What Was the Cold War About? 10 Things Everyone Should Know.

What Was the Cold War About? 10 Things Everyone Should Know.
What Was the Cold War About? 10 Things Everyone Should Know.

What Was the Cold War About?

The first thing that needs to be addressed in any discussion of the Cold War concerns the naming of the event itself. As neither side ever officially declared it, war is slightly a misleading term – though commentators skirt around the issue with the addendum that the Cold War was so because it never, thankfully, heated up. We may, in fact, do better to consider the Cold War as a long, drawn-out period lasting from roughly 1945 to 1990/1, characterized by an intense and irreconcilable ideological conflict between capitalism and communism and peppered with military conflicts that played out across the globe from Korea and Vietnam to Cuba and Afghanistan.


Another thing that must be addressed is the unique nature of the conflict. The Cold War was not unique because it traversed the newly reformed borders of postwar Europe to encompass almost the entire world. Military campaigns from the First and Second World Wars had been waged outside the confines of Europe, most notably in the Pacific and the colonies of the British Empire. What made it unique was that it carried with it the very real threat of total world annihilation if either side were to deploy their nuclear arsenal (something which nearly happened on more than one occasion). This awareness effected profound changes in cultural attitudes, ideas of what it meant to be state or world citizens, and our very views on humanity.


Here at Listland, we’ve compiled 10 of the most important pieces of information to help you get to grips with the historical juggernaut that is the Cold War.

10It was borne out of conditions following the Second World War.

The Cold War: a terrible by-product of WWII

The dire state in which the participating nations were left at the Second World War’s conclusion in the mid-1940s is almost incomprehensible by today’s standards. There had been immense human loss which has been calculated at being somewhere in the region of 60 million lives, two thirds of which were non-combatants. The Soviet Union fared worse, hemorrhaging a staggering 10 to 20% of its population. Then there were mass levels of displacement across practically all densely populated areas of Europe and Asia. Finally, there was the ruin of governments, political systems, and the whole world order.


So absolute was this ruin that it moved Assistant US Secretary of State Dean Acheson to lament that: ‘the whole world order and structure that we had inherited from the nineteenth century was gone.’ Indeed, almost overnight the European powers that had dominated global politics through imperialism were reduced to spectators as two titanic superpowers rose up on either side of them, the US and the USSR.


Both superpowers were correct in their assessment that the new world was in need of a new order. They had even met to sketch out a plan regarding what would be done with Germany before the end of the war at the Yalta Conference. Both ultimately disagreed, however, over the form that this new order should take. Moreover, time was of the essence – the rise of the Weimar Republic in the political vacuum left by the Allies after the First World War had clearly demonstrated the extreme potential that could rise out of the ashes of anarchy.

9US postwar ideology combined triumphalism with vulnerability.

The USA was attempting to find its place in the world after the chaos of the war.

‘We have emerged from this war the most powerful nation in the world – the most powerful nation, perhaps, in all history’ announced Harry S. Trumann shortly after ascending to the presidency in 1945. This claim, indeed, was not unfounded. In comparison to the other combatants, the US had emerged from the Second World War relatively unscathed. Their 400,000 losses accounted for only 1% of total lives claimed and only 2% of those suffered by the USSR. In stark contrast to the European nations, therefore, the immediate postwar period can be seen as one of boom and prosperity.


The booming economy did little, however, to mitigate newly revived fears relating to homeland security. At the root was the event that had brought the US into the war on December 7th 1941 – Pearl Harbor. The attack shattered the sense of invincibility that the US had felt since the early 19th century, as well as revealing a frightening truth of modern warfare; the imminent threat of an airborne attack. Such paranoia galvanized State Department officials of the Roosevelt and Trumann administrations to push for the establishment of a series of air and naval bases – with required rights of access – that would deter and protect the homeland. A quick look at a list of essential sites drawn up by the State Department in 1945 gives you a sense of just how extensive their requirements were.


The US took it upon itself to impose its own ideologically driven vision of order on the rest of the world. Politically, it would keep in check the balance of power across Europe and Asia. Economically, it would require Eurasia’s participation in free trade with the US. And militarily, it would retain a nuclear monopoly that would ensure its global predominance.

8Problematically, Soviet postwar ideology did the same.

The Soviets began expanding their influence as well.

