Cold War

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History of the
Cold War

The Cold War was the period of protracted conflict and competition between the United States and the Soviet Union and their allies from the late 1950s until the late 1980s. The main U.S. allies were Western Europe and Japan. The main Soviet allies were Eastern Europe and (until the Sino-Soviet Split), China. Throughout the period, the rivalry was played out in multiple arenas: military coalitions, ideology; a massive conventional and nuclear arms race; and proxy wars.

In 1947 the term "Cold War" was introduced by Americans Bernard Baruch and Walter Lippmann to describe emerging tensions between the two former wartime allies. There never was a major battle between the U.S. and the Soviets. But there was a half-century of military buildups, and political battles for support around the world. There also were proxy wars, such as the Korean War and the Vietnam War.

Although the U.S. and the Soviet Union had been wartime allies against Nazi Germany, even before the end of the Second World War, the two sides differed on how to reconstruct the postwar world. Over the following decades, the Cold War spread outside Europe to every region of the world, as the U.S. sought " containment" of communism and forged alliances, particularly in Western Europe, the Mideast, and Southeast Asia.

There were repeated crises that threatened to escalate into world wars (but never did), notably the Korean War (1950-1953), the Cuban Missile Crisis (1962), and the Vietnam War (1964-1975), but there were also periods when tension was reduced as both sides sought détente. The Cold War ended in the late 1980s with Mikhail Gorbachev's launching of his internal reform programs perestroika and glasnost and gave up power over Eastern Europe; in 1991 Soviet Union dissolved.



The challenge of Nazi Germany forced the Western Allies and the Soviets into wartime cooperation. However, from the start, the alliance between the Soviet Union, the world's first Communist state; the United States, the capitalist world's leading economic power; and the United Kingdom, the world's largest colonial empire; were marked by mutual distrust and ideological tension.

U.S. historian Walter LaFeber argues that the roots of U.S.-Russan tensions can be traced back to the 1890s, when U.S. and Tsarist Russia became rivals over the development of Manchuria. Russia, unable to compete industrially with the U.S., sought to close off parts of East Asia to trade with other colonial powers; the U.S., however, demanded open competition for markets. (LeFaber 2002, pp. 1-2)

In World War I, the U.S., Britain, and Russia had been allies until the Bolsheviks seized power in 1917 and, after winning a civil war (see Russian Civil War), proclaimed of a worldwide challenge to capitalism. (Fred Halliday) The U.S. finally recognized the Soviet Union diplomatically in 1933. The period of prewar diplomacy also left both sides were wary of the other's intentions and motives. Both sides feared the other might pull out of the war effort and make a separate settlement with Germany. Moscow recalled Western appeasement of Adolf Hitler after the signing of the Munich Pact in 1936. U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, however, feared Joseph Stalin would again, make a settlement with Germany, as he did in August 1939 with the German-Soviet Non-aggression Pact. (LaFeber 1991) From 1941 to 1945, the alliance was only a temporary aberration in the post-1890s relationship between Russia and America. (LaFeber 1991)

During the war, both sides disagreed on military tactics, especially the question of the opening of a second front against Germany in Western Europe, which Stalin had requested of the Anglo-American Allies since 1942—around two years before D-Day on June 6, 1944. The Soviets believed at the time, and charged throughout the Cold War, that the delay in opening a second front was intentional; Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill, the Soviets suspected, decided to allow the Russians to bear the brunt of the war effort, leaving the Western allies the chance to intervene at the last minute to influence the peace settlement and dominate Europe themselves.

Soviet soldiers raise the glag of the Soviet Union over the Reichstag building during the Battle of Berlin on April 30, 1945. Even before the end fo the war, plans for postwar occupied Germany were the focal point of major tensions between the Western Allies and the Soviets.
Soviet soldiers raise the glag of the Soviet Union over the Reichstag building during the Battle of Berlin on April 30, 1945. Even before the end fo the war, plans for postwar occupied Germany were the focal point of major tensions between the Western Allies and the Soviets.

Moreover, both sides held very dissimilar concepts of establishing postwar security. Americans tended to understand security in situational terms, assuming that if U.S.-style government and markets were established as widely as possible, states could resolve their differences peacefully through international organizations. (Gaddis, 176) The key to the U.S. vision of security was a postwar world shpaped according to the principles laid out in the Atlantic Charter in 1941—a liberal international system based on free trade and open markets. This vision would require a rebuilt capitalist Europe with a healthy Germany at its centre that could again serve as a hub in world affairs. (LaFeber 1991) It would also require U.S. economic and political leadership of the postwar world. U.S. allies in capitalist Western Europe needed U.S. assistance to rebuild their domestic production and to finance their international trade. The U.S. was the only world power not economically devastated by the fighting. By the end of the war, the U.S. produced around fifty percent of the world's industrial goods and had a monopoly of the new atomic bomb. (LaFeber 1991)

