The Cold War

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A Western view of Soviet Cold War ambitions

The Cold War was a five-decade long period of political and military tension, beginning after the end of World War II and ending in the early 1990s. The phrase ‘cold war’ was coined by writer George Orwell in late 1945 to describe a geopolitical situation of “horrible stability”, where two powerful nations or alliance blocs – each capable of destroying the other – might refuse to communicate, consult or negotiate. Orwell’s dire prediction came to pass in the wake of World War II. As Soviet forces liberated the nations of eastern and central Europe from the tyranny of Nazism, they remained in these places, pushing socialist parties into power, installing puppet governments and creating satellite nations that took orders from Moscow. The dangers of Soviet occupation and communist infiltration were quickly recognised by western leaders like Winston Churchill, who warned of the “Iron Curtain” descending on Europe. The US too recognised the threat that communism posed to war-ravaged Europe; its response was the European Recovery Plan, better known as the Marshall Plan, a four-year $13 billion aid package to restore European capitalism – and with it, liberal-democratic political systems. By the late 1940s, mainland Europe was firmly divided into two camps: US-backed democratic nations in the west and socialist Soviet bloc nations in the east.

At the heart of these post-war divisions was Germany. In 1945 the defeated Germany was occupied by Allied forces: the Americans and British in the west and the Soviet Red Army in the east. But these occupying powers refused to relinquish their position and Germany evolved into two separate post-war states – democratic West Germany and socialist East Germany – while the German capital Berlin was also carved into four quadrants. For four decades Germany and its divided capital was the crucible of Cold War tensions. In 1948 Soviet and East German attempts to starve the Americans and their allies out of Berlin were thwarted by the largest airlift in history. Subsequent threats and ultimatums also failed. Eventually the East German government, facing a mass exodus of its own people to West Berlin, was forced to lock down the city’s exit points and construct a giant barrier manned by armed soldiers. The Berlin Wall became one of the most enduring symbols of the Cold War.

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A map showing the division of Europe during the Cold War

The unfolding Cold War also gave rise to an unprecedented level of suspicion, mistrust, paranoia and secrecy. The American and Soviet intelligence agencies, the CIA and KGB, increased their covert activities around the world, gathering information about enemy states and regimes. They also sponsored, supported and supplied underground movements, uprisings and conflicts, encouraging so-called ‘proxy wars’. There were frequent accusations of espionage and underhandedness, such as the Powers incident in 1960, when an American spy-plane was shot down in Soviet Russia. But the most perilous flashpoint of the Cold War came in 1962, with the discovery of Soviet-installed nuclear missiles in Cuba, not far from the United States coastline. The stand-off and brinkmanship over the Cuban missiles saw the superpowers hurtle towards a war and possible nuclear exchange, before tensions were short-circuited at the eleventh hour by a secret deal. The intensity of the Cuban missile crisis soon gave way to a period of relative calm, known as detente, between the mid-1960s and late-1970s. There was more communication and less direct confrontation during this period, though many of the secretive aspects of the Cold War continued unabated.

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A model Cold War fallout shelter, for family use during a nuclear attack

Those who lived through the Cold War experienced it in real-time. Rather than concealing developments and events from the public, governments exploited them in the press, on radio and television and in popular culture. The Cold War fuelled some of the most virulent propaganda campaigns in human history. In the West, people were schooled to think the worst of those on the other side of the Iron Curtain; civilians were warned of the possibility of spies, subterfuge and surprise nuclear strikes; school children learned about air-raid drills, bomb shelters and nuclear fallout. It was government agencies that conducted this symphony of nuclear paranoia – but they had willing accomplices among writers, film makers and television studios. The post-war generation, which should have been one of the most prosperous and content of modern times, grew up thinking that the nuclear clock was ticking and that its own destruction may be imminent.

Alpha History’s section on the Cold War looks at the people, groups and ideas that created and perpetuated this long period of international tension and conflict – and in doing so, helped to shape and define our world today.

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This page was written by Jennifer Llewellyn, Jim Southey and Steve Thompson. To reference this page, use the following citation:
J. Llewellyn et al, “The Cold War”, Alpha History, accessed [today’s date],