This Cold War glossary contains definitions for key terms, concepts and events between 1945 and 1991. It has been written and compiled by Alpha History authors.
A tripartite military alliance between Australia, New Zealand and the US, signed in 1951.
A period where two or more nations engage in rapid production of military technology and equipment, often in competition to each other.
Abbreviation for Allamvedelmi Hatosag, the state security police in communist Hungary.
Bay of Pigs
A beach in Cuba, which became famous as the main location for the failed 1961 invasion by CIA-backed Cuban exiles.
A massive program using aircraft to supply Western zones of Berlin with food, fuel and coal, during the Soviet and East German blockade of the city.
Joseph Stalin and East Germany’s closure of land corridors and entry points to the Western zones of Berlin in 1948-49, an attempt to starve the Western allies out of the capital.
A fortified wall constructed around the Western zones of Berlin in 1961, to prevent the escape and defection of East Germans to the West. It remained a symbol of Cold War division until 1989.
The name adopted by the US and British zones of West Germany when they merged in 1947.
A military action to surround or barricade a port, island, city or nation, often with naval vessels.
A Berlin landmark, once a main city entrance, later closed by the Berlin Wall.
Bold, aggressive or risky measures that risk war, to pressure the other side to back down.
Brussels Pact (or Treaty of Brussels)
A 1948 agreement between five European states, a forerunner to the NATO agreement.
A US-manned gateway on the border of East and West Berlin.
Central Intelligence Agency, US government body formed in 1947. Responsible for intelligence gathering, espionage and covert operations.
Abbreviation for the Council of Mutual Economic Assistance, a Soviet-led council that facilitated trade, economic, technical and scientific cooperation between Soviet bloc nations. It was formed in 1949 and disbanded in 1991.
Abbreviation for the Communist Information Bureau, a committee of delegates from communist countries that met between 1947 and 1956. One function of Cominform was to ensure conformity and unity between Soviet bloc governments.
Abbreviation for the Communist International, a committee of delegates from communist parties around the world. The Comintern met regularly in Moscow between 1919 and its dissolution in 1943. Its main function was to expand communism by assisting communist movements with tactical direction and support.
Commonwealth of Independent States (or CIS)
A confederation of 11 former Soviet bloc countries, formed in December 1991 after the dissolution of the USSR.
A political ideology and system that strives for a society with no classes or structures of government.
An emergency broadcasting system, introduced by the US government in 1951, for use in the event of a Soviet nuclear attack.
conscription (also draft)
Compulsory military service, especially in times of war.
The policy of restricting communist expansion, a key element of the Truman Doctrine.
coup d’etat (pronounced ‘coo-day tar’)
Seizure of power by a small group, usually comprised of military officers.
The US ‘defence readiness condition’, ranging from DEFCON 5 (peace) to DEFCON 1 (imminent war).
detente (pronounced ‘day-tont’)
A state of improved relations after a period of conflict or tension. In the Cold War it refers to the decade-long ‘thaw’ in US-Soviet relations between the late 1960s and late 1970s.
Anti-communist theory, contending that the rise of communism in one country would inevitably lead to it spreading to neighbouring countries, particularly in Asia.
duck and cover
A civil defence slogan, used to teach American citizens how to respond in the event of a nuclear strike.
The practice of using agents and spies to advance government policy, through secret activities such as information-gathering, sabotage or assassination.
Term used by Ronald Reagan in 1983 to describe the Soviet bloc.
Abbreviation for Executive Committee, a group of politicians, defence personnel and advisors assembled by John F Kennedy during the 1962 Cuban missile crisis.
fallout shelter (also nuclear shelter, atomic shelter)
A secure building, often underground, to protect inhabitants from fallout following a nuclear attack.
Federal Bureau of Investigation (or FBI)
A US civilian law enforcement body, formed 1908. Responsible for investigating and prosecuting federal crimes and protecting domestic security.
Federal Republic of Germany (also FRG or BRD)
The formal title of the Western-aligned nation of West Germany between 1949 and 1990.
The ability of one nation to launch a pre-emptive or surprise attack on another, giving them a significant advantage.
A government’s policies with regard to other nations. Can relate to areas such as diplomacy, alliances, trade, sanctions and military involvement or intervention.
German Democratic Republic (also GDR or DDR)
The formal title of the Soviet-aligned East Germany between 1949 and 1990.
Russian for ‘openness’. A Soviet reform implemented by Mikhail Gorbachev during the late 1980s, encouraging open debate, discussion and freedom of speech.