Soviet leaders, however, tended to understand security in territorial terms; this reasoning was conditioned by Russia's historical experiences, given the frequency with which their country had been invaded over the previous 150 years. (Gaddis, p. 176) The experiences of the Second World War were particularly dramatic for the Russians. The Soviet Union suffered unprecedented devastation as a result of the Nazi onslaught. Over 20 million Soviet citizens died during the war. Tens of thousands Soviet cities, towns, and villages were leveled; and 30,100 Soviet factories were destroyed. In order to prevent a similar assault in the future, Stalin was determined to use the Red Army to control Poland, dominate the Balkans, and destroy Germany's capacity for another war. (LaFeber 1991)

At the Yalta Conference in February 1945, the Allies attempted to define the framework for a postwar settlement in Europe. The Allies could not reach firm agreements on the crucial questions of the occupation of Germany and postwar reparations from Germany and loans. No final consensus was reached on Germany, other than to conclude, "as a basis for negotiations," a Soviet request for reparations totalling $10 billion. (Gaddis, 164) Debates over the composition of postwar Poland's government were also acrimonious. (LaFeber 2002, 15)

Following the Allied Victory in May, the Soviets effectively occupied the countries of Eastern Europe; and the U.S. occupied much of Western Europe. In occupied, Germany the U.S. and the Soviet Union—the world's two superpowers, along with France and Britain, established zones of occupation and a loose framework for four-power control.

Harry S. Truman and Joseph Stalin meeting at the Potsdam Conference on July 18, 1945. From left to right, first row: Stalin, Truman, Soviet Ambassador Andrei Gromyko, Secretary of State James F. Byrnes, and Soviet Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov. Second row: Truman confidant Harry Vaughan [1], Russian interpreter Charles Bohlen, Truman naval aide James K. Vardaman, Jr., and Charles Griffith Ross (partially obscured) [2].
Harry S. Truman and Joseph Stalin meeting at the Potsdam Conference on July 18, 1945. From left to right, first row: Stalin, Truman, Soviet Ambassador Andrei Gromyko, Secretary of State James F. Byrnes, and Soviet Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov. Second row: Truman confidant Harry Vaughan , Russian interpreter Charles Bohlen, Truman naval aide James K. Vardaman, Jr., and Charles Griffith Ross (partially obscured) .

At the Potsdam Conference starting in late July, serious differences had emerged over the future development of Germany and Eastern Europe. At Potsdam, the U.S. was represented by the new president Harry S. Truman, who on April 12 succeeded to the office upon Roosevelt's death. Truman was unaware of Roosevelt's plans for postwar engagement with Soviet Union, and generally uninformed about foreign policy and military matters. (Schmitz) Therefore, the new president was initially reliant upon a set of advisers, including Ambassador to the Soviet Union Averell Harriman, Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson, and his own choice for secretary of state, James F. Byrnes. This group tended to take a harder line toward Moscow than had Roosevelt. (Schmitz) Administration officials favoring cooperation with the Soviet Union and incorporation of socialist economies into a world trade system were marginalized.

One week after the Potsdam Conference ended, the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki added to Soviet distrust of the United States; and shortly followign the attacks, Stalin protested to U.S. officials when Truman offered the Soviets little real influence in occupied Japan. (LaFeber 2002, p. 28)

In February 1946, George F. Kennan's "Long Telegram" from Moscow helped articulate the growing hard line against the Soviets. (Schmitz) The telegram argued that the Soviet Union was motivated by both traditional Russian imperialism and by Marxist ideology; Soviet behaviour was inherently expansionist and paranoid, posing a threat to the United States and its allies. Later writing as "Mr. X" in his article "The Sources of Soviet Conduct" in Foreign Affairs (July 1947), Kennan drafted classic argument for adopting a policy of "containment" toward the Soviet Union.

A few weeks later the release of the "Long Telegram," Former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill delivered his famous "Iron Curtain" in Fulton, Missouri; the speech called for an Anglo-American alliance against the Soviets, whom he accused of establishing "iron curtain" from "Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic." (Schmitz)

"Containment" to the Korean War (1947-1953)

Truman delivering the Truman Doctrine on March 12, 1947
Truman delivering the Truman Doctrine on March 12, 1947

By 1947, Truman's advisers worried time was running out to counter the influence of the Soviet Union. (Schmitz) In Europe, postwar economic recovery was faltering; shortages of food and other essential consumer goods were common. In this setting, Communist parties, particularly in France and Italy, were gaining ground through the ballot box. (Schmitz) Truman's advisors feared the Soviet Union sought to weaken the position of the U.S. in a period of postwar confusion and collapse. The threat was not necessarily a military one, but a political and economic challenge. (Schmitz)

The event that spurred Truman into formally announcing the policy of "containment" was the British government's announcement in February 1947 that it could no longer afford to finance the Greek monarchical-military regime in its civil war against communist-led insurgents. (see Greek Civil War) Rather than viewing Britain's pullout from Greece as the related to a civil conflict revolving around domestic issues, U.S. policymakers mistakenly interpreted it as a Soviet effort; the insurgents were helped by Josip Broz Tito's Yugoslavia, not Moscow. (LaFeber 1991) Secretary of State Dean Acheson accused the Soviet Union of conspiracy against the Greek royalists in an effort to 'expand' into the Middle East, Asia, and Africa; and in March 1947, the administration unveiled the " Truman Doctrine." It "must be the policy of the United States," Truman declared, "to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or outside pressures."

