Was The Cold War Really A War?

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The cold war, an ideological conflict between Communist and non-Communist countries that began after World War II (1939–45), was not a conflict in the sense that outright physical battles took place. The primary enemies in the cold war were the United States and the former Soviet Union. The United States opposed communism, which was the basis of the Soviet government; in turn, the Soviet Union was determined to rid the world of capitalism, which is a major component of America's political system. Although the two countries did not engage in military confrontation on Soviet or American soil, cold war military activities did take place in more than thirty countries around the world, such as Angola and Mozambique in Africa and Nicaragua and El Salvador in Central America. Communist agitators encouraged citizens to overthrow existing governments, while anticommunist organizers urged resistance to communism. The United States and Soviet Union often supplied arms to opposing sides in these battles. American involvement in the Korean War (1950–53) and the Vietnam conflict (1959–75)—both perceived as wars against communism—cost several million Korean and Vietnamese lives as well as 100,000 American casualties.

Spies from Communist and non-Communist countries secretly gathered information about the military strength of the opposing side. The United States and its European allies in NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) built up weapons systems (such as nuclear missiles) as the Soviet Union and its satellites (Communist nations in Eastern Europe) also stockpiled armaments, in what became known as the arms race. Both the Soviet Union and the United States made huge military expenditures (the United States spent at least $8 trillion), to the detriment of their citizens. Suspicion was high on each side, and in the United States cold-war fears of communism reached a peak with the anti-Communist scare, called McCarthyism, of the early 1950s. In 1950 Republican Senator Joseph McCarthy (1908–1957) announced that he had a list of more than 200 communists who worked for the U.S. State Department. Although McCarthy never produced this alleged list, the pronouncement led the U.S. government to create the House Committee to Investigate Un-American Activities. As a result of congressional hearings headed by McCarthy, people who had never been involved with the Communist Party lost their jobs and gained tarnished reputations.

The cold war conflict also spilled over into science. In 1957 the Soviets launched Sputnik (the world's first artificial satellite), then in 1961 successfully put a man into space. In response, the United States stepped up its space exploration program, vowing to be first to land on the moon. Tensions increased during the 1960s. In 1960 the Soviets shot down an American U-2 spy plane and captured the pilot. The following year, the United States supported the efforts of anti-Communist Cubans to take over Cuba in what became known as the Bay of Pigs invasion. When the invasion failed, the Soviets learned of U.S. participation in the effort. In 1961, the Soviets built the Berlin Wall so that East Germans could not leave the city of Berlin to escape communism. This 100-mile long wall, topped with barbed wire and guarded by sentries, became a symbol of the ideological divisions that separated the East (Communist countries) and the West (non-Communist countries). In 1962 U.S. President John Kennedy (1917–1963) and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev (1894–1971) had a direct confrontation known as the Cuban Missile Crisis. When the Soviet Union tried to install nuclear missiles in Cuba, which is located only ninety miles from the United States, the United States and the Soviet Union teetered on the brink of nuclear war. Demanding that the missiles be withdrawn, Kennedy ordered the U.S. Navy to prevent any weapons-carrying Soviet ships from reaching Cuba. Khrushchev agreed to remove the missiles when the United States pledged not to attack Cuba. In the late 1960s and 1970s tensions relaxed somewhat between the United States and the Soviet Union, while the cold war continued in other countries, with weapons often supplied by the United States or Soviet Union. In 1968 leaders of the United States, the Soviet Union, and sixty other nations signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which attempted to stop the spread of nuclear weapons to "non-nuclear" countries. The 1972 Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT I) and the 1975 Helsinki accords further limited arms build-ups. Nevertheless, suspicions between East and West continued during the 1980s. The cold war came to an end when the Communists fell from power in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe in the 1990s.

Further Information: Broderick, Jim. "Berlin and Cuba, Cold War Hotspots." History Today. December, 1998, p. 23; Garnett, John. "Face to Face with Armageddon." History Today. March, 1999, p. 34; Kort, Michael G. The Cold War. Brookfield, Conn.: Millbrook Press, 1994; Krushchev, Sergei. "The Cold War Through the Looking Glass." American Heritage. October, 1999, p. 34.; Pietrusza, David. The End of the Cold War. San Diego: Lucent, 1994.

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