This Cold War who’s who contains brief biographical summaries of key individuals, noting their role, involvement or contribution to the Cold War between 1945 and 1991. These profiles have been written by Alpha History authors.
Curtis LeMay | Douglas Macarthur | Mao Zedong | George Marshall | Joseph McCarthy | Robert McNamara | Robert Menzies | Imre Nagy | Richard Nixon | Osama bin Laden | Kim Philby | August Pinochet | Gary Powers | Ronald Reagan | Syngman Rhee | Franklin Roosevelt | Julius & Ethel Rosenberg | Joseph Stalin | Maxwell Taylor | Margaret Thatcher | Josip Tito | Walter Ulbricht | U Thant | Lech Walesa | Boris Yeltsin | Zhou Enlai
LeMay, Curtis (1906-1990) was a United States Air Force chief and one of the more prominent ‘hawks’ of the Cold War. LeMay joined the US Army Air Corps in the late 1920s and served with distinction as a bomber commander during World War II, rising in rank from lieutenant to major general in just four years. In late 1944 LeMay was put in charge of bombing operations against the Japanese islands; in March 1945 he authorised the mass firebombing of Tokyo, an attack that devastated the city and killed more than 100,000 people. LeMay was later promoted to general rank and posted to Europe, where he oversaw the Berlin airlift. In 1948 was became head of the newly formed Strategic Air Command (SAC), which oversaw the US bomber and missile arsenal during the Cold War. Cigar-smoking, taciturn and forceful, LeMay pushed for increased budget allocations for SAC. He became chief of the Air Force in 1961 and the following year urged President Kennedy to order the bombing of Soviet missile sites in Cuba, a suggestion that Kennedy rejected. LeMay retired from the military in 1965 and three years later ran unsuccessfully for the vice-presidency.
Macarthur, Douglas (1880-1964) was a US Army general, famous for his roles as a battlefield commander during World War II and the Korean War. Born in Arkansas, Macarthur, the son of a decorated Civil War colonel, received a military education in Texas and then as a cadet at West Point. Macarthur served with distinction during World War I; he began the war as a captain but by its completion in 1918 had been promoted to the rank of brigadier general. After World War I Macarthur served as superintendent of West Point then as field marshal of the fledging Philippine Army. He is probably best known for leading a stoic but unsuccessful defence of the Philippines against Japanese invasion in 1941-42, later declaring that “I shall return”. Macarthur was the supreme commander of the US war effort in the Pacific and later oversaw the Japanese surrender and the occupation of Japan. When South Korea was invaded by North Korea in 1950, Macarthur, then into his 70s, was appointed commander of the United Nations coalition force. But within a few months Macarthur had alienated many in the Truman administration, by making public comments on the war that were both politically insensitive and beyond his authority; of particular concern was a statement from Macarthur that the Korean War should be expanded to become a war for the liberation of China. In April 1951 it emerged that Macarthur had communicated with members of the US Congress and criticised Truman’s handling of the war effort. Days later, Truman sacked Macarthur and ordered his recall to the US, a move that proved controversial and somewhat damaging for the president and his administration.
Mao Zedong (1893-1976) was a communist revolutionary who in 1949 proclaimed the formation of the People’s Republic of China. Born in Hunan province, Mao began his life as a librarian and teacher, while studying both left-wing Western political texts and the writings of ancient Chinese scholars. In 1921 Mao became a member of the Chinese Communist Party, attending its foundation meeting in Shanghai. Through the 1920s he served as a party functionary, both in Shanghai and his native Hunan. In 1929 Mao created a ‘peasant soviet’ in Jiangxi province but five years later was forced to abandon it when attacked by forces of the nationalist government. Mao’s leadership during the famous Long March (1934-35) and the Yen’an Soviet (1936-1949) greatly increased his prominence in the Chinese Communist Party. By the mid-1940s he was the party’s undisputed political, military and ideological leader. In 1949 Mao led the communists to victory in the Chinese Civil War and proclaimed the formation of the People’s Republic of China. Mao’s policies of the 1950s began China’s transition from an undeveloped agricultural economy into an industrial and military superpower. These changes came at enormous human cost, with more than 20 million Chinese perishing from famine and disease during Mao’s failed Great Leap Forward. In the 1960s Mao became the focus of the Cultural Revolution, which placed him at the centre of one of the largest personality cults in history. He was famously hostile to Western nations, particularly the US, which he described as a nation of “hangmen”; Mao generally left foreign policy matters to his premier, Zhou Enlai, though he did meet US president Richard Nixon during his 1972 visit to China. Mao died in 1976 and the leadership of China eventually passed to one of his rivals, Deng Xiaoping.
