngo Dinh Diem in the South. John F. Kennedy escalated the Vietnam conflict by sending the “U.S. military advisers” to South Vietnam to suppress the National Liberation Front (NLF), which was directed by North Vietnam. The assassination of Ngo Dinh Diem in 1962, which was engineered by the military junta and tacitly approved by the United States, destabilized South Vietnam. Lyndon Johnson, who became president after the assassination of Kennedy, decided to escalate the war after the Gulf of Tonkin Incident in 1964. Johnson authorized the bombing of the North and dispatched 47,000 ground troops in May 1965. The “Americanization” of the Vietnam War began, and the United States became stuck deeper in the quagmire of the war.

The Vietnam War delayed a decisive break in Sino-Soviet relations, as both China and the Soviet Union were compelled to help North Vietnam. It also delayed détente between the United States and the Soviet Union. It gave Mao Zedong the luxury of launching the Cultural Revolution. It contributed to the erosion of U.S. prestige and facilitated multipolarization of international relations.

Despite the erosion of U.S. prestige, however, the Soviet Union could not decisively capitalize on the U.S. failure to its advantage. Partly, it was because the Soviet Union itself faced a crisis in its outer empire. In 1968, Czechoslovakia under Alexander Dubcek initiated internal reform under the slogan “socialism with a human face.” Invoking the “Brezhnev Doctrine,” which justified Soviet military intervention when the Kremlin viewed a security threat in the satellite countries, the Soviets brutally suppressed the Prague spring with military intervention. Soviet military intervention in Czechoslovakia made it impossible for East European countries to engage in gradual reforms within the socialist system.

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Another important reason the Soviet Union could not turn the U.S. failure in Vietnam to its benefit was the worsening of Sino-Soviet relations. After the Soviet intervention in Czechoslovakia, Mao considered the Soviet Union not only an ideological but also a security threat. In 1969, the Chinese attacked the Soviet border troops in Zhenbao Island. The border clashes in that year meant that the Sino-Soviet conflict was elevated to a state-to-state conflict.

The Fourth Stage: 1972–1979

During this period of détente, East-West relations made clear progress. West German Chancellor Willy Brandt’s Ostpolitik achieved a major reconciliation with the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, and the relaxation of tension was further facilitated by the Helsinki Accords in 1975. Another important achievement was the arms control negotiations between the Soviet Union and the United States. In 1972, they signed the SALT I. To the Soviet leaders, it was a crowning moment because the Soviet Union was recognized by the United States as a superpower.

The Sino-Soviet border clashes in 1969 provided an opportunity for the United States to explore the possibility of reaching rapprochement with China. On the Chinese side as well, the time was ripe to end the self-imposed isolation of the Cultural Revolution. A meeting between Henry Kissinger and Zhou Enlai prepared the way for U.S. president Richard Nixon to visit China in 1972 and achieve historic rapprochement. It seemed that the United States skillfully maneuvered the strategic triangle to use the China card to extract concessions from the Soviet Union in pressuring North Vietnam to end the war and in concluding SALT I. In the end, however, it was China that benefited from this diplomatic revolution. The PRC was admitted to the United Nations with a permanent seat on the Security Council. Despite its weak economic and military status, China leapt onto the world arena as one of the great powers.

Détente, however, suffered setbacks in the second half of the 1970s. Henry Kissinger treated détente as an extension of containment, while the Soviet leaders celebrated it as the sign of the Soviet Union gaining advantage in correlation of forces. Moscow pursued relentless arms buildup within the constraints imposed by SALT I. In particular, the SS-18s, powerful MIRVed weapons, seem to place the U.S. land-based missiles at risk. The conservative Committee on Present Danger publicized “the window of vulnerability” and campaigned against SALT II, which Brezhnev and U.S. president Jimmy Carter signed in 1978.

Another crisis took place in the Third World. Using the Cuban brigade, the Soviets were expanding their influence in Angola, Ethiopia, and South Yemen. Combined with its extended influence in India and Vietnam, the Americans became alarmed by what Zbigniew Brzezinski, Carter’s National Security adviser, called “the arc of crisis.” The United States, on the other, faced the Iranian hostage crisis, further diminishing its prestige.

The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan took place in this context. To Carter, it was the last straw. Abandoning détente, Carter invoked the Carter doctrine, justifying U.S. involvement in the Persian Gulf, scuttling SALT II, and boycotting the Moscow Olympics. Détente was over.

The Fifth Stage: 1979–1985

A new Cold War, replacing détente, began under Carter. All the elements of the military buildup—development of MX missiles, Trident SSBNs, B1 bombers, and deployment of Euromissiles to counter the SS-20s—had been initiated under Carter. But the new Cold War was stepped up by successor Ronald Reagan. Under the bellicose rhetoric against the Soviet Union as “the evil empire,” he called for “a crusade against communism.” He abandoned SALT negotiations altogether, pursued arms buildup, deployed Euromissiles, and proposed the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI). Having encountered antinuclear movements in the United States and Western Europe, he proposed the Strategic Arms Reduction Talks (START) and demanded the total dismantlement of SS-20s in order to cancel the deployment of Euromissiles. Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger adopted a strategy to “prevail in nuclear war,” and Admiral James Watkins “maritime strategy,” by which the United States was to launch preemptive attacks on the vulnerable strategic weapons in the Far East at a time of crisis. The Soviet leadership was alarmed by the new strategic policy adopted by Reagan and concluded that the Page 227  |  Top of ArticleUnited States was preparing to launch a surprise attack on the Soviet Union.

Reagan’s military policy was also accompanied by his Third World policy. The United States stepped up its military aid to the mujahedeen in Afghanistan, providing sophisticated Stinger surface-to-air missiles to Afghan rebels.

