Cold War

Citation metadata

Author: David L. Snead
Editor: Stanley I. Kutler
Date: 2003
From: Dictionary of American History(Vol. 2. 3rd ed.)
Publisher: Charles Scribner's Sons
Document Type: Topic overview
Length: 3,013 words
Content Level: (Level 5)
Lexile Measure: 1330L

Document controls

Main content

Full Text: 
Page 266


COLD WAR. In December 1991, Mikhail Gorbachev resigned as president of the Soviet Union, signaling the end not only of communist rule in that country but also of the Cold War. Just a few years earlier, no one could have imagined the dramatic changes that were to occur in the world from 1989 to 1991. While the Cold War in the 1980s was not at its coldest point ever, it was still going strong. Yet, through the leadership of Mikhail Gorbachev, Ronald Reagan, and George H. W. Bush, the Cold War came to an end and a new era in world history began.

The Cold War remained an ominous cloud over the world from the end of World War II to the early 1990s. Although every country in the world experienced different events and issues during this time, few escaped the influence of the Cold War. Historians may disagree as toPage 267  |  Top of Article exactly when the Cold War began, who should be blamed for its start, and why it lasted so long, but they all accept that it started soon after World War II and left an indelible imprint on the world.

Roots of the Conflict

The Cold War began when the World War II alliance between the United States, Soviet Union, and Great Britain fell apart in the face of misunderstandings, mistrust, and at times, deliberate actions. To begin to understand the collapse of this wartime partnership, one must recognize that the alliance had been anything but natural. Prior to 1941, the United States and other Western powers looked upon the Soviet Union with tremendous mistrust, and the feelings were mutual. This animosity originated with the communist seizure of power in Russia in 1917 and the resulting disagreements between the Western powers—including the United States, Great Britain, and France—and the new regime. For example, when Russia signed a peace treaty with Germany in 1918, ending its involvement in World War I as an ally of the Western powers, tensions were raised with these countries. Soon thereafter, the intervention of these same allies in support of noncommunist forces during the Russian civil war poisoned the Russians' view of the West.

Relations did not improve much before the start of World War II. Communist leader Vladimir Lenin changed the name of Russia to the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (or Soviet Union) in the early 1920s and began the process of consolidating communist control, which continued after 1925 under Joseph Stalin, but the United States refused to recognize the legitimacy of the Soviet government until 1933. Even after this recognition, relations did not improve substantially as the world drifted toward a new war. As the Western powers and the Soviet Union attempted to deal with the rise of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party in Germany, they struggled without success to find a common policy. The result was that each country looked out for its own interests, and in August 1939 the Soviet Union signed a nonaggression pact with Germany. In the pact, both countries pledged their neutrality in wars the other might wage and agreed to divide Poland between them. This pact and the conquest of Poland by Germany and the Soviet Union in September 1939 shocked and angered the Western powers.

These feelings of mistrust did not ease until June 1941, when Germany invaded the Soviet Union in violation of their nonaggression pact. With the Soviet Union now clearly in need of assistance against the seemingly unstoppable Nazi machine, an uneasy alliance developed. The United States, although still not officially in the war, immediately began to send aid to the Soviet Union. After Japan attacked Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941 and the United States entered the war, the alliance took a fuller form. For the next three and a half years, the Western powers and the Soviet Union put aside most of their differences to wage war against their common foe.

While the war encouraged greater cooperation, the differences between the two sides never went away. Although they shared a common goal, cooperation remained limited, and generally speaking, the two sides fought separate wars. The Russians suffered the most as they fought the Germans on the Eastern Front, while the British, Americans, and other allies battled the Axis powers in North Africa, Italy, and eventually western Europe. After Germany collapsed in May 1945 and Japan surrendered in September, the one truly unifying feature for the alliance, a common enemy, ended. Very quickly in 1945, the limited level of cooperation that had been reached in the war fell victim to mutual incriminations, mistrust, and differing views of what constituted world security.

