The Big Picture
In the late nineteenth/early twentieth centuries, the United States emerged as a primary world power. Up until the Second World War, American power was rivalled by several European states. After WWII, the US faced only one rival: the USSR. (Though comprised of many nominally independent states, the USSR featured rigidly centralized Russian rule; "Russia" is thus often used interchangeably with "USSR".)
The Cold War (ca. 1945-1991) therefore featured two global superpowers. The war was "cold" in that the superpowers did not clash directly, due largely to the high probability of mutual annihilation in the nuclear age. Nonetheless, throughout the Cold War, these two nations engaged in a nuclear arms race (competitive stockpiling of weapons).
The superpowers waged a largely diplomatic and economic war, providing governments with political and financial support in exchange for allegiance. This often involved the funding of revolutions, followed by ongoing support of resultant dictatorships. The Cold War thus divided the world into two spheres of influence.33,34
Some parts of the world held exceptional strategic importance. Greece and Turkey, for instance, served as key American footholds near Russia, while Japan was a crucial ally for maintaining American dominance of the Pacific.
While the Cold War did feature immensely bloody conflicts, these were not fought directly between the superpowers, but rather in the form of proxy wars. A "proxy war" takes place in a region separate from the primary belligerent nations. The primary belligerent nations do not engage in direct conflict, but rather take opposing sides in an external conflict (e.g. Korean War, Vietnam War).
Spheres of Influence
The core of the Soviet sphere was Eastern Europe. (Western Europe resisted the communist tide, due partly to the Marshall Plan, a massive postwar American-funded reconstruction effort that helped to avert dire social conditions.) A military alliance formed in each sphere: US-led NATO (which most of Western Europe joined) and the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact (which encompassed most of Eastern Europe).1
China, which became communist after WWII with the takeover of Mao Zedong, was initially a Soviet ally. This alliance was sundered in the 1960s, however, due to Chinese resentment over Russian imperialism and Mao's unorthodox approach to communism.44 The exclusion of such a large, increasingly powerful nation from the Soviet sphere came as a great relief to the Western world; nonetheless, China maintained its own sphere of influence, which sometimes overlapped with the Soviet sphere.A487
Starkly divergent social conditions emerged in the democratic, capitalist nations of the core American sphere and the totalitarian, command-economy nations of the Soviet and Chinese spheres. Whereas democracies generally protected freedom of speech and responded to discontent by addressing social problems, dictatorships suppressed free speech and crushed unrest with violence. Moreover, while capitalist economies generally flourished, command economies stagnated (see History of the Western Economy).
The term third world was coined to denote nations outside the core Western and communist spheres. The third world was thus a battleground of political and economic influence, often subject to foreign-funded revolutions and brutal dictatorships. Most third-world nations had only recently obtained independence from European empires, and were consequently struggling with a range of post-colonial disadvantages (e.g. under-industrialization, dependence on raw material exports, lack of democratic traditions). Given the desperate instability that resulted from these disadvantages, dictatorships were almost inevitable.A485
Socialism vs. Communism
Nations in the Soviet and Chinese spheres were governed by dictatorships. They also featured command economies, in which production and distribution is rigidly controlled by the government. A nation that features dictatorship and a command economy is often referred to as "socialist" or "communist"; both terms have alternate meanings, however.
By Karl Marx's definition, socialism indeed denotes a state that features dictatorship and a command economy (see Marxism). Yet in the context of a democracy, "socialism" only denotes a degree of government intervention in the economy (e.g. public health care).
For Marx, socialism is the intermediate step in the transition from capitalism to communism, which he defines as a governmentless and classless society, in which the people carry out equitable production and distribution without any government direction. By this definition, no country has ever come close to being "communist". Nonetheless, as noted above, "communism" is often used as a synonym for "socialism" (in the sense of dictatorship with a command economy).
Primary Cold War Conflicts
The Cold War can be divided into three phases according to the level of superpower tension. It began with the tense phase of ca. 1945-1970, whose bloodiest conflicts were the Korean and Vietnam Wars. This was followed by a thawing of tensions known as détente, which spanned roughly the 1970s. Hostility then resurged for the final phase of the Cold War, ca. 1980-91; the foremost conflict of this period was the Soviet War in Afghanistan.34
|early tension||détente||late tension|
|Soviet War in Afghanistan
After WWII, Germany was divided into the Soviet-occupied, communist East and the Ally-occupied, democratic West. Though this division was initially administrative, the nation split into separate states (West Germany and East Germany) in 1949. Westward migration was constant, as citizens of the repressive, communist East sought to make a new life in the prosperous, capitalist West. In the 1960s, the Berlin Wall was constructed to halt this migration; its fall in 1989 was a key milestone in the decline of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War.1,34
Immediately preceding the division of Germany was the year-long Berlin blockade. After WWII, Berlin (like Germany as a whole) was divided into the Ally-occupied west and Soviet-occupied east, even though this city (located near Germany's eastern border) lay deep in Soviet-occupied territory. In 1948, the USSR blockaded the entire city of Berlin, preventing Allied supplies from reaching the western half of the city by road or rail.