Marshall, George C. (1880-1958) was a US military commander and Secretary of State between 1947 and 1949. Born in Pennsylvania, Marshall was educated at a Virginian military academy and served in World War I as an infantry commander, finishing the war with the rank of colonel. He remained in the army, working in planning, training and as a base commandant. Marshall became a general and chief of the army at the outbreak of World War II, overseeing its expansion and most major American operations, including the D-Day landings in 1944. In late 1945 Marshall was sent to China to bring about a resolution in the civil war between nationalists and communists, a mission he was unable to complete. In January 1947 Harry Truman appointed Marshall as his Secretary of State and tasked him with overseeing the reconstruction of post-war Europe. Marshall’s oversight and promotion of the European Recovery Program (ERP) was so successful that it became more widely known as the Marshall Plan. Marshall’s management of the ERP led to him being awarded TIME’s Man of the Year (1947) and the Nobel Peace Prize (1953). He also served for one year as Secretary of Defence (1950-51) during the Korean War before retiring from public life.
McCarthy, Joseph (1908-1957) was an American lawyer and congressman, famous for leading witch hunts against suspected communists in the early 1950s. Born in rural Wisconsin, McCarthy completed his high school education as an adult before completing a law degree part time. Within four years he had obtained a position as a circuit judge, where he became famous for dealing with cases quickly, some in a matter of minutes. In 1942 McCarthy volunteered for the US Marines and served in the Pacific theatre of World War II; he was later criticised for dishonesty about his war service. In 1946 McCarthy stood as a Republican candidate for the US Senate, his campaigning featuring relentless and often scurrilous attacks on his opponents. McCarthy’s public prominence began in February 1950, when he delivered a speech in Wheeling, West Virginia, claiming to have details of dozens of communists working for the State Department. In the anti-communist paranoia of the early Cold War, this inflammatory claim kick-started a wave of rumours and investigations. Buoyed by his increased public profile, McCarthy began to accuse individual politicians, diplomats and bureaucrats of being sympathetic to or soft on communism; these attacks extended to former Secretary of State George C. Marshall and President Truman himself. In 1954 McCarthy and his assistant counsel, Roy Cohn, initiated senate investigations into the US Army; these hearings were televised live and exposed McCarthy and his tactics to wider public scrutiny, which in turn heightened criticism of him. The US Senate voted to censure McCarthy and he quickly faded from prominence, remaining in the Senate until his death from alcoholism in 1957.
McNamara, Robert (1916-2009) was the longest-serving US defence secretary in history, his tenure lasting eight years (1961-68) under presidents Kennedy and Johnson. Born in San Francisco, McNamara was educated at Berkeley and Harvard, graduating in business before returning to Harvard as an academic. In 1943 he enlisted in the US Army Air Force, ending the war as a lieutenant colonel but without having seen combat. After the war McNamara was headhunted by the Ford motor vehicle company, where he played a leading role in the modernisation of Ford’s post-war design, production and marketing. By the late 1950s McNamara was being hailed as the saviour of Ford; in 1960 he became the first company president from outside the Ford family. Within months McNamara was approached by president-elect John F Kennedy to serve as Secretary of Defence, an offer he accepted. McNamara become part of White House inner circle, forming friendships with the Kennedys and providing advice on a number of policy areas. In his defence portfolio, McNamara was an adherent to ‘mutually-assured destruction’: he believed the US nuclear arsenal must exist as a deterrent rather than a first-strike weapon. He also strived to minimise the chances of an accidental or unpredicted war by ensuring that major command decisions were in civilian rather than military hands. McNamara also used his business acumen to modernise and reorient the Strategic Air Command (SAC), improving response systems, readiness and cost effectiveness. McNamara was an advocate of the Domino Theory and became the main architect of America’s military involvement in Vietnam. During Kennedy’s presidency McNamara authorised a steady increase in the number of US military advisors; under Johnson, McNamara developed military strategies designed to eradicate the Viet Cong from South Vietnam. By 1967 McNamara was convinced that the war in Vietnam was unwinnable; he urged a withdrawal of US forces but was overruled by Johnson. He resigned from cabinet in early 1968 and was appointed president of the World Bank. In 2003 McNamara appeared in a documentary, The Fog of War, where he explained and discussed his decisions and errors during the Vietnam War.
