In April 1945, near the end of World War II, a historic encounter took place between U.S. and Soviet troops in Germany. Although the two allies had joined forces to defeat the Nazis, the two armies had been fighting on different fronts. Now, as they moved across German territory—the American soldiers from the west and the Soviet soldiers from the east—they came face-to-face at the Elbe River in eastern Germany.
Although they were unfamiliar with each other, the Americans stood on one bank of the river and waved, while the Soviet soldiers hailed them from the other side. Spotting a small boat nearby, U.S. Lieutenant Albert L. Kotzebue and a few of his men made their way across the river. There, the soldiers embraced each other warmly. One American later recalled, “We didn’t know what to expect from the Russians.” But he added: “If you put an American uniform on them, they could have been American!” The following day, senior officers from the two armies met for a formal handshake and photographs in the nearby town of Torgau.
The United States and the Soviet Union had much to celebrate at the end of the war. But the good feelings of April 1945 would not last for long. Tensions soon arose over their different visions for the postwar world. Within a few years, they had become locked in a fierce struggle for power, known as the Cold War.
In this lesson, you will learn why and how these two great powers came into conflict. You will also learn how other nations were drawn into the Cold War, and how this conflict influenced the course of history.
Cultural Interaction During the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union, the two great powers of the post-war era, struggled for global domination. This struggle affected nations around the world.
Political Structures Governments and politics were shaped by Cold War realities. Nationalist movements and revolutions erupted in other countries.
Economic Structures The differing economic models of capitalism and socialism helped fuel Cold War conflict. Nations pursued different goals based on these models.
Social Structures Societies were also affected by the Cold War. Issues of social class played a role in the Cold War struggle.
Human-Environment Interaction The Cold War prompted migration in some parts of the world. New weapons technology played a key role in the conflict.
At the end of World War II, much of Europe lay in ruins. The United States, however, emerged from the war stronger than ever. The Soviet Union, with its huge land mass and abundant resources, was also poised to become a great power. Together, these two superpowers would dominate world affairs.
Signs of Cooperation At first there were hopeful signs that the United States and the USSR might cooperate in the postwar era. In February 1945, as the war was winding down, the “Big Three” Allied leaders—Franklin Roosevelt, Joseph Stalin, and Winston Churchill—met in the Soviet city of Yalta. There they made plans for postwar Europe. They agreed to divide Germany into four Allied occupation zones to be administered by the United States, Great Britain, France, and the Soviet Union. Berlin, the German capital, lay within the Soviet zone but would also be divided among the Allies. In addition, Stalin agreed to support free and fair elections in the liberated countries of Eastern Europe.
At Yalta, the Soviets also agreed to join the United Nations (UN). This international body was founded in June 1945, when 50 nations signed the UN Charter. The charter established a General Assembly of all the member-states, plus an 11-member Security Council to settle disputes. UN members agreed to promote peace, security, and international cooperation. They pledged “to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war.”
U.S.-Soviet Divisions Despite these hopeful signs, deep divisions between the superpowers made lasting cooperation unlikely. These divisions were based on the two nations’ differing histories and different goals for the postwar world.
Some of the differences arose from the war itself. During the war, nearly 300,000 American troops lost their lives. Aside from the attack on Pearl Harbor, however, no fighting took place on American soil. The American economy also boomed during the war because of wartime spending. In contrast, about 28 million Soviet people—soldiers and civilians—died during the war. The fighting devastated the Soviet Union and its economy. Virtually no Soviet citizen was untouched by the war.
The two superpowers also had contrasting goals and beliefs. Having been profoundly scarred by the war, the chief aim of the Soviets was to ensure their security. During the war—and throughout its history—Russia had been highly vulnerable to invasion. The Soviet state wanted to make sure it protected itself from any future attack, particularly from the west. It wanted to create a buffer zone of friendly countries in Eastern Europe.
