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The Cold War (September 2, 1945 - December 26, 1991) was the conflict
between the United States and its NATO allies - loosely described as the
West - and the former Soviet Union and its Warsaw Pact allies - loosely
described as the Eastern Bloc. A full-scale "east versus west" war never
actually broke out, hence the metaphor of a "cold" war, rather than a "hot"
shooting war. Instead, the conflict was fought primarily on economic,
philosophic, cultural, social, and political levels. It continued from the
end of World War II until the breakup of the Soviet Union in the early
1990s. Except for the Korean War, Vietnam War and the conflict in
Afghanistan, the aggression between those two parts of the world never
shaped in an armed conflict, but was conducted by or against surrogates and
through spies and traitors which were working undercover. In each of those
conflicts, at least one of the major powers operated mainly by arming or
funding surrogates. Because of that, the war had little direct impact on the
populations of the major powers.
In the strategic conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union a
major arena was the strategy of technology. This cold war also involved
covert conflict, through acts of espionage. Beyond the actual fighting and
killing that went on through intelligence services, the Cold War was heavily
manifest in the concerns about nuclear weapons and the wars which could be
fought with them, as well as in the propaganda wars between the United
States and the USSR. It was far from clear, going through these times, that
global nuclear war would not result from the smaller arenas of conflict,
giving each of them an added degree of concern. These pressures impacted
many aspects of life throughout the world, much more so than the actual
fighting going on between intelligence services.
One major hotspot of conflict was Germany, particularly Berlin. Arguably,
the most vivid symbol of the Cold War was the Berlin Wall, isolating West
Berlin (the portion controlled by West Germany and allied with France,
England and the United States) from East Germany, which completely
For more than a decade after the end of World War II, few American
historians saw any reason to challenge the official US 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, and aggressive
Soviet expansionism. 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, 1945-1967, articulated an
overriding concern: US commitment to maintaining an "open door" for American
trade in world markets. Some historians have argued that US provocations and
imperial ambitions were at least equally to blame, if not more. In short,
historians have disagreed as to who was responsible for the breakdown of
US-Soviet relations and whether the conflict between the two superpowers was
The breakdown of postwar peace
Background: East-West relations
Some scholars have traced the origins of the East-West conflict well before
the Bolshevik Revolution. World System theorists have argued that Russia was
late to be absorbed by the capitalist world-system, and only in its
periphery or semi-periphery upon the Bolshevik Revolution, leaving it ripe
for a radical break with capitalism. Some scholars, such as Samuel P.
Huntington, even argue that East and West are fundamentally different
civilizations. Among scholars in the latter camp, many have argued that
Eastern Orthodox Slavs are heir to the Byzantine tradition. Others point out
aspects of the Slavic cultural heritage, Asiatic influence, and a
fundamentally different political culture shaped by rule of the Czar.
Imperial rivalry between Britain and Czarist Russia would foreshadow the
East-West tensions of the Cold War. Throughout the nineteenth century,
improving Russia's maritime access was a perennial aim of the Czars' foreign
policy; impeding it was a perennial obsession of Britain's. Despite Russia's
vast size, most of its ten thousand miles of seacoast was frozen over most
of the year or controlled by other powers, particularly in the Baltic and
Black Seas. The British were determined since the Crimean War in the 1850s
to slow Russian expansion at the expense of Ottoman Turkey, the "sick man of
Europe". After the completion of the Suez Canal in 1869, the prospects of a
seizing a portion of the Ottoman seacoast on the Mediterranean, whereby it
could threaten the strategic waterway, were all the more mortifying to the
British. The close proximity of the Czar's territorially expanding empire in
Central Asia to India also terrified South Asia's British imperial
overlords, triggering a series of quixotic British adventures in
Afghanistan. Fears over Russia, however, subsided following Russia's
stunning defeat in the Russo-Japanese War in 1905. Some historians have
noted that the British long exaggerated the strength of the relatively
backward sprawling empire, which in hindsight was probably concerned with
trade and securing its frontiers, not threatening Western interests. Some
historians have even noted the parallels to the post-World War II period,
when, again, the West exaggerated Russian "expansionism" in Eastern Europe,
which, like the territorial growth of imperial Russia, was probably
motivated by securing vulnerable frontiers.
Strategic rivalry between the United States in Russia, both huge, sprawling
nations, goes back to the 1890s when, after a century of friendship,
Americans and Russians became rivals over the development of Manchuria.
Czarist Russia, unable to compete industrially, sought to close off and
colonize parts of East Asia, while Americans demanded open competition for
In 1917 the rivalry turned intensely ideological. The United States did not
even establish relations with the Soviet government until 1917. Americans
never forgot that the Soviet government negotiated a separate peace with
Germany in the First World War in 1917, leaving the Western Allies to fight
the Central Powers alone. Lasting Russian mistrust stemmed from the landing
of US troops in Soviet Russia in 1918, which became becoming involved,
directly and indirectly, in assisting the anti-Bolshevik Whites in the civil war.
The wartime alliance between the Anglo-Americans and the Soviet Union was an
aberration from the normal tenor of Soviet-US relations and Soviet-British
relations. And even during the warmest days of the alliance, tensions were
seating underneath. The Soviets never forgot the repeated assurances from
Roosevelt that the United States and Britain would open a second front on
the European continent; but the Allied invasion did not occur until June
1944, more than two years after the Soviets had demanded it. In the
meantime, the Russians suffered horrendous casualties, as high as twenty
million dead. The West had delayed the invasion, forcing the Soviets to
absorb the brunt of German strength.