Truman rallied Americas to spend $400 million to intervene in the civil war in Greece in his famous Truman Doctrine speech. In order to mobilize an unfriendly Republican Congress, the Democratic president painted the conflict as a contest between "free" peoples and "totalitarian" regimes, thus dramatically heightening the rhetorical stakes of the conflict. (LaFeber 1991) By aiding Greece, Truman set a precedent for U.S. aid to regimes no matter how repressive and corrupt, that request help to fight communists. (LaFeber 1991)

In June, the Truman Doctrine was followed by the unveiling of the Marshall Plan, a pledge of economic assistance aimed at staving off the collapse of Washington-friendly governments in Western Europe. (Schmitz) The twin policies of the Truman Doctrine and the Marshall Plan led to billions in economic and military aid to Western Europe and Greece and Turkey. With American U.S. assistance, the Greek military won the civil war, and the Christian Democrats in Italy defeated the powerful Communist-Socialist alliance in the elections of 1948. (Zachary Karabell)

President Truman signs the National Security Act Amendment of 1949 with guests in the Oval Office.
President Truman signs the National Security Act Amendment of 1949 with guests in the Oval Office.

In 1947, Truman also reorganized the U.S. government to fight the Cold War. The National Security Act of 1947 created a unified Department of Defense, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), and the National Security Council. These would become the main bureaucracies for U.S. policy in the Cold War. (Zachary Karabell)

The U.S. consolidated its new role as leader of the West. After Stalin retaliated against Western moves to reunite western Germany by blocking western access to West Berlin, Truman maintained supply lines to the enclave by flying supplies over the blockade during 1948-1949. (see Berlin Blockade) The U.S. formally allied itself to the Western European states in the North Atlantic Treaty of 1949, creating the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Stalin countered by tying together the economies of the Eastern bloc in a Soviet-led version of the Marshall Plan and exploding the first Soviet atomic devise in August 1949. Stalin countered by tying together the economies of the Eastern bloc in a Soviet-led version of the Marshall Plan, the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance (COMECON), and exploding the first Soviet atomic devise in August 1949. (LaFeber 1991)

The U.S. took the lead in establishing the West Germany from the three Western zones of occupation in 1949. (Peter Byrd) To counter the Western reorganization of Germany, the Soviet Union proclaimed its zone of occupation in Germany as the German Democratic Republic in 1949. (Peter Byrd) In the early 1950s, the U.S. worked for the rearmament of West Germany and its full membership of NATO in 1955. (Byrd)

In 1949 Mao's Red Army defeated the U.S.-backed Kuomintang regime in China. Shortly afterward, the Soviet Union concluded an alliance with the new People's Republic of China. Confronted with the Chinese Revolution and the end of the U.S. atomic monopoly in 1949, the Truman administration quickly moved to escalate and expand the "containment" policy. (LaFeber 1991) In a secret 1950 document, NSC-68, Truman administration officials proposed to reinforce pro-Western alliance systems and quadruple defense spending. (LaFeber 1991)

Afterwards, U.S. officials moved to expand "containment" into Asia, Africa, and Latin America. (Schmitz) At the time, revolutionary nationalist movements, often led by Communist parties, were fighting against the restoration of Europe's colonial empires in Southeast Asia. The U.S. formalized an alliance with Japan in early 1950s, guaranteeing Washington long-term military bases; and brought other states, including Australia, New Zealand, Thailand, and the Philippines, within a series of alliances. (Byrd)

To Stalin's surprise, Truman committed U.S. forces to drive back the North Koreans. (LaFeber 1991) In 1953 the Korean War ended in stalemate. But the U.S. gradually became entangled in another civil war. In Vietnam, the U.S. supported South Vietnam against the North Vietnam, which was backed by the Soviet Union and China. (Byrd)

Crisis and escalation (1953-1962)

In 1953 changes in political leadership on both sides shifted the dynamic of the Cold War. (Zachary Karabell) Dwight D. Eisenhower was inaugurated president in January 1953. During the last 18 months of the Truman administration, the U.S. defense budget had quadrupled; and Eisenhower resolved to reduce military spending by brandishing the United States' nuclear superiority while contining to fight the Cold War effectively. (LaFeber 1991) In March Joseph Stalin died, and the Soviets, now led by Nikita Khrushchev, moved away from Stalinist terror. (Zachary Karabell)

Eisenhower's secretary of state, John Foster Dulles initiated a "New Look" for the "containment" strategy, calling for a greater reliance on nuclear weapons to U.S. enemies. (Zachary Karabell) Dulles also enunciated the doctrine of "massive retaliation," threatening severe U.S. to any Soviet aggression. Possessing nuclear superiority, for example, Eisenhower curtailed Soviet threats to intervene in the Middle East during the 1956 Suez Crisis. (LaFeber 1991)