In neighboring countries, the Soviets also wanted to promote regimes sympathetic to communism, the ideological foundation of the USSR government. Soviet leaders envisioned a communist utopia of social justice and economic equality. To achieve that goal, the government set out to reorganize the economy along socialist lines. Under socialism, the government owned all factories. The state seized private land and took charge of agricultural production, or turned land over to peasant collectives. Soviet leaders were confident communism would inevitably prevail over capitalism as ordinary workers and peasants in other nations followed the Soviet model. But they knew that this victory would not occur without a struggle.
The United States was also concerned with security. Pearl Harbor had made it clear that the United States was no longer safe from attack. It needed to defend itself against threats from abroad. A key part of its strategy was to prevent hostile powers from taking control of the countries and resources of Eurasia, as the Axis powers had tried to do during the war. To accomplish that, the United States would need to maintain a strong military presence overseas, with military bases and strong allies in Europe and Asia.
Americans believed that their system of democratic capitalism—with its ideology of individual liberty and personal freedom—would prevail over socialism. To achieve that end, the United States required the free flow of global trade, with access to resources and markets for its goods.
Given their differences, the United States and the Soviet Union were unlikely to remain allies for long. Although they both wanted a peaceful, secure world, their contrasting perspectives on how to achieve that objective put them in conflict.
The Emerging Conflict The first obvious signs of trouble appeared in Eastern Europe. Although Stalin had promised to allow Eastern European countries to decide their own fate, he soon withdrew that pledge. In Poland, Bulgaria, and Romania, he made sure that pro-Soviet governments took power. He later did the same in the rest of Eastern Europe. The Soviet-dominated countries of Eastern Europe became known as Soviet “satellites.”
In response, the United States and Great Britain accused the Soviets of dividing Europe and stifling national self-determination. In a famous speech in March 1946, Winston Churchill warned of the Soviet threat. “From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic,” he declared, “an iron curtain has descended across the continent.” The term Iron Curtain came to symbolize the growing divide between East and West. From Moscow, Stalin blasted Churchill’s speech as a “call to war.”
Meanwhile, the United States was devising policies to counter Soviet power. Early in 1946, a U.S. official in Moscow, George Kennan, wrote a tough analysis of Soviet aims. He said that the USSR had imposed tyranny on its people and meant to do so elsewhere. The only effective response, he argued, was for the West to check, or contain, the spread of Soviet power and influence. This approach, known as containment, became official U.S. policy.
President Harry Truman, who had taken office after Roosevelt’s death in 1945, soon acted on the containment policy. In March 1947, he called for American aid to Greece and Turkey, two countries under threat from communist elements and backed by the USSR. In a speech Truman declared, “We must assist free peoples to work out their own destinies in their own way.” This support for countries seeking to resist communist influence was known as the Truman Doctrine. It became a key principle in U.S. Cold War policy.
The United States followed up with another action designed to limit Soviet power. In June 1947, Secretary of State George Marshall unveiled a financial aid plan to assist postwar recovery in Europe. This plan, known as the Marshall Plan, was warmly received in Western Europe. But the Soviets forbade their Eastern European satellites from participating, recognizing that U.S. aid would undermine Soviet influence. The Marshall Plan eventually provided $13 billion in aid to Western Europe, helping to promote economic growth and political stability.
The Western allies also announced plans to combine their German occupation zones into a new West German state. Angered by this move, Stalin declared a blockade of the Allied sectors of West Berlin in June 1948. Berlin was entirely within the Soviet zone, but the city had been divided into Western allied and Soviet sections. The Berlin blockade cut West Berlin off from all supplies brought in by land. Stalin hoped to starve the city into submission and force the Allies to retract their plans for West Germany. Instead, the United States organized the Berlin airlift, a massive effort to fly food and other essential goods into Berlin. The plan succeeded, and after a year Stalin lifted the blockade. Soon afterward, Germany split into two nations. The Federal Republic of Germany, commonly known as West Germany, was under Western influence. The German Democratic Republic, known as East Germany, became a Soviet satellite.