World War II resulted in enormous destruction of infrastructure and
populations throughout Eurasia, from the Atlantic to the Pacific oceans,
with almost no country left unscathed. The Soviet Union was especially
scathed due to the mass destruction of the industrial base that it had built
up in the 1930s. The only major industrial power in the world to emerge
intact, and even greatly strengthened from an economic perspective, was the
United States, which moved swiftly to consolidate its position.
When the war ended in Europe on May 8, 1945, Soviet and Western (US,
British, and French) troops were located in particular places, essentially,
along a line in the center of Europe. Aside from a few minor adjustments,
this would be the "iron curtain" of the Cold War. In hindsight, Yalta
signified the agreement of both sides that they could stay there and that
neither side would use force to push the other out. This tacit accord
applied to Asia as well, as evinced by US occupation of Japan and the
division of Korea. Politically, therefore, Yalta was an agreement on the
postwar status quo in which Soviet Union hegemony reigned over about one
third and the United States over two thirds.
And there were fundamental contrasts between the visions of the United
States and the Soviet Union, between capitalism and communism. And those
contrasts had been simplified and refined in national ideologies to
represent two ways of life, each vindicated in 1945 by previous disasters.
Conflicting models of autarky versus exports, of state planning against free
enterprise, were to vie for the allegiance of the developing and developed
world in the postwar years. Even so, however, the Cold War was not obviously
inevitable in 1945.
Despite the wherewithal of the United States to advance a different vision
of postwar Europe, Stalin viewed the reemergence of Germany and Japan as
Russia's chief threats, not the United States. Stalin assumed that the
capitalist camp would soon resume its internal rivalry over colonies and
trade and not pose a threat to Russia. Economic advisers such as Eugen Varga
reinforced this view, predicting a postwar crisis of overproduction in
capitalist countries which would culminate by 1947-1948 in another great
Trends in federal expenditure in the United States reinforced Stalin's
expectations. By this time, business had been reinforced by government
expenditures as a consequence of depression and the war. Between 1929 and
1933 unemployment soared from 3 percent of the workforce to 25 percent,
while manufacturing output collapsed by one-third. Franklin Roosevelt's New
Deal programs tried to stimulate demand and provide work and relief for the
impoverished through increased government spending, backed up later by the
British economist John Maynard Keynes. In 1929 the proportion was only 3
percent. Between 1933 and 1939, federal expenditure tripled, and Roosevelt's
critics charged that he was turning America into a socialist state. But the
cost of the New Deal pales in comparison to World War II. In the first
peacetime year of 1946, federal spending still amounted to $62 billion, or
30% of GDP! In short, federal expenditures went from 3% of GDP in 1929 to
about a third in 1945. And war spending financially cured the depression,
pulling unemployment down from 14 percent in 1940 to less than 2 percent in
1943 as the labor force grew by ten million. The war economy was not so much
a triumph of free enterprise as the result of government/business
sectionalism, of government bankrolling business.
What would be the result of massive postwar demilitarization? Stalin
predicted overproduction and depression. Given the trend in federal
expenditure, his predictions were not absurd. Stalin thus assumed that the
Americans would need to offer him economic aid, needing to find any outlet
for massive capital investments just to maintain the wartime industrial
production that brought the US out of the Great Depression. Thus, the
prospects of an Anglo-American front against him seemed slim from Stalin's
standpoint. However, there would be no postwar crisis of overproduction.
And, as Stalin anticipated, this was averted by maintaining roughly the same
levels of government spending. It was just maintained in a vastly different way.
But the whole role of government was not set in stone and was in question
once again. Although America's military-industrial complex was born in World
War II, it could have been stifled in its incipiency. Pressures to "get back
to normal" and were intense. Congress wanted a return to low, balanced
budgets, and families clamored to see the soldiers sent back home. The
Truman administration worried first about a postwar slump, then about the
inflationary consequences of pent-up consumer demand. The GI Bill of Rights,
adopted in 1944, was one answer: subsidizing veterans to complete their
education rather than flood the job market and probably boost the
unemployment figures. Moreover, on July 20, 1948 President Harry S. Truman
issued the first peacetime military draft in the United States amid
increasing tensions with the Soviet Union.
Thus, a conversion to the prewar economy would be extremely difficult, and
in the end it did not happen. In the end, the postwar government would look
a lot like the wartime government, with the military establishment, along
with military-security dominant. The postwar capitalist slump predicted by
Stalin would not be averted by domestic management, supplemented perhaps by
a greater role in promoting international trade and monetary relations. In
fact, President Roosevelt in 1941 hoped that after the war, the world's
largest building, the huge, mile-long in circumference Pentagon complex in
northern Virginia, would be converted into a storage facility. It was not;
the military-industrial complex dominated postwar life, largely the result
of the Cold War.
The United States, however, led by President Harry S. Truman since April
1945, was determined to shape the postwar world according to open up the
world's markets to capitalist trade according to the principles laid down by
the Atlantic Charter: self-determination, equal economic access, and a
rebuilt capitalist Europe that could again serve as a hub in world affairs.