Menzies, Robert (1894-1978) was a long-serving prime minister of Australia, known for his opposition to communism and for forging close alliances with the US. Born in remote western Victoria, Menzies attended Melbourne University and graduated in law, before moving into private practice. In 1928 he entered politics, first in the Victorian state parliament and then, six years later, in the national legislature. Menzies was a conservative Anglophile, deeply loyal to Britain and the British monarchy; he also admired the achievements of Adolf Hitler in Nazi Germany, a country he visited in the late 1930s. In April 1939 Menzies became prime minister of Australia after the sudden death of the incumbent, Joseph Lyons; he remained in office until August 1941 when his party lost its majority. Menzies was returned to government in 1949, with the Cold War unfolding both in Europe and Asia. In 1951 his party passed laws banning communism, however these were overturned by the High Court of Australia, which deemed them unconstitutional. Menzies attempted to force the issue by organising a referendum to change the constitution, but this too was defeated. The discovery of Soviet spies in Australia during the Petrov affair (1954) enabled Menzies to win an election he might otherwise have lost. Menzies also committed Australia to several Cold War alliances, signing the ANZUS (1951) and SEATO (1954) treaties. One of Menzies’ last major decisions, undertaken just before his retirement, was to commit Australian military personnel to the war in Vietnam (1965).
Nagy, Imre (1896-1958) was a Hungarian socialist politician and the figurative leader of the 1956 revolt against Soviet communism. Born in western Hungary to a poor family, Nagy joined the Austro-Hungarian army and fought against the Russians in World War I. He was captured and detained in Russia for the rest of the war, where he was later exposed to the ideas of Marx and Lenin. Nagy became a communist and remained in Russia between the wars, where he received a Marxist education, served with the Red Army and worked with the Comintern. Nagy returned to Hungary after 1945 and served in the post-war socialist government, overseeing land and agricultural reforms. In 1953 he became the de facto prime minister, replacing the hardline Stalinist Matyas Rakosi. Nagy’s attempts to deviate from Soviet economic policy led to his removal in April 1955, however his reformist position remained popular with many Hungarians. In October 1956 the anti-Soviet revolt returned Nagy to the prime ministership; within days he called for the restoration of democratic government, the abolition of the secret police (AVH), the removal of Soviet troops and Hungary’s withdrawal from the Warsaw Pact. Nagy’s reformist government lasted until early November, when Soviet forces entered Hungary, crushed the uprising and arrested Nagy. He was later charged with treason, given a secret trial and executed by hanging.
Nixon, Richard (1913-1994) was the 37th US president, serving from January 1969 until his resignation in August 1974. Nixon was born in California to a family of Quakers and was educated at Duke University, graduating in law. He volunteered for the US Navy in 1943, serving as a lieutenant in administrative roles in the Pacific theatre. After the war Nixon set his sights on a political career, campaigning for a seat in the US House of Representatives; he was elected to the House in late 1946. Nixon became a member of HUAC and was an outspoken critic of suspected communists and militant unionists; his strong anti-communist position thrust Nixon into the national spotlight. In 1950 he moved from the House to the US Senate; two years later he received the Republican Party’s nomination as Eisenhower’s running mate. In November 1952 Nixon, aged 39, became the second-youngest US vice-president in history. Unlike previous vice-presidents he took an active role in foreign affairs, making important speeches and undertaking several state visits abroad. In 1959 Nixon attended the US exhibition in Moscow, where he engaged with Soviet leader Khrushchev in what later became known as the ‘Kitchen Debate’. Nixon served two terms as Eisenhower’s deputy before running for the White House himself in 1960, however he was narrowly defeated by John F Kennedy and consequently withdrew from political life for several years. Nixon returned from the wilderness in 1968, standing for the presidency and styling himself as a peacemaker who would seek an end to the Vietnam War. Within months Nixon had announced a policy of ‘Vietnamisation’ that would transfer responsibility to the war to South Vietnam, allowing the withdrawal of US combat forces – however he also authorised the expansion of US military operations into Laos and Cambodia. Nixon’s Cold War foreign policy called for greater communication with communist powers and contributed to the rising detente of the early 1970s. In 1972 Nixon made a historical visit to communist China; the following year he welcomed Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev on a two-week visit to the US. But the last two years of Nixon’s presidency were also tainted by the Watergate scandal, which implicated him in a cover-up of illegal activities. Facing impeachment, Nixon resigned from the presidency in August 1974, the only US president to have ever done so.
