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. Contains words and terms from M to Z. If you would like to suggest a term for inclusion in this glossary, please contact us.
MAD (see mutually-assured destruction)
The Madman theory was a strategy or ploy used by United States president Richard Nixon during the Cold War. It involved using deliberate signals and sending false information to communist countries, to create the impression that Nixon was unstable and may use nuclear weapons against them.
The Marshall Plan was a name given to the European Recovery Plan (ERP). This US-financed relief package provided funds to European nations to assist their reconstruction after World War II.
Marxism is a political philosophy and theory of history, developed in the 1800s by Karl Marx. It was the ideology that underpinned socialism in the Soviet Union and other Soviet bloc nations.
The McCarran Act was a name given to the Internal Security Act, passed by the United States Congress in 1950. This act required communist organisations to register with the government, while government agencies were given power to investigate “subversive activities”.
McCarthyism describes a period of intense anti-communism in the United States during the early 1950s. It was named for Senator Joe McCarthy, its chief instigator. McCarthyism saw hundreds of individuals interrogated and/or punished for their alleged communist sympathies.
MI5 is short for ‘Military Intelligence Section 5’, the main British intelligence and espionage agency during the Cold War.
The ‘military-industrial complex’ describes an alleged confederacy between politicians, military commanders and industrial capitalists who manufacture weapons. It suggests that governments initiate wars to allow capitalists to produce more weapons, thus generating greater profits. The concept of a military-industrial complex was mentioned by US president Dwight Eisenhower in his farewell speech in 1961.
A Minuteman is an American ballistic missile, developed in the early 1960s to carry nuclear payloads. It was a significant element of the US nuclear arsenal during the Cold War.
The ‘missile gap’ refers to an American perception, common in the 1950s, that the Soviet Union possessed a larger stockpile of ballistic missiles. This was later proved to be incorrect.
The Morgenthau Plan was an American plan for managing post-war Germany, devised in 1944. It included the segmentation of greater Germany and the stripping away of its industries, leaving a primarily agricultural economy.
The mujahideen were Islamic resistance fighters who fought against the Soviet occupation in Afghanistan, with American funding and support. Some members of the mujahideen were later associated with the Taliban and Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda.
Mutual Defense Assistance Act
The Mutual Defence Assistance Act is an act of the US Congress, passed in October 1949. It authorised the US government to supply military aid, equipment and support to nations at risk from communism. It was dubbed the ‘Military Marshall Plan’.
mutually assured destruction (or MAD)
‘Mutually assured destruction’ was a Cold War principle which suggested that a premeditated nuclear attack was unlikely, since both sides knew that the other would retaliate.
Nationalisation is the process of transferring privately owned assets, such as companies or infrastructure, to government or public ownership. This may be done against the will of private owners, with or without compensation. Nationalisation usually occurs when a socialist government takes power in a capitalist nation.
National Liberation Front (see Viet Cong)
National Security Agency (or NSA)
The National Security Agency or NSA is an American government agency, formed in 1952. Its role was to gather information and intelligence by monitoring, intercepting and deciphering radio and signals traffic.
NATO (see North Atlantic Treaty Organisation)
A neutron bomb is a thermonuclear weapon that delivers high amounts of radiation but with low explosive yield. These weapons still cause considerable death and injury to persons, but with much less damage to buildings and infrastructure.
Non-Aligned Movement (or NAM)
The Non-Aligned Movement was an organisation of governments not allied with either the Soviet or Western blocs. The NAM aimed to chart a middle course and foster development in Second and Third World nations. It was founded in 1961 by Indian prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru, Yugoslavian president Josip Tito, Egyptian president Gamal Nasser and other leaders.
NORAD (or North American Aerospace Defence Command)
NORAD is a joint US-Canadian military command centre, tasked with monitoring North American airspace for a possible attack. NORAD was commissioned in 1956 and began operations in 1958.
North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (or NATO)
NATO is a trans-Atlantic military alliance, formed in 1949. Its member states have included US, Great Britain, France and West Germany. During the Cold War NATO served as an anti-Soviet bloc alliance.
The doctrine of nuclear deterrence is the belief that maintaining a large nuclear arsenal will prevent other nations from attacking you, for fear of nuclear retaliation.
Nuclear fallout describes radioactive particles that remain in the atmosphere after a nuclear explosion. These particles are disbursed by weather and eventually fall to earth. Nuclear fallout can cause radiation sickness, cancers, birth deformities and death.