Franklin Roosevelt had never forgotten the excitement with which he had
greeted the principles of Wilsonian idealism during World War I, and he saw
his mission in the 1940s as bringing lasting peace and genuine democracy to
But this vision was equally a vision of national self-interest. World War II
resulted in enormous destruction of infrastructure and populations
throughout Eurasia, from the Atlantic to the Pacific oceans, with almost no
country left unscathed. The only major industrial power in the world to
emerge intact—and even greatly strengthened from an economic
perspective—was the United States, which moved swiftly to consolidate
its position. As the world's greatest industrial power, and as one of the
few nations unravaged by the war, the United States stood to gain more than
any other country from opening the entire world to unfettered trade. The
United States would have a global market for its exports, and it would have
unrestricted access to vital raw materials. Determined to avoid another
economic catastrophe like that of the 1930s, Roosevelt saw the creation of
the postwar order as a way to ensure continuing US prosperity.
Such a Europe required a healthy Germany at its the center. Truman could
advance these principles with an economic powerhouse that produced 50
percent of the world's industrial goods and military power that rested on a
monopoly of the new atom bomb. These aims were at the center of what the
Soviet Union strove to avoid as the breakdown of the wartime alliance went
Aside from geo-political machinations, the United States led the effort to
impose its vision of the world with new international agencies: the World
Bank and International Monetary Fund, which were created to ensure an open,
capitalist, international economy. The Soviet Union opted not to take part.
The collapse of postwar peace
The wherewithal of the United States to advance a different vision of the
postwar world conflicted with Soviet interests, which motivated their
determination to shape postwar Europe. National security had been the real
cornerstone of Soviet policy since the 1920s, when the Communist Party
adopted Stalin's "socialism in one country" and rejected Trotsky's ideas of
"world revolution." Before the war, Stalin was disinterested in pushing
Soviet boundaries beyond their full Czarist extent.
After the war, the aims of Soviet Union were not aggressive expansionism,
but attempts to secure the war-torn country's western borders. Stalin,
assuming that Japan and Germany could menace the Soviet Union once again by
the 1960s, thus quickly imposed Moscow-dominated governments in the
springboards of the Nazi onslaught: Poland, Romania, and Bulgaria.
Disagreements over postwar plans first centered on Eastern and Central
Europe. Having lost 20 million dead in the war, suffered German invasion
through Poland twice in 30 years, and suffered tens of millions of
causalities due to onslaughts from the West three times in the preceding 150
years, first with Napoleon, the Soviet Union was determined to destroy
Germany's capacity for another war. US aims were ostensibly opposed since
they would require a healthy Germany at the center of Europe.
Winston Churchill, long a visceral anti-Communist, condemned Stalin for
cordoning off a new Russian empire with an "iron curtain." Afterwards,
Truman finally refused to give the war-torn Soviet Union reparations from
West Germany's industrial plants, Stalin retaliated by sealing off East
Germany as a Communist state.
Russia's historic lack of maritime access, a perennial concern of Russian
foreign policy well before the Bolshevik Revolution, was also a focus for
Russia where interests diverged between East and West. Stalin pressed the
Turks for improved access out of the Black Sea through Turkey's Dardanelles
Strait, which would allow Soviet passage from the Black Sea to the
Mediterranean. Churchill had earlier recognized Stalin's claims, but now the
British and Americans forced the Soviet Union to pull back.
But when Soviet security was not at stake, Stalin demonstrated no aggressive
designs: the Soviet Union eventually withdrew from Northern Iran, at
Anglo-American behest; Stalin did observe his 1944 agreement with Churchill
and did not aid the communists in the struggle against the corrupt,
British-led monarchial autocracy in Greece; in Finland he accepted a
friendly, noncommunist government; and Russian troops were withdrawn from
Czechoslovakia by the end of 1945.
Containment and the Cold War
While the Soviet Union acquiesced to Anglo-American designs to impede Soviet
access to the Mediterranean (a perennial focus of British foreign policy
since the Crimean War in the 1850s), the Americans heated up their rhetoric;
Anglo-American aims to prop up the Greek autocracy became a struggle to
protect "free" peoples against "totalitarian" regimes. This would be
articulated in the Truman Doctrine Speech of March 1947, which argued that
the United States would have to $400 million to efforts to "contain"
By successfully aiding Greece, Truman also set a precedent for the US aid to
regimes, no matter how repugnant, that were anti-Communist and
pro-capitalist. American foreign policy moved from State Department officer
George Kennan's argument that the Soviets had to be "contained" using
"unalterable counterforce at every point," until the breakdown of Soviet
The United States capitalized on the Cold War fears to launch massive
economic reconstruction efforts, first in Western Europe and then in Japan
(as well as in South Korea and Taiwan). The Marshall Plan began to pump $12
billion into Western Europe. The rationale was obvious: What was the point
of having such overwhelming productive superiority if the rest of the world
could not muster effective demand? Furthermore, economic reconstruction
helped create clientelistic obligations on the part of the nations receiving
US aid; this sense of obligation fostered willingness to enter into military
alliances and, even more important, into political subservience.
Stalin, fearing a revived Germany, responded by blocking access to Berlin,
which was deep within the Soviet zone although subject to four power
control, hoping to extract concessions for the blockade to be ended.
