Cold War History

by Bernard A. Weisberger

  The Cold War is one of the strangest chapters in the long, bloody history of international conflict. For 45 years it drove the politics and devoured the resources of the United States and the USSR. It twisted the fates of smaller nations sucked into the orbits of the superpowers and multiplied the violence of civil wars. Through the Space Race it extended into the heavens themselves and even threatened to end earthly life in nuclear devastation. It was longer and more far-reaching than the wars of 1914-1918 and 1939-1945 out of which it grew. Yet not a single shot was ever exchanged directly between Soviet and American soldiers. To call it war violates conventional definitions. To call it anything less flouts reality. It was, from beginning to end, unique.

The Cold War was conducted in phases, swinging between crises of mortal danger and "thaws" that offered reprieves from the terrifying prospect of full hostilities between the Soviet and American giants. The opening development (1945-1947) was the swift collapse of the wartime alliance against Adolf Hitler. The roots of disagreement lay in the failure to agree on peace terms. The "temporary" division of Germany into Soviet and Western occupation zones froze into permanence as Joseph Stalin's demands for reparations and a paralyzed German industrial machine clashed with American and British fears of leaving a power vacuum and economic chaos in the heart of Europe. The USSR likewise refused to permit free elections in the eastern European nations still garrisoned by its troops, and they soon fell under the control of Communist autocrats and became isolated behind what Winston Churchill called an "iron curtain." Old American suspicions of Communist designs on the entire world were revived. So were Soviet fears of capitalist "encirclement," exacerbated by ongoing U.S. development of the atom bomb. Cracks in the partnership became fissures during 1946, and when a Communist-led insurrection in Greece gained momentum, the United States reacted strongly. President Harry Truman asked for and got from Congress four hundred million dollars to help both Greece and neighboring Turkey to defend their independence. The importance of the Truman Doctrine was its identification of the USSR as a clear threat to peace.

Truman and Eisenhower Doctrines

A second phase now began (1947-1950) in which the Cold War became consolidated and incorporated into the institutions of both superpowers. In the United States during 1947 the armed forces were reorganized and partly unified, and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) was created, as was the National Security Council, whose aim was to coordinate military, diplomatic, and economic policies in the interests of "defense." One example of such linkage was the Marshall Plan, proposed in 1947 and passed by Congress in 1948, which pledged seventeen billion dollars to aid the economic recovery of western European nations, and so forestall Communist political exploitation of postwar miseries. The underlying assumption was that all Communist parties were guided from Moscow in programs of subversion and espionage. The same mind-set brought about a search for suspected "Reds" in government that peaked early in the 1950s with the witch-hunts of Senator Joseph R. McCarthy.

The year 1948 brought crisis and testing of the new machinery. In March the USSR forced a Communist regime on Czechoslovakia, which had been partly independent until then. The United States responded with renewal of conscription and plans to rehabilitate the Western-held portions of Germany despite Soviet objections. Moscow's counterstroke was to cut off road and rail access to Berlin, forcing the West to choose between dropping its new German policy or seeing the city starve. War seemed only an incident away in June, until a brilliant escape hatch was found in the Berlin airlift. Fleets of American and British planes supplied Berlin for eight months, and it was the Soviets who backed away. In the summer of 1949 the United States recognized the new "state" of West Germany and led in the creation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), pledging itself to help defend western Europe against any attack. The USSR later (1955) organized its satellite nations into the Warsaw Pact, so the metaphorical iron curtain became an actual armed frontier between East and West.

Stalin, meanwhile, had set in motion a crash program to make the USSR a modern military colossus. Its first notable success was the achievement of a Soviet atomic bomb in 1949. This led the United States to expedite work on developing the more powerful hydrogen bomb, first tested in 1954. The USSR matched the feat, and the nuclear arms race began in earnest.

The permanence of the Cold War was assumed in both sides' thinking, especially after Chinese Communists won their long civil war in 1949 (q.v.) and allied their huge nation with the USSR. Early in 1950, a secret American strategic planning document, NSC-68, called for permanent mobilization for a "long, twilit struggle." That struggle erupted in Asia on June 25, 1950, with the start of the Korean War. This conflict was another novelty of the post-1945 era, a superpower war by proxy. American forces fought North Koreans merely as "agents" of the United Nations. But when Chinese "volunteers" entered, the reality of Sino-American battle threatened to destroy the facade. World War III loomed afresh. It would not come so close again until the Cuban missile crisis of 1962. But the high tension of winter 1950-1951 lingered through 1956.

The "globalization" of the Cold War continued during the first term of Dwight D. Eisenhower's presidency (1952-1956) as his militant secretary of state, John Foster Dulles, forged the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization to parallel NATO and encouraged the CIA to plot the destabilization and overthrow of allegedly Communist regimes in Iran (1953) and Guatemala (1954). Dulles also hinted at the possibility of moves to liberate the "captive nations" of eastern Europe and indicated willingness to "go to the brink" of war as a tool of his foreign policies. In the Middle East, Arab resentment of U.S. support for the newly created (1948) state of Israel was exploited by the USSR, which became an ally and arms supplier to Egypt and Syria. In October 1956, tension in the region exploded. Egypt nationalized the Suez Canal. Britain and France, in a last bid for influence in a postcolonial world, joined Israel in a surprise paratroop operation that seized the canal. The USSR threatened to step in--but its only actual intervention anywhere that month was in Hungary, where Soviet troops brutally suppressed a Budapest uprising. The United States, meanwhile, secured the voluntary departure of the Israeli, French, and British forces, and did nothing for Hungary except deliver angry speeches in the United Nations. The brink had been reached, and neither side wanted to go beyond it.

In fact, some events of the early 1950s generated a countertrend to "brinkmanship." In 1953 Stalin died. In 1954 Eisenhower overruled Dulles by refusing to send aid to French armies besieged at Dien Bien Phu in Indochina (which led to France's abandonment of the colony that year). A number of Asian and African nations showed reluctance to support either of the warring Western camps at the Bandung Conference of 1955. They included Communist China, moving steadily away from linkage to Moscow, and India, long a friend of the West. In that same year, the almost unthinkable took place--a summit conference at Geneva, unproductive but civil, between Eisenhower and Stalin's temporary successors. So, following the Suez and Hungarian crises, a "thaw" set in. The successful launch of a Soviet space satellite in 1957 opened a new "front" in the Moscow-Washington rivalry, but a space race between American and Soviet technicians was not an immediate threat to peace. The warmest point was reached in 1959 when the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev toured the United States. Eisenhower was supposed to make a return visit to the USSR in the summer of 1960, but in May the bottom fell out of the seeming truce. A CIA spy plane, the U-2, was shot down deep in Soviet territory while on a high-altitude photoreconnaissance mission that violated fast-fading "norms" of international law. Khrushchev raged against the bad faith of the United States, and inevitably the peace trip was scrubbed.

Cuba, Berlin and Vietnam

The pendulum now took a violent two-year swing toward war, with Cuba and Berlin as flashpoints. The revolutionary victory of Fidel Castro in 1959 spurred the United States into clandestine measures to topple him. The CIA planned an "invasion" by anti-Castro exiles at the Bay of Pigs in April of 1961. Inherited and approved by President John F. Kennedy, it was a disaster whose result was to tighten the links between Castro and Khrushchev, to whom he turned for protection against further "Yankee" assaults. Seizing on a moment when Kennedy seemed vulnerable, Khrushchev now threatened once more to isolate Berlin, but the young president responded with a partial mobilization and an unambiguous pledge of support for the city. Once again, as in 1948, the Soviets did not push the issue to confrontation. But in August 1961, the Communist East German government built the Berlin Wall, a palpable symbol of its desire to isolate its citizens from the magnetic pull of the thriving West. In the long run, that prosperity was to prove the winning card in the strange struggle that the Cold War became.

But the threat of "hot war" came closest to reality in 1962. Khrushchev raised the stakes by shipping medium-range offensive missiles to Cuba. The discovery of these by U.S. intelligence in October prompted a dramatic, ten-day game of nuclear "chicken." Kennedy ringed Cuba with a U.S. naval blockade against further missile shipments and warned that any challenge to it would meet with a "full, retaliatory response upon the Soviet Union." Meanwhile, a U.S. invasion was readied. It was the Soviet leader who blinked first, ordering USSR freighters to accept U.S. search parties. Ultimately a face-saving solution was reached: a strictly unofficial U.S. promise of no invasion and NATO's removal of some offensive missiles in Turkey, in return for which Khrushchev took his rockets home from Cuba. But few Americans (and presumably Russians) who lived through that week could forget the feeling that fire might rain from the skies at any moment.

Sobered, both leaders now reacted away from belligerence and sought some accommodation by signing the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty of 1963. It forbade airborne bomb tests that spread dangerous radiation through the entire atmosphere of the earth, literally involving millions of innocents in the Cold War's "fallout." The assassination of Kennedy and the 1964 ouster of Khrushchev ended this brief "honeymoon." But in the ensuing ten years there were revolutionary developments in the Cold War that can now be seen in hindsight as the "beginning of the end."

First came the United States' deepening involvement in the Vietnam War. American participation began with sending military hardware and advisers to Saigon; escalated in 1965 to the commitment of U.S. ground, naval, and air forces; was reduced during peace talks from 1968 to 1972; and proved unavailing to avert final defeat in 1975. Costly and divisive, the Vietnam experience made the postwar United States aware at last that no power is unlimited.