If the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor gave the US paranoia over its homeland security, the Nazi invasion of the Russia gave the Soviets a full-on mental breakdown. The absolute brutality of their experience meant that a very real sense of paranoia, centered initially on future incursions by a revitalized German state, informed postwar Soviet policy and ideology. Combined with this was Stalin’s inherent mistrust of his western British and American allies, who had fought the communists (or Bolsheviks as they had been then) in the Russian Civil War of 1918 – 1919 and who, Stalin believed, had left Russia to be destroyed during the Second World War.


To combat a potential future invasion from the West, the USSR discretely installed a number of communist leaders at the head of buffer nations in the Eastern Bloc: Bulgaria, Romania and Poland. These areas were easily swayed into accepting, of course, not least because of the presence of soviet soldiers who had occupied these countries after pushing the Nazis back from Stalingrad to Berlin.


The Eastern Bloc’s move to the extreme left, while explicable as a democratic choice by the USSR, was seen by America as the USSR’s Sovietization of Eastern Europe. Stalin had paid lip service to Churchill at the Potsdam conference of 1945, assuring him that this would not occur. However, evidence that the process was ideological and centrally driven by the USSR was to be found in the foundational doctrine of communist theory – Marx and Engel’s Communist Manifesto.


Only by ensuring the spread of communism (through permanent revolution) as it was known) could the Soviets ensure its survival; the only self-preserving solution for the war-torn world in the eyes of the Soviet Union. Conversely, and problematically for the Soviet Union, the US’ prescribed treatment was a strong injection of capital.

7The US fought communism with capital.

America made it rain.

One American who had proven himself beyond others during the Second World War was George C. Marshall. His reward, in 1947, was appointment to the position of Secretary of State by President Truman. Marshall immediately set out drafting the Economic Development Program (ERP), which has come down to posterity as the Marshall Plan. It was launched in 1947, with a speech given at Harvard in June 5th 1947 explaining it as a policy ‘not directed against any country or doctrine but against hunger, poverty, desperation and chaos.’


The ERP consisted of $13 billion in aid, which took the shape of food, fuel, staples and machinery shipments to Western and Central Europe. It lasted up until 1951, at which point funding was axed after the desired results – growth in industry, particularly steel and coal, and general economic prosperity – had been achieved. The effect of the EDP was that much of Europe now constituted a thriving capitalist culture, immune from the potential threats of the encroaching communist threat from the East. Nor was Europe the sole focus of US foreign policy. Japan was similarly bolstered, constitutionally revamped and inundated with capital under the oversight of General Douglas MacArthur.


The Soviets did not view the US’ re-constructional policies in Europe and Japan as acts of mere benevolence. They believed Marshall’s ERP to be nothing more than an attempt to establish markets with whom the US could trade – something which held more than a kernel of truth – and viewed Truman’s policy of containment – implemented on the borders of communist Eastern Europe, Greece and Turkey, as well as the oil-rich Middle East – as an attempt to dam the red tide by filling the eastern European borders with capitalist goods. This was a threat to which they had no choice but to respond.

6The USSR quickly armed itself, and the espionage that allowed them to do so made the US crazy.

The Soviets brought the thunder and lightening and nuclear winter that follows.

Much to the US’ alarm, the Soviets carried out their first successful atomic test on August 29th 1949, just four years after the US had displayed their atomic capabilities at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The man who can be credited (if that is the correct term) with accelerating Soviet development of nuclear armaments was Klaus Fuchs, a German theoretical physicist who in 1950 was convicted by the British and Americans of supplying information to a potential enemy. Fuchs had indeed divulged information from the Manhattan Project to the Soviets, also assisting the Chinese in developing their first atomic bomb. Moreover, his testimony under interrogation would reveal the espionage of two other American citizens, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who were found guilty of passing on classified information to the Soviet nuclear program and sentenced to the electric chair.


Fuch’s indictment of the Rosenbergs offered troubling insight into the web of espionage operating on home soil. It is against this backdrop that we can best explain the credence given to the unfounded accusations of Joseph McCarthy who claimed to have a list of communists working in the State Department. But even this was just a part of the whole that made up the Red Scare (or McCarthyism as it came to be known) a notable early example being Truman’s frankly preposterous 1947 Loyalty Review Program. But if the internal war of words being waged against threats of espionage was extreme, this was nothing compared to that being directed against the enemy abroad.