The Lines Harden By 1949, the lines of the Cold War were clearly drawn. Europe was divided between the communist East and capitalist West. The two sides carried out the Cold War through economic policy, diplomatic actions, propaganda, espionage, and secret operations. Although the superpowers never engaged in a direct shooting war, the threat of violence was always present.
In 1949, the Western allies formed NATO, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. This group, which included the United States, Canada, and Western European nations, was dedicated to mutual defense. Members agreed to treat an attack on one country as an attack on all. Six years later, in 1955, the Soviet Union formed its own defense alliance, the Warsaw Pact, which included the nations of Eastern Europe.
These mutual defense pacts revealed the rising military tensions between East and West. They also reflected the threat posed by nuclear weapons. The United States had used the atomic bomb against Japan in 1945. Four years later, the Soviet Union exploded its own atomic bomb. By the early 1950s, both superpowers had developed a more powerful nuclear device, the hydrogen bomb, or H-bomb. By the 1960s, they had created long-range missiles called intercontinental ballistic missiles, or ICBMs, which could carry nuclear warheads to targets a continent away. The superpowers had become engaged in an expensive and deadly arms race. This competition over weaponry stoked fears of nuclear war and raised the stakes in the superpower conflict.
The United States and Soviet Union also got involved in a space race. In 1957, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, the first artificial satellite to orbit Earth. A few months later, the United States put its own satellite into space. In 1961, the Soviet Union sent the first human into orbit, followed soon after by the first American astronaut. In 1969, the United States landed the first men on the moon. The space race was another costly form of superpower competition, but it also brought important advances in science and technology.
The Cold War continued for more than 40 years. During that time, the superpowers sought to dominate each other and bring less powerful nations over to their side. The United States and the Soviet Union were not the only major players in the Cold War, however. Another important actor was China.
After World War II, China was torn by civil war. Nationalists fought with communists for control of the country. The Communists, led by Mao Zedong, eventually won. In 1949, they founded the People’s Republic of China. The Nationalists fled to the island of Taiwan, where they formed their own government.
China in the Cold War The triumph of communism in China took both the United States and the Soviet Union by surprise. They had assumed that the Nationalists would defeat Mao’s forces. At first, American officials held out hope that China would reject Soviet influence and remain neutral in the Cold War. However, Mao soon sided with the Soviet Union. In February 1950, he and Stalin sealed their alliance by signing a mutual defense pact.
Communist states now ruled a vast portion of Eurasia, from Eastern Europe to the East China Sea. This made the United States and its Western allies very nervous. The balance of power in Eurasia was clearly tilting toward the communists.
Over the next few years, Mao consolidated his control over China and expanded China’s borders. In 1950, Chinese forces invaded and occupied Tibet, a land with a long history of Chinese influence. China also threatened to invade Taiwan and take control of the island. The United States intervened and provided military aid and assistance to defend Taiwan and its Nationalist government.
Mao’s Revolutionary Policies Meanwhile, Mao sought to strengthen communist rule in China. He placed power in the hands of the Communist Party and began to restructure the economy based on Marxist principles. But the character of Chinese communism was different from Soviet communism. Mao and his followers believed that peasants—not urban workers—were the revolutionary class.
The first step was to organize Chinese agriculture along socialist lines. In 1950, the government passed a land reform law, breaking up large estates and distributing land to poor peasants. These small plots were soon combined into larger collective farms, which in theory would be more efficient. A few years later, the government followed the Soviet model of development by setting up even larger collective farms—called communes—where private property was abolished and production goals were set by the state. Chinese women were granted equal rights and given a greater role in production.
The government also socialized industry, putting most factories under state ownership. In 1953, it began a Five-Year Plan designed to modernize the country and to increase industrial production. The plan was a success. Industrial output doubled, with the greatest gains in steel and other heavy industries.