Osama bin Laden (1957-2011) was a Saudi-born religious fanatic who fought against Soviet occupation in Afghanistan and later founded the terrorist group al-Qaeda. Bin Laden’s father was a Yemeni tribesman who had emigrated to oil-rich Saudi Arabia, won favour with the Saudi royal family and became a billionaire through state-backed building and construction contracts. Osama bin Laden was educated in business and engineering, in preparation for entering his father’s business, however his main interest was religion (Bin Laden was a strict Wahhabi Muslim, an extremely conservative branch of Sunni Islam). Angered by the Soviet military incursion into Afghanistan in 1979, bin Laden traveled to the area and became involved in groups funding and supplying the mujahideen resistance. During this period bin Laden’s groups benefited from CIA-provided equipment and training, though it is unlikely that bin Laden had any direct contact with American agencies. By the late 1980s the Soviets had withdrawn from Afghanistan and bin Laden had turned his attentions to forming a military paramilitary group, aimed at advancing and expanding his own brand of Islamic fundamentalism. This group, later named al-Qaeda (‘the base) was later responsible for several terrorist missions against US and Western targets, including the September 11th attacks in the US (2001) and street bombings in Bali, Indonesia (2002).
Philby, Kim (1912-1988) was a British intelligence officer who in the 1960s was exposed as a Soviet double agent. Born in India, Philby was educated at Westminster and Cambridge, graduating with a degree in history. In the 1930s Philby lived and worked on the continent, chiefly in Vienna, where he was aligned with underground communist groups and recruited as a Soviet spy. After working as a correspondent in the Spanish Civil War and World War II, Philby was recruited by MI6, the British Secret Intelligence Service. After the war Philby headed British intelligence in Turkey before being posted to the British embassy in Washington DC. In 1950 he came under growing suspicion, forcing his resignation from MI6 the following year. In early 1963 Philby vanished; it soon emerged that he had defected to Moscow. He lived out his days in the Soviet Union, writing his memoirs and receiving a small government pension until his death in 1988.
Pinochet, Augusto (1915-2006) was an Chilean general and dictator, who seized control of the South American country after a bloody coup in September 1973. Born to a humble family in a coastal town, Pinochet attended a local military academy. He became a career soldier and rose through the ranks, despite seeing no combat or active service. In August 1973 Chilean president Salvador Allende appointed General Pinochet the commander-in-chief of all Chilean military forces. The following month Pinochet – with the backing of other generals, right-wing politicians and the CIA – overthrew Allende’s government and had Allende and his inner circle executed. Pinochet governed Chile for a year as head of a military junta, after which he assumed the powers of a fascist military dictator. Pinochet’s rule was oppressive: thousands of his political opponents were hunted down, arrested and detained, while others vanished without a trace, probably murdered. Pinochet’s regime encouraged and supported business and foreign investment, while neglecting the needs of the Chilean people. In 1982 Pinochet ordered Chilean military and intelligence services to support British forces at war with Argentina in the Falkland Islands. Pinochet’s reign ended in 1990, after several years of internal and external pressure for democratic reform. In 1998 the ageing former dictator traveled to Britain for specialist medical care, where he was arrested and detained for authorising the torture of Spanish diplomats and civilians in the 1970s. After a long legal battle Pinochet was eventually released and returned to face investigation in Chile, however he died in 2006 before any charges were laid.