The aim of the blockade was to starve West Berlin of food and fuel until the Allied powers were forced to allow the USSR to take over the entire city. The United States and Britain (along with other Allied powers) thwarted this plan with the Berlin airlift: a constant stream of supplies delivered to West Berlin by airplane. The airlift lasted roughly a year, until the blockade was finally lifted.A469
The Berlin blockade was the first major confrontation of the Cold War; unfortunately, far more violent struggles would follow.
After World War II, Korea was divided into the Soviet-backed North and US-backed South. A Northern invasion of the South sparked the Korean War (1950-53), in which the South was supported by a US-led UN coalition. Just when this coalition had taken most of the Korean Peninsula, China joined the USSR in support of the North, driving the Americans back southward to the 38th parallel; this line has served as the boundary between the two Koreas ever since.49
Millions were killed in the Korean War. Since that time, North Korea has maintained an extremely harsh and isolationist dictatorship, and has developed nuclear weapons.29 South Korea, on the other hand, became a prosperous democracy.
The most prolonged and destructive Cold War conflict was the Vietnam War (1954-75). Up until the Second World War, eastern Indochina (Vietnam/Laos/Cambodia) was under French control; Vietnam was the dominant component of this region. After the war, powerful communist forces emerged in Vietnam, ultimately defeating the French colonial government in 1954. The result was the same as in Korea: a nation divided into the communist, USSR/China-backed North and non-communist, US-backed South.A475
The ensuing struggle of the two Vietnams is known as the Vietnam War. Although the United States eventually (starting in the 1960s) sent troops, they were often unable to engage the enemy directly, given that Vietnam consists largely of jungle. The North Vietnamese, on the other hand, were accustomed to jungle warfare, and the canopy concealed their encampments and road networks.K430-31
The US resorted to brutal campaigns of carpet bombing (area bombing) and defeoliation (destruction of foliage, typically with napalm or herbicides). Yet even these extreme measures failed. The US ultimately withdrew, North Vietnam invaded the South, and the nation was reunited under communist leadership. Millions had been killed.K430-31
Cuban Missile Crisis1962
The apex of Cold War tension was the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, when the US discovered that Russia was building nuclear launch sites in Cuba. President Kennedy ordered a naval blockade of the island, and for a few days nuclear war seemed imminent. An agreement was reached, however, in which Khrushchev removed the weapons from Cuba in exchange for the American removal of warheads in Turkey, as well as a guarantee against future American invasion of Cuba.33,50
The foremost conflict of the late Cold War was the Soviet War in Afghanistan (1979-89), in which Soviet forces attempted to defend the reigning communist government of Afghanistan from anti-communist guerrillas. The guerrillas, furnished with weapons and funding provided by the US and sympathetic Muslim nations, maintained a bloody stalemate throughout the conflict (such that this war has been dubbed the "Soviet Vietnam"). The guerrillas toppled the communist government a few years after the Soviet withdrawal.1,51
Fall of the Soviet Union
In the late 1980s, the USSR crumbled as the nations of Eastern Europe (starting with Poland) revolted and broke away from the Union, replacing their communist governments with capitalist democracies. While such revolts had been attempted throughout the Cold War, they had always been crushed by the Soviet military. Revolutionary efforts only began to succeed in the 1980s, due largely to Soviet economic weakness, but also the unconventional decisions of Mikhail Gorbachev.A506-07,34
Gorbachev, the final president of the USSR, could see that the Soviet economy was on the verge of ruin. He responded by enacting the extraordinary policies of glasnost ("openness", which featured improved freedom of speech and transparency of government) and perestroika ("restructuring", which featured the relaxing of central Soviet control over the constituent nations of the USSR, as well as over the economy). Gorbachev also terminated the nuclear arms race.B351,K446-49,52,53
Though Gorbachev had hoped to preserve the USSR, these policies culminated in its dissolution. The Union was succeeded by the non-communist Russian Federation, whose first president was Boris Yeltsin.K446-47,1
Since the Cold War, only a handful of countries have retained communism. (The present-day countries that officially claim to be "communist" are China, North Korea, Vietnam, Laos, and Cuba.) Most formerly communist countries, including the majority of Latin America and Eastern Europe (though not Russia), have become true democracies. Unfortunately, the splintering of Eastern Europe (especially in the Balkans) gave rise to bloody civil wars, often fought on ethnic grounds.B346
Russia and China have both remained dictatorships. The latter nation infamously crushed a series of pro-democracy demonstrations at the end of the Cold War, most brutally at Tiananmen Square, where hundreds were shot dead at a massive 1989 protest.K472-73
It should be stressed, however, that the post-Cold War period is replete with triumphs of peacekeeping. Thanks largely to various international agencies (primarily the United Nations), an unprecedented degree of global political and economic stability has been achieved. Many political conflicts have been resolved without recourse to war, and in cases where war could not be averted, the magnitude of destruction has often been dramatically subdued.B346
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