5 Skirmishes went from being verbal to physical.

Things got out of control. Korean war memorial

The Soviet Union’s hostile isolationism had been a rhetorical topos from the Cold War’s outset. Nowhere is this encapsulated better than in Winston Churchill’s iconic Iron Curtain speech delivered in Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri, on March 5th 1946: ‘From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the continent.’ Their furtive isolationism, however, only made up one aspect of US anti-communist propaganda. Reflecting official governmental sentiment, such propaganda permeated practically every aspect of American life during the Cold War period, from Hollywood to comic books; advertising to political addresses. Even the Pledge of Allegiance was amended in response to combat the enemy and their ‘godless communism’ – with Congress voting to add the words ‘under god’ to the song in 1954.


The Cold War was more than just a war of words, however, and even if the war never got hot, it certainly warmed up on several occasions. First there was the Korean War (1950 – 1953), in which the North, backed by the Chinese and Soviets, invaded the South, backed by the United Nations and Americans – a particularly bloody conflict which directly pitted the forces of communism against the forces of capitalism. Then there was the Vietnam War (1955 – 1975), a conflict so infamous in modern American history it hardly requires an explanation. Finally there was the Soviet-Afghan War (1979 – 1989), in which the US lent support to the anti-communist Mujahideen (some of whom went on to form the Taliban, ultimately making it difficult to discern a clear victor). Some of the Cold War’s most famous episodes, however, took place in Cuba.

4The world almost ended in the 1960s.

We seriously almost KO’ed the planet.

The point at which the Cold War was arguably at its hottest was during what has come to be known as the Cuban Missile Crisis – a political and diplomatic crisis that came to dominate the month of October 1962. Governing Cuba was Fidel Castro, a man whose sympathy for the Soviet Union was matched only by his antipathy towards the US – sentiment further exacerbated by the failed Bay of Pigs operation the year before. Castro’s reliance on the Soviet Union had long been known to the US, but on October 14th 1962, an American U-2 spy plane’s sighting of medium-range ballistic missiles being assembled on the island confirmed their worst fears.


President Kennedy’s Russian counterpart, Nikita Khrushchev, had sent missiles to Cuba in a gamble aimed at redressing the balance of each superpower’s respective nuclear strike capabilities. Kennedy, after consulting ExCom and doped up on amphetamines, responded to the situation by making a televised announcement threatening shipments of missiles to Cuba with a naval blockade. Soviet ships arrived on October 24th but they made no attempt to break through the blockade, temporarily averting nuclear war. Then, three days later, an American pilot was shot down over Cuba, escalating the crisis to unprecedented levels. In hindsight, his death may have averted nuclear catastrophe; it forced Kennedy and Khrushchev to resolve the conflict or face mass destruction. Moscow met the demands for the missiles extraction from Cuba. In exchange, Kennedy covertly agreed to withdraw US missiles from the Turkish base, bringing to a close the Cuban Missile Crisis. It did nothing to bring the Cold War to a close however.

3The constant threat of nuclear strike was very real.

The doomsday clock: a warning of the very real threat hanging over our heads like the sword of Damocles.

As a way of quantifiably illustrating the likelihood of a world-ending catastrophe, the Chicago Atomic Scientists – a group of researchers who had participated in the Manhattan Project – invented the Doomsday Clock. The clock reaching midnight would symbolize global disaster, and the closest the clock ever came was, unsurprisingly, during the Cold War. The year, however, was not 1962 as you might expect. Indeed, the short space of time between the commencement and conclusion of the Cuban Missile Crisis prevented it from being measured on the clock. Instead, the closest the clock measured was in 1953, when, after both the US and USSR carried out thermonuclear tests within just nine minutes of each other, the clock measured a deeply disconcerting two-minutes-to-midnight.


The nuclear threat, though undergoing ebbs and flows, never really dissipated. At several points during the Cold War, the minute hand crept ever closer to midnight – something that didn’t go unnoticed by governments who issued instructions informing the public what to do in the case of a nuclear strike (if you want some deeply disturbing viewing, check out some of the public service announcements broadcast in Britain during the 1970s). Surprisingly, not all the consequences of this were negative. We have the Cold War’s nuclear threat partly to thank for the infrastructural efficacy of America’s Interstate Highway System (abbreviated from the Dwight D. Eisenhower National System of Interstate and Defense Highways), which was designed in such a way as to allow for ease of evacuation in the case of a nuclear strike. Yet the negatives (being the threat of total human annihilation) outweighed the positives, and both sides were to come to the realization that progressive action was needed.

2This threat resulted in the US and USSR going ‘MAD’.

Mutually Assured Destruction. We all lose.