The nuclear football is a briefcase carried by a military attache to the US president. It contains launch codes and other information needed if a nuclear strike or retaliation is needed. The nuclear football travels with the president wherever he goes.
‘Nuclear sharing’ is the Cold War practice of sharing American nuclear weapons with its NATO partners.
Nuclear weapons are explosive devices that use nuclear fission to generate enormous heat and destructive power. Nuclear weapons were developed in 1944-45 and first used in two attacks on Japan (August 1945).
Nuclear winter describes a theoretical period of several months following a major nuclear exchange. During this period nuclear fallout and other debris lingers in the atmosphere, blocking out sunlight. This lack of natural light causes a slowing in plant and animal growth, making farming difficult or impossible.
Oil Crisis of 1973
The Oil Crisis was initiated in October 1973 when OPEC (see below) reduced production and banned the sale of oil to several nations, including the US, Canada and Britain. It was imposed as a protest against US military support for Israel. The oil embargo had a dire impact on the US economy. The embargo was lifted in March 1974.
An Olympic boycott was when one or more nations refused to send athletes to the Olympic Games, usually as a political protest. There were several Olympic boycotts during the Cold War. Communist China boycotted all Olympics between 1956 and 1980, as the IOC did not recognise its government. The US boycotted the 1980 Moscow Olympics as a protest against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. The Soviet Union retaliated by boycotting the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics.
OPEC stands for the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries, a cartel founded in Baghdad in September 1960. It was founded to give Arab oil-producing nations greater leverage when dealing with US and Western oil companies. OPEC was responsible for the 1973 Oil Crisis (see above).
Orthodox historians argue that the Cold War was started by Joseph Stalin’s violation of post-war agreements and the expansionist nature of Soviet communism. In this view, the United States and the West acted benignly and simply responded to Soviet belligerence.
Perestroika is a Russian word meaning ‘restructuring’. It was used to described reforms implemented by Mikhail Gorbachev in the Soviet Union in the mid 1980s. Perestroika involved some liberal reforms and a relaxation of centralised controls over the economy.
ping pong diplomacy
Ping pong diplomacy refers to events in the early 1970s, when an American table tennis undertook a tour of communist China. This tour helped ease US-Chinese tensions and paved the way for Richard Nixon’s official visit to China in February 1972.
Point Alpha, or Observation Post Alpha, was a US Army lookout in West Germany, close to the border with West Germany. It overlooked an area of flat land that was considered a likely invasion route for Warsaw Pact tanks.
The Politburo is the executive council or cabinet of ministers in the Soviet Union and other socialist nations.
Post-colonialism refers to the period following colonial rule and the effects on societies ruled by colonial powers. During the 20th century, Western imperial powers like Britain and France withdrew from colonies in Africa, Asia and elsewhere. These colonies became self-governing and many were subjected to Cold War pressures and influences.
The Prague Spring refers to a liberal reform movement in socialist Czechoslovakia in 1968. The Prague Spring reforms were ultimately suppressed by Moscow.
Project A119 was an American project, devised in 1958 to secure advantage 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. The project was abandoned in 1959.
A proxy war is a conflict where larger nations support and supply smaller nations involved in a war or civil war, without becoming directly involved.
Rapprochement is a French term describing a reconciliation or re-establishment of good relations between parties that were previously hostile. In the context of the Cold War, rapprochement usually refers to the improvement in relations during Détente (early 1970s) and the Gorbachev era (late 1980s).
The Reagan Doctrine refers to the foreign policy implemented by US president Ronald Reagan, which aimed to “rollback” communism. The granting of support and aid to “freedom fighters” (anti-communist groups and movements) was at the core of the Reagan Doctrine.
The Red Scares were two periods of anti-communist hysteria in the United States. The first Red Scare followed the Russian Revolution (1918-19), the second emerged in the post-war and McCarthyist eras (from the late 1940s to the early 1950s).
Republikflucht is German for ‘flight from the Republic’. It refers to the waves of emigration from East Germany to West Germany, or other non-Soviet countries, between 1949 and 1961. The Republikflucht was ended by the closure of the East German border and the erection of the Berlin Wall.
Revisionist historians argue that the United States and its expansionist foreign policy were chiefly responsible for the Cold War. Its policymakers wanted to contain Soviet communism to keep Europe and the world free for US companies and American trade.
A revolution is a period of rapid political, social and/or economic change in a particular nation or region. It often involves radical political ideas and some violence.
Rezidentura is a Russian word, describing a base of operations for spies in foreign countries.
Rollback was a foreign policy objective of US president Ronald Reagan. Rollback aimed to reduce the size of the Soviet bloc, rather than to contain it.
Russification describes any move to impose Russian language or culture onto non-Russian people or regions. There were several attempts to ‘Russify’ ethnic and national minorities in the Soviet Union during the Cold War.
SALT (see Strategic Arms Limitation Talks)
A satellite nation is nominally independent but relies on a larger nation for political direction and economic support.
SDI (see Strategic Defence Initiative)
Second Cold War
The ‘Second Cold War‘ is sometimes used to describe the post-Détente revival of tensions during the early 1980s.
The ‘Secret Speech’ was an address given to the Congress of Soviets by Russian leader Nikita Khrushchev in February 1956. In this speech Khrushchev denounced the tyranny, brutality and “abuses of power” under his predecessor, Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin.
A secret police is a state-run police force that investigates, spies on, identifies and eliminates potential opponents. Examples of Cold War secret police agencies were the KGB (Soviet Union), the Stasi (East Germany) and the Securitate (Romania).
The Securitate was the secret police force of socialist Romania for much of the Cold War.
Self-determination is a political principle which argues that populations should have the right to decide their own political system and government.
The ‘Singing Revolution’ is a name given to the independence movement in the Baltic states (Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania) between 1987 and 1991. It takes its name from the sustained public singing in its early days.
The Sino-Soviet split was a breakdown in relations between China and the Soviet Union during the mid to late 1960s. It culminated a brief border war in 1969.
Socialism is a political system which aims to transition from capitalism to communism. Socialist systems involve, among other things, government control of the economy and prohibitions of private ownership of capital.
Solidarnosc (or Solidarity)
Solidarity is a trade union formed by Polish shipworkers in September 1980. Under the leadership of Lech Walesa, its membership grew to more than 10 million members. Solidarity played a pivotal role in bringing about liberal reform and free elections in Poland in 1989.
South-East Asia Treaty Organisation (or SEATO)
The South-East Asia Treaty Organisation or SEATO was an alliance of eight Asia-Pacific countries, formed in 1955. Its main aim was to limit communism in the region.
The Soviet bloc or Eastern bloc refers to communist nations in Europe during the Cold War.
‘Sovietisation’ is a term for the process by which communist governments were installed in eastern European nations after World War II (1945-50). This process was initiated during the Soviet military occupation and overseen by Soviet agents and loyalists. In most cases, local communist, socialist and left-wing groups were merged into larger parties. Pro-Moscow communists were installed as leaders of these combined parties. These communist parties then obtained control of the government in elections, some of which may have been rigged.
The Space Race refers to American and Soviet competition in rocket technology and space exploration, from the 1950s to around 1975.
Speech of Hope
The ‘Speech of Hope‘ was a public address, given by US Secretary of State James F. Byrnes in Stuttgart, Germany in September 1946. Byrnes assured listeners that the US would protect German sovereignty and, in time, support a return to German self government.
sphere of influence
A sphere of influence is a region or group of nations controlled or influenced by another powerful nation.
Sputnik (Russian for ‘traveller’) was the name of the first two man-made satellites to orbit Earth. They were launched by the Soviet Union in 1957. The launch of Sputnik I triggered American fears that the US had fallen behind the Soviet Union in space technology.
Stalinist describes an individual or group who is loyal to Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin, or who attempts to replicate aspects of Stalin’s leadership, such as strict authoritarianism or a cult of personality. Cold War leaders who utilised Stalinist methods included Kim Il-sung (North Korea), Nicolae Ceausescu (Romania) and Enver Hoxha (Albania).
Star Wars (see Strategic Defence Initiative)
Stasi was an abbreviation for the Ministry of State Security, a secret police agency in socialist East Germany. The Stasi was responsible for security and intelligence-gathering. It was one of the Cold War’s most repressive and brutal security forces.
StB was an abbreviation for Statni Bezpecnost, a plain-clothed secret police agency in communist Czechoslovakia.
‘Star Wars’ program (see Strategic Defence Initiative)
START (or Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty)
The first Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START I) was signed by Mikhail Gorbachev and George Bush in Moscow in July 1991. Amongst its terms was a limitation on the number of nuclear warheads and intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). START has since been renewed three times.
Strategic Air Command (or SAC)
Strategic Air Command (SAC) was a branch of the US Air Force during the Cold War. It was in charge of America’s airborne assets, including strategic bombers, intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and reconnaissance aircraft. SAC also monitored warning systems that watched for incoming attacks.
Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (or SALT I and SALT II)
SALT I and SALT II were two US-Soviet arms reduction summits, held in 1972 and 1979.
Strategic Defence Initiative (or SDI, ‘Star Wars’ program)
The Strategic Defence Initiative was a missile defence program, initiated by the Reagan administration in 1983. Features of SDI included early warning systems, missile interception systems and research into the use of armed satellites.
strategic nuclear weapon
A strategic nuclear weapon is a larger yield device, intended for launching against cities, ports, military bases or other large targets of significance.
A superpower is a nation that dominates its region, due to its size and political, military and economic strength. The United States and the Soviet Union were both superpowers during the Cold War.
tactical nuclear weapon
A tactical nuclear weapon is a smaller yield device, intended for use on the battlefield or against smaller targets.
Team B was an investigative committee established by US president Gerald Ford in 1976. It was tasked with analysing the Soviet military threat to the US. Stacked with hardliners and anti-communists, Team B’s report greatly exaggerated Soviet weapons stockpiles and falsely claimed that Moscow was willing to initiate war with the US. These findings, though later discredited, contributed to the US arms buildup under Ronald Reagan.
The Tet Offensive was a major campaign, launched by communists in Vietnam in January 1968. While the communists were defeated, the Tet Offensive showed that American victory in Vietnam was some years away.
A thermonuclear weapon is a device that uses both fusion and fission, thus delivering a greater explosive yield. Thermonuclear weapons were first tested by the US (1952) and the Soviet Union (1954). They are colloquially known as ‘hydrogen bombs’ or ‘H-bombs’.
Tiananmen Square is a large public square in Beijing, the capital city of China. It was the location where Mao Zedong proclaimed a communist victory in October 1949, and a pro-democratic student demonstration crushed by the government in June 1989.
Treaty of Brussels
The Treaty of Brussels was a 1948 agreement between five European states: Britain, France, Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg. The Brussels treaty was a forerunner to the NATO agreement.
The Truman Doctrine refers to the United States’ foreign policy with regard to communism. It was developed and articulated by US president Harry Truman in 1947. Truman pledged to support friendly nations in their struggle to resist communism.
Tsar Bomba was a thermonuclear weapon constructed by the Soviet Union. At 50 megatons it was the largest nuclear weapon ever constructed and tested. It was detonated in remote northern Russia in 1961.
The U-2 was an American spy plane used widely during the Cold War. It was able to fly at high altitude, avoiding enemy radar detection and surface-to-air missile systems. U-2s were used chiefly to collect surveillance photographs. The capture of an American U-2 by the Soviets in 1960 caused an international incident.
United Nations (or UN)
The United Nations is a multilateral body, formed in 1945. The UN has many roles, including investigating international problems and forming resolutions to avoid conflict. Its effectiveness was neutralised by US and Soviet hegemony during the Cold War.
USSR (in Russian, CCCP)
The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, usually abbreviated to the Soviet Union, was one of the main protagonists of the Cold War. The USSR contained 15 different socialist republics, though in most respects they were governed centrally by Moscow.
The Velvet Revolution was a popular movement that emerged in Czechoslovakia in late 1989. Peaceful in nature, it led to political reform and free elections.
The Viet Cong was a Western term for the National Liberation Front, or NLF, a group of communist guerrillas who operated in South Vietnamese and between 1959 and 1975. The Viet Cong fought against American forces during the Vietnam War (1965-75).
The Viet Minh was a Vietnamese nationalist-communist group, led by Ho Chi Minh. It defeated French colonial forces in the Second Indochina War (1946-54).
The Vietnam War, or Second Indochina War, was an Asian conflict involving communist North Vietnam, Viet Cong guerrillas, the United States and US-backed South Vietnam. It erupted in 1965 and concluded with the communist takeover of Saigon in April 1975.
The Warsaw Pact was an alliance of European communist nations, formed in 1955.
Wind of change
The “wind of change” is a phrase from a speech given by British prime minister Harold Macmillan in South Africa in 1960. Macmillan was referring to the rising tide of nationalism in Africa, as well as opposition to the South African government’s policy of apartheid. Macmillan’s speech is often cited as a shift in British policy, away from imperialism and towards decolonisation.