Meanwhile, the USSR was also encountering identical limits. It had "lost" Yugoslavia in 1949 and China in 1959. Its Syrian and Egyptian clients were beaten by Israel in the Six-Day War of 1967 (see Arab-Israeli Wars). In 1968 it could keep Czechoslovakia in its grasp only by suppressing a liberalized government in Prague. The cost of supporting Communist governments or insurrectionary movements in Africa was burdensome and yielded little return.


The moment was therefore ripe for the astonishing turnaround of 1972, engineered by President Richard Nixon and his Machiavellian adviser, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. For twenty-three years the United States had officially recognized only the Nationalist government of China, isolated on Taiwan, and ignored the mainland Red regime. Now, forsaking Taiwan, Nixon journeyed to Peking for a state visit that started a gradually warming relationship. This, as Kissinger knew, put pressure on the USSR to be more accommodating to the United States to avoid isolation: the United States, in short, was the "balancing" power between the two rival Communist states. Nixon soon traveled to Moscow for an equally amicable summit, during which important trade and arms limitation agreements were signed.

The Cold War continued, but as it was now driven by pragmatic power considerations and institutional inertia more than by ideology, there was ample opportunity and incentive for continued "warming." The arms race, for example, had assumed fantastic proportions and expense as both sides modernized and enlarged their arsenals. Intercontinental ballistic missiles with multiple warheads, some undetectably carried in submarines, were hideously destructive and expensive. Neither side dared to use them, but neither could risk the possibility of the other gaining an advantage, so the warheads multiplied by thousands, the potential casualties by millions, and the costs by billions (see Ballistic Weapons). Though Britain, France, and China joined the "nuclear club," the true "balance of terror" lay between the USSR and the United States. The Strategic Arms Limitation Talks that both entered in 1972 led to treaties that attempted not the elimination of nuclear weapons but the preservation of that balance. Both sides throughout the 1970s shared an interest in "stabilizing" the arms race, and their discussions led to further cultural, scientific, and commercial exchanges that culminated in the Helsinki Accords of 1975, agreed to by President Gerald Ford and Soviet premier Leonid Brezhnev. These included unenforceable pledges to respect human rights in exchange for recognition of existing frontiers.

This period of "d[eacute]tente," in which moral rhetoric kept flowing but actual policies rested on practical power considerations, came to an end in 1979, the start of a final Cold War revival that lasted through 1985. The Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan at the "invitation" of a satellite Communist government threatened by rebellion. Like the U.S. intervention in Vietnam, it turned out to be a disaster, abandoned by Moscow after eight years of futile and exhausting battle against popular resistance. But at the start, the invasion gave fresh momentum to American critics of d[eacute]tente who branded it as a fatal abandonment of U.S. principle and resolve.

Reagan and Gorbachev

The critics triumphed with the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980. The new president unswervingly denounced the USSR as an "evil empire" seeking world domination and won support for a gigantic, costly program of U.S. "rearmament." Reagan also began a covert war against the leftist Sandinista regime in Nicaragua, invaded Grenada to oust another leftist government in 1983, and in other ways made it appear that the United States had returned to the brinkmanship of the 1950s.

Yet ironically, during his second term Reagan showed flexibility when the USSR suddenly and dramatically began to fold its hand. The turning point came in 1985 with the accession of Mikhail Gorbachev to Soviet leadership. The Soviet Union's economy was in ruins, and dissidence was boiling throughout its realm; the sixty-eight-year-old Communist system was on its last legs. Gorbachev wanted to bring about a peaceful transition to a more open society, and an indispensable first step was to end the bankrupting Cold War. Accordingly, in summit meetings, he struck up a surprising rapport with Reagan that ultimately resulted in arms reduction. Gorbachev and Reagan flirted with the idea of eliminating nuclear weapons altogether, but were dissuaded from so destabilizing a move. However, the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty of 1991, built on this momentum, actually provided for supervised destruction of some missiles in both countries.

In the end these steps came too late to save the USSR. One by one a series of upheavals took place between 1988 and 1991. A newly elected Soviet Parliament dissolved the Communist Party and, in 1991, the Soviet Union itself (which broke into eleven constituent republics). The Baltic states occupied by Soviet troops during World War II seceded; the Communist regimes established in eastern European nations in 1945 were overthrown, and in the most dramatic symbolic moment of all, East Germans tore down the Berlin Wall in 1989. East Germany itself disappeared soon after, and Germany was reunified after forty-five years. The Cold War was over. Time has yet to reveal its consequences and its assessment by future generations.

Bernard A. Weisberger,
Cold War, Cold Peace (1985).