There was a slight relaxation of tensions after Stalin's death in 1953, but the Cold War in Europe remained an uneasy armed truce. U.S. troops seemed stationed indefinitely in West Germany and Soviet forces seemed indefinitely stationed throughout Eastern Europe. To counter West German rearmament, the Soviets established a formal alliance with the Eastern European Communist states termed the Warsaw Pact Treaty Organization or Warsaw Pact in 1955. (Peter Byrd) But in 1956, the status quo was briefly threatened in Hungary. In 1956, the Soviets invaded Hungary rather than allow the Hungarians to move out of their orbit. (see Hungarian Revolution of 1956) Berlin remained divided and contested. In 1961, the East Germans erected the "Berlin Wall" to prevent the movement of East Berliners into West Berlin.

In the U.S., Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy emerged as an influential proponent of hard-line stances on the Cold War. Although the president quietly deplored his demagoguery, the senator exploited anti-Soviet sentiment when alleging a communist conspiracy to take over the U.S. government, leading to a massive political witch-hunt.

During the 1950s, the Third World was an increasingly important arena of Cold War competition. After the Second World War, the U.S. emerged as the predominat power in Third World, filling the vacuum of the old of the imperial hegemony of its principal Cold War allies—the traditional Western European colonial powers (particularly the UK, France, and the Netherlands). Nationalists in many postcolonial states, however, were often unsympathetic to the Western bloc. (Hobsbawm, 227) Adjusting to decolonization, meanwhile, was a difficult process economically and psychologically for European powers; and NATO suffered, as it included all the world's major colonial empires.

Nationalist movements in some countries and regions, notably Guatemala, Iran, the Philippines, and Indochina were often allied with communist groups—or at least were perceived in the West to be allied with communists. In this context, the U.S. and the Soviets increasingly competed for influence by proxy in the Third World as decolonization gained momentum in the 1950s and early 1960s. The U.S. government utilized the CIA in order to a remove string of unfriendly Third World governments and to support others. (Karabell) The U.S. used the CIA to overthrow governments suspected by Washington of turning pro-Soviet, including Iran's first democratically elected government under Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh in 1953 (see Operation Ajax) and Guatemala's democratically-elected president Jacobo Arbenz Guzmán in 1954 (see Operation PBSUCCESS) Between 1954 and 1961, the U.S. sent economic aid and military advisors to stem the collapse of South Vietnam's pro-Western regime. (LaFeber 1991)

Many emerging nations of Asia, Africa, and Latin America rejected the pressure to choose sides in the East-West competition. In 1955, at the Bandung Conference in Indonesia dozens of Third World governments resolved on staying out of the Cold War. The consensus reach at Bandung culminated with the creation of the Non-Aligned Movement in 1961. (Karabell) Meanwhile, Khrushchev broadened Moscow's policy to establish ties with India and other key neutral states. Independence movements in the Third World transformed the postwar order into a more pluralistic world of decolonized African and Middle Eastern nations and of rising nationalism in Asia and Latin America. (LaFeber 1991)

During the 1950s, the U.S. and the USSR pursued nuclear rearmament and developed long-range weapons with which they could strike the territory of the other. (Peter Byrd) The Soviets developed their own hydrogen bomb and, in 1957, launched the first earth satellite. However, the period after 1956 marked by serious setbacks for the Soviet, most notably the breakdown of the Sino-Soviet alliance. (see Sino-Soviet Split) Before Khrushchev's ouster in 1964, the Soviets focused on a bitter rivalry with Mao's China for leadership of the world communist movement.

The nuclear arms race brought the two superpowers to the brink of nuclear war. Khrushchev formed an alliance with Fidel Castro after the Cuban Revolution in 1959. In 1962, President John F. Kennedy responded to the installation of nuclear missiles in Cuba with a naval blockade—a show of force that brought the world close to nuclear war. The Cuban Missile Crisis showed that neither superpower was ready to use nuclear weapons for fear of the other's retaliation, and thus of mutally assured destruction. The aftermath of the crisis led to the first efforts at nuclear disarmament and improving relations. (Palmowski)

From confrontation to détente (1962-1979)

In the course of the 1960s and 1970s, both the U.S. and the Soviet Union struggled to adjust to a new, more complicated pattern of international relations in which the world was no longer by the two superpowers and divided into into two clearly opposed blocs. Since the beginning of the postwar period, Western Europe and Japan rapidly recovered from the destruction of World War II and sustained strong economic growth through the 1950s and 1960s, increasing their strenght compared to the United States. As a result of the 1973 oil crisis, combined with the growing influence of Third World alignments such as the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) and the Non-Aligned Movement, less-powerful countries had more room to assert their independence and often showed themselves resistant to pressure from either superpower. (EB) Moscow, meanwhile, was forced to turn its attention inward to deal with the Soviet Union's deep-seated domestic economic problems. During this period, Soviet leaders such as Alexei Kosygin and Leonid Brezhnev embraced the notion of détente. (Karabell)

Nevertheless, but both superpowers resolved to reinforce their global leadership. Both the Soviet Union and the United States struggled to stave off challenges to their leadership in their own regions. President Lyndon B. Johnson landed 22,000 troops in the Dominican Republic, citing the threat of the emergence of a Cuban-style revolution in Latin America. (see Operation Power Pack) (LaFeber 1991) In Eastern Europe, the Soviets in 1968 crushed the Prague Spring reform movement in Czechoslovakia that might have threatened to take the country out of the Warsaw Pact.