The beginning of the collapse of the Grand Alliance could already be seen before the final bombs dropped on Germany and Japan. At meetings in 1943 and 1944, the Allied powers sought agreements concerning the structure of the postwar world. The United States, which had emerged as the dominant Western power in the war, championed an international system built on democratic principles and the capitalist economic system. The Soviet Union saw these ideas as the antithes is of communism and desired more than anything to maintain its security by creating a buffer zone between itself and a potentially resurgent Germany. The result was the development of a bipolar world divided between those nations that generally supported the United States and its policies and those countries that supported the Soviet Union. Ultimately this bipolar world would grow more complex as nations like China, France, India, and others asserted a degree of independence from either so-called superpower.

Many of the problems in the immediate postwar years resulted from different interpretations of agreements reached during the war itself. At the YALTA CONFERENCE in February 1945 the Allied powers agreed to the establishment of the United Nations, the temporary division and occupation of Germany, and basic policies involving eastern European countries. All of these decisions precipitated disagreements between the United States and Soviet Union after the war. The structure of voting in the United Nations ensured contention; no plan was established describing how Germany would eventually be reunited, and the question of what constituted free elections in the eastern European countries was left undefined. Not surprisingly, the mistrust that preceded World War II quickly resurfaced.

Postwar Years

In 1945 and 1946, disagreements between the Western powers and the Soviet Union arose over many issues, including the end of U.S. LEND-LEASE aid, elections in eastern European countries, and the withdrawal of Allied forces from Iran. Whatever the disagreement, each side perceived the other as acting in a threatening manner. Simply put, neither side could overcome the mistrust that had already existed for almost thirty years. For example,

Page 268  |  Top of Article

Cold War

Soviet leaders did allow elections in the eastern European countries that from their perspective met the promises in the Yalta accords. The United States and other Western powers did not agree with this assessment, since they believed elections that involved a limited number of candidates and generally guaranteed communist dominance were patently undemocratic. While Western leaders assumed the communists were simply trying to expand their power, the Soviet Union saw control over the eastern European countries as essential in providing a buffer zone against a future German resurgence.

Although there were efforts to maintain a semblance of cooperation until 1947, U.S. President Harry S. Truman's initiation of the TRUMAN DOCTRINE in March of that year clearly marked the end of the alliance. In many ways, the Truman Doctrine marked the formal acceptance of the strategy that would dominate U.S. thinking throughout the Cold War—containment. First articulated by George F. Kennan in 1946, the strategy called for the United States to contain communism within its current areas of control. The continuity of the strategy of containment can be seen in following examples where the United States actively tried to stop the spread of communism: the KOREAN WAR from 1950 to 1953, the VIETNAM WAR in the 1960s and 1970s, and the GRENADA INVASION in 1983. While there were other national security issues that the United States had to deal with in the second half of the twentieth century, the idea of containing communism was never too far removed.

The passage of the Truman Doctrine, the development of the MARSHALL PLAN in 1948, and the creation of the NORTH ATLANTIC TREATY ORGANIZATION (NATO) in 1949 formed the foundation for U.S. efforts in waging the Cold War. Besides representing the broad theme of containing the spread of communism, the Truman Doctrine specifically called for aid to Greece and Turkey to combat communist influences. The United States established the Marshall Plan to provide funds for rebuilding western Europe after the devastation of World War II. American leaders saw a rebuilt Europe as a bulwark against communism as well as a valuable trading partner. The creation of NATO grew out of concerns that only through collective security could Western countries resist Soviet expansion.

The Soviet Union followed similar paths in cementing its control of eastern European countries by taking steps to integrate their economies with its own. It also provided limited funds and supplies to groups attempting to facilitate the rise of communism in different areas of the world, such as China, North Korea, and Vietnam. Furthermore, it created the Warsaw Pact in 1955 to counter NATO. From the Soviet perspective, these actions were needed not only to preserve communism atPage 269  |  Top of Article home but also to reduce the danger of enemies arising on its borders.

