A Cold War glossary containing definitions of significant terms, concepts and events between 1945 and 1991. Words between A and L. This glossary has been written and compiled by Alpha History authors. If you would like to suggest a word for inclusion in this glossary, please contact us.
Allied Control Commissions
The Allied Control Commissions were administrative bodies set up in enemy countries occupied by the Allies in 1945. They acted as de facto governments in those countries.
al-Qaeda is a militant Islamist organisation, founded by Osama bin Laden in 1989. It became a significant agent of anti-Western terrorism in the post-Cold War world.
Angkar was a name describing the leadership or party machinery of the Khmer Rouge during its rule over Cambodia (1975-79).
ANZUS is a Cold War military alliance between Australia, New Zealand and the US. It was signed in 1951. New Zealand was suspended from ANZUS in 1986, in part because it refused access to its ports for nuclear powered warships.
Apartheid (Afrikaans for ‘apartness’) is a system of racial segregation used by the white Nationalist government in South Africa between 1948 and the 1990s. Apartheid allowed white South Africans to remain in government and affluence, by disenfranchising and excluding native Africans.
Appeasement is the act of making concessions to an aggressive leader or power, in the hope it will make them less aggressive. Appeasement was viewed negatively during the Cold War because it had failed to halt Nazi expansion in 1938.
An arms race is a period of competition or rivalry between two or more nations, focusing on the production of military technology and equipment. An arms race between the US and the Soviet Union was a significant feature of the Cold War.
AVH is an abbreviation for Allamvedelmi Hatosag, the state security police in communist Hungary.
Baghdad Pact (or CENTO)
The Baghdad Pact was a military alliance between Great Britain, Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Pakistan, signed in February 1955. It created what was later known as the Middle East Treaty Organisation (METO), the Central Treaty Organisation (CENTO) or the ‘Middle East NATO’. Iraq withdrew from the Baghdad Pact in 1959, following a nationalist revolution there.
Bay of Pigs
The Bay of Pigs is a beach in southern Cuba, approximately 95 miles (150 kilometres) from the capital Havana. The Bay of Pigs became famous as the main landing point for a failed April 1961 invasion of Cuba, carried out by Cuban exiles and backed by the CIA.
The Berlin airlift was a 1948-49 operation to circumvent the Berlin blockade (see below) by supplying West Berlin by air. The airlift was continued for 11 months. During this time it delivered vast amounts of food, fuel and supplies to the beleaguered city.
The Berlin blockade describes East Germany’s closure of land corridors to West Berlin in 1948-49. Backed by Joseph Stalin and the Soviet Union, the East German regime attempted to starve the Allies out of West Berlin. The blockade was circumvented by the Berlin airlift (see above) and was lifted in May 1949.
The Berlin Wall was a fortified perimeter, constructed around West Berlin in 1961. It was built to prevent the escape and defection of East Germans to the West. The Berlin Wall served as a powerful symbol of the Cold War and the Iron Curtain. It was breached by Berliners themselves in November 1989 and subsequently dismantled.
The ‘Big Three’ was a colloquial name for the Grand Alliance (the United States, Great Britain and the Soviet Union) or their three leaders (Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin).
Bizonia, meaning ‘two zones’, was the name of the US and British zones of Germany after their merger in 1947. It became Trizonia in April 1949 after merging with the French zone.
A blockade is a military action, involving the surrounding or barricading of a port, island, city or nation, usually with military vessels. Its main purpose is to control, limit or prevent the movement of supplies.
The Brandenburg Gate is a prominent landmark in Berlin. Once the main entrance to Berlin, it was closed after the construction of the Berlin Wall. Ronald Reagan’s ‘Tear down this wall‘ speech was delivered on the western side of the Brandenburg Gate.
The Bretton Woods Agreement
The Bretton Woods Agreement was a July 1944 agreement signed by 44 nations. It reformed international monetary policy by requiring signatory nations to fix the exchange rates of their currencies to the US dollar, which itself was fixed to gold. This made the US dollar the world’s most stable and sought after currency. Bretton Woods also led to the formation of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank.
The Brezhnev Doctrine was a Soviet policy, outlined by Leonid Brezhnev in 1968. It argued that Moscow could intervene in the affairs of its satellite nations, to combat “forces hostile to socialism”. It was used to justify the suppression of the Prague Spring in Czechoslovakia.
Brinkmanship is a political and/or military strategy. It involves taking aggressive, threatening or risky measures, in order to create pressure on another leader or government and force them to back down. The events of the Cuban missile crisis are often cited as an example of brinkmanship.
Brussels Pact (see Treaty of Brussels)
Cambridge Five (or Cambridge spy ring)
The Cambridge Five is a name given to Cambridge University graduates who passed information or advice to the Soviets between the 1930s and 1960s. The members of this group were Kim Philby, Guy Burgess, Anthony Blunt, Donald Maclean and John Cairncross.
Capitalism is an economic system based on the private ownership of capital (land, resources and other means of production). It was the prevailing economic system in the US and other Western nations.