However, it greatly backfired. Military confrontation loomed while Truman
embarked on an impressive, provocative move that would humiliate the Soviets
internationally: flying supplies in over the blockade during 1948-1949.
Truman joined eleven other nations in 1949 to form the North Atlantic Treaty
Organization (NATO), America's first "entangling" European alliance in 170
years. Stalin retaliated against these provocative steps by integrating the
economies of Eastern Europe in his version of the Marshall Plan, exploding
the first Soviet atomic device in 1949, signing an alliance with Communist
China in February 1950, and forming the Warsaw Pact, Eastern Europe's
counterpart to NATO.
Confronted with growing Soviet successes to respond to provocative Western
actions, US officials quickly moved to escalate and expand "containment." In
a secret 1950 document, NSC-68, they proposed to strengthen their alliance
systems, quadruple defense spending, and embark on an elaborate propaganda
campaign to convince Americans to fight this costly cold war. Truman ordered
the development of a hydrogen bomb; in early 1950 the US embarked on its
first attempt to prop up colonialism in French Indochina in the face of
mounting popular, communist-led resistance; and the United States embarked
on a blatant violation of wartime treaties yet: plans to form a West German army.
The immediate post-1945 period may have been the historical high point for
the popularity of communist ideology. Communist parties won large shares of
the vote free elections in countries such as Belgium, France, Italy,
Czechoslovakia, and Finland and won significant popular support in
Asia—in Vietnam, India, and Japan—and throughout Latin America.
In addition they won large support in China, Greece, and Iran, where free
elections remained absent or constrained but where Communist parties enjoyed
In response, the United States sustained a massive anticommunist ideological
offensive. The United States aimed to interfere in the internal affairs and
sovereignty of other countries or impose its will upon others under the
guise of "freedom", "democracy" and "human rights". In retrospect, this
initiative appears largely successful: Washington brandished its role as the
leader of the "free world" at least as effectively as the Soviet Union
brandished its position as the leader of the "progressive" and
The Cold War in the 1950s and 1960s
The Korean War
In early 1950 came the first US commitment to form a peace treaty with Japan
that would guarantee long-term US military bases. Some observers (including
George Kennan) believed that the Japanese treaty led Stalin to approve a
plan to invade US-supported South Korea on June 25, 1950. Fearing that a
united communist Korea could neutralize US power in Japan, Truman committed
US forces and obtained help from the United Nations to drive back the North
Koreans to Stalin's surprise. In a historic diplomatic blunder, the Soviets,
boycotted the UN Security Council, and thus its power to veto Truman's
action in the UN, power, because it would not admit the People's Republic of China.
However, Truman would offset this with his own monumental, historic error:
allowing his forces to go to the Chinese-Korean border. Communist China
responded with human-wave attacks in November 1950 that decimated US-led
forces. Fighting stabilized along the thirty-eight parallel, which had
separated the Koreas, but Truman now faced a hostile China, a Sino-Soviet
partnership, and a bloated defense budget that quadrupled in eighteen months.
De-colonization, the Third World, and superpower rivalry
The Korean War marked a shift in the focal point of the Cold War, from
postwar Europe to East Asia. After this point, proxy battles in the Third
World would become an ever-important part of Cold War strategic rivalries.
Due to several waves of African and Asian de-colonization following the
Second World War, a world that had been dominated for over a century by
Western imperialist powers was now transformed into a pluralistic world of
de-colonized African, Middle Eastern, and Asian nations and of surging
resistance to "Yankee imperialism" in Latin America. Amid postwar
de-colonization, the Soviet Union relished in its role as the leader of the
"anti-imperialist" camp, winning great favor in the Third World for being a
stauncher opponent of colonialism than many independent nations in Africa
and Asia. And it did not go unnoticed in the Third World that the so-called
"free world" consisted by and large of North Atlantic imperialist powers.
The Eisenhower administration and "massive retaliation
Eisenhower's Secretary of State John Foster Dulles was the dominant figure
in the nation's foreign policy in the 1950s. A patrician, visceral
anticommunist closely tied to the nation's financial establishment, Dulles
was obsessed with communism's challenge to US corporate power in the Third
World. He denounced the "containment" of the Truman administration and
espoused an active program of "liberation," which would lead to a "rollback"
of communism. The most prominent of those doctrines was the policy of
"massive retaliation," which Dulles announced early in 1954, eschewing the
costly, conventional ground forces characteristic of the Truman
administration in favor of wielding the vast superiority of the US nuclear
arsenal and covert intelligence. Dulles defined this approach as
"brinksmanship"—pusing the Soviet Union to the brink of war in order
to exact concessions.
Thus in 1953, the new president, Dwight D. Eisenhower, moved to end the
Korean War (accomplished with a shaky armistice that lasts to this day) and
cut the federal budget. He reduced military spending by one-third but
continued fighting the Cold War effectively. As an aside, however, North
Korea remains a pressing geopolitical annoyance for the US, labeled a part
of George W. Bush's so-called "Axis of Evil" an enduring conflict that still
has the Asia Pacific on the brink of war.