The U.S. continued to spend heavily on supporting friendly Third World regimes in Asia. Conflicts in peripheral regions and client states—most prominently in Vietnam—continued. (Calhoun) Johnson stationed 575,000 troops in Southeast Asia to defeat the National Front for the Liberation of South Vietnam (NLF) and their North Vietnamese allies, but his costly policy weakened the U.S. economy and, by 1975, ultimately culimatied in a humiliating defeat of the world's most powerful superpower at the hands of one of the world's poorest nations. Brezhnev, meanwhile, faced far more daunting challenges in reviving the Soviet economy, which was declining in part because of heavy military expenditures. (LaFeber 1991)

Although indirect conflict between Cold War powers continued through the late 1960s and early 1970s, tensions began to ease. (Palmowski) The Chinese had sought improved relations with the U.S. in order to gain advantage over the Soviets. In February 1972, Richard Nixon traveled Beijing and met with Mao Zedong and Chou En-Lai. Nixon and and Henry Kissinger then announced a stunning rapprochement with Mao's China.

Brezhnev and Nixon talk during Brezhnev's June 1973 visit to Washington—a high-water mark in détente between the United States and the Soviet Union.
Brezhnev and Nixon talk during Brezhnev's June 1973 visit to Washington—a high-water mark in détente between the United States and the Soviet Union.

Later, in June, Nixon and Kissinger met with Soviet leaders in Moscow, and announced the first of the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks), aimed at limiting to limit the development of costly antiballistic missiles and offensive nuclear missiles. (Karabell) Between 1972 and 1974, the two sides also agreed to strengthen their economic ties. (LaFeber 1991) Meanwhile, these developments coincided with the " Ostpolitik" of West German Chancellor Willy Brandt. Other agreements were concluded to stabilize the situation in Europe, culminating in the Helsinki Accords signed by the Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe in 1975.

However, the détente of the 1970s was short-lived. The economic pact between Nixon and Brezhnev was limited so much by the U.S. Congress that the Soviets repudiated it in 1975. (LaFeber 1991) Indirect conflict between the superpowers continued through this period of détente in the Third World, particularly during political crises in the Middle East (see Yom Kippur War), Chile (see Chilean coup of 1973), and Angola (see Angolan Civil War). While President Jimmy Carter tried to place another limit on the arms race with a SALT II agreement in 1979, his efforts we undercut other events that year, including the Iranian Revolution and the Nicaraguan Revolution, which both ousted pro-U.S. regimes, and his retaliation against Soviet intervention in Afghanistan in December. (LaFeber 1991)

The "Second Cold War" (1980-1985)

The term "second Cold War" has been used by historians to refer to the period of intensive reawakening of Cold War tensions in the early 1980s. (Halliday) In 1980 Ronald Reagan defeated Jimmy Carter, vowing to increase military spending and confront the Soviets everywhere. (LaFeber 1991) Both Reagan and Britain's new prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, denounced the Soviet Union in ideological terms that rivaled that of the worst days of the Cold War in the late 1940s. (Byrd)

Reagan spent $2.2 trillion for the military over eight years. Military spending, combined with the legacy of the economic structural problems of the 1970s, transformed the U.S. from the world's leading creditor in 1981 to the world's leading debtor. (LaFeber 1991) Tensions intensified in the early 1980s when Reagan installed U.S. cruise missiles in Europe and announced his experimental " Strategic Defense Initiative" to shoot down missiles in mid-flight. Reagan also imposed economic sanctions to protest the suppression of the opposition Solidarity movement in Poland.

U.S. domestic public concerns about intervening in foreign conflicts persisted from the end of the Vietnam War. (LaFeber, 323) But Reagan did not encounter major public opposition to his foreign policies. The Reagan administration emphasized the use of quick, low cost counterinsurgency tactics to intervene in foreign conflicts. (LaFeber, 323) In 1983, the Reagan administration intervened in the multisided Lebanese Civil War (see 1983 Beirut barracks bombing), invaded Grenada (see Invasion of Grenada), bombed Libya (see United States bombing of Libya), and backed the Central American Contras—right-wing paramilitaries seeking overthrow the Soviet-aligned Sandinista government in Nicaragua. While Reagan's interventions against Granada and Libya were popular in the U.S., his backing of the Contra rebels was mired in controversy. In 1985, the president authorized the sale of arms to Iran; later, administration subordinates illegally diverted the proceeds to the Contras. (see Iran-Contra)