Powers, Francis Gary (1929-1977) was an American pilot captured while spying on the Soviet Union in 1960. Powers was born in Kentucky and as a teenager enlisted in the United States Air Force. After demonstrating exceptional skills flying jet aircraft, Powers was headhunted by the CIA. In the late 1950s he joined the CIA full-time, where he was trained to pilot the high altitude U-2 spy plane. In May 1960 Powers took off in a U-2 from Pakistan with orders to fly over and photograph military installations in Soviet territory. His aircraft was shot down by a newly developed Soviet surface-to-air missile; Powers parachuted to safety but he, the wreckage of the U-2 and its photographic equipment were all detained by Soviet troops. Powers’ capture caused an international incident: the US government claimed his plane had gone off course while taking weather measurements, however the Soviets countered this claim by publicly unveiling the U-2 wreckage and captured film. Powers himself was charged with espionage, put on trial in Moscow and sentenced to ten years’ imprisonment and hard labour. He was released 18 months later, in exchange for a KGB agent caught spying in America. Powers became a civilian helicopter pilot until his death in an accident in 1977.
Reagan, Ronald (1911-2004) was a Californian politician, state governor and, from 1980, the 40th president of the United States. Conservative and anti-communist, Reagan was man who many believe was instrumental in bringing the Cold War to an end. Reagan was born in Illinois and until the 1950s was a moderately successful Hollywood actor. He was also politically active during this period, serving as president of the Screen Actors Guild, providing the FBI with information about suspected communists in the film industry, and testifying before HUAC. In 1966 Reagan ran for and was elected as governor of California, where he served two full terms. In 1976 he ran unsuccessfully for the presidency, before winning the Republican nomination in 1980 and defeating the incumbent, Jimmy Carter, later that year. Reagan immediately abandoned existing Cold War policies of containment and detente, in favour of what was dubbed ‘rollback’. He began to fund and support anti-communist groups in nations where communism held sway, while increasing US defence spending significantly, pumping billions into missile and missile defence systems such as the controversial Strategic Defence Initiative, or ‘Star Wars’ program. Reagan also directly challenged the Soviet Union, dubbing it an “evil empire” and calling on Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to “tear down” the Berlin Wall. Reagan’s forceful rhetoric and instigation of another arms race was too much for the Soviet Union, which was already collapsing under the weight of its own stagnant economy. Reagan left office in January 1989, as the winds of liberal and democratic reform were beginning to weaken the bonds of socialism in eastern Europe. Reagan suffered from dementia in his final years, not even able to recognise his wife Nancy.
Rhee, Syngman (1875-1965) was a pro-Western Korean politician who served as the first president of South Korea between 1948 and 1960. Born to a peasant family, as a young man Rhee was imprisoned for criticising and resisting growing Japanese influence on the Korean peninsula. Rhee was chiefly influenced by Western values, particularly Christianity, to which he converted in his 20s. During the 1910s Rhee worked with the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA), before the Japanese occupiers forced him to flee Korea. He spent more than two decades in exile, mostly in the United States, returning to southern Korea after the Japanese surrender in 1945. Backed by the US, Rhee served as provisional leader of post-war Korea; in July 1948 he was affirmed as the first president of the South Korean republic. Rhee’s leadership was anti-communist but nor was it liberal, democratic or consultative; he was an authoritarian ruler who crushed political opposition and dissent, regardless of its source. With Rhee’s approval the South Korean military engaged in brutal repression of suspected communists. In 1952 Rhee retained power by ordering the arrest of opposition politicians and forcing through a constitutional amendment. Rhee’s autocratic rule came to an end in April 1960, when students initiated a public uprising that forced his resignation. Rhee was flown to Hawaii by a CIA plane, where he lived in exile until his death five years later.
Roosevelt, Franklin Delano (1882-1945) was the 32nd president of the United States, his time in office coinciding with the Great Depression, World War II and the first divisions of the Cold War. Born in New York to an affluent family of Dutch origins, Roosevelt attended Harvard and Columbia before becoming a lawyer. He entered the New York State Senate in 1910; he later served as Woodrow Wilson’s assistant Secretary of the Navy and the governor of New York (1929-1932). Wilson was elected to the presidency in 1932 and developed a series of policy responses to the Great Depression, dubbed the New Deal. Roosevelt maintained US neutrality in the first years of World War II, though he supported the British war effort through the Lend-Lease program. The bombing of Pearl Harbour in December 1941 brought the US into the war – and an alliance with Soviet leader Joseph Stalin. Roosevelt met Stalin in Tehran (1943) and Yalta (1945) and formed an amicable view of the Soviet dictator. Believing that Stalin could be trusted and ‘managed’, Roosevelt accepted his assurances that Moscow had no significant plans to expand the Soviet Union beyond Poland. But by March 1945, Roosevelt understood that Stalin had no intention of honouring the promises made at Yalta. Riddled by age, paralysis and heart disease, Roosevelt died in April and the presidency passed to his vice-president, Harry Truman.
