Main Page | See live article | Alphabetical index

Cold War

simple:Cold War zh-cn:冷战

For a general definition, see cold war.

 This is the article at the
top of the
Cold War series.
 Cold War (1947-1953) and its origins
 Cold War (1953-1962)
 Cold War (1962-1991)

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 Organization (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.

Table of contents
1 Historiography
2 The role of intelligence agencies
3 The Cold War and US culture
4 Articles in this series:
5 Related topics:


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 comparable.

In the later years of the Cold War, there were attempts to forge a post-revisionist synthesis by historians. Since the end of the Cold War, however, the post-revisionist school has come to dominate. Prominent post-revisionist histroians include John Lewis Gaddis and Robert Grogin. Rather than attributing the beginning of the Cold War to either superpower, post-revisionist historians focused on mutual misperception, mutual reactivity, and shared responsibility between the superpowers. Borrowing from the realist school of international relations, the post-revisionists essentially accepted US European policy in Europe, such as US aid to Greece in 1947 and the Marshall Plan.

According to this synthesis, "Communist activities" were not the root of the difficulties of Western Europe, but rather it was the disruptive effects of the war on the economic, political, and social structure of Europe. In addition, the Marshal Plan rebuilt a functioning Western economic system, thwarting the electoral appeal of the radical left. For Europe, economic aid ended the dollar shortage and stimulated private investment for postwar reconstruction. For the United States, the plan spared it from a crisis of over-production and maintained demand for American exports. The NATO alliance would serve to integrate Western Europe into the system of mutual defense pacts, thus providing safeguards against subversion or neutrality in the bloc. Rejecting the assumption of Communism was an international monolith with aggressive designs on the "free world," the post-revisionist school nevertheless accepts US policy in Europe as a necessary reaction to cope with instability in Europe, which threatened to drastically altar the balance of power in a manner favorable to the USSR and devistate the Western economic and political system.

The role of intelligence agencies

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 US 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.

Articles in this series:

Related topics: