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The 20th Century 'Cold War' Revisited

Sentinel Digital DeskBy : Sentinel Digital Desk

  |  6 May 2018 12:00 AM GMT

Y Udaya Chandar

The term “Cold War” is used to describe the post-World War II confrontation between the USSR and the United States. It came in a speech by Bernard Baruch, an advisor to Democratic presidents, on 16 April 1947. Penned by journalist Herbert Bayard Swope, the speech proclaimed, “Let us not be deceived: we are today in the midst of a cold war.”Newspaper columnist Walter Lippmannlater gave the term wide popularity in his book The Cold War.

After World War II, geopolitical tensions prevailed between the powers in the Eastern Bloc (the Soviet Union and its satellite states) and powers in the Western Bloc (the United States, its NATO allies, and others). Although historians do not fully agree on the dates, the Cold War is commonly understood to encompass the period from 1947—when the Truman Doctrine, a US foreign policy to support nations threatened by Soviet expansionism, was announced—to either 1989, when communism fell in Eastern Europe, or 1991, when the Soviet Union collapsed.

The term “cold” is used because there was no large-scale fighting directly between the two sides, although each supported major regional wars commonly referred to as “proxy wars”.

At the beginning of the Cold War, two superpowers with overwhelming economic and political differences faced each other: the Soviet Union (officially, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, or USSR) and the United States. The USSR was a Marxist-Leninist state led by the Communist Party, which was dominated by a leader given various titles over time, and a small committee known as the Politburo. The Party controlled the press, the military, the economy and many organisations—virtually everything in the state. It also controlled other states in the Eastern Bloc, and funded communist parties around the world. (This sometimes led to competition with communist China, particularly following the Sino-Soviet split of the 1960s.)

Standing in contrast was the capitalist West, led by the United States, a federal republic with a two-party presidential system. So-called “First World” nations in the Western Bloc were generally liberal democratic states with a free press and independent organisations. However, they were often economically and politically entwined with a network of other republics and authoritarian regimes throughout the Third World, as developing nations were then known, most of which were former colonies of Western Bloc nations. Some major Cold War frontlines—including Vietnam, Indonesia, and the Congo—were still Western colonies as of 1947.

The two superpowers never engaged directly in any major armed combat, but they were heavily prepared for a potential all-out nuclear world war. Each side had a nuclear strategy that discouraged an attack by the other side. The logic was that such an attack would also lead to the total destruction of the attacker—this was the doctrine known as “mutually assured destruction”(MAD). Aside from developing their nuclear arsenals and deploying conventional military forces, both sides struggled for dominance in several ways: via proxy wars around the globe ,psychological warfare, massive propaganda campaigns and espionage, rivalry at sporting events, and technological competitions such as the Space Race.

The first phase of the Cold War began within two years of the end of World War II in 1945. The USSR grabbed the opportunity to consolidate control over states in the Eastern Bloc. Meanwhile, the United States was more interested in containing Soviet power, extending military and financial aid to countries in Western Europe, and creating the NATO alliance. The agreement establishing the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) was signed in April 1949, backed by Britain, France, the United States, Canada, and other eight western European countries. Four months later, in August, the Soviet Union detonated its first atomic device, at the Semipalatinsk test site in the Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic.

While Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin’s death in 1953 slightly relaxed tensions, the situation in Europe remained an uneasy armed truce. The Soviets—who by 1949 had already created a network of mutual assistance treaties in the Eastern Bloc—established a formal alliance in that region, the Warsaw Pact, in 1955.

Various Crises in the Cold War

During the Cold War, a number of incidents and crises took the two superpowers to the brink of war. The first major crisis was the Berlin Blockade (1948–49), instituted by Stalin.

Another crisis also began in early 1948. Following reports of strengthening “reactionary elements”, Soviet operatives executed a coup d’état in Czechoslovakia, the only Eastern Bloc state that the Soviets had permitted to retain democratic structures. The coup set in a motion a brief scare that another war would begin.

Meanwhile, in Asia, the Cold War expanded with the victory of the communist side in the Chinese Civil War and the outbreak of the Korean War(1950–53).The Korean War was one of the more significant impacts of western efforts at containment. Stalin was caught by surprise when the UN Security Council backed the defense of South Korea; the Soviets at the time were boycotting UN meetings in protest of the fact that Taiwan, and not the communist China, held a permanent seat on the Council. A UN force stopped the invasion.

The Korean War prompted NATO to develop a military structure. At the time, many feared the conflict might escalate into a general war with communist China, perhaps even a nuclear war.

Stalin insisted on continuing the Korean conflict, and the Armistice was only approved in July 1953, after Stalin’s death. North Korean leader Kim Il Sung created a highly centralised, totalitarian dictatorship—which continues through today—according himself unlimited power and generating a formidable cult of personality. In South Korea, the American-backed strongman Syngman Rheeran a significantly less brutal but deeply corrupt and authoritarian regime. After Rhee was overthrown in 1960, South Korea fell within a year under a period of military rule that lasted until the re-establishment of a multi-party system in the late 1980s.

In another part of Asia, in 1949, Mao Zedong’s People’s Liberation Army defeated Chiang Kai-shek’s United States-backed Kuomintang(KMT) Nationalist Government in China, and the Soviet Union promptly created an alliance with the newly formed People’s Republic of China. Chiang and his KMT government retreated to the island of Taiwan.

The Vietnam War (1955–75) ended with the defeat of the US-backed Republic of Vietnam, prompting further adjustments of Cold War alliances.

The USSR and the US also competed for influence in Latin America, and in the decolonising states of Africa and Asia. The superpowers’ ongoing efforts at expansion and escalation sparked more crises, including the Suez Crisis(1956), the Berlin Crisis (1961), and the Cuban Missile Crisis (1962).

In the early 1950s, the US worked for the rearmament of West Germany and, in 1955, secured that nation’s full membership in NATO. In 1956, the Soviet Army invaded Hungary to put a stop to the Hungarian Revolution. Thousands of Hungarians were arrested, imprisoned, and deported to the Soviet Union, and approximately 200,000 Hungarians fled the country in the chaos.

From 1957 through 1961, Khrushchev openly and repeatedly threatened the West with nuclear annihilation. He claimed that Soviet missile capabilities were far superior to those of the United States, and were capable of wiping out any American or European city.

(The writer is a retired Colonel from the Indian Army and a student of Sociology with a PhD in the subject. He may be reached at

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