The Carter Doctrine was a foreign policy adopted by Jimmy Carter in 1980. It pledged to protect American allies and interests in the Persian Gulf, using military force if necessary. It followed the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the Ayatollah Khomeini led revolution in Iran.
CCCP (see USSR)
CENTO (see Baghdad Pact)
Central Intelligence Agency (or CIA)
The Central Intelligence Agency, or CIA, was a US government agency formed in 1947. The CIA was responsible for most American intelligence gathering, espionage and covert operations during the Cold War.
Charter 77 was a dissident group in Czechoslovakia who in 1977 called on the socialist government there to respect human rights.
‘Checkpoint Charlie’ was the most prominent gateway on Berlin Wall. It was the location of several dramatic incidents during the Cold War, including a standoff between US and Soviet tanks in 1961.
Civil defence refers to plans and strategies designed to protect civilians during an emergency. During the Cold War, most civil defence systems were designed to protect civilians from nuclear attack.
A colony is a nation or territory ruled or dominated by a more powerful nation, under the doctrine of imperialism. There were dozens of colonies at the start of the Cold War, chiefly in Africa and Asia. Many of these colonies obtained independence and self-government during the Cold War.
COMECON was an acronym for the Council of Mutual Economic Assistance, a Soviet-run council that facilitated trade, economic, technical and scientific cooperation between Soviet bloc nations. It was formed in 1949 and disbanded in 1991.
COMINFORM was an acronym 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, unity and compliance between Soviet bloc governments.
The COMINTERN was an acronym 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)
The Commonwealth of Independent States was a confederation of 11 former Soviet bloc countries, including Russia. It was formed in December 1991 after the dissolution of the Soviet Union.
Communism is a political and economic ideology, based on the writings of 19th-century philosopher Karl Marx. Communism strives for a society with no large government, economic classes or exploitation of workers.
Communist Party of the Soviet Union (or CPSU)
The CPSU was the governing party of the Soviet Union for the duration of the Cold War. It was also the only legally permitted political party in the USSR.
CONELRAD was an emergency broadcasting system, introduced by the US government in 1951. It was intended for use in the event of a Soviet nuclear attack.
conscription (also draft)
Conscription is compulsory military service, required of civilians during times of war or emergency. In the United States it is known as the “draft”.
Containment was a Cold War policy that aimed to restrict communist expansion. It was a key element of the Truman Doctrine.
conventional warfare or conventional weapons
Conventional weapons are weapons that do not require nuclear energy for either propulsion or explosive power.
The Corrective Revolution was a significant shift in policy, ordered by Egyptian leader Anwar Sadat in May 1971. It sought to purge Egypt’s government of Soviet influence, dismissing pro-Soviet politicians and officials, and expelling 20,000 Soviet advisors from the country. By the late 1970s, Egypt was aligned with the US and receiving American aid.
coup d’etat (pronounced ‘coo day tar’)
A coup d’etat is a seizure of power or government by a group of military officers. There were several Cold War coup d’etats, such as in Brazil (1964) and Chile (1973).
Decolonisation is the process of withdrawing imperial power from colonies and granting them independence and self-government. Dozens of nations and territories were decolonised during the Cold War, particularly in Africa and Asia. After obtaining independence, many were subjected to Cold War influences and pressures.
DEFCON is an American military acronym for “defence readiness condition”. It ranges from DEFCON 5 (a low state of readiness) to DEFCON 1 (imminent nuclear war). The highest state of alert during the Cold War was DEFCON 2, ordered for American air forces during the Cuban missile crisis.
De-Nazification refers to the eradication of Nazis and Nazi values from German government, bureaucracy, society and culture after World War II.
Détente (pronounced ‘day-tont’)
Détente is a French term meaning “relaxed tensions”. It refers to a state of improved relations after a period of conflict or tension. In the Cold War, Détente describes the decade-long ‘thaw’ in US-Soviet and US-Chinese relations in the late 1960s and late 1970s.
The Domino Theory is an anti-communist theory that was prevalent in Western nations during the Cold War. It contends that the rise of communism in one country would lead to it spreading to neighbouring countries, particularly in Asia.
Duck and Cover
“Duck and Cover” is a civil defence slogan, used in the US in the 1950s and early 1960s. It was used to teach American civilians, particularly children, how to protect themselves in the event of a nuclear attack.
Espionage is the practice of obtaining secret information or advancing government policy through covert means. It is usually carried out by spies or agents using secret methods, infiltration, sabotage or assassination.
European Defence Community (or EDC)
The European Defence Community was a proposed military alliance between France, Italy, West Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg. A treaty establishing the EDC was signed in May 1952, however, the French parliament refused to ratify and the EDC never came into effect.
The “evil empire” is a phrase used by Ronald Reagan in 1983 to describe the Soviet bloc. Many considered Reagan’s choice of words to be provocative and inflammatory.
EXCOMM is an abbreviation for Executive Committee, a group of politicians, defence personnel and advisors assembled by John F Kennedy during the 1962 Cuban missile crisis.
fallout (or nuclear fallout)
Fallout refers to radioactively charged dust, ash and particles left over after a nuclear blast. This fallout eventually returns to ground level, where it can cause radiation sickness, cancers and death among survivors.
fallout shelter (also nuclear shelter, atomic shelter)
A fallout shelter is a secure building, often located underground, designed to protect inhabitants from fallout following a nuclear attack.