But these results did not satisfy Mao. In 1958, he announced a new plan, called the “Great Leap Forward.” This plan set higher targets for both agriculture and industry. Farmers were forced to work on large rural projects and create their own “backyard industries” to produce steel and other goods. The plan was a disaster. Farming suffered and food production fell sharply. By 1961, some 30 million Chinese had died of starvation—the largest famine in human history.
Shifting Course The failure of the Great Leap Forward damaged Mao’s reputation, both at home and abroad. Relations with the USSR became strained after Joseph Stalin’s death in 1953. Under Stalin’s successor Nikita Khrushchev, the USSR rejected the murderous violence and repression that had characterized the Stalin era. Meanwhile, the Chinese continued to laud Stalin as a hero. The Soviet Union chose to distance itself further, cutting off aid to China and ending their alliance.
Mao’s image also suffered in China. Facing mounting criticism, he stepped down as head of state and allowed other leaders to set policy. The government launched a program of economic reform, making investments in agriculture and industry and shutting down many state enterprises. Within a few years, the economy began to recover.
Mao regarded these new policies as a betrayal of communism, and he accused reformers of promoting capitalist values. He claimed that the Communist Party had lost touch with the people.
In 1966, Mao called on students to revive China’s revolutionary spirit. Radical student groups, known as the Red Guards, took to the streets demanding a return to communist ideals. China was soon engulfed in a wave of revolutionary turmoil known as the Cultural Revolution. With Mao’s blessing, the Red Guards persecuted or attacked anyone they considered antirevolutionary. Targets of violence included party members, government officials, artists, intellectuals, and others who were said to embrace “old” ideas. Many people were beaten or jailed, and up to a million were killed. Rival armed groups began to fight pitched battles in the streets. The country was on the verge of civil war.
Alarmed by this turmoil, Mao and other top officials stepped in to restore order. In 1968, the Red Guards were officially disbanded. The most extreme phase of the Cultural Revolution was over by the following year. However, political struggles continued until Mao’s death in 1976. New leaders eventually took over and introduced reforms, but China remained a communist state.
Although the United States and the Soviet Union never went to war directly, Cold War tensions provoked conflicts in other parts of the world. Both superpowers competed for the loyalty and resources of the world’s less-developed nations. This competition fueled civil wars and other violent struggles. The fiercest fighting took place in Korea and Vietnam, but conflicts also erupted in Latin America, the Middle East, and Africa.
War in Korea The first major battle of the Cold War took place in Korea. The Korean War lasted from 1950 to 1953 and nearly caused a wider war.
At the end of World War II, Korea was liberated from Japanese control and divided in half. The Soviet Union occupied the northern half, while the United States occupied the south. By 1949, both countries had withdrawn their forces, but Korea remained divided between the communist north and noncommunist south. In June 1950, North Korea invaded the south with Soviet and Chinese backing. The United States responded immediately by sending troops to defend South Korea. It also gained support from the United Nations, which called on member-states to form a UN army to repel the invasion.
At first it appeared that North Korea would defeat the UN army. But General Douglas MacArthur, the UN commander, managed to encircle and isolate the North Korean forces. He then moved north, all the way to the Chinese border at the Yalu River.
To prevent a UN victory, China got involved. It sent 300,000 troops into North Korea and pushed the UN forces back. MacArthur called for air strikes against China, possibly with nuclear weapons. President Truman rejected the idea, fearing it could draw the Soviet Union into the war. Eventually, the fighting reached an impasse. North and South Korea returned to their 1949 borders and signed an armistice, or end to the fighting.
For a time, the Korean conflict had raised the threat of a nuclear war between the superpowers. Instead, it ended in a stalemate. Today, Korea remains divided. South Korea has prospered as a capitalist and democratic state. North Korea, on the other hand, is a strict communist dictatorship. Relations between the two Koreas remain tense.
