What was the Cold War?


On the surface, World War II appeared to resolve the turmoil and evil that had plagued the world. The defeat of Hitler and his Nazis, along with their Axis allies Japan and Italy, seemed to promise global peace and stability. But did the world truly find rest?

The Emergence of the Cold War

Following Germany’s surrender on May 8, 1945, and Japan’s surrender in September, the victorious Allies divided the spoils. The period from approximately 1947 to 1991 became known as the Cold War. But what exactly did this term mean?

Origins of the Term ‘Cold War’

The term “Cold War” was coined by the renowned writer George Orwell, author of the dystopian classic 1984. In his 1945 article “You and the Atom Bomb,” Orwell foresaw a global standoff where “two or three monstrous super-states, each possessing a weapon capable of wiping out millions in seconds,” would dominate the world. He predicted a state of being that was “unconquerable and in a permanent state of ‘cold war’ with its neighbors,” describing it as an indefinite “peace that is no peace.”

This concept gained further traction in 1947 when presidential adviser Bernard Baruch, in a speech at the Columbia State House in South Carolina, addressed America’s labor issues during the height of the industrial movement. He warned, “Do not be deceived – we are today in the midst of a cold war.” Baruch emphasized the presence of enemies both abroad and at home and advocated for self-reliance, stating that the “peace of the world is the hope and goal of our political system.”

These influential moments propelled the idea into global discourse, with the Cold War being characterized as a conflict “without fighting or bloodshed, but a battle nonetheless.”

The Cold War Begins in Earnest

With the defeat of Nazi Germany, the alliance between the United States and the U.S.S.R. quickly deteriorated. The underlying tensions between these superpowers escalated into deep distrust. By 1948, the Soviet Union was installing governments in countries they had liberated, encroaching on territories considered under American influence. This alarmed America and Europe, who feared a resurgence of global Communism.

In response, the United States implemented the Marshall Plan to revitalize the economies of countries under Soviet influence, aiming to prevent the conditions that led to the rise of Communism. Conversely, the Soviet Union established openly communist governments in Eastern Europe.

Between 1948 and 1953, tensions escalated significantly. The Soviet Union attempted to blockade West Berlin, leading the U.S. and Europe to form the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) to counter Soviet expansion. The arms race began in earnest with the development of atomic bombs by both superpowers. This period also saw the Chinese communists take control of China in 1949.

The Korean War and the Expansion of Alliances

The Korean War erupted when North Korea invaded South Korea, ending in 1953. Around the same time, the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact was formed, comprising Albania, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, Hungary, Poland, and Romania, while West Germany joined NATO in 1955.

Escalation and the Cuban Missile Crisis

The Cold War heated up again around 1958 with the advent of intercontinental ballistic missiles. In 1962, the Cuban Missile Crisis brought the world to the brink of nuclear war. An American spy plane discovered Soviet nuclear missile sites in Cuba, leading President John F. Kennedy to blockade the island to prevent further installations. For thirteen tense days, the world stood on the edge of nuclear conflict. Ultimately, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev agreed to dismantle the sites in exchange for a U.S. pledge not to invade Cuba and the secret removal of U.S. missiles in Turkey.

The Fall of the Berlin Wall and the End of the Cold War

Following the missile crisis, significant events, including the Vietnam War, shaped the Cold War era. In November 1989, the communist German Democratic Republic opened the borders between East and West Berlin, a moment widely seen as the beginning of the end of the Cold War.

Public opinion shifted dramatically after the Berlin Wall fell, leading to increased optimism for a more peaceful world. By 1991, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev loosened control over Eastern Europe, culminating in the lowering of the Soviet flag and the rise of the current Russian tricolor. The swift and peaceful transition from a Communist superpower to numerous independent nations marked the definitive end of the Cold War.