Rosenberg, Julius (1918-1953) and Rosenberg, Ethel (1915-1953) were an American husband and wife convicted and executed for passing nuclear secrets to Soviet agents. Born in New York to Jewish immigrant families, the Rosenbergs both joined communist youth leagues in the 1930s, where they met. In 1940 Julius Rosenberg enlisted in the US Army and became an engineering inspector, a position that gave him access to secret and sensitive information. A year or two into his military service Rosenberg was recruited by the Soviet NKVD and began to pass Soviet agents informations about weapons systems, design and testing. His wife Ethel assisted him by typing up copies of stolen documents, while Ethel’s brother David Greenglass – a machine operator working on the Manhattan Project – supplied information about atomic weapons development. The Rosenbergs came to the attention of the FBI after being named by captured Soviets spies. They were arrested in 1950 and tried, convicted and sentenced to death in April 1951. Both were executed in the electric chair in May 1953. The execution of the Rosenbergs ignited controversy, as some of the evidence tendered against them was questionable, while several of their collaborators were treated much less severely. Greenglass, for instance, gave false testimony against the Rosenbergs and served only 10 years in prison.
Stalin, Joseph (1878-1953) was the dictatorial leader of the Soviet Union from the late 1920s until his death in 1953. As a young man Stalin was an active revolutionary whose contribution to Russia’s Bolshevik movement was to raise funds through extortion, robbery and thuggery. By 1917 Stalin was a prominent party leader, who aligned himself with Vladimir Lenin and participated in the overthrow of Russia’s Provisional Government. When Lenin’s health began to fail in 1922, Stalin used his position as general secretary to accumulate allies and influence within the Communist Party. Ruthless and manipulative, Stalin isolated his rivals – particularly fellow communist Leon Trotsky – and became leader of the Soviet Union after Lenin’s death in 1924. Stalin’s policies saw the Soviet Union transform from a backward agricultural empire to an industrial, technological and military superpower. This transformation, however, came at enormous human cost, millions of Russians dying from famine and political persecution. The West loathed and feared Stalin as much as it did Hitler, at least until 1941, when the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union forced the US and Britain into an alliance with the Soviet leader. This uneasy alliance began to fracture at the Yalta and Potsdam conferences of 1945, when Stalin gave assurances that he had no intention of keeping. Stalin was the most influential communist leader in the world and his policies and actions helped define and intensify the Cold War. In the late 1940s his regime expanded Soviet socialism through eastern Europe by manipulating the development of post-war governments in Germany, Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia and elsewhere. The communist leaders who emerged in these countries often modelled themselves on Stalin’s leadership and implemented Stalinist policies. Such was Stalin’s influence that none of the pivotal events of the early Cold War – from the Berlin blockade to the Korean War – could have occurred without his approval or connivance. Stalin died from a massive stroke in March 1953.
Taylor, Maxwell D. (1901-1987) was a US Army general who played an important role in the Cold War and Vietnam during the 1960s. Born in Missouri and educated at West Point, Taylor was a career soldier who fought with distinction in the European theatre of World War II. He later served in the Korean War, as the commander of West Point and as an advisor on military restructuring. Taylor retired in 1959 but his strong personal and professional relationship with the Kennedys saw him recalled to active service in 1961. John F. Kennedy appointed Taylor chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in 1962, just days before the Cuban missile crisis. Taylor retired again after Kennedy’s assassination and in 1964 was appointed as US ambassador to South Vietnam.