The Vietnam War The next major conflict arose in Vietnam. It began as an anti-colonial fight for independence, but it soon became a Cold War struggle between communist and noncommunist forces.
At the end of World War II, Vietnam was still part of the French colony of Indochina. After the war, Vietnamese nationalists—led by the communist leader Ho Chi Minh—declared independence. For eight years, French and Vietnamese forces battled in the Indochina War.
In 1954, the French were defeated. Vietnam was divided into a communist north—backed by China and the USSR—and an anti-communist south, backed by the United States. Within a few years, communist-led rebels, known as the Viet Cong, rose up against the southern government. The Vietnam War was about to begin.
The United States entered the war in stages. At first it provided South Vietnam with military aid and assistance, including military advisers. These advisers trained the South Vietnamese army and also took part in combat. By late 1963, some 17,000 U.S. advisers were on the ground in Vietnam.
In 1964, after reports of an attack on a U.S. ship off the North Vietnamese coast, President Lyndon Johnson called for an escalation of U.S. involvement. He argued that the United States had a duty to defend South Vietnam from communist aggression. “If we are driven from the field in Vietnam,” Johnson declared, “then no nation can ever have the same confidence in . . . American protection.” If Vietnam fell to communism, he said, other Asian nations might also fall. This idea became known as the domino theory.
In early 1965, the United States carried out air strikes against targets in North Vietnam. Soon after, it sent its first combat troops into Vietnam. Over the next two years, U.S. forces in the country increased rapidly. By 1969, more than half a million American soldiers were serving in Vietnam.
The United States dedicated vast military resources to the war effort. Yet despite its superior firepower, it could not achieve victory. The U.S. government faced mounting opposition at home and abroad to its war in Vietnam. In contrast, the Viet Cong were committed to fight to their last resources to drive the Americans out of Vietnam. By the early 1970s, the United States had begun to pull its troops out and shift responsibility to the army of South Vietnam.
In 1973, the last American soldiers left Vietnam. Within three years, North Vietnam had conquered the south and united the country. Many southerners fled communist rule. Most made their way to refugee camps in other parts of Southeast Asia, and later to the United States.
Like China, Vietnam eventually adopted reforms and opened up its economy. Communist officials continued to retain a tight grip on the government.
Troubles in Latin America Latin America also became a battleground in the Cold War. Widespread poverty and sharp divisions among social classes made the region ripe for political upheaval. As in other parts of the world, communists promoted class struggle in Latin America as a means to achieve social justice and diminish economic inequalities. The United States, which had long dominated the hemisphere, remained alert to the growth of communism in the western hemisphere.
The first Cold War incident in Latin America occurred in Guatemala. In 1953, a nationalist president—Jacobo Arbenz Guzmán—began a program of land reform. He took unused land from the American-owned United Fruit Company and gave it to poor peasants. Arbenz was not a communist, but he had communist support. A year later, the United States staged a covert action to oust Arbenz and replace him with a military dictator. The Guatemalan army held power for most of the next three decades.
In Cuba, a revolution led by Fidel Castro overthrew the nation’s U.S.-supported dictator, Fulgencio Batista, in 1959. Castro sided with the poor against Cuba’s wealthy middle and upper classes. He soon declared his communist sympathies and made Cuba a Soviet ally. The United States responded with efforts to remove Castro from power, including a failed invasion at Cuba’s Bay of Pigs in 1961.
Cold War tensions with Cuba reached their height in October 1962, during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Castro had allowed the Soviet Union to install nuclear missiles in Cuba, within striking distance of American cities. The United States placed a naval blockade around the island and demanded that the Soviets remove the missiles. It also considered a possible invasion of Cuba. For two anxious weeks, the world teetered on the brink of nuclear war. Eventually the Soviets backed down and withdrew the missiles, in return for a U.S. promise not to invade Cuba.
For the next few decades, Cuba remained a source of Cold War frictions. The United States accused Castro of promoting revolution in the Americas. To halt the spread of communism, the United States used covert methods to oppose leftist influence. For example, the United States helped overthrow a democratically elected socialist government of Chile in 1973. A brutal military dictatorship ruled Chile for the next two decades.
A revolution in Nicaragua also aroused American concerns. Leftist rebels, known as the Sandinistas, toppled a U.S.-backed dictatorship in 1979. The Sandinistas’ ties to Cuba and aid to rebels in neighboring El Salvador soon sparked conflict with the United States. The United States began funding a rebel army, called the Contras, to fight the Sandinistas in 1981. The Contra war inflicted great damage and undermined Sandinista rule. In 1990, the Sandinistas lost power through elections.
Tensions in the Middle East Cold War conflict also erupted in the Middle East. Egypt was the site of the first crisis. In the early 1950s, a nationalist leader, Gamal Abdel Nasser, gained power in Egypt. To balance Western influence, Nasser accepted aid from the Soviet Union. Then, in July 1956, he seized the Suez Canal, a key waterway operated by France and Great Britain. In response, France, Britain, and Israel invaded Egypt and retook the canal. The United States, fearing a Soviet intervention, persuaded the allies to withdraw. It then increased its own presence in the Middle East to secure its oil supplies and continue its support of Israel.
Iran was another hot spot. After World War II, Iranian nationalists rose up against the pro-Western polices of the shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi (PAH-luh-vee). In 1951, Iran’s parliament—led by Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadeq (moh-sah-DEHK)—seized a British oil company. The new government also accepted Soviet aid and forced the shah to flee the country. Fearing that Iran might become a Soviet ally, the United States carried out a covert action, a secret operation by the Central Intelligence Agency, or CIA. The action resulted in Mossadeq’s arrest and the shah’s return to power. Over the next two decades, the shah continued his efforts to modernize Iran. However, he coupled his policies of Westernization with oppressive, authoritarian measures carried out against his people by the secret police. In 1979, he was overthrown and replaced by a strict Islamic regime.
Conflicts in Sub-Saharan Africa The Cold War also made a deep impact on sub-Saharan Africa. In the more than two decades after World War II, nearly every African nation had gained independence from colonial rule. A number of these countries were caught up in the struggle between the two superpowers.
Congo was the first flashpoint. After gaining independence from Belgium in 1960, Congo desperately needed foreign aid and assistance. Its new prime minister, Patrice Lumumba, was an ardent nationalist. When the United Nations rejected his plea for aid, he turned to the USSR for help. Fearing increased Soviet influence in Africa, the CIA worked with local army officers to overthrow Lumumba and install a new pro-American regime.
The superpowers also got involved in wars in various parts of Africa, including Angola and Ethiopia. In Angola, a civil war in the mid-1970s pitted three rebel armies against each other in a vicious struggle for power. The Soviet Union and Cuba supported one army, while the United States supported another. China also got involved. A cease-fire was only reached in 1989. In Ethiopia, the United States and Soviet Union backed opposing sides in a war with neighboring Somalia. Both countries are located in the Horn of Africa, a region of East Africa with close access to the Middle East. The superpowers’ involvement in the war reflected their strategic interest in this region.
During the period from 1945 to 1990, wars around the world killed some 40 million people. Most of those conflicts were related, directly or indirectly, to the Cold War. Other factors, including the legacy of colonialism, also played a crucial role in promoting conflict. But the power struggle between the United States and the USSR exacerbated those wars and made them more deadly.
The Cold War also took a toll on the superpowers. The cost of their rivalry, both in financial and human terms, was enormous. At times it seemed that the struggle would go on forever. Eventually, however, Soviet power declined, and the Cold War came to an end.
Challenges to Soviet Power The Soviet Union dominated Eastern Europe for more than forty years. Subjugation of these countries—known collectively as the Soviet bloc—was critical to Soviet power. At times, however, the people of Eastern Europe tried to escape Soviet domination.