East German armed police, responsible for guarding the Berlin Wall and other borders.
Russian prison camps used between 1940 and 1960, for isolating political prisoners, career criminals and other undesirables, while exploiting their labour.
An agreement signed in 1975, aimed at improving communications and relationships between Soviet bloc and Western countries.
A communications system directly linking two remote points. Usually refers to teletype machines installed in the White House and Kremlin in 1963.
Acronym for the House Un-American Activities Committee, a committee of the US Congress that investigated and questioned suspect communists and communist sympathisers, particularly in the late 1940s and 1950s.
intercontinental ballistic missile (or ICBM)
A long-range missile capable of sub-orbital flight. During the Cold War, these missiles could be fired from the US to hit targets in Europe and Soviet Russia, and vice versa.
A term invented by Winston Churchill to describe the political and physical barriers between the Soviet bloc and the ‘free’ countries of Europe.
A foreign policy position, where a nation refuses to commit to alliances or ‘take sides’ in international disputes
A nuclear-capable US ballistic missile, deployed early in the Cold War.
‘Committee for State Security’, formed 1954. The Soviet Union intelligence-gathering and espionage agency and secret police; the broad equivalent of the CIA.
An informal but politically charged discussion between Richard Nixon and Nikita Khrushchev in 1959.
Korean conflict (1950-53) between the Soviet-backed communist North, and the US and UN-backed South.
A diplomatic cable sent by George Kennan in 1946, offering advice on the Soviet Union and possible foreign policy approaches. Kennan’s advice formed the basis of the Truman Doctrine.
MAD (see mutually-assured destruction)
A US-financed relief package, providing funds to European nations to assist their reconstruction after World War II.
A political philosophy and theory of history, developed in the 1800s by Karl Marx.
A period of anti-communist investigations, persecution and hysteria in the US during the early 1950s. Named for Senator Joe McCarthy, its chief instigator.
Short for ‘Military Intelligence Section 5’, the main British intelligence and espionage agency.
A conspiracy theory, suggesting links between politicians, military leaders and industrialists who produce weapons and other military equipment.
An American ballistic missile, developed in the early 1960s to carry nuclear payloads.
A 1950s American perception that the Soviet Union had a larger stockpile of missiles. This was later proved to be incorrect.
Islamic resistance fighters who fought against the Soviets in Afghanistan, with US backing.
Mutual Defense Assistance Act
An act of the US Congress, passed in October 1949, authorising the government to supply military aid, equipment and support to nations at risk from communism. Later dubbed the ‘Military Marshall Plan’.
mutually-assured destruction (or MAD)
The Cold War assumption that both the US and USSR would refrain from launching nuclear weapons, since each knew the other would retaliate, and this would lead to devastation on both sides.
National Liberation Front (see Viet Cong)
National Security Agency (or NSA)
A US agency that gathers information and intelligence by monitoring, intercepting and deciphering radio and signals traffic.
North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (or NATO)
A global military alliance formed in 1949; its members included US, Great Britain, France and West Germany.
Radioactive particles that remain in the atmosphere after a nuclear explosion and are disbursed by weather. Fallout can potentially cause radioactive sickness, cancer, birth deformities and death.
The Cold War practice of sharing US nuclear weapons with its NATO partners.
Explosive devices that generate enormous heat and destructive power through nuclear fission.
A long period where fallout and other particles left by a nuclear war linger in the atmosphere, blocking out sunlight. This leads to a slow-down in plant and animal growth, making food production very difficult.
A detente-era policy adopted by West Germany and its leader Willy Brandt, who sought to improve communication and economic ties with East Germany.
Russian for ‘restructuring’. A reform movement in the USSR during the 1980s, led by Mikhael Gorbachev. It involved some liberal reforms and a relaxing of centralised controls over the economy.
The executive council or cabinet of ministers in the Soviet Union and other communist nations.
The liberal reform movement in Czechoslovakia in 1968, ultimately suppressed by Moscow.
An American project, devised in 1958 and aimed at advancing ahead of the USSR in the Space Race. The objective of Project A119 was to detonate a large nuclear weapon on the Moon that would be visible to the naked eye. It was abandoned in 1959.
A conflict where larger nations support and supply smaller nations involved in a war or civil war, without becoming directly involved.
A French term describing the reconciliation or re-establishment of good relations between previously nations or governments that were previously hostile. In the context of the Cold War, rapprochement generally refers to the improved relations that occurred during detente (early 1970s) and the Gorbachev era (late 1980s).
