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The Global Cold War

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The Global Cold War

The Cold War dominated the second half of the 20th century and impacted relations between nearly all countries. It even led to "hot" wars in some cases, although the main two antagonists, the US and USSR never directly went to war with each other. However, fears that they would and use nuclear weapons were very real, and the ideological conflict between them helped reshape the world and continues to reverberate today. Here we will examine what defined the Cold War, the causes of the Cold War, the Cold War's dates, key events in the Cold War's timeline, and the end of the Cold War.

Cold War Definition

The Cold War Definition that best describes the period is one that defines the Cold War as an ideological and strategic competition between the capitalist United States and communist Soviet Union. It is defined as a "cold" war because the two countries never engaged in direct fighting, but their rivalry had many of the characteristics of a war.

While the Cold War was mainly defined by the ideological divide, each side was also guided by strategic and economic interests.

Think of the Cold War as a boxing match, with world events like rounds in the match. In the mentality adopted by the leaders of each country, anything that was seen as hurting their interests or helping the other's were viewed as "losing" the round.

Cold War Dates

The dates of the Cold War are from 1945 to 1991 with the end of World War II and the dissolution of the Soviet Union marking the beginning and end dates of the Cold War.

Causes of the Cold War

The US and USSR joined forces to defeat Nazi Germany. However, after the war, the alliance fell apart. See below some of the main causes of the Cold War:

Causes of the Cold War
Long Term Causes of the Cold WarShort Term Causes of the Cold War
  • Ideology: capitalism vs communism
  • Tensions before WW2 over western involvement in the Russian Civil War, Appeasement, and Nazi-Soviet Pact of 1939
  • Disagreements over Germany's future
  • Spread of communism in Eastern Europe
  • US use of the Atomic Bomb
  • Truman Doctrine and Marshall Plan

In the years 1945-1949, each side engaged in actions that aggravated the tensions. By 1949, a figurative line had been drawn across Europe, and NATO was created as an explicitly anti-Soviet military alliance, pushing relations past any hope of reconciliation.

NATO

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization created as a military alliance to prevent Soviet aggression against Western Europe.

A few years later, in 1955, the Warsaw Pact, an alliance between the Soviet Union and the communist countries was created and solidified the separation of Europe into rival blocs, or camps.

Warsaw Pact

Military alliance of the Soviet Union and communist states created as a response to NATO in 1955.

Cold War Definition Map Showing Spread of Communism during Cold War StudySmarterMap showing international alliances during the Cold War in 1980. Source: Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons.

Cold War Timeline and Overview

Spanning nearly 50 years, there are many important events during the Cold War. Below, see some key events of the Cold War:

Cold War Timeline StudySmarterCold War Timeline, created by the author Adam McConnaughhay, StudySmarter Originals.

Spread of Communism During Cold War

The spread of communism during the Cold War was part cause and part effect of the Cold War. The first wave of the spread of communism in Eastern Europe, largely imposed by the Soviet Union, aggravated tensions and led the US to adopt a policy to stop the spread of communism.

This policy was the policy of containment, or stopping the spread of communism to new countries. The US became more committed to this policy after China became communist in 1949, and it led to US intervention in the Korean and Vietnam Wars.

Meanwhile, the Soviet Union intervened via the Warsaw Pact to ensure the continuation of communist government in Hungary in 1956, Czechoslovakia in 1968, and Afghanistan in 1979.

Cold War Timeline Mao China StuySmarterChinese Communist Leader Mao Zedong at a rally in 1966. Source: Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Global Conflict During the Cold War

While the US and the USSR never engaged in direct war with each other, the Cold War did lead to a number of "hot" wars around the world, often at great cost to human life.

In some cases, one side or the other deployed their own combat troops, while in others one or both supported the side they hoped would win. These conflicts can therefore be defined as Proxy Wars.

Proxy War

When two (or more) countries engage in indirect conflict through third parties by supporting different sides in a rebellion, a civil war, or a war between two countries.

Korean War

After World War II, Japanese occupied Korea was split into a north and south. The Soviet supported communist north invaded South Korea in 1950, provoking the Korean War.

A US led United Nations force intervened, pushing the North Koreans back. However, China intervened in the war, pushing the US-UNO forces back into South Korea. After several years of stalemate, a ceasefire was signed that maintained the prewar status quo of a communist North Korea and capitalist South Korea.

Vietnam War

Vietnam had also been occupied by Japan during World War II. However, it was a French colony before the war, and the French sought to reestablish control after the war.

The communist influenced Viet Minh, led by Ho Chi Minh, fought the French for independence, defeating them in 1954. Vietnam was temporarily divided into North and South, however continuing conflict would delay plans for elections to unify the country.