Meanwhile, the Soviets incurred high costs for their own foreign interventions. Although Brezhnev was convinced in 1979 that the Soviet war in Afghanistan would be brief, Muslim guerrillas waged a surprisingly fierce resistance against the invasion. (LaFeber, 314) The Kremlin sent nearly 100,000 troops to support its puppet regime in Afghanistan, leading many outside observers to call the war the Soviets' Vietnam. (LaFeber, 314) However, Moscow's quagmire in Afghanistan was far more disastrous for the Soviets than Vietnam had been for the Americans because the conflict coincided with a period of internal decay and domestic crisis in the Soviet system. A high U.S. State Department official outcome was predicted such an outcome as early as 1980, posting that the invasion resulted in part from a "domestic crisis within the Soviet system.... It may be that the thermodynamic law of entropy has... caught up with the Soviet system, which now seems to expend more energy on simply maintaining its equilibrium than on improving itself. We could," he construed, "be seeing a period of foreign movement at a time of internal decay."

End of the Cold War

By the early 1980s, the Soviet Armed Forces were the largest in the world by many measures—in terms of the numbers and types of weapons they possessed, in the number of troops in their ranks, and in the sheer size of their military-industrial base. However, the quantitative advantages held by the Soviet military often concealed areas where the Eastern bloc dramatically lagged the West, and led many U.S. observers to vastly overestimate Soviet power. (LaFeber 2002, 340)

By the late years of the Cold War, Moscow had built up a military that consumed as much as twenty-five percent of the Soviet Union's gross national product at the expense of consumer goods and investment in civilian sectors. (LaFeber 2002, 332) But the size of the Soviet Armed forces was not necessarily the result of a simple action-reaction arms race with the United States. (Odom) Instead, Soviet spending on the arms race and other Cold War committments can be understood as both a cause and effect of the deep-seated structural problems in the Soviet system, which accumulated over at least a decade of economic stagnation during the Brezhnev years. (see Economy of the Soviet Union) Soviet investment in the defense sector was necessarily driven by military necessity, but in large part by the interests of massive party and state bureaucracies dependent on the sector for their own power and privileges. (LaFeber 2002, 335)

By the time Mikhail Gorbachev had ascended to power in 1985, the Soviets suffered from an economic growth rate close to zero percent, combined with a sharp fall in hard currency earnings as a result in the downward slide in world oil prices in the 1980s. (LaFaber 2002, 331-333) (Petroleum exports made up around 60 percent of country's total export earnings.) (LaFeber 2002, 332) To restructure the Soviet economy before it collapsed, Gorbachev announced an agenda of rapid reform. (see perestroika and glasnost) Reform required Gorbachev to redirect the country's resources from costly Cold War military commitments to more profitable areas in the civilian sector. As a result, Gorbachev offered major concessions on the levels of conventional forces, nuclear weapons, and policy in Eastern Europe.

However, many U.S. Soviet experts and administration officials doubted that Gorbachev was serious about winding down the arms race. (LaFeber, 2002) But the new Soviet leader eventually proved more concerned about reversing the Soviet Union's deteriorating economic position than fighting the arms race with the West. (Palmowski) The Kremlin made major concessions on the levels of conventional forces, nuclear weapons, and policy in Eastern Europe; in response Reagan agreed to renew talk and agreements on economic ties and scaling back the arms race. The East-West tensions that had reached intensive new heights earlier in the decade rapidly subsided through the mid-to-late 1980s. In 1988, the Soviets officially declared that they would no longer intervene in the affairs of allied states in Eastern Europe. In 1989, Soviet forces withdrew from Afghanistan.

In December 1989, Gorbachev and George H.W. Bush declared the Cold War officially ended at a summit meeting in Malta. But by then, the Soviet alliance system was on the brink of collapse, and the Communist regimes of the Warsaw Pact were losing power. In the USSR itself, Gorbachev tried to reform the party in order to destroy resistance to his reforms, but, in doing so, ultimately weakened the bonds that held the state and union together. By February 1990, the Communist Party was forced to surrender its 73-year old monopoly of state power. By December of the next year, the union-state also dissolved, breaking the USSR up into fifteen separate independent states. (see Dissolution of the USSR)

Post-Cold War era

Despite its rapid and relatively bloodless end, the Cold War was fought at a tremendous cost globally over the course of more than four decades. It cost the U.S. up to $8 trillion in military expenditures, and the lives of nearly 100,000 Americans (LaFeber 2002, 1). It even cost the Soviets a far higher share of their gross national product. In Southeast Asia, local civil wars were intensified by superpower rivalry, leaving millions dead.

The end of the Cold War gave Russia the chance to cut military spending dramatically, but the adjustment was wrenching. The military-industrial sector employed at least one of every five Soviet adults. Its dismantling left millions throughout the former Soviet Union unemployed. Russian living standards have worsened overall in the post-Cold War years, although the economy has resumed growth in recent years. In the 1990s, Russia suffered an economic downturn more severe than U.S. or Germany had undergone six decades earlier in the Great Depression as it embarked on capitalist economic reforms.