Towards the end of the Kennedy administration, both the US and USSR were in possession of subaquatic nuclear warheads, concealed from each other in submarines located across the globe. The retaliatory threat of these missiles (ready to be launched if a country’s land missiles were to be destroyed), combined with the sheer quantity of nuclear arsenals amassed by both sides, saw the acceptance of the military doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction (or MAD). Under the Reagan administration, MAD was modified to MAS – an abbreviation for Mutually Assured Security. This was in part because both sides acknowledged the, for wont of a better word, madness of MAD, and also because the domestic population found little solace in their enemy’s prospective obliteration only once they, themselves, had been obliterated.


Reagan’s administration flirted with another defensive strategy, the SDI (Strategic Defensive Initiative) which came to be known in the wake of George Lucas’ cinematic masterpiece as Star Wars. The SDI fits into one of several chapters of the Cold War to which only a passing reference can be made here – the Space Race. Insufficient technological developments, however, hampered Reagan’s vision, meaning that other more practical measures had to be resorted to. Indeed, as things cooled down, both sides acknowledged that there had to be some control over the production of strategic missiles, an agreement that inaugurated the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (or SALT) in November 1969. There were numerous incarnations of disarmament talks and agreements, but neither resolved the nuclear problem or ended the war. Thankfully, of course, the Cold War never went nuclear. So, after nearly fifty years, how exactly did it end?

1The collapse of the Soviet Union concluded the Cold War.

The fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War.

Questions have long been asked about how and why the Cold War ended when it did. Did the Reagan bankrupt the Soviets? Did the Soviets bankrupt themselves? Was there a sudden realization that the economic output of a soviet economy could never compete with that of a capitalist economy? The answer, in fact, lay at the heart of Soviet government. Gorbachev’s policy of Perestroika, which sought to modify and restructure the Soviet economy to be more competitive, increase autonomy for Soviet Republics and relax state censorship amongst other, set the ball rolling towards the establishment of a western economic model. It offered those in the East a glimpse of the western way of life, and the more people were able to peak from behind the iron curtain, the more they realized they didn’t have it as good as their western counterparts, making the dissolution of the USSR inevitable.


History reads better as a series of crashing waves than as a steady trickle. We often point to events like the fall of the Berlin Wall or the Gdansk dockworker’s union Solidarity’s landslide electoral victory in 1989; the free elections in Hungary and Czechoslovakia or the reunification of Germany the following. But scratch deeper and you unearth another historical moment. It is a moment of cultural rather than political value: a moment that embodies the economic aspiration which proved the deathblow to the communist ideal, and a moment that deals in cultural currency that is all-too familiar to us today – the opening of the first McDonalds in the USSR on January 30th 1990. Lines of a staggering 1,000 people were expected on the first day. The eventual turnout of 30,000 astounded expectation and symbolized in no uncertain terms the people’s desire for western export. Where statesman, diplomats and nuclear scientists failed in bringing about the end of the war, it could be argued that the Big Mac succeeded.



The Cold War is living history – a period through which the majority of people on earth today have, at least partly, lived through. Anyone who wants to learn about it has, at their disposal, the oral accounts of friends and family who can relate in vivid detail the seemingly final moments during the Cuban Missile Crisis, the stories of veterans who fought in the Vietnam War, or the fall of the Berlin Wall. But this will not last. With the relentless marching on of time, fewer will be able to offer such firsthand testimony, and we will be left with a repository that will be at once richer than that for most other recent historical events, yet which will no longer be interactive.


This Cold War’s cultural legacy will be its films – Dr. Strangelove and the James Bond franchise featuring at the fore. It will also be its more obvious propaganda, disseminated across all forms of media and by all of the countries involved. Then, of course, there will be the famous speeches and quotes, amongst which William Faulkner’s banquet Nobel Banquet speech will undoubtedly feature: ‘Our tragedy today is general and universal physical fear so long sustained by now that we can even bear it. There are no longer problems of the spirit. There is only the question: when will I be blown up?’. There will be innumerous sources that communicate the helplessness felt by many during the long, drawn-out period, and they will be seen to have taken all different forms of human expression (whether fear, despair, hatred or comedic satire). With regard to the latter, let’s hope the historian draws upon the genius of Tom Lehrer’s satirical masterpiece ‘We Will All Go Together When We Go.’ And, with nuclear armament a real and pressing issue, let’s hope that, in our lifetimes or in those of our descendants, we are never immediately faced with such a serious subject of satire.