The Cold War

Graphic describing the Cold War

How did the Cold War period shape international relations after the Second World War?

After the Second World War, there was a struggle between two world powers, the US and Russia. Why was it called the ‘Cold War’? The reason lay in the threat of new and even deadlier weapons of nuclear technology that prevented outright open warfare. The Cold War was characterised by conflict through proxy wars, the manipulation of more vulnerable states through extensive military and financial aid, espionage, propaganda, rivalry over technology, space and nuclear races, and sport. Besides periods of tense crisis in this bi-polar world, the Cold War deeply affected the newly independent countries in Africa and the liberation struggles in southern Africa from the 1960s until the 1990s, when the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) was dismantled.

Did you know? 
The term “Cold War” was first used by George Orwell, author of the book satirizing Stalinism, “Animal Farm”.

The detente (friendship) that existed between the Allied powers (The US, France and Russia) after 1945 was no more. That military aid would be offered to each other when faced with Nazism fell away, and increased hostility was the order of the day. Some historians argue that it was the formulation and implementation of common policy documents by the USSR for its East European territories that heralded the beginning of different spheres of influence.  Quickly, two distinct blocs emerged.

Also see: National Senior Certificate Grd 12, History Paper 1, November 2014 and
National Senior Certificate Grd 12, History Paper 2, November 2014.

Most learners will understand that a ‘war’ involves conflict between warring parties; that a ‘war’ involves the use of weaponry amongst ‘warring parties’ BUT what is meant by a ‘COLD’ war as opposed to a ‘HOT’ one? Common reference to any war usually involves the type of war that involves weaponry, personnel, devastation, explosions, and most of the images of war. A “COLD” war would refer to a battle of ideologies where the protagonists do not face each other, or fight, each other DIRECTLY.

The Cold War was characteristics by different ideologies being imposed or sold to other countries.

It dissected the world into spheres of influence, with the United States of America (USA) as a champion of democracy (and incidentally, Capitalism, as well) pitted against the USSR (Russia), which stood as a beacon of Communism. These divisions played themselves out in the exporting of influence...and then arms and money....to countries sympathetic to either cause.

The Cold War, which occurred from 1945 until 1989/1990 had far-reaching consequences for the world in general. Much of the literature during this period focussed on the bi-polar nature of the globe. Nation-states across the world, whatever explicit or not, empathised with either Russia or the USA. These countries became the battlefields for the competing influences of Democracy/Capitalism against Communism/Centrally-planned economies.

So, learners might ask as to why this Cold War did not escalate into a ‘Hot’ war, where conventional means of warfare were employed. The reason lies in the proliferation (increase) of nuclear weapons so that if these weapons were ever used, the destruction that would follow would result in a global destruction. So, this Cold War was fought behind the threat of a nuclear war.  The Cuban Missile Crisis (1962) was probably the closest that the world got to a full-blown conventional war.

The Cold War was a period of increased hostility between two blocs of power, the USA and its allies on the one hand; and the USSR and China, on the other. From the end of the Cold War until the early 1990s, world politics and events were primarily viewed through this lens the battle to exert control and influence globally. The Cold War spread outside Europe to every region of the world, and drew to a close by end of the late 1980s / early 1990s. Towards the end of the 1980s, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev held conferences with USA President Ronald Reagan. The USSR introduced reform policies aimed at restructuring (perestroika) and opening the Russian economy (glasnost).

In December 1989, after more than four decades, Russian President Gorbachev and American President G. H.W Bush declared the Cold War officially over.

Timeline (Source: Timeline of events in the Cold War[ Accesssed: 23 January 2015])

  • 1945: Cold War begins
  • 1946: Winston Churchill delivers his ‘ Iron Curtain’ speech
  • 1947: Marshall Plan is announced
  • 1948February, Communists take over Czechoslovakia
  • 1948June, The ‘Berlin Blockade’ begins
  • 1949July, NATO is ratified
  • 1950February, McCarthy begins communist witchunt
  • 1954KGB established. CIA assists in overthrowing ‘unfriendly’ regimes in Iran and Guatemala
  • 1961Bay of Pigs invasion. Construction of Berlin Wall begins. US involvement in Vietnam increases ( troops were dispatched in 1965)
  • 1962Cuban Missile Crisis
  • 1965150000 troops dispatched to Vietnam
  • 1970US President Nixon extends the war to Cambodia.
  • 1973Ceasefire between the US and Vietnam.
  • 1975North Vietnam defeats South Vietnam.
  • 1979USSR invades Afghanistan
  • 1983Ronald Reagan proposes Star Wars
  • 1989Soviet troops withdraw from Afghanistan. Communist governments collapse in Poland, East Germany, Hungary, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia and Romania. The Soviet Empire ( USSR ) ends.

References:
• http://www.historylearningsite.co.uk/what%20was%20the%20cold%20war.htm   Books   http://www.amazon.com/The-Cold-War-New-History/dp/0143038273   USSR and USA and the creation of spheres of interest:   - installation of Soviet-friendly governments in satellite states;   - USA’s policy of containment: Truman Doctrine and Marshall Plan;   - Berlin Crises from 1949 to 1961 (broad understanding of the crises); and   - opposing military alliances: NATO and Warsaw Pact (broadly)   Containment and brinkmanship: the Cuban crisis (as an example of containment and brinkmanship)

Last updated : 08-May-2017

This article was produced for South African History Online on 20-Jan-2015