The legacy of the Cold War continues to structure world affairs. (Halliday) The Cold War institutionalized the role of the United States in the postwar world economic and political system. In stark contrast to the prewar period, when the U.S., for example, no troops stationed in non-U.S. territory in 1938, by 1989, the U.S. is responsible for military alliances in effect with 50 countries, with 1.5 million U.S. troops posted in 117 countries. (Calhoun) The Cold War also institutionalized the commitment to a huge, permanent wartime military-industrial complex. (Calhoun)

Many of the economic and social tensions that underpinned Cold War competition in much of the Third World remain acute. The breakdown of state control in a number of areas formerly ruled by Communist parties has also produced many new civil and ethnic conflicts. (Halliday) Both superpowers had actually begun losing control of the respective blocs since the late 1950s and, especially, in the 1970s. Today, the U.S. is challenged to make Cold War institutions under its leadership such as NATO in a post-Cold War era.

In 1997, the Russia-NATO Joint Permanent Council was established to reinforce cooperation. However, nostalgia for Soviet times is pervasive in Russia, exacerbated by the economic collapse that has followed reforms aimed at dismantling the socialist economic system. (Halliday) The U.S. and Russia agreed to cooperate on after September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, but tensions between the two powers later flared up in other areas.

As an alternative ideology to Western capitalism, communism has been discredited in much of Eastern Europe, but retains influence in much of the Third World. In China, for example, the Communist Party still governs, while prioritizing economic integration with the capitalist world and eschewing its past Mao-era radicalism. Communist parties are also actively contending for power in places such as India, the Philippines, Colombia, and Nepal.

The legacy of the Cold War also structures many educational institutions in the United States. Defense dollars shaped the growth academic fields devoted to national security concerns; and underwrote the growth of many universities, policy institutes, and " think tanks." (Calhoun)


As soon as the term "Cold War" was popularized to refer to postwar tensions between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, interpreting the course and origins of the conflict has been a source of heated controversy among historians, political scientists, and journalists. In particular, historians have sharply disagreed as to who was responsible for the breakdown of Soviet-U.S. relations after the Second World War; and whether the conflict between the two superpowers was inevitable, or could have been avoided. Historians have also disagreed on what exactly the Cold War was, what the sources of the conflict were, and how to disentangle patters of action and reaction between the two sides. (Halliday)

While the explanations of the origins of the conflict in academic discussions are complex and diverse, several general schools of thought on the subject can be identified. Historians commonly speak of three differing approaches to the study of the Cold War: "orthodox" accounts, "revisionism," and "post-revisionism." Nevertheless, much of the historiography on the Cold War weaves together two or even all three of these broad categories. (Byrd)

"Orthodox accounts"

The first school of interpretation to emerge in the U.S. was the "orthodox" one. For more than a decade after the end of the Second World War, few U.S. historians challenged the official U.S. interpretation of the beginnings of the Cold War. (Brinkley, 798-799) This "orthodox" school places the responsibility for the Cold War on the Soviet Union and its expansion into Eastern Europe. (Calhoun) Thomas A. Bailey, for example, argued in his 1950 America Faces Russia that the breakdown of postwar peace was the result of Soviet expansionism in the immediate postwar years. Bailey argued Stalin violated promises he had made at Yalta, imposed Soviet-dominated regimes on unwilling Eastern European populations, and conspired to spread communism throughout the world. (Brinkley, 798-799) From this view, U.S. officials were forced to respond to Soviet aggression with the Truman Doctrine, plans to contain communist subversion around the world, and the Marshall Plan.

This interpretation has been described as the "official" U.S. version of Cold War history. (Craig Calhoun) Although it lost its dominance as a dominant mode of historical thought in academic discussions in 1960s, it continues to be influential. (Nashel) Writers such as Jean Kirkpatrick and, more recently, Stephen Ambrose have attempted to reintroduce this perspective in various forms. (Craig Calhoun)


U.S. involvement in Vietnam in the 1960s disillusioned many historians with the premises of "containment" and thus with assumptions of the "orthodox" approach to understanding the Cold War. (Brinkley, 798-799) "Revisionist" accounts emerged in the wake of the Vietnam War, in the context of a larger rethinking of the U.S. role in international affairs. (Calhoun)

While the new school of thought contained many differences between individual scholars, the works comprising it were generally responses in one way or another to William Appleman Williams' landmark 1959 The Tragedy of American Diplomacy. Williams challenged the long-held assumptions of "orthodox" accounts, arguing that Americans had always been an empire-building people, even as U.S. officials denied it. (Nashel)

Following Williams, "revisionist" writers saw more responsibility for the breakdown of postwar peace resulting from the U.S. and cited a range of U.S. efforts to isolate and confront the Soviet Union well before the end of World War II. (Calhoun) According to Williams and later "revisionist" writers, U.S. policymakers shared an overarching concern with maintaining capitalism domestically; in order to ensure this goal, they understood an "open door" policy abroad, increasing access to foreign markets for U.S. business and agriculture would be required. (Nashel) From this perspective, a growing economy domestically went hand-in-hand with the consolidation of U.S. power internationally.

