This article is part of|
the Cold War series.
|Causes of the Cold War|
|The 1950s and 1960s era|
|The Cold War since 1970|
The Cold War (c. 1945-1990) was the conflict between the two groups, loosely categorised as the West (the United States and its North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) allies) and the East (the 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 with a predilection for quashing armed conflicts to prevent a "hot" and escalating shooting war whenever possible. Indeed, a good show was made on both sides that the conflict was primarily about economic, philosophic, cultural, social, and political ideology. The West criticised the East as embodying undemocratic totalitarianism and communist dictatorship while the East criticised the West as promoting bourgeois capitalism and imperialism. The attitude of both sides towards the other was summed up in the phrases used against each other; the East accused the West of promoting "middle class capitalism and imperialism that sidelined workers" while the West in the 1980s called the East the "evil empire" intent on subverting democracy for communist ideology.
The Cold War continued 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 conflict in Afghanistan were some of the occasions when the aggression between those two parts of the world 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. Hence that part of the war at least had lessened 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 killing by intelligence services against each other, the Cold War was heavily manifest in the concerns about nuclear weapons and whether wars could really be deterred by their mere existence, as well as in the propaganda wars between the United States and the USSR. Indeed it was far from clear then, that global nuclear war wouldn't result from smaller conflicts, which heightened the level of concern for each conflict. This tension shaped the lives of people around world, almost as much as the actual fighting going on.
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 surrounded it.
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 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 inevitable. This revisionist approach reached its height during the Vietnam War when many began to view the American and Soviet empires as morally comprable.
Since the end of the Cold War, however, the post-revisionist school has come to dominate. The opening of the Soviet archives has demonstrated that the USSR certainly had expansionist ambitions. This combined with full disclosure of Soviet atrocities has brought historians back to an opinion much closer to the original 1950s view. Prominent post-revisionist histroians include John Lewis Gaddis and Robert Grogin.