The acceleration of the divisions between the United States and the Soviet Union in the late 1940s led to several crises and at times open confrontations. One of the legacies of the Yalta Conference was the division of Germany and Berlin into four occupation zones with France, Great Britain, the United States, and the Soviet Union controlling one zone each. The French, British, and Americans gradually consolidated their zones into West Germany and West Berlin, while the Soviet Union established a separate East Germany. The location of West Berlin in the center of East Germany sparked several crises including the Soviet blockade of West Berlin in 1948, the BERLIN AIRLIFT to circumvent it over the next year, and finally the construction of the BERLIN WALL in 1961 to completely separate West Berlin from East Germany.

After the 1948–1949 Berlin crisis came to an end, other events occurred pointing to the growing dangers of the Cold War. The Soviet test of an atomic bomb and the triumph of communism in China in the fall of 1949 seemed to indicate that the Soviet Union was indeed winning the Cold War. Even more important, especially in terms of the American military, the Korean War began in June 1950 when communist forces from North Korea attacked South Korea. Under the auspices of the United Nations, the United States and almost fifty other countries intervened to save South Korea. For three years the war raged, costing the lives of several million Korean and Chinese as well as almost 37,000 Americans.

1950s and 1960s

During this period there was not much improvement in relations, as little common ground could be found to begin discussions. Even worse, the 1950s witnessed the acceleration of the arms race as the superpowers introduced new delivery and weapons systems—intercontinental ballistic missiles, submarine-launched ballistic missiles, and long-range bombers—that both countries would rely upon throughout the Cold War. By the end of the decade, both countries were quickly obtaining the capability of destroying each other.

The late 1950s and early 1960s revealed the growing complexity of the Cold War as well as the dangers of a confrontation. In the mid to late 1950s, the United States became involved in two separate disputes between Communist China and Taiwan over the islands of Quemoy and Matsu. While the crises did not lead to a war, the countries went to the brink before pulling back. A more dangerous situation arose when the Soviet Union began constructing nuclear missile sites in Cuba in the summer of 1962, precipitating the CUBAN MISSILE CRISIS, which brought the world closer to a nuclear war than ever before. For a week at the end of October, the world waited for an end to the crisis. Fortunately, the two countries did reach an agreement ending the standoff.

The decade after the Cuban Missile Crisis witnessed the Cold War expanding into new areas. While the United States continued to try to contain the Soviet Union in Europe and also to beat the Russians to the moon, the main concern of the 1960s and early 1970s was the Vietnam War. Since 1945, the United States had kept a careful eye on events in Vietnam. Although opposed to colonization, the United States found it necessary to aid France in Vietnam in order to preserve French support in the Cold War. The collapse of French efforts in 1954 led to more direct American involvement in preserving a noncommunist government in what became South Vietnam. Starting in 1965, the United States began a major military commitment that lasted until 1973. In the name of containing communism, 58,000 Americans died in Vietnam.

While the United States struggled with the Vietnam War, the Soviet Union experienced its own share of problems. In 1964, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev lost a power struggle in the Kremlin with Leonid Brezhnev, a hard-liner in the Communist Party, and was forced into retirement. Under Brezhnev's leadership in the late 1960s, the Soviet Union expanded its military arsenal, experienced open hostilities with China, and cracked down on opposition to communism in eastern Europe by intervening militarily in Czechoslovakia. The dynamics of the Cold War had definitely changed by 1970, as neither superpower could any longer afford to focus its attention solely on the other.


The changes in the world in the late 1960s actually facilitated a thaw in the Cold War. Both the United States and the Soviet Union had begun to realize the futility of their ongoing feud and the need to work toward a better relationship. In 1972, President Richard M. Nixon took important steps by making historic visits to both China and the Soviet Union. These visits led to improved American relations with both countries and the signing of the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty and the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. While these treaties had only a limited impact, they signaled a thaw in the Cold War known as détente. Further more, there were increased efforts at cooperation in the form of cultural exchanges and economic transactions. Unfortunately these improvements proved relatively short-lived as tensions increased again in the late 1970s.