"Revisionist" writers also complicated the assumption that Soviet leaders were committed to postwar 'expansionism.' They cited evidence that Soviet Union's occupation of Eastern Europe had a defensive rationale, and Soviet leaders saw themselves as attempting to avoid encirclement by the United States and its allies. (Calhoun) From this view, the Soviet Union was so weak and devastated after the end of the Second World War as to be unable to pose any serious threat to the United States; in addition, the U.S. even had a nuclear monopoly until 1949. (Brinkley, 798-799)

Revisionist writers have also challenged the assumption that the origins of the Cold War began only as recently as the immediate postwar period. (Nashel) Notably, Walter LaFeber, in his landmark America, Russia, and the Cold War, first published in 1972, argued that the Cold War had its origins in 19th century conflicts between Russia and America over the opening of East Asia to U.S. trade, markets, and influence. (Nashel) LaFeber argues that the U.S. commitment at the close of the war to ensure a world in which every state was open to U.S. influence and trade underpinned many of the conflicts that triggered the beginning of the Cold War. (Brinkley, 798-799)

Starting with Gar Alperovitz, in his influential Atomic Diplomacy: Hiroshima and Potsdam (1965), "revisionist" scholars have focused on the U.S. decision to use atomic weapons against Hiroshima and Nagasaki during the last days of World War II. (Brinkley, 798-799) According to Alperovitz, the bombs were not used on an already defeated Japan to win the war, but to intimidate the Soviets, signaling that the U.S. would use nuclear weapons to structure a postwar world around U.S. interests as U.S. policymakers saw fit. (Nashel)

Joyce and Gabriel Kolko's The Limits of Power: The World and U.S. Foreign Policy, 1945–1954 (1972) has also received considerable attention in the historiography on the Cold War. The Kolkos argued U.S. policy was both reflexively anticommunist and counterrevolutionary. The U.S. was not necessarily fighting Soviet influence, but any form of challenge to the U.S. economic and political prerogatives through either covert or military means. (Nashel) In this sense, the Cold War is less a story of rivalry between two blocs, and more a story of the ways by which the dominant states within each bloc controlled and disciplined their own populations and clients, and about who supported and stood to benefit from increased arms production and political anxiety over a perceived external enemy. (Halliday)


The "revisionist" interpretation produced a critical reaction of its own. In a variety of ways, "post-revisionist" scholarship has challenged earlier works on the origins and course of the Cold War.

One current of "post-revisionism" challenges the "revisionists" by accepting some of their findings but rejecting most of their key claims. (Brinkley, 798-799) Another current has attempted to strike a balance between the "orthodox" and "revisionist" camps, identifying areas of responsibility for the origins of the conflict on both sides. (Brinkley, 798-799) Thomas G. Paterson, in Soviet-American Confrontation (1973), for example, viewed Soviet hostility and U.S. efforts to dominate the postwar world as equally responsible for the Cold War. (Brinkley, 798-799)

The seminal work of the new approach was John Lewis Gaddis's The United States and the Origins of the Cold War, 1941–1947 (1972). The account was immediately hailed as the beginning of a new school of thought on the Cold War claiming to synthesize a variety of interpretations. (Nashel) Gaddis's maintained that "neither side can bear sole responsibility for the onset of the Cold War." (Brinkley, 798-799) Gaddis emphasized the limitations of U.S. policymakers because of domestic politics, and the complications these constraints imposed on U.S. policymakers. (Brinkley) Gaddis, however, has criticized some "revisionist" scholars, particularly Williams, for failing to understand the role of Soviet policy in the origins of the Cold War. (Nashel) While Gaddis does not hold either side as entirely responsible for the onset of the conflict, he has argued that the Soviets must be held at least slightly more accountable for the problems. According to Gaddis, Stalin was in a much better position to compromise than his Western counterparts, given his much broader power within his own regime than Truman, who was often undermined by vociferous political opposition at home. (Brinkley, 798-799)

Out of the "post-revisionist" literature has emerged a new and more sensitive to nuance area of inquiry interested less in the question of who started the conflict than in offering insight into U.S. and Soviet actions and perspectives. (Calhoun) From this perspective, the Cold War was not so much the responsibility of either side as the result of predictable tensions between two world powers that had been suspicious of one another for nearly a century. For example, Ernest May wrote in a 1984 essay:

After the Second World War, the United States and the Soviet Union were doomed to be antagonists.... There probably was never any real possibility that the post-1945 relationship could be anything but hostility verging on conflict... Traditions, belief systems, propinquity, and convenience ... all combined to stimulate antagonism, and almost no factor operated in either country to hold it back. (Brinkley, 799)

From this current of post-revisionism emerged an area of inquiry interested in how Cold War actors perceived various events, and the degree of misperception involved in the failure of the two sides to reach common understandings of their wartime alliance and disputes. (Halliday)

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