Operating under the logic of the domino theory, the US had supported the French and began to support the capitalist but nondemocratic regime in South Vietnam. Rebels in the south supported by North Vietnam began a guerrilla campaign, and the US eventually sent large numbers of combat troops to support the South Vietnamese government starting in 1965.

The Vietnam War was incredibly costly and became unpopular at home, leading to US withdrawal in 1973. South Vietnam would fall to the rebels and North Vietnamese forces in 1975.

Cold War Timeline Vietnam StudySmarterVietnamese communist fighters during the Vietnam War. Source: Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Other Proxy Wars

The Korean War and the Vietnam War are the two largest examples of conflicts caused by the Cold War. See more examples of proxy wars below:

Proxy Wars During the Cold War
CountryYear(s)Details
Congo1960-65After independence from Belgium, a left wing government led by Patrice Lumumba faced opposition from a rebel group supported by Belgium. After Lumumba asked for and received Soviet military assistance, the army launched a coup and killed him. Historians strongly believe the US was involved in this coup. Civil War followed until 1965 when a dictator consolidated power, although internal conflict continued.
Angola1975-1988Angola became independent in 1975 from Portugal. There were two rival independence movements, the communist MPLA and the right wing UNITA. Each set up competing governments. The USSR sent arms to the MPLA government, and Cuba sent combat troops and aircraft. Meanwhile, the US and apartheid South Africa supported UNITA. A ceasefire was signed in 1988, removing foreign troops from the war, although tensions and internal conflict continued.
Nicaragua1979-1990The Sandinista National Liberation Front, a socialist party, took power in 1979. The US backed an opposition group called the Contras in a bloody civil war in the 1980s. Sandinistas won the elections of 1984 but lost in 1990 to a US backed leader.
Afghanistan1979-1989The USSR sent troops to Afghanistan to support the communist government's fight against Islamist rebels. The US supplied the rebels, known as the mujahideen, with arms. The Soviets withdrew in 1989.

A Third Path?: The Non-Aligned Movement

Many countries in the third world felt caught in between the conflict of the Cold War. In some cases, such as Cuba and Vietnam, national liberation movements aligned themselves with the global communist movement.

However, in others, leaders sought a third path, attempting to remain neutral. This led to the creation of the Non-Aligned Movement. This movement is often traced to the 1955 Bandung Conference, where countries in Asia and Africa declared their support for national sovereignty and condemned imperialist influence and pressure from both superpowers.

Cold War Timeline Bandung Conference StudySmarterProminent leaders at the Bandung Conference. Source: Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons.

Diplomacy and Superpower Relations during the Cold War

Relations between the two superpowers were not always static during the Cold War. There were periods of more intense rivalry and periods of more cooperative relations.

The first few decades of the Cold War, from 1945-1962, was characterized by aggressive posturing from both sides. Both sides engaged in an arms race, expanding their nuclear arsenals and culminating in the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962.

Cuban Missile Crisis

In 1959, rebels led by Fidel Castro overthrew the dictator Fulgencio Batista in Cuba. Castro implemented land reform in Cuba that threatened US interests and established trade relations with the Soviet Union. The US attempted to remove him in a CIA operation known as the Bay of Pigs Invasion. After this, Castro declared the Cuban Revolution socialist in nature and sought further economic and military aid from the Soviet Union.

In 1962, the Soviet Union secretly sent nuclear missiles to Cuba. This was designed to prevent another US attempt to remove Castro and place the USSR on an equal strategic playing field with the US, who had nuclear missiles in Turkey and other parts of Europe close to the USSR. However, the US discovered the missiles, setting off a major international crisis.

US President John F. Kennedy and Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev engaged in a standoff that brought them to the brink of nuclear war. Kennedy and his advisors were unsure if the missiles were operational or when they would be. They also feared a direct attack could provoke a Soviet response in Europe. Ultimately, they implemented a blockade of Cuba, and the Soviet Union agreed to remove the missiles in exchange for a US promise not to invade Cuba and a secret agreement that the US would also remove its missiles from Turkey.

Cold War Timeline Cuban Missile Crisis StudySmarterPhoto taken by a US spy plane of a nuclear missile site in Cuba during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Source: Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons.

After the Cuban Missile Crisis there was mutual recognition of the need to deescalate tensions. The "red phone" direct hotline between Washington DC and Moscow was created.

This helped pave the way for the period known as detente, when relations got better for much of the 1970s. The Strategic Arms Limitations Treaties (or SALT) were negotiated in this period, and US withdrawal from Vietnam and establishment of relations with Communist China seemed to point to a deescalation of tensions around the world.

However, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 and aggressive rhetoric and recommitment to arms construction by the Ronald Raegan administration caused the Cold War to heat up again in the 1980s.

End of the Cold War

By the late 1980s, the economic and political stability of the Soviet Union was in serious jeopardy. The war in Afghanistan had turned into a costly affair. The USSR also struggled to keep up with the new arms race launched by the Raegan administration.

Furthermore, political reforms at home had allowed more open criticism of the government. Economic reforms had failed to deliver improved conditions for many people facing shortages of goods, prompting increased discontent in the USSR and the communist states of Eastern Europe.

The end of communist rule in Eastern Europe began in Poland in 1989 and quickly spread to other countries, leading to transition governments. In 1991, the Soviet Union was formally dissolved, and this is usually considered the end of the Cold War.

Cold War Timeline Berlin Wall StudySmarterThe Berlin Wall separated capitalist West Berlin from communist East Berlin. It was a powerful symbol of the Cold War and its destruction by protestors was a powerful symbol of its end. Source: Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons.

The Global Cold War - Key takeaways

  • The Cold War was an ideological and strategic rivalry between the capitalist US and communist USSR.
  • The Cold War lasted from 1945 to 1991 and caused conflict around the world. Key moments included the Korean War, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the Vietnam War.
  • The Cold War ended with the collapse of the communist states in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union in the years from 1988-1991.

Frequently Asked Questions about The Global Cold War

The Cold War was a major ideological and strategic rivalry between the United States and Soviet Union that had many characteristics of a war but never resulted in direct fighting between them.

The Cold War started because of ideological differences but also because of the US and USSR pursuing their economic and political interests in the post-WWII world in ways that brought them into conflict with each other.

The Cold War was caused by the conflict of interests between the ideologies as well as the economic, political, and strategic interests of the US and USSR after WWII. In particular the situation of postwar Europe exacerbated tensions between the two countries.

The Cold War ended with the dissolution of the communist states of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union between 1988 and 1991.

It was called the Cold War because the US and USSR engaged in a conflict that resembled a war however they never directly fought each other with combat troops or weapons.

Final The Global Cold War Quiz

Question

What was the first country to adopt communism?

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Answer

Russia or the Soviet Union

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How did the spread of communism in Europe occurr?

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Answer

The Soviet Union along with local communist parties installed communist governments through a variety of nondemocratic means.

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Which of the following European countries did not become communist?

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Answer

Austria

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What was the first country to adopt communism in Asia?

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Answer

China in 1949

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What was the US policy to stop the spread of communism?

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Answer

Containment

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What was the domino theory?

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Answer

An idea that if one country went communist, its neighbors would also become communist.

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What prompted the Korean War?

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Answer

Communist North Korea invaded South Korea, the US and UN intervened to stop the invasion.

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What prompted the Vietnam War?

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Answer

Vietnamese communist forces first fought against the French and later against the US supported South Vietnamese government.

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Which of the following made Cuba significant during the Cold War?

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Answer

The USSR placed nuclear missiles there causing the Cuban Missile Crisis

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Which of the following countries in Africa had at one point a communist or communist influenced government?

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Answer

Ethiopia

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Why was it called a "cold" war?

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Answer

The US and USSR engaged in conflict that resembled a war but never directly fought each other.

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What countries did the USSR intervene in to maintain communist rule?

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Answer

Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and Afghanistan

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Question

Name at least 3 countries in which proxy wars occurred during the Cold War

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Answer

Possible answers include Congo, Korea, Vietnam, Angola, Nicaragua, and Afghanistan.

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What is a proxy war?

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Answer

A war where countries indirectly fight by supporting one side or the other.

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What defined the period of detente?

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Answer

More cooperation between the US and USSR, including on treaties related to nuclear arms production.

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What was the Non-Aligned Movement?

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Answer

Countries that tried to stay neutral during the Cold War.

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What happened during the Cuban Missile Crisis?

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Answer

The USSR placed nuclear missiles in Cuba, sparking a crisis. The US instituted a blockade and the missiles were removed in exchange for a public promise not to invade Cuba and the secret removal of US missiles from Turkey.

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What is NATO?

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Answer

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization, created in 1949 to stop potential Soviet expansion into Western Europe.

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What was the Warsaw Pact?

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A military alliance between the Soviet Union and communist states of Eastern Europe.

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Which US president escalated tensions and a new arms race in the 1980s?

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Answer

Ronald Raegan

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What was the first country where communism fell in Eastern Europe?

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Answer

Poland

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When did the Soviet Union dissolve, ending the Cold War?

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Answer

1991

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