Relations between the United States and the Soviet Union reached new lows after the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in 1979. Responding to this action, the United States led a boycott of the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow and withdrew its support for a new arms-control treaty. Additionally, after being elected in 1980, Ronald Reagan initiated a massive military buildup and showed a greater willingness to confront communism. Calling the Soviet Union an "evil empire," he provided aid to anti-communist forces in Latin America and ordered the invasionPage 270  |  Top of Article of Grenada in 1983 to prevent the establishment of a communist government there.

As the United States became more assertive in the 1980s, the Soviet Union entered a period of decline. Its invasion of Afghanistan proved a debacle as Soviet forces struggled there until 1988 without success. Their difficulties in Afghanistan paled in comparison to other problems the Soviet leadership faced. By the early 1980s, Brezhnev was old and ineffective and the country was nearly bankrupt. After his death in 1982, the Soviet Union struggled until 1985 to find a new leader who could help the country out of its economic doldrums. It seemed to find that leader in Mikhail Gorbachev, who was younger than previous Soviet leaders, independent of the hard-liners in the Communist Party, and willing to seek reform. However, no one, including Gorbachev, realized how bad the situation was. In essence the Soviet Union was dying from inefficiency and corruption. Although Gorbachev set out to modernize and reform the Soviet Union without abandoning the basic tenets of communism, he actually unleashed the forces of change that ultimately would lead to his downfall and the collapse of the Soviet Union.

In the realm of foreign policy, Gorbachev recognized that the Soviet Union could no longer afford the arms race. With this in mind he initiated talks with the United States, where he found a surprisingly receptive president. Despite his rhetoric, Reagan was horrified by the prospects of a nuclear war. Even before Gorbachev made his initiatives, Reagan was already thinking along similar lines. Although difficult negotiations had to occur, the two leaders reached a significant agreement in 1987 eliminating all intermediate-range nuclear missiles. This agreement led to more talks between Gorbachev and Reagan's successor, George H. W. Bush, that reduced tensions even further.

While making efforts to improve relations with the United States, Gorbachev also encouraged internal reforms in Soviet society and in eastern Europe. As he struggled to reform communism at home, Gorbachev made clear to the eastern European countries that they could also make changes without fear of Soviet intervention. Little did he know that this freedom would spark the revolutions of 1989 that saw the overthrow of communist regimes throughout eastern Europe and the rise of opponents in the Soviet Union who wanted even more reform than he could deliver. After an abortive coup by communist hard-liners in August 1991 and the dissolution of the Soviet Union into separate states, Gorbachev resigned in December, effectively ending both communist rule in Russia and the Cold War.

The end of the Cold War represented a dramatic turn in the world's history. For almost fifty years, the two superpowers and their various allies waged an undeclared war. Although historians will continue to debate different issues related to the Cold War, all would agree that few events in the world between 1945 and 1991 can be completely understood outside its context.


Ambrose, Stephen E., and Douglas Brinkley. Rise to Globalism: American Foreign Policy Since 1938. 8th rev. ed. New York: Penguin, 1997.

Cohen, Warren I. The Cambridge History of American Foreign Relations: America in the Age of Soviet Power, 1945–1991. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993.

Fischer, Beth A. The Reagan Reversal: Foreign Policy and the End of the Cold War. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2000.

Gaddis, John L. We Now Know: Rethinking Cold War History. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.

Judge, Edward H., and John W. Langdon. A Hard and Bitter Peace: A Global History of the Cold War. Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1996.

LaFeber, Walter. America, Russia, and the Cold War, 1945–2000. 9th ed. Boston: McGraw-Hill, 2002.

Leffler, Melvyn P. A Preponderance of Power: National Security, the Truman Administration, and the Cold War. Stanford University Press, 1992.

———. "The Cold War: What Do 'We Now Know'?" American Historical Review 104 (1999): 501–524.

Levering, Ralph, et al. Debating the Origins of the Cold War: American and Russian Perspectives. New York: Rowman and Littlefield, 2002.

Whitfield, Stephen. The Culture of the Cold War. 2ded. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996.

David L. Snead

See also Arms Race and Disarmament ; Russia, Relations with ; and vol. 9: American Diplomacy.

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX3401800903