A term given to the foreign policy of the Reagan administration, particularly regard to the Soviet Union. At the core of the Reagan Doctrine was the ‘rollback’ of communism, to be achieved by supporting anti-communist groups and movements.
Two periods of anti-communist hysteria in the United States, the first following the Russian Revolution (1918-19), the second in the late 1940s and early 1950s.
A period of rapid political, social and/or economic change in a particular nation or region, often involving some violence.
A policy advocated by US president Ronald Reagan, who wanted to reduce the size of the Soviet bloc, rather than to contain it.
SALT (see Strategic Arms Limitation Talks)
A nation that is nominally independent but relies on a larger nation for political and/or economic direction and support.
SDI (see Strategic Defence Initiative)
Second Cold War
Name sometimes given to the post-detente revival of Cold War tensions during the early 1980s.
An address given to the Soviet Congress by Nikita Khrushchev in February 1956, in which he denounced the tyranny, brutality and “abuse of power” perpetrated by the Soviet government under Joseph Stalin.
A state-run police force that investigates, spies on, identifies and eliminates potential opponents.
The secret police force of the communist regime in Romania for most of the Cold War.
The belief that a population should have the right to form a nation, declare independence and decide on their own political system and government.
Describes the independence movement in the Baltic States – Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania – between 1987 and 1991, so-called because it began with sustained public singing.
A breakdown in relations between China and USSR during the 1960s, culminating in border clashes in 1969.
An ideology and political system, with the objective of transitioning from capitalism to communism. Socialist economies do not permit private ownership of capital, profit or other elements of capitalism.
South-East Asia Treaty Organisation (or SEATO)
An eight-nation alliance of Asia-Pacific countries, formed in 1955 to limit communism in Asia.
Term describing the communist nations of Europe, under the influence of the Soviet Union.
US-Soviet competition in rocket technology and space exploration, between the 1950s and 1975.
Speech of Hope
The name given to an address given by US Secretary of State James F Byrne in Stuttgart in September 1946. Byrne assured listeners that the US would protect German sovereignty and, in time, allow a return to German self-government.
sphere of influence
A region or group of nations controlled or influenced by another major nation.
The name of the first two man-made satellites to orbit Earth, launched by the USSR in 1957.
Star Wars (see Strategic Defence Initiative)
An abbreviation for the Ministry of State Security, an East German secret police agency responsible for security and intelligence-gathering. The Stasi was one of the Cold War’s most repressive and brutal security forces.
An abbreviation for Statni Bezpecnost, a plain-clothed secret police agency in communist Czechoslovakia.
Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (or SALT I and SALT II)
The name of two US-Soviet arms reduction summits, held in 1972 and 1979, and the agreements they produced.
Strategic Defence Initiative (or SDI)
The Reagan administration’s revitalised missile defence program, initiated in 1983. It included early warning systems, missile interception systems and research into the use of armed satellites.
strategic nuclear weapon
A larger yield nuclear weapon, intended for launching against cities, ports, military bases or other targets of major significance.
tactical nuclear weapon
A smaller yield nuclear weapon, intended for battlefield use against enemy forces.
A major campaign launched by communists in Vietnam in January 1968, suggesting that a US victory was years away.
A large public square in Beijing, China. The site where Mao Zedong proclaimed a communist victory in October 1949; also the location of a student demonstration that was crushed by Chinese troops in June 1989.
Broadly refers to US Cold War foreign policy, based on Harry Truman’s pledge to support nations in their struggle to resist communism.
Russian for ‘King Bomb’. A 50-megaton nuclear weapon, the largest ever tested, detonated by the USSR in 1961.
An American spy plane, able to fly undetected at high altitude for the covert collection of surveillance photographs.
United Nations (or UN)
A multilateral body formed in 1945 to consider international problems and offer resolutions, with a view to avoiding conflict.
The peaceful popular movement that emerged in Czechoslovakia in late 1989, leading to political reform and free elections.
A popular term for the National Liberation Front, or NLF, a group of communist guerrillas who fought against the South Vietnamese and American forces between 1959 and 1975.
Vietnamese communist-nationalist group, led by Ho Chi Minh, which defeated French colonial forces in 1954.
A south-east Asian conflict (1959-75) between communist North Vietnam and the Viet Cong (backed by China and the USSR) and non-communist South Vietnam (supported by US military aid and involvement). It ended with the 1975 takeover of Vietnam by communist forces.
A military alliance of European communist nations, formed in 1955.