Thatcher, Margaret (1925-2013) was the prime minister of Great Britain between May 1979 and November 1990. The daughter of a storekeeper, Thatcher was an outstanding student who studied chemistry at Oxford University, graduating in 1947. She joined the Conservative Party and was a candidate in the 1950 and 1951 elections, losing narrowly despite being in her mid-20s. Thatcher was eventually elected to parliament in 1959. In 1970 she entered cabinet as the secretary for education; five years later she was elected leader of the Conservative Party in opposition. During the 1970s Thatcher made her name as a powerful and often antagonistic public speaker, both within parliament and the public forum. Her favourite targets were the Labour Party, Britain’s powerful unions and the Soviet Union, which she once claimed was “bent on world dominance”. Her stern and uncompromising public persona led one Soviet newspaper to nickname her the ‘Iron Lady’. Thatcher’s vocal anti-communism matched that of US president Ronald Reagan, who became her closest ally. Her government also increased defence spending, increasing Britain’s nuclear arsenal by almost 200 per cent. In 1982 Thatcher ordered British naval and amphibious forces into the South Atlantic to liberate the Falkland Islands from an Argentinian invasion, a conflict not directly related to the Cold War. Despite her tough stance, Thatcher was one of the first Western leaders to reconnect with the Soviet Union; she visited Moscow in 1984 and accepted the reforms of Mikhail Gorbachev with good faith and encouragement. Unpopular at home because of her domestic policies, Thatcher lost the support of her party and was forced to resign from the prime ministership in 1990. She died in seclusion in April 2013.
Josip Tito (1892-1980) was the socialist dictator of Yugoslavia for much of the Cold War. Born Josip Broz in a tiny village in northern Croatia, he was conscripted into the Austro-Hungarian army after his 21st birthday. Though opposed to the war at first, Broz excelled as a soldier, rising to the rank of sergeant-major while still in his early 20s. In 1915 Broz was captured by the Russians in Galicia and shipped to a prisoner of war camp. He was released in 1917 and travelled to St Petersburg, where he joined the communist Bolshevik movement and participated in the October Revolution that elevated Lenin to power. Broz later returned to his homeland, by now re-formed as Yugoslavia, where he became a union leader, a communist activist and a wanted man. When the Nazis invaded Yugoslavia in 1941, Tito was named as commander in chief of the communist resistance. His leadership was so effective that by the end of World War II, Tito seemed the logical candidate to lead post-war Yugoslavia, and he was quickly appointed prime minister. Tito was initially viewed by the world as just another Stalinist puppet, however it did not take long for divisions to appear between the Yugoslav and Soviet governments. Tito openly defied Moscow, announcing that his government was developing its own form of socialism, based on syndicalist models where workers had a greater say in production. By the end of the 1940s Yugoslavia had withdrawn from the Comintern and Cominform, prompting fears of a Soviet invasion. Yugoslav-Soviet relations eased in the mid-1950s after the death of Stalin, while Tito developed his own foreign policy of “positive neutralism”, opening up dialogue both with Soviet bloc and Western nations. Domestically, Tito’s was anti-democratic and authoritarian, however it was generally benevolent and lacked the oppression and state violence of other communist regimes. Tito died in May 1980, aged 88, and Yugoslavia began a slow but inexorable move away from communism.
Ulbricht, Walter (1893-1973) was a socialist politician who played a critical role in the development of East Germany. Born in Leipzig, Ulbricht’s working class parents were active members of the Social Democrat Party (SPD). Ulbricht himself was conscripted at the beginning of World War I and served on the Eastern Front until 1917, when he deserted. After the war he joined the Communist Party of Germany (KPD) and studied in Moscow. He was forced until exile during the Nazi period but returned to Soviet-occupied eastern Germany in 1945. In 1950 Ulbricht became the general secretary of the Socialist Unity Party and the de facto national leader of East Germany. Ulbricht’s leadership was largely modeled on that of Stalin. He implemented a five-year economic plan for industrialisation and modernisation, while imposing political controls and expanding both the size and power of the Stasi, the notorious East German secret police. Ulbricht’s measures failed to achieve significant improvements, either in production or standards of living; as a consequence he became increasingly unpopular in the 1960s, both with party hardliners and ordinary East Germans. He was forced to resign from politics in 1971, under pressure both from Moscow and within East Germany itself. He died just two years later.
