The Cold War dominated international affairs between the late 1940s and 1991. It arose directly from the breakdown of the victorious wartime alliance of the western Allies and the USSR at the end of WW2. The liberal democratic western Allies and the communist USSR had been forced by absolute necessity into a wartime alliance against Nazi Germany and its fascist allies. In short, the alliance was founded on the principle of ‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend’ as the respective countries fought for their survival. Later, with the war in Europe at an end, the cracks in the alliance became rapidly apparent. WW2 had been waged (in theory) against the forces of tyranny, however, Soviet forces were now imposing political control over most of central and eastern Europe. Suspicion and enmity amongst the wartime allies quickly festered. Over the next fifty years, international tensions ensured an ever present threat of nuclear destruction.
The wartime alliance had been created from necessity. The Allied nations were fighting for their survival. In 1940, Western Europe was overrun by German forces leaving Britain isolated and alone. The United States was nominally neutral at this time, however, its economic resources became increasingly important to Britain’s survival. In June 1941, rising tensions between Nazi Germany and communist USSR finally came to a head with the German invasion of the USSR. Britain and USSR became allies in response to a common enemy, later joined by the United States following its entry into WW2 in December 1941. As the tide of war eventually turned against their enemies, the Allied nations met in a serious of strategic conferences to establish common policy and to determine the post-war division of international political power. With each conference – Tehran Conference (28 November to 1 December 1943), Yalta Conference (4 to 11 February 1945), and Potsdam Conference (17 July to 2 August 1945) – the respective participants became increasingly antagonistic towards one another.
The Cold War was notable for its paradox – the opposing countries were actively at war throughout the entire period, but not directly with each other. The Cold War was largely fought by proxy, as the rival countries maintained their rivalry and tensions through battlegrounds in the emerging Third World. Tensions peaked during the following events and wars:
- Berlin Blockade (1948–1949), in which the USSR closed land access to the western zones (British, French and US zones) of West Berlin with the intention of starving it into submission. The USSR assumed that the western Allies would evacuate West Berlin rather than risk open war. Instead, the western Allies used a large fleet of unarmed air transport planes to shuttle supplies into the beleaguered city. The USSR subsequently backed down and permitted land access for the transport of essential supplies into the city.
- Korean War (1950–1953) similarly emerged from the post-war division of territory seized by the Allies at the end of WW2. Korea had formed part of the Japanese Empire which was dissolved with the Japanese surrender. Northern Korea was occupied by Soviet forces, whilst southern Korea was occupied by western forces. Following the end of the Chinese Civil War, the victorious communist People’s Republic of China (PRC) was keen to assert itself in international affairs, whilst the Soviet Union was similarly keen to test western resolve to confront the expansion of communist spheres of influence. In 1950, communist North Korea forces invaded the south with the support of the USSR and PRC. The subsequent war ranged back and forth, directly drawing in the PRC as western forces advanced north towards the border with China. The war eventually drew to an end with the opposing forces re-established along the pre-war border between North and South Korea.
- Suez Crisis (1956) in which British and French forces attempted to invade Egypt and re-establish direct western control over the Suez Canal following the nationalisation of the canal by the Egyptian government. The canal had formerly been controlled by Britain and France, however, the Egyptian government had moved to take direct control of the canal and to accept increasing financial and military aid from the USSR. The invasion intended to overthrow the current Egyptian regime and to return Egypt to the western sphere of influence. However, faced with opposition in the United Nations by both US and the USSR, Britain and France withdrew without achieving their objectives.
- Berlin Crisis (1961), in which the USSR issued an ultimatum for western forces to withdraw from West Berlin. In response to the refusal of the western powers to withdraw, the USSR built the Berlin War to enclose West Berlin and place it under an effective siege.
- Cuban Missile Crisis (1962), in which US warships attempted to impose a maritime blockade of Cuba to prevent the USSR from transporting nuclear weapons into that country. Once the missiles were installed, they would undeniably be pointed at the United States. International tensions nearly culminated in the commencement of a nuclear war. The Cuban Missile Crisis was an example of the policy of ‘Mutually Assured Destruction’ (MAD) in which the US and USSR considered but resisted the desire to launch a nuclear ‘first strike’ – the sheer number of nuclear weapons possessed by the rival countries, and the contingency plans to ensure that they launched as a counter-strike in the event of an enemy attack, assured mutual destruction.
- Vietnam War (1959–1975) emerged out of the French war in Indo-China (1945-1954). France, the former colonial power, had failed to re-establish colonial control over Indo-China at the end of WW2. In the peace settlement that followed, Cambodia and Laos were granted independence, and the Vietnamese provinces were divided into communist backed North Vietnam and US backed South Vietnam. Relations between North and South deteriorated into open warfare. The North was provided with extensive military support from the USSR and PRC, allowing it to progressively expand its guerrilla operations in Laos, Cambodia and South Vietnam. In contrast, foreign military support for the regime in the South expanded to include direct military intervention from the United States, Australia, New Zealand and other countries. By the early 1970s, foreign domestic support for the war had evaporated. Foreign military forces and later military aid were withdrawn, leaving South Vietnam unable to resist the communist offensive of 1975.
- Yom Kippur War (1973) involved a surprise attack on Israel by an alliance of Soviet backed Arab nations. Equipped by the United States, Israeli forces recovered from the initial surprise and inflicted defeats on the invading forces. In the international arena, tensions between the USSR and the United States escalated towards nuclear war until eased by the Arab-Israel peace settlements.
- Soviet war in Afghanistan (1979–1989) involved intervention by the USSR in Afghanistan to support the pro-Soviet government against Mujahedeen rebels, who in turn were militarily aided by US and other foreign powers. The USSR later withdrew from Afghanistan at the end of the Cold War having not been able to defeat the rebels.
- Soviet downing of Korean Air Lines Flight 007 (1983) added to the latest cycle of rising tensions between the USSR and the United States. The civilian airliner had strayed into Soviet airspace triggering the scrambling of Soviet air defences and the subsequent destruction of the airliner and the deaths of all passengers and crew.
- ‘Able Archer’ NATO military exercises (1983) was intended to test NATO’s high level command capabilities in Western Europe in the event of a war with the USSR. The exercise was deemed to be so realistic by the Soviet government that it was assumed to be merely a cover for actual preparations for war. Tensions between the USSR and the United States escalated close to war until the exercise was terminated.
The Cold War was played out in many arenas, including the Space Race (1957-1969) – the international competition (primarily between the USSR and the US) for dominance in Space. The USSR achieved early dominance, with the successful launch of the first unmanned probe (Sputnik 1, 1957) and later the first man (1961). While the US, initially lagging behind, achieved the great goal of the Space Race – the successful manned mission to the moon in 1969.
By the late 1980s, the latest cycle of international tension coincided with growing economic and domestic political turmoil in the USSR and the communist regimes of Eastern Europe. Following his appointment as Soviet General Secretary in 1985, Mikhail Gorbachev endeavoured to arrest the deteriorating situation through his campaigns of ‘perestroika’ (economic ‘restructuring’) and glasnost (political ‘openness’). Relations between the USSR and the United States also improved, with treaties covering nuclear weapons, Soviet consent for German unification, and Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan. However, communist unity in Eastern Europe tottered in the face of growing domestic political opposition across the respective communist countries. The fall of the Berlin Wall came to symbolise the success of popular revolutions across Eastern Europe. Popular movements for political change did not leave the USSR untouched – Gorbachev himself fell from power as the USSR disintegrated into its constitute republics.