What were indirect conflicts between powers during the Cold War called?
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You are looking for the term, "Proxy Wars." Given the competing nature of both sets of ideologies between the Soviets and the Americans, both nations sought to settle their differences around the world. Europe had alread been divided into "West" and "East." The new domains became areas around the world. Nations that were newly emergent from Colonialism were seeking to define themselves. These areas proved to be fertile grounds for both Soviet and American forces to wage battle without doing battle against one another.
The proxy war became the way that these battles were seen. Proxy wars in nations like Vietnam or Nicaragua were evident. Proxy war elements were seen in places like Iran, where intervention from the United States was perceived as needed to remove a Socialist leader. In the end, the proxy war was a situation in which conflicts were never fought directly between the major powers of the world, but through a series of indirect conflicts.
These indirect conflicts were termed "proxy wars." A key factor behind them was a policy pursued by both the United States and the Soviet Republic known as "Mutually Assured Destruction." This meant that each nation had a nuclear arsenal capable of totally destroying the other nation. Since no technology existed at that time which could reliably intercept missiles, this also led towards a policy of what was called "launch on warning". In other words, if one nation detected a possible set of launches of bombers (or, later, missiles) from the other, it would launch its entire nuclear arsenal at its opponent, guaranteeing mutual destruction. MAD was considered at the time the best form of deterrence. This led to a few rather frightening close calls, including a time in 1956 when a flock of swans flying over Turkey were temporarily mistaken for Soviet aircraft and nearly precipitated a nuclear holocaust.
Because of the MAD policies (an incredibly appropriate acronym) in place, the US and USSR tried to avoid direct confrontations and instead fought smaller "proxy" wars as they tried to expand their spheres of influence.
During the Cold War, the two main super powers—the United States and the USSR—exerted their influence around the world and instead of coming face-to-face for direct confrontation, carried out "proxy wars" around the globe.
Since both the powers have nuclear weapons, a direct conflict would have led to mass-scale destruction and the world came very close to that during the Cuban missile crisis. Thereafter, the two powers refrained from directly confronting each other; rather they used other nations, typically newly independent states, for their conflicts. Examples are Afghanistan, Iran-Iraq, North and South Korea and Vietnam. In all these cases, either one country was directly involved and the other supported the opposing group, or the two powers supported opposing groups. An example is the support of Iraq by the US and Iran by the USSR. Another example is the direct involvement of the US in Vietnam and the USSR's support of the rebels. A number of dictators and oppressors were an end-result of the Cold War, including Saddam Hussain.