In another exercise of the new "rollback" polices, acting on the doctrines
of Dulles, Eisenhower thwarted Soviet intervention wielding US nuclear
superiority and used the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to overthrow
But in the meantime, a new, dynamic and reformist Soviet leader, Nikita
Khrushchev, was broadening Moscow's policy by establishing new relations
with India and other key non-aligned, noncommunist states in the Third
World. Eisenhower increased Soviet power by developing a hydrogen bomb and,
in 1957, by launching the first earth satellite. To stabilize his European
position, Khrushchev created the Warsaw Pact in 1955 (to counter West German
rearmament) and built the Berlin Wall in 1961 (to stop the Germans from
leaving the communist East). While the Berlin Wall was a propaganda setback,
the Soviets garnered a huge victory when Khrushchev formed an alliance with
Cuba after Fidel Castro's successful revolution in 1959. Also to the
annoyance of the United States the revolution lives on to this day 90 miles
from the shore of the greatest hegemonic power in world history.
Aside from this, other events, less publicized at the time, mark 1956 to
1962 as the first major cold war turning point. In 1956, the Soviets
intervened to quell an anti-communist rebellion, foreshadowing the collapse
of European communism three decades later. Moreover, Sino-Soviet times were
deteriorating and the Communist world would never again be a monolith.
And the roots of the ongoing US "war on terrorism" and 2003 "Operation Iraqi
Freedom" can be traced through the 1950s. Since the region contained the
world's largest oil reserves, the US was concerned about the stability and
friendliness of the Arab regimes in the area, which the health of the US
economy grew to depend. US companies had already invested heavily in the
Thus the United States reacted with alarm as it watched Mohammed Mossadegh,
the nationalist prime minister of Iran, begin to resist the neocolonial
presence of Western corporations in his nation. In 1951 he nationalized his
nation's British-owned oil wells. Convinced that Iran, a Western client
state, was shifting toward an independent foreign policy, Eisenhower used
the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), joining forces with Iran's military
leaders, to overthrow Iran's government. To replace him, the US favored
elevating the young Shah of Iran, Mohammed Reza Pahlevi, from his position
as that of a constitutional monarch to that of an absolute ruler. In return,
the Shah allowed US companies to share in the development of his nation's
reserves. He remained a close US ally for 25 years, even as his regime was
becoming increasingly hated and despotic. As another aside, Iran is yet
another example of the parallels between 1950s and contemporary US foreign
policy. Popular anger, seething and repressed for a generation, eventually
culminated in the 1979 Islamic Revolution, which led to a hostage crisis
that would perhaps later bring down the Carter administration. Today, the
Islamic Republic of Iran, which, from the standpoint of the US, had the
audacity to overthrow CIA-imposed absolutist regime, is a part of President
Bush's so-called "Axis of Evil" along with North Korea. Korea is a focus of
George W. Bush's administration, another administration, like Reagan's,
notable for its striking affinity with the "massive retaliation" polices of
John Foster Dulles.
The US used the CIA to overthrow other governments suspected of turning
procommunist, such as Guatemala in 1954, another multiparty democratizing
government. In 1958 the US sent troops into Lebanon to maintain its pro-US
regime (now, Lebanon's government is a close ally of Syria, touted as a
target for another "pre-emptive US attack"), and between 1954 and 1961 the
Eisenhower dispatched economic aid and 695 military advisers to South
Vietnam, which would later be absorbed by its communist counterpart amid one
of history's greatest popular-based insurrections against a corrupt client
state. Vietnam remains one of the world's five remaining Communist states.
The American offensive in the Third World was very effective in the
short-run, but failed to install pro-US regimes that would be enduring and
stable. But some setbacks were evident even in the 1950s. In particular, the
first strain among the NATO alliance shattered the concept of the West as a
united monolith. Less effective in dealing with the nationalist government
in Egypt, in 1956 Eisenhower had to force Britain and France to retreat from
a badly planned invasion with Israel intended to seize the Suez Canal from
Egypt, a sign that the interest of the United States in the Middle East was
much more than its strong support of Israel. The Eisenhower administration
opposed French and British imperial adventurism in the region due to sheer
prudence, out of fear that Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser's bold
standoff with the region's old colonial powers would inspire greater
pro-Soviet sentiment in the region. In yet another example of how foreign
interventionism of the Eisenhower administration resonates to this day, the
United States in 2003 deposed the Iraqi regime, which was inspired by
Nasser's secular pan-Arab nationalism and populist social policies.
Thus, the Suez stalemate was a turning point heralding an ever-growing rift
between the Atlantic over US hegemony, which was becoming far less of a
united monolith than it was in the immediate aftermath of the Second World
War. The West Europeans, with the exclusion of the British until 1971, also
developed their own nuclear forces as well as an economy Common Market to be
less dependent on Washington. Such rifts mirror changes in global economics.
American economic competitiveness faltered in the face of the challenges of
Japan and West Germany, which have recovered rapidly from the wartime
decimation of the industrial bases. The late nineteenth- and
twentieth-century successor to Great Britain as the "workshop of the world,"
the United States now finds its competitive edge dulled in the international
markets while at the same time faced with intensified foreign competition at
As another example of shifting courses among the increasingly
independent-minded Western allies, this time, it is France that has opposed
US adventurism in the Middle East during the 2003 "pre-emptive" attack on
Iraq, a reversal of roles from the Suez crisis.