U Thant (1909-1974) was a Burmese diplomat who served as secretary-general of the United Nations between 1961 and 1971. Born into an affluent family in rural Burma, Thant received a university education and worked as a teacher, while writing and translating for the local press. In the late 1940s he was recruited by the newly independent Burmese government, serving in the areas of communications and foreign affairs. In 1957 Thant became Burma’s ambassador to the United Nations; four years later he was appointed secretary-general, after the sudden death of Dag Hammarskjold. A devout Buddhist with a conciliatory and thoughtful approach to problem-solving, Thant contributed to the resolution of several international incidents, including the Cuban missile crisis (1962) and the Congolese civil war (1966). Unlike his predecessors, Thant was widely respected by Cold War leaders on both sides, who praised his calm demeanour and evenhandedness. He served two terms as secretary-general before his retirement in 1971.
Walesa, Lech (1943- ) was a Polish unionist turned politician who played a leading role in the dissolution of communism in Poland. Born in central Poland in the midst of World War II, Walesa trained as a mechanic and an electrician. Walesa became interested in workers’ rights and by his late 20s was an influential trade union organiser, leading several illegal strikes. During the 1970s Walesa combined his union leadership with underground political activism, which earmarked him for surveillance by the Polish Security Service. In 1980 Walesa led another wave of shipyard strikes in Gdansk, culminating in the formation of Solidarnosc (‘Solidatory’), a confederation of Polish trade unions beyond the control of the Communist Party. By 1983 Solidarnosc had several million members but had been outlawed by the Polish government, while Walesa had won the Nobel Peace Prize for his non-violent resistance to state oppression. Solidarnosc continued to operate underground during the 1980s, eventually emerging in late 1988 as a de facto political party and winning a majority in the June 1989 national election. Walesa remained out of politics until December 1990, when he became Poland’s first democratically elected president, an office he held until his retirement in 1995.
Yeltsin, Borin (1931-2007) was a Russian politician, most famous for short-circuiting the abortive 1991 coup that briefly removed Mikhail Gorbachev from power. Born in a rural village near the Ural Mountains, Yeltsin’s family were victims of Stalin’s brutal agricultural policies during the 1930s. The young Yeltsin received a technical education, qualifying as an engineer before becoming a construction supervisor. He joined the Communist Party in 1961, a move that later allowed him access to important government positions. In 1977 Yeltsin oversaw the destruction of the Ipatiev House, where the Romanov royal family had been murdered 59 years before. In 1981 Yeltsin became a member of the CPSU Central Committee; five years later he was admitted into the Politburo. Erratic and unpredictable, Yeltsin was often accused of being drunk – however his flamboyance and outspokenness were rare traits in a Soviet politician, so he became very popular with ordinary Russians. In July 1990 Yeltsin sensationally resigned from the Communist Party; a year later he won democratic elections for the presidency of the Russian republic. In August 1991 Yeltsin was instrumental in thwarting the communist coup against Gorbachev, a figure Yeltsin himself had often clashed with. Climbing atop a tank outside the Soviet parliament building, Yeltsin appealed for the public to oppose the coup and for soldiers to abandon their support for it. Yeltsin went on to serve eight years as Russian president, though his tenure was marred by accusations of corruption and economic incompetence.
Zhou Enlai (1898-1976) was a Chinese revolutionary and political leader, who served as China’s premier, foreign minister and second-most influential figure after Mao Zedong. Born in eastern China to a family of scholars and bureaucrats, the young Zhou committed himself to his education and to a future in politics. In 1919 Zhou became involved in the May 4th Movement, a wave of student demonstrations that formed a popular base for Chinese communism. Zhou continued his involvement in left-wing political groups, leading to his arrest in 1920. He joined the Chinese Communist Party, spent time in Europe and worked as a commissar at the Whampoa Military Academy. Zhou participated in the Long March of 1934, after which he emerged as a party leader alongside Mao Zedong. He served as a military tactician during the Chinese Civil War and became premier of China after the communist victory in 1949. A skilled negotiator and canny political operator, Zhou was an ideal counterbalance to the more passionate and less patient Mao. While Mao attempted to reconfigure China’s economy and society, Zhou handled matters of foreign policy, formulating responses to the Korean War, Sino-Soviet affairs and China’s relations with the West. It was Zhou who encouraged rapprochement with the US in the early 1970s, organising visits by Henry Kissinger and Richard Nixon. Zhou also initiated better relations with China’s other Cold War rivals, including Japan, West Germany, Italy, Canada and Australia. Zhou Enlai died in January 1976, a few months before Mao Zedong.