In October 1956, Hungarians mounted a revolt against their government and its Soviet backers. At the time, the USSR had a new leader, Nikita Khrushchev, who had replaced Stalin after his death in 1953. Khrushchev had publicly criticized Stalin’s harsh rule and called for a more humane path to communism. But this new approach did not include letting Soviet satellites leave the Soviet sphere of influence. Khrushchev ordered an invasion of Hungary to crush the rebellion. Some 20,000 Hungarians died and a new, Soviet-controlled government was installed. Twelve years later, in 1968, the Warsaw Pact nations invaded Czechoslovakia to crush another reform movement.
Meanwhile, thousands of Eastern Europeans tried to flee to a better life in the West. This migration was most evident in East Germany. By 1961, 2.6 million East Germans had fled by crossing the border between East and West Berlin and then moving on to West Germany. To stop the flow, the Soviet Union built a wall separating the two halves of the city. The Berlin Wall was up to 15 feet high and 100 miles long and included guard towers and minefields. The Berlin Wall was patrolled by soldiers who had orders to kill anyone who tried to cross. Khrushchev admitted that the wall was a “hateful thing,” but he believed it was necessary to preserve communism. President Kennedy called the wall a “vivid demonstration of the failures of the communist system.”
Easing Cold War Tensions By the 1970s, Cold War tensions began to ease up. Leaders on both sides embraced the idea of détente, a French word that means a relaxation of tensions. Behind this effort to reduce tensions, however, was the continued threat of nuclear war.
Until the late 1960s, the United States had held the edge in the arms race. With its more advanced nuclear arsenal, the United States believed it could force the Soviet Union to back down in any serious dispute. It was even willing to go to the brink of war—a policy known as brinkmanship—to make its point. This policy was based on the notion of deterrence, the idea that a country will not risk war if it faces the prospect of certain destruction.
By 1969, however, the Soviet Union had caught up in the arms race. Each side was now equally capable of destroying the other. They also realized that their huge military costs were harming their economies. As a result, both nations sought ways to curb the arms race and reduce the risk of nuclear conflict.
Détente began under U.S. President Richard Nixon. With his Soviet counterpart, Leonid Brezhnev, Nixon negotiated an important arms reduction agreement, the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT), in 1972. This treaty limited the number of nuclear weapons each side could possess. Nixon also reached out to China, making a historic visit to Beijing in 1972.
By normalizing relations with China, Nixon hoped to reduce tensions in East Asia. But he also hoped to play China and the USSR off against each other. At the time, the two communist powers were locked in a bitter rivalry to lead the communist world. They were willing to improve relations with the United States to further their own strategic interests.
Détente continued through the 1970s. The United States and the USSR expanded trade links and increased cultural and scientific exchanges. However, continued frictions—including arms-control disputes—eventually brought détente to an end. The final blow came with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979.
The Afghan War Communists seized power in Afghanistan in 1978. Civil war broke out, and Muslim rebels threatened to topple the government. The Soviet Union sent in troops to occupy the country and prop up the regime. In response, the United States imposed tough sanctions on the Soviet Union, including a boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics. It also began supplying arms and aid to the Afghan rebels. The Cold War was back in full force.
Soviet leaders expected a quick victory in Afghanistan. But like the United States in Vietnam, the USSR soon got bogged down. They poured more money and troops into a war they could not win. The Soviet economy suffered, and thousands of Soviet soldiers lost their lives. The Afghan war undermined the power and credibility of the Soviet state. The last Soviet forces left the country in 1989.
The Soviet Decline Afghanistan was just one of many problems afflicting the USSR by the late 1980s. In fact, the Soviet system itself was in crisis.