The Cuban Missile Crisis
President John F. Kennedy inherited a growing nuclear superiority from the
Eisenhower era of "massive retaliation." But this encouraged the Soviet
Union to place missiles in Cuba. Kennedy, backed by superior military force,
induced the Soviets to retreat in return for promises not to invade Cuba (as
he had in 1962 when CIA-backed Cuban exiles were thwarted at the Bay of
Pigs). After this brush with nuclear war, the two leaders banned nuclear
tests in the air and underwater after 1962. The Soviets were also forced to
begin a huge military buildup.
The Vietnam quagmire
The years between the Cuban Revolution in 1959 and the arms control treaties
of the 1970s marked growing efforts for both the Soviet Union and the United
States kept an iron-gripped control over their spheres of influence.
President Lyndon Johnson landed 22,000 troops in the Dominican Republic in
1965 to prevent the unlikely emergence of another Castro. Under Leonid
Brezhnev, troops from the Warsaw Pact Allies—the Soviet Union, East
Germany, Poland, and Hungary—intervened in Czechoslovakia in
accordance with a new Soviet doctrine about the "international duty" of
socialist countries to protect the gains of socialism, wherever they may be
threatened. In the same year Johnson stationed 575,000 troops in South
Vietnam to prop up the faltering anticommunist regime and curb Chinese
influence in the region.
The American public's faith in the "light at the end of the tunnel" was
shattered, however, on January 30, 1968, when the enemy, supposedly on the
verge of collapse, mounted the Tet Offensive (named after Tet Nguyen Dan,
the lunar new year festival which is the most important Vietnamese holiday)
in South Vietnam (and, to a lesser degree, in the 1969 Post-Tet Offensive).
Although neither of these offensives accomplished any military objectives,
the surprising capacity of an enemy that was supposedly on the verge of
collapse to even launch such an offensive convinced many Americans that
victory was impossible.
Nixon was elected President and began his policy of slow disengagement from
the war. The goal was to gradually build up the South Vietnamese Army so
that it could fight the war on its own. This policy became the cornerstone
of the so-called "Nixon Doctrine." As applied to Vietnam, the doctrine was
called "Vietnamization." The goal of Vietnamization was to enable the South
Vietnamese army to increasingly hold its own against the NLF and the North
The morality of US conduct of the war continued to be an issue under the
Nixon Presidency. In 1969, it came to light that Lt. William Calley, a
platoon leader in Vietnam, had led a massacre of Vietnamese civilians
(including small children) at My Lai a year before. The massacre was only
stopped after two American soldiers in a helicopter spotted the carnage and
intervened to prevent their fellow Americans from killing any more
civilians. Although many were appalled by the wholesale slaughter at My Lai,
Calley was given a light sentence after his court-martial in 1970, and was
later pardoned by President Nixon.
Aside from this massacre, millions of Vietnamese died as a consequence of
the Vietnam War. The lowest casualty estimates, based on the now-renounced
North Vietnamese statements, are around 1.5 million Vietnamese killed.
Vietnam released figures on April 3, 1995 that a total of one million
Vietnamese combatants and four million civilians were killed in the war. The
accuracy of these figures has generally not been challenged. Around 58,000
US solders also died.
The casualties inflicted by the US-backed, Khmer Rouge were even higher.
Though adherents to a twisted form of Maoism, the Khmer Rouge were
anti-Soviet. In 1970, Nixon ordered a military incursion into Cambodia in
order to destroy Viet Cong sanctuaries bordering on South Vietnam. Many feel
that the Khmer Rouge would probably not have come to power and killed so
many (from 900,000 to 2 million) of their people without the destabilization
of the war, particularly of the American bombing campaigns to 'clear out the
sanctuaries' in Cambodia.
The challenges of Détente
SALT I and SALT II
In 1972-1973 the superpowers sough each other's help. After making a
surprise trip to China, President Richard Nixon signed the SALT I treaty
with Brezhnev to limit the development of strategic weapons.
Détente had both strategic and economic benefits for both superpowers. Arms
control enabled both superpowers to slow the spiraling increases in their
bloated defense budgets. Before, the Johnson administration failed to defeat
Communist forces, his deficit-spending to sustain the war effort weakened
the US economy for decades to come, contributing to a decade of
"stagflation." Meanwhile, Brezhnev could neither stop bloody clashes between
Soviet and Chinese troops along their common border nor bolster a Soviet
economy declining, in part because of heavy military expenditures. They also
agreed to respect the newly emerging states in Africa and Asia.
But the détente suffered amid outbreaks in the Middle East and Africa,
especially Southern and Eastern Africa. The two nations continued to compete
with each other for influence in the resource-rich Third World, most notably
While most US citizens believed the propaganda claims that the Cold War was
a struggle of the free world against totalitarianism, the United States
continued, as it did in the 1950s, to target and vilify governments elected
through the ballot box, such as Chile's elected socialist president Salvador
Allende, who was ousted by a CIA-engineered coup in 1973.
President Jimmy Carter, however, tried to move beyond these setbacks for
peace and place another cap on the arms race with a SALT II agreement in
1979, but his efforts were undercut by three surprising developments: the
Islamic Revolution in Iran, the Nicaraguan Revolution, and Soviet
intervention in Afghanistan.