The Soviet Union was clearly on the defensive. It faced a crisis in Poland, where General Wojciech Jaruzelski had to impose martial law to suppress the widely popular Solidarity movement. In protest, Reagan proposed economic sanction against the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union was further weakened by a transition in leadership. Brezhnev died in 1982, succeeded by ailing Yuri Andropov, who died in 1984, and was succeeded by another ailing leader, Konstantin Chernenko.

The Sixth Stage: 1985–1991

In March 1985, Mikhail Gorbachev succeeded Chernenko as general secretary of the Communist Party and initiated perestroika and glasnost, which, ironically, ended up destroying the Soviet Union. But his contributions to ending the Cold War should not be underestimated. He pursued a bold foreign policy under the new political thinking, which consisted of two key concepts: mutual security and interdependence. He proposed that common human values shared by both socialists and capitalists should take precedence over class struggle. This concept finally broke the fundamental contradiction that lay at the foundation of deterrence and paved the way for the historic START agreement as well as the intermediate-range nuclear forces (INF) agreement.

Nevertheless, his policy often ignored power politics and inherent Soviet strategic interests. His premature withdrawal of troops from Eastern Europe in 1988 deprived the Soviet Union of important leverage to make a smooth transition of East European regimes into noncommunist regimes in the East European revolutions in 1989 that would not threaten the security of the Soviet Union. He allowed the reunification of Germany by West Germany absorbing East Germany and maintaining its membership in the NATO without much protest.

Another important achievement of Gorbachev was rapprochement with China. Gorbachev’s visit to Beijing, however, took place when Chinese students demanded democracy in China. When the world media focused on Gorbachev’s forthcoming visit to Beijing, the Chinese students exploited this occasion by demanding democratization of the rigid communist rule, staging demonstrations on Tiananmen Square. Deng Xiaoping decided to suppress the democratic movement by the use of force. Zhao Ziyang’s moderate course was an alternative that Deng and the Chinese leadership deliberately rejected. The Tiananmen Incident set the clock back in China’s democracy, casting a dark shadow on its modernization effort. Gorbachev’s achieving rapprochement with Japan was crucial in securing its financial and economic assistance to aid his economic reform, but he failed to make necessary concessions on the territorial question to satisfy overly intransigent Japanese. To compensate his failure in Japan, he rushed to achieve rapprochement with South Korea in return for its promise of economic assistance, thus sacrificing the Soviet leverage with North Korea. North Korea’s decision to acquire nuclear weapons originated from its diplomatic isolation.

Gorbachev’s foreign policy was at the epicenter of the fundamental restructuring of international relations and the most important factor in ending the Cold War, but it was also accompanied by his inability to turn his diplomatic success into successful reform at home. His perestroika ended up with the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Legacies of the Cold War

The big loser in the Cold War was clearly the Soviet Union, but it does not mean that the United States and its Western alliance won the Cold War. The Cold War militarized the economy, science, and technology in the Western world. Many lives were lost in the Korean War, the Vietnam War, and other conflicts. The United States intervened in Third World conflicts, often supporting brutal dictators in order to combat the spread of communism.

Given the ideological differences between the United States and the Soviet Union, East-West conflict would have been inevitable after the end of World War II. Nonetheless, this does not mean what happened had to happen. Misperceptions of the other side’s motivations closed off the better choices that might have been made.

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Contemporary conflicts that emerged in the post–Cold War period had their origins in the Cold War period.

Cold War Studies

Since the early 1990s, study of the Cold War has made great strides. First and foremost, with the opening of the archives in the former Soviet Union, Eastern Europe, and China, historians have reexamined and reinterpreted Cold War history on the basis of solid archival evidence that has not been available before. Second, in contrast to the previous Cold War studies that were predominantly U.S. centric, focusing on U.S.-Soviet rivalry mainly based on U.S. archives, historians have expanded their inquiry into the roles played by third parties. Third, historians have expanded the scope of inquiry from narrow diplomatic history into wider areas, including culture and gender issues. The study of the Cold War has increasingly become a study of global social and political developments in the 20th and 21st centuries.

Tsuyoshi Hasegawa

Further Readings

Chen, J. (2001). Mao’s China and the Cold War. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

Cold War International History Project Bulletin. Retrieved October 17, 2011, from

Craig, C., & Logevall, F. (2009). America’s Cold War: The politics of insecurity. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press.

Gaddis, J. L. (2006). The Cold War: A new history. New York: Penguin Books.

Garthoff, R. (1994). Détente and confrontation: American-Soviet relations from Nixon to Reagan (Rev. ed.). Washington, DC: Brookings Institution.

Hasegawa, T. (Ed.). (2011). The Cold War in East Asia, 1945–1991. Washington, DC/Stanford, CA: Wilson Center Press/Stanford University Press.

Leffler, M. (2007). For the soul of mankind: The United States, the Soviet Union, and the Cold War. New York: Hill & Wang.

Lüthi, L. M. (2008). The Sino-Soviet split: Cold War in the communist world. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

McMahon, R. J. (1999). The limits of empire: The United States and Southeast Asia since World War II. New York: Columbia University Press.

McMahon, R. J. (2003). The Cold War: A very short introduction. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Painter, D. S. (1999). The Cold War: An international history. London: Routledge.

Westad, O. A. (2006). The global Cold War: Third World interventions and the making of our times. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Westad, O. A., & Leffler, M. (Eds.). (2010). Cambridge history of the Cold War (3 vols.). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Zubok, V. (2008). A failed empire: The Soviet Union in the Cold War from Stalin to Gorbachev. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

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Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX4183000082