The main problem was economic. The state-run Soviet economy could not compete with the private enterprise system of the capitalist West. Soviet citizens had low living standards, and basic goods were in short supply. Although the Soviet people received free public services, such as health care and education, the quality of these services was often poor. Soviet citizens also had less personal freedom than their counterparts in the West. When they saw images of Western life, many Soviet people felt their own lives were lacking. As a result, dissatisfaction spread through Soviet society.
In 1985, however, a new Soviet leader came to power. Mikhail Gorbachev (mik-ah-IL GOR-beh-CHOF) was a dynamic reformer who was determined to change the Soviet system. Gorbachev believed that conflict between communism and capitalism was not inevitable. Like another Soviet reformer, Khrushchev, he argued that East and West could peacefully coexist, rather than pursing an endless struggle for power. He also wanted to promote “communism with a human face” by embracing universal values, such as freedom of thought and expression.
Gorbachev proposed two main avenues of reform to revive the Soviet Union. One was called perestroika, or restructuring. Perestroika was intended to make the Soviet economy more efficient and productive. Perestroika reduced central planning and adopted some limited free-market policies in light industry and services. For the first time since the 1920s, people were allowed to open small private businesses, such as cafes and repair shops. Gorbachev’s second main reform was glasnost, or openness. Glasnost encouraged Soviet citizens to voice new ideas and suggest ways to improve society. The free flow of ideas was seen as essential to economic reform. Gradually, glasnost introduced greater freedom of the press and of public speech to Soviet society.
Gorbachev also sought improved relations with the West, including new arms-control agreements. U.S. President Ronald Reagan was at first skeptical. But he eventually recognized Gorbachev as a genuine reformer. The two pursued a renewed effort at arms control. Relations between the United States and Soviet Union warmed to levels that had not been seen since World War II.
Despite all reforms, however, the Soviet economy continued to decline, and Gorbachev’s reputation at home suffered. His reforms, including the Soviet renunciation of interference in East European politics, unleashed a popular push for democratization across the Soviet bloc. In 1989, the countries of Eastern Europe threw off communist rule, one after the other. On November 9th the Berlin Wall came down, a powerful moment for Europe and the world. The following year, Germany was reunited. The Soviet Union itself collapsed in 1991, dissolving into 15 separate states. The Cold War was over.
After the Cold War As the countries of the former Soviet bloc in Eastern Europe and some of the former Soviet republics moved toward democracy, China remained firmly under the control of its communist party. In 1989, China blocked political change by cracking down on pro-democracy protesters in a massacre at Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. Despite continued one-party rule by the communists, China was moving toward a capitalist economy. It adopted economic reforms and built a capitalist-style economy, while maintaining political authoritarianism.
For more than four decades, the Cold War exerted a major influence on the world. It fueled wars, revolutions, and social unrest. It shaped political and economic systems. It promoted military expansion and the exploration of space.
With the end of the Cold War, the world entered a new, multipolar age. World events no longer hinged on the struggle between two great powers, but on the interlocking interests of many nations.
The Cold War lasted for more than four decades, from the end of World War II to the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. It had a major impact on the course of history.
Cultural Interactions Soviet-American rivalry took the form of a clash between the opposing belief systems of communism and capitalism. This was a political struggle for global domination expressed in terms of ideology. The Soviet Union and the United States sought to advance their beliefs and bring other nations over to their side.
Political Structures Governments during the Cold War tended to embrace the values of either communism or capitalism. Cold War politics influenced wars and revolutions around the world.
Economic Structures The economies of East and West also reflected their ideological foundations. The Western democracies built capitalist economies based on private enterprise. The communist nations of the East created socialist economies based on state and collective ownership.
Social Structures Issues of social class played a key role in the Cold War struggle. In poor parts of the world, such as Latin America, class divisions and economic inequality helped fuel social unrest and revolution.
Human-Environment Interaction The Cold War spurred migration from zones of conflict and political repression, such as Vietnam and Eastern Europe. It also promoted the development of advanced technology in many fields, including weapons systems and space travel.