The political assault on Détente in the United States
The 1970s inflicted damaging blows to the American confidence characteristic
of the 1950s and early 1960s. The War in Vietnam and the Watergate crisis
shattered confidence in the presidency. International frustrations,
including the fall of South Vietnam in 1975, the hostage crisis in Iran in
1979, the Russian invasion of Afghanistan, the growth of international
terrorism, and the acceleration of the arms race raised fears over the
country's ability to control international affairs. The energy crisis,
unemployment, and inflation, derided as "stagflation," raised fundamental
questions over the future of American prosperity.
During the same period of time, the Soviet Union improved living standards
by doubling urban wages and raising rural wages by around 75%, building
millions of one-family apartments, and manufacturing large quantities of
consumer goods and home appliances. Soviet industrial output increased by
75%, and the Soviet Union became the world's largest producer of oil and
Even abroad, the tide of history appeared to be turning in favor of the
Soviet Union. While the United States was mired in recession and the Vietnam
quagmire, pro-Soviet governments were making great strives abroad,
especially in the Third World. Vietnam had defeated the United States,
becoming a united, independent state under a Communist government. Other
Communist governments and pro-Soviet insurgencies were spreading rapidly
across Africa, Southeast Asia, and Latin America. And the Soviet Union
seemed committed to the Brezhnev Doctrine, sending troops to Afghanistan at
the request of its Communist government. The Afghan invasion in 1979 marked
the first time that the Soviet Union sent troops outside the Warsaw Pact
since the inception of the Eastern counterpart of NATO.
Reacting to a tide in the Cold War not favorable to the United States, a
group of American academics, journalists, politicians, and policymakers,
labeled by many as "new conservatives" or "neoconservatives", since many of
whom were still Democrats, rebelled against the Democratic Party's leftward
drift on defense issues in the 1970s, especially after the nomination of
George McGovern in 1972, harped on America's geo-political decline, blaming
liberal democrats. Many clustered around Sen. Henry "Scoop" Jackson, a
Democrat, but then they aligned themselves with Ronald Reagan and the
Republicans, who promised to confront charges of Soviet expansionism.
Their main targets were the old policies of "containment" of Communism
(rather than "rollback") among the US foreign policy orthodoxy and
especially Détente with the Soviet Union, with its aims of peace through
negotiations, diplomacy, and arms control.
Led by Norman Podhoretz, these "neoconservatives" used charges of
"appeasement", alluding to Neville Chamberlain at Munich, to attack the
foreign policy orthodoxy in the Cold War. They Compared negotiations with
relatively weak enemies of the United States as appeasement of "evil," these
increasingly influential circles attacked Détente, most-favored nation trade
status for the Soviet Union, and supported unilateral American intervention
in the Third World to stem the rise of governments whose aims did not
coincide with those of the United States. Before the election of Reagan, the
neoconservatives sought to stem the antiwar sentiments caused by the US
defeats in Vietnam and the massive causalities in Southeast Asia that the
During the 1970s Jeane Kirkpatrick, a prominent political scientist and
later US ambassador to the United Nations under Ronald Reagan, a position
she held for four years, increasingly criticized the Democratic Party, of
which she was still a member since the nomination of the antiwar George
McGovern. Kirkpatrick became a convert to the ideas of the new conservatism
of once liberal Democratic academics.
Against the backdrop of inflation and American "weakness" abroad, Ronald
Reagan, former governor of California, received the Republican nomination in
1980 and won the presidency, beating Jimmy Carter. Hawks saw his victory as
an electoral mandate for the escalation of the Cold War.
Reagan promised an end to the drift in post-Vietnam and post-Iran hostage US
foreign policy and a restoration of the nation's military strength. Reagan
also promised an end to "big government" and to restore economic health by
an experiment known as "supply-side" economics. However, all these aims were
not reconcilable through a coherent economic policy.
Reagan and a dangerous escalation of tensions
With Reagan's promises to restore the nation's military strength, the Reagan
years saw massive increases in military spending, amounting to about $1.6
trillion over five years. Combined with his massive tax cuts, the nation
paid a high price for his defense policies. Enormous deficits to pay for the
bloated defense budgets, inducing high levels of government borrowing,
resulted in high interest rates and an overvalued dollar, which stifled
economic growth, resulted in a very unfavorable balance of trade, and
depressed the US steel and automotive sectors. However, the Soviet Union
paid a far higher price for Reagan's commitment to the Cold War.
The neoconservative movement was a strong influence on Reagan's foreign
policy adventures. The Kirkpatrick Doctrine was an especially strong
influence. Jeanne Kirkpatrick, known for her anticommunist stance and for
her tolerance of rightwing dictatorships, argued that Third World social
revolutions favoring the poor, dispossessed, or underclasses are
illegitimate, and thus argued that the overthrow of leftist governments
(such as the democratically elected government of Salvador Allende in Chile)
and the installation of right wing dictatorships was acceptable and
essential. Under this doctrine, the Reagan administration actively supported
the dictatorships of Augusto Pinochet, Ferdinand Marcos and the racist
apartheid regime in South Africa.
The Reagan administration was committed to stemming the advance of socialism
in the Third World. Reagan, however, did not move toward protracted,
long-term interventions like the Vietnam War to stem social revolution in
the Third World. Instead, he favored quick campaigns to attack or overthrow
leftist governments, favoring small, quick interventions that heightened a
sense of post-Vietnam military triumphalism among Americans, such as the
attacks on Grenada and Libya, disastrous interventions in the multisided
Lebanese civil war, and the arming rightwing militias in Central America
seeking to overthrow leftist governments like the Sandinistas.