Federal Bureau of Investigation (or FBI)
The FBI is an American civilian law enforcement body, formed in 1908 and overseen by J. Edgar Hoover until 1972. It is responsible for investigating and prosecuting federal crimes and protecting domestic security. The FBI was responsible for investigating and prosecuting Cold War threats, including espionage and subversive political activity.
Federal Republic of Germany (also FRG or BRD)
The Federal Republic of Germany was the formal title of West Germany between 1949 and 1990. It was aligned with the US and other Western nations during the Cold War. West Germany was granted membership of NATO in 1955 and the United Nations in 1973.
‘First strike’ refers to the ability of one nation to launch a pre-emptive or surprise attack on another, thus giving them a significant advantage.
foreign policy (or foreign affairs)
Foreign policy refers to a government’s attitude, position and actions with regard to other nations. Foreign policy takes in areas such as diplomacy, alliances, trade, sanctions, military alliances or intervention.
German Democratic Republic (also GDR or DDR)
The German Democratic Republic was the formal title of East Germany between 1949 and 1990. East Germany was a member of the Soviet bloc during the Cold War. It became a member of the Warsaw Pact in 1955 and the United Nations in 1973.
The ‘German Détente‘ is sometimes used to describe Ostpolitik, the policy of good relations implemented by West German leader Willy Brandt in the early 1970s.
Glasnost is a Russian word meaning ‘openness’. It refers to a series of Soviet reforms, implemented by Mikhail Gorbachev during the late 1980s. The glasnost reforms encouraged open debate, discussion and freedom of speech.
The Grand Alliance refers to the alliance between the US, Britain and the Soviet Union that defeated Germany in 1945.
The Grepo (short for Grenzpolizei) were East German border police. They were responsible for guarding the Berlin Wall and other national borders.
Gulags were Soviet prison and labour camps, used mainly during and after the Stalinist era. They were used to isolate and punish political prisoners, career criminals and other undesirables. The gulags were closed in 1960, though forced labour camps continued to operate.
The Hallstein Doctrine was a West Germany foreign policy doctrine, outlined in December 1955. It ruled that West Germany would not maintain diplomatic relations with any nation that formally recognised East Germany. It was later used to cut ties with Yugoslavia and Cuba.
The Helsinki Accords were a multilateral agreement signed in 1975. They aimed to improve communications and relationships between Soviet bloc and Western countries.
A hotline is a communications system that directly links two distant points. The best known Cold War hotline was installed between the White House (Washington) and the Kremlin (Moscow) in 1963. This hotline was designed to facilitate direct communications in the event of a confrontation or crisis.
HUAC is an acronym for the House Un-American Activities Committee, a committee of the US Congress. HUAC investigated and questioned suspected communists and communist sympathisers during the late 1940s and 1950s.
Imperialism describes a system where a powerful nation (dubbed the ‘mother country’) rules or dominates smaller, weaker nations (colonies). In most cases, the colony is exploited economically for its land, labour or resources.
intercontinental ballistic missile (or ICBM)
An ICBM is a self-propelled missile, capable of long ranges (over 5,000 kilometres) and sub-orbital flight. These missiles could be fired from the United States to hit targets in Europe and Soviet Russia, and vice versa.
Isolationism describes a foreign policy where a nation refuses to commit to alliances or ‘take sides’ in international disputes
The Jupiter was a ballistic missile, developed and produced by the US Army during the 1950s and early 1960s. Nuclear-tipped Jupiter missiles capable of reaching the Soviet Union at short notice were deployed in Italy and Turkey in 1961. These missiles were removed in exchange for the withdrawal of Soviet missiles from Cuba in 1962.
The KGB was a Russian acronym for the Komitet Gosudarstvennoy Bezopasnosti, or ‘Committee for State Security’, a secret police agency formed 1954. The Soviet Union intelligence-gathering and espionage agency and secret police; the broad equivalent of the CIA.
The ‘Kitchen Debate‘ refers to a spontaneous and informal but politically charged discussion between US vice president Richard Nixon and Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev in 1959. It took place among displays of a model American home, hence the name.
The Korean War was a conflict (1950-53) between Soviet-backed North Korea and US-backed South Korea, for control of the Korean peninsula. It ended in stalemate with little change in territory.
The Kremlin is a fortified citadel in central Moscow, housing numerous palaces, cathedrals and other historical buildings. During the Cold War, some Soviet leaders kept apartments there. The term “Kremlin” refers to Soviet executive government, in a similar fashion to the White House (US) or Westminster (UK).
The Lavender Scare was a campaign to investigate and purge suspected homosexuals from the US government during the 1950s. It was based on the assumption that homosexuals could be blackmailed, coerced or seduced into assisting Soviet agents.
The Long Telegram was a diplomatic cable, sent by George Kennan to the US State Department in 1946. In this document Kennan offered advice on the Soviet Union and possible foreign policy approaches. This advice helped shape the Truman Doctrine.