In 1985 Reagan authorized the sale of arms in Iran in an unsuccessful effort
to free US hostages in Lebanon; he has since claimed to not know that
subordinates were illegally diverting the proceeds to rightwing death-squads
in Central America.
The collapse of the Soviet Union
Moreover, the Reagan administration's hostile stance toward the Soviet
Union, the so-called "evil empire" (despite significant changes since the
Stalin-era), would contribute to the dangerous tensions between the two
superpowers since the Cuban Missile Crisis in the early 1980s before the
rise of Mikhail Gorbachev in the Soviet Union.
But while the Soviets enjoyed achievements in Southeast Asia, Latin America,
and Africa before Reagan came in office, its economy was mired in far worse
structural problems. Reform stalled between 1964-1982 and supply shortages
But the generational shift in the 1980s under Mikhail Gorbachev gave new
momentum for reform. However, cold warriors have since argued that the
pressures from increased US defense spending was and additional impetus for
While it was Carter who officially ended the policy of Détente following
Soviet intervention in Afghanistan, the Reagan years marked a new high in
tensions between the two nuclear-armed superpowers, which probably strained
the Soviet economy to the point of the union's undoing. Long before the Cold
War, long-standing disparities in the productive capacities, developmental
levels, and geopolitical strength existed between East and West. The "East",
in many respects, had been behind the "West" for centuries. As a result,
reciprocating Western military build-ups during the Cold War placed an
uneven burden on the Soviet economy. The Soviet Union faced a
disproportionate burden in the arms race, having to devote a much relatively
higher segment of its economy to military expenditures to reciprocate those
of the West. Especially amid the Reagan administration's talk of "star wars"
missile defense, Soviet policymakers increasingly accepted Reagan
administration warnings that the arms race was one that they could not win.
The result in the Soviet Union was a dual approach of concessions to the
United States and economic restructuring (perestroika) and democratization
(glasnost) domestically. But instead the Soviet Union collapsed and broke up
into fifteen constituent parts and the Cold War was over. Today, over half
the population in the former Soviet Union is now impoverished in a country
where poverty had been largely non-existent; life expectancy has dropped
drastically; and GDP has halved. Reaganite hawks relished in post-Cold War
"triumphalism," idea of the "end of history," and a "new world order" based
on American-style liberal democracy, while the "liberated" population of the
former Soviet Union is mired in misery.
Intelligence agencies' role
The armies of the countries involved rarely had much participation in the
Cold War; the war was primarily fought by intelligence agencies like the CIA
(United States), MI6 (Great Britain), BND (West Germany), Stasi (East
Germany) and the KGB (USSR). The major world powers never entered armed
conflict directly against each other.
The agent war of mutual espionage both of civilian and military targets may
have caused most casualties of the Cold War. Agents were sent both to the
east and the west, and spies were also recruited on location or forced into
service. When detected, they were either killed instantly or exchanged for
other agents. Spy airplanes and other surveillance aircraft were likewise
regularly shot down upon detection.
Many observers of varied political persuasions today think that the United
States acted in ways their own constitution and national sentiment would not
support (such as fighting undeclared wars without the explicit approval of
Congress). Leaders in the U.S., both political and military, commonly cite
the perceived threat to their security as justification for their actions.
In many areas of the world, the local populations feel they were manipulated
and abused by both powers. Much of the anti-Americanism in countries such as
Afghanistan is attributed to the actions by the U.S. During the Soviet
conflict with Afghanistan, the U.S. funded and armed the Mujahedeen in their
fight to repel the Soviet occupation, but pulled out and left them to fend
for themselves once the USSR had pulled out of the region.
The Cold War and culture
The civilian population (at least in America) was subject to air-raid drills
(hide under your desk!) and encouraged to build personal bomb shelters in
the 1950s. This level of fear faded; however, awareness of the war and its
potential consequences was a constant. Fallout shelter signs in large
buildings, protests over the placement of short-range nuclear missiles in
Germany, the oft-quoted nuclear doomsday clock, photographs of dead bodies
in the barbed wire of the Berlin Wall, as well as movies such as WarGames,
Threads, Red Dawn and The Day After kept awareness high.
The Cold War also inspired many movie companies and writers, resulting in an
enormous number of books and movies, some more fictional (such as James
Bond) and some less, in particular Tom Clancy made himself a name as a
master of vividly describing the agent and espionage war under the surface.
Conclusions: the post-Cold War world
The reaction to the collapse of the Soviet Union led some to speak of a
"short twentieth century" framed by the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the
collapse of the Soviet Union, marking the "end of history."
Some have argued that as the "world's policeman", the United States is left
to fill the imperial role role of nineteenth century colonial powers,
quelling instability or threats to its geopolitical interests wherever they
arise much like Britain when it was building up its formal and informal
empire in the Victorian era.
Prominent sociologist Immanuel Wallerstein expresses a less triumphalist
view, arguing that the end of the Cold War is a prelude to the breakdown of
US hegemony. In his recent essay "Pax Americana is Over", Wallerstein
argued, "The collapse of communism in effect signified the collapse of
liberalism, removing the only ideological justification behind U.S.
hegemony, a justification